Should Employees Buy Their Own PCs?


I bought my first PC for work while I was at IBM, and it wasn't an IBM PC. It was a Panasonic Sr. Partner and it was one of the first portable Intel-based computers ever built.


Mine was very rare and sported a flip-up large, laptop like Plasma display. Weighing in at over 35 pounds and having a built-in printer with a purchase price in today's dollars of over $7K, it's hard to imagine it was worth it. But it was, rather than having to borrow someone else's PC, or worse, use a terminal to write massive audit reports. It allowed me to improve my quality and focus more on the work itself than on screwing around with crappy tools.


Things have changed. Good laptops range from $700 to $2K, and the choices are accelerating. Products range from the excellent Lenovo X60 ultra portable laptop with over six hours battery life to the stunning new HP consumer based product with a 20-inch screen. Both have their advantages tied to certain usage models. We know (but often ignore) that employees use these machines for personal things we would rather not think about. And when an employee is let go, we take away the very tool they may most need to find another job, often adding insult to injury. In addition, we struggle with managing images and break-fix problems, we pick generic products that often seem to be marginally unacceptable to everyone, and we struggle with the needs of executives who have the power to go around our standards and force us to support Apple or Sony products (largely because they make personal statements).


Microsoft is planning to pull the plug on XP deployments in January 2008 and, for the new hardware coming to market, Vista is a requirement if you don't want to take a rather huge performance and security hit. But it's been over 10 years since we've deployed a major desktop OS and, even though the process is vastly better this decade, I'll bet none of us are looking forward to it.


I think it is time to step back, realize we aren't in the '80s, and figure a way to vastly simplify our own lives and let the employees, who should be better able to pick their own tools, buy their own PCs.




Recall a time when companies maintained cars for their employees. Companies, with some exceptions, don't do that anymore (the taxes became a nightmare) -- although they do reimburse for mileage and sometimes provide a car allowance for jobs like field sales as a way to ensure that employees whose productivity is tied to their cars isn't compromised by their inability to afford reliable vehicles. The end result of getting rid of these car fleets was a dramatic reduction in the overhead associated with them. From having to buy them in the first place, to maintaining them, to dealing with executive preferences, to getting rid of the darned things at the end of their service lives, the amount of work needed to maintain thousands of cars was not too dissimilar to that required to maintain thousands of PCs.


In the end, employees are now able to buy what they feel they need. They handle the purchase, maintenance and replacement of the vehicles and, strangely enough, both employee and employer appear happier with the result.


The Trigger


What got me thinking about all of this is the broad refresh of product rolling to market on the new Intel and AMD platforms. Dell, HP, Gateway, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are refreshing their lines with laptops that improve dramatically the performance and power efficiency that was available a few short months ago. Apple will announce a similar refresh shortly (likely tied to their June developer event).


In a few weeks the new quad core desktops will start to roll into the market, and for employees doing media creation, graphics or any type of heavy numerical analysis, these systems will be critical as well. While they will likely be able to justify and get approval for early replacements at work, what do they do if they want to work from home on weekends or evenings? What if weather, security or terrorist threat keep them from coming in to work? Many of these folks are willing to buy their own machines today, but getting necessary support from IT is not only nearly impossible, from an IT perspective, it is also impractical. IT simply does not have the human resources to support every possible configuration of PC. The image management alone would be virtually impossible.


So what's the answer?


Virtualization/Emulation May Be the Answer


The idea of being able to create a consistent PC has been the Holy Grail of PC systems management, and the proliferation of images one of the biggest headaches for PC support organizations today. But if you can virtualize a consistent hardware image, or you can emulate it, you can then construct a consistent image to go on top of the virtualization or emulation product and eliminate what has become a never-ending nightmare for some shops. In addition, assuming you can secure the result, you can then provide a container -- say a USB-connected hard drive -- for this consistent image and core product. The result could run on anything that will run the emulator or the virtual machine. This might include all versions of Windows, including Vista, Apple, and maybe even some versions of Linux.


If a PC fails, the employee is up and running again as quickly as a new machine can be provided, and the entire thing can be made redundant for a fraction of the cost of a laptop computer. If we encrypt the drive, not only is it less likely to be stolen (folks typically want the laptop, not the drive), but it is worthless to anyone that doesn't have the key. At some future point, you could even build the encryption technology into the drive itself so it wouldn't impact system performance.


There Is a Product


For the last two years, I've been looking for an answer to this problem and it was clearly coming. I've had a chance to test a number of flash-based products over that time that showed promise but were primarily designed to allow employees to safely use PC pools by emulating their own PC in some limited way on the borrowed machine.


Last week I ran into a product that was incredibly close. It is called the "Mojopac." This software, when applied to a USB drive, allows you to create a single image that will run on any Windows XP machine and provide much of what I think we need to make this all work. A portable 100GB USB drive works fine, the environment is contained and can be password-protected and encrypted, and the end result is an image your employee can use on any machine after loading a very small virtualization application and not rebooting.


The product isn't quite where I would like it to be yet. It doesn't support Vista or the MacOS directly; the encryption solution is software-based (and so robs performance), and the product is still rather young, which means we don't have data yet from any broad deployments.


Still, it is worth a look because it could provide a way for you to do for PCs what we did with cars -- make them the employees' responsibility, and better match the tools to the folks that need to use them.


Of course, it would also likely dramatically reduce your own PC support costs and allow you to move those funds to areas that could likely use them. In the end, however, it is likely the simplification that will be the most attractive feature. We could all use a little less on our plates. This, if it scales, could allow us to pass the overhead associated with PCs back to the employee -- and then they can decide what is best for their own needs.