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Simplifying desktop support with open source and Web applications

Desktop support can be a thankless task with high overhead costs. With the advent of open source and Web-based applications, VARs can market these alternatives to simplify desktop support.

Solution provider takeaway: Value-added resellers can offer a lot, in the way of open source and Web-based alternative applications to conventional licensed software, to simplify desktop support in the enterprise.

Desktop support is one of the most unpopular jobs in enterprise IT. Simply maintaining the productivity tools used by employees can be a thankless and high-overhead task. With Microsoft, the largest provider of desktop productivity tools, routinely releasing fixes, upgrades and new releases, it's no wonder that many enterprises have outsourced desktop support to solution providers. Now, open source and Web-based alternatives are being presented as alternatives to the conventional licensed software approach that can greatly simplify and reduce the need for desktop support.

For solution providers, this can be bad news. There's a fear that if the open source community is worrying about upgrades and patches or if the desktop applications are housed on the Web, your customers might conclude that desktop support can be eliminated. But this impression is totally wrong; open source and Web-based software alternatives are actually good news for value-added resellers (VARs). Let's see how.

As noted above, the overhead associated with supporting the desktop is what drives enterprises to solution providers in the first place. This overhead doesn't disappear with Web-based applications. In some respects, the Web actually increases complexity. For example, protecting business-critical data and intellectual property is by no means a certainty when such applications are being hosted by companies like Google. Additionally, if the application is being provided over the Web, what happens when a user goes mobile and has no connection to the Web? In such instances, the user may need not only the Web-based application (for instance, Google Docs), but a licensed alternative (like Microsoft Word) for mobile use.

For open source alternatives, such as OpenOffice.org, security of data and mobile access may not be issues, but maintaining the currency of the open source application can be as involved as with licensed software. In fact, with an open source solution, an entire open source community exists to develop utilities and add-ons that are freely available and largely untracked by IT. These tools introduce wild cards into the support process that may compromise security and greatly complicate problem resolution.

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For VARs, the new value proposition is one of security, currency and ubiquity. Security is tighter because the application lives on the customer's desktops. The data stays there as well, so the potential for leakage is minimized. And, since the configuration of the applications is known and centrally supported, the potential for user-introduced random functionality is reduced.

Since a desktop application is highly dependent on the health of the operating system, support can extend beyond the application to the OS as well. This enables troubleshooting where the application may be interacting destructively with the OS. Configuration management can be a significant value-add in such a combined environment. VARs should offer configuration inventory services on top of basic support so that customers understand what is running on their systems.

Additionally, since the application can be portable -- because the licensed software remains on the machine -- VAR support can include supporting mobile workers. As mobility becomes even more pervasive, this capability alone can be the most important consideration for enterprises considering their desktop support options. VARs should emphasize and package special service alternatives for mobile workers. These can range from special support numbers to remote diagnostic services accessible over the Internet.

Finally, VARs can insulate customers from the perpetual stream of software modifications that characterize licensed applications. VARs must test new application releases in the context of the operating systems their customers are using. This is an especially attractive idea to enterprise IT operations groups, which are interested in trouble ticket reduction.

The bottom line for VARs is that open source and Web-based alternatives tend to emphasize the virtues of support services. VARs can maintain and expand their desktop support business simply by ensuring that customers understand the risks that open source and Web-enabled applications pose and by building new service features that address the concerns that led customers to use their services in the first place.

About the author
Mike Jude, a senior analyst at Nemertes Research, is an expert in business process analysis and optimization. He is also co-founder of Nova Amber, a consulting firm specializing in business process implementation and technology.


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