This article is part of our Essential Guide: Essential guide to laptop, desktop PC and mobile device strategy

What will office desktop computing look like in 2020?

Over the next five years, IT departments will increasingly support a highly heterogeneous computing environment

Over the next five years, IT departments will increasingly support a highly heterogeneous computing environment.

It is worth starting with a history lesson on desktop computing, because the situation today is analogous to IT a quarter of a century ago. In the 1990s, from an IT audit, security and compliance perspective, desktop computing was out of control.

The desktop freed users from the controls IT placed on data and application access and people installed what they wanted, when they wanted it.

But then experts worked out that the total cost of ownership of these PCs that the IT department was not managing was more than £5,000 per device per year.

Arguably, the consumerisation of IT has recreated 1990s-style user-led computing, with PCs now replaced by smartphones and tablets as the device of choice.

Back then, to save costs, IT locked down the desktop, rolled out standard desktop software images across the organisation and offered the business a common Windows desktop environment. Users could belong to groups that gave them authorisation to use certain applications and data. In some organisations, desktop IT became so commoditised that it could be outsourced. But then Apple came along.

The future of the IT helpdesk

According to Gartner, the implementation of new support models that resemble those in the consumer world is part of a broader transition. Gartner analyst Terrence Cosgrove notes in his report Mobility Is having a major impact on IT support: “The IT support organisation must evolve beyond the traditional service provider model toward a partnership with the end-user community. When users have more control over their devices and applications, the support models must adapt to this paradigm change.”

Among Gartner’s recommendations for supporting the multitude of devices in enterprise IT is self-support documentation and short 20- to 30-second videos demonstrating how to fix common support problems. Peer-to-peer (P2P) support is also becoming more common, says Cosgrove.

“About 53% of the respondents to our 2014 survey reported that they use P2P support,” the paper reports. “We believe this number is higher than the overall industry level, and it suggests an increase in the use of P2P support.”

Gartner has also been seeing interest in Apple’s Genius Bar-style walk-in support, where staff bring their device to the IT department for one-on-one support enquiries. An internal walk-up service gives IT an opportunity to influence device choice, says Cosgrove.

New ways to work

Desktop IT is no longer about Windows and supporting Windows applications. Tablets, smartphones, cloud computing and applications delivered as software as a service offer compelling new ways to work.

The shift from Windows-only to a user computing environment where Windows is just one element will not happen overnight. But by 2016, Gartner expects tablet sales to overtake sales of desktop PCs. The analyst’s Mobility is having a major impact on IT support paper by Terrence Cosgrove, published in February 2015, notes that by 2018, 40% of contact with the IT service desk will relate to smartphones and tablet devices – a leap from less than 20% today. This will put a heavy burden on desktop IT support, unless it works in a different way.

Limiting device choice is not the answer. IT can no longer deny users choice by enforcing standardisation. The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) genie is out of the bottle and the heads of IT that Computer Weekly has spoken to are sympathetic to the changes in user computing.

One example is Peterborough Council, which is changing its IT to a department that commissions services rather than buying on-premise.

The council is undergoing a transformation that is running alongside its IT strategy. It plans to deploy Chromebooks or tablet devices to 50% of its staff.

Richard Godfrey, assistant director of Digital:Peterborough, says it needs a “more dynamic IT department” and a “move to tools that fit together”.

Godfrey wants to avoid situations in which the council is stuck on certain versions of Microsoft Office or Windows. “This takes away from the day-to-day fire-fighting task, allowing us to work more closely with the council departments,” he says.

In fact, modern cloud-based applications are designed to work well together. “In the old days, we worked on integration, but a lot of products are now designed to work together, such as Box with,” says Godfrey.

He points out that some of the newer tools are also simpler to use, which means users can customise them. “We use Form Assembly,” he says. “Anyone in the council can build their own form, rather than wait a week for a quote from IT.”

Simplifying a multi-device strategy

Dale Vile, research director at Freeform Dynamics, recommends IT heads look at segmenting users into task workers and information workers. “It’s easy to run away with the idea that everyone is using multiple devices,” he says. “Meanwhile, PCs are used as the endpoint for the network, and provide access to hardcore routine, process-centric, back-end and administration systems.” These tend to be used by task workers.

From an IT management and infrastructure perspective, it is clearly beneficial to be consistent, which, says Vile, is why IT departments virtualise desktops to stream desktop applications onto thin-client access devices.

Clearly, a thin-client computing environment will fulfil the requirements of a certain proportion of users going forward, and this is a style of desktop computing that the IT department has fine-tuned since the late 1990s.

But Vile says information workers are “more client-server in the way they work”. In other words, they may work on a central IT system some of the time, but then require the flexibility to perform computing tasks locally. They typically use cloud-type applications, accessed from a web browser on a desktop computer, or an app front end via a tablet or smartphone.

Medway Council has taken a desktop virtualisation approach to centralising its desktop computing on a Citrix server farm to support flexible working. Moira Bragg, head of ICT at the council, admits that user computing is more complex than it was a few years ago, when everyone ran Windows. “People can have more devices,” she says. “People want to do more with these devices, and we need to support them.”

This is achieved through user segmentation, she says. “We identify every worker as a mobile or a desk worker. If they have a laptop, they don’t get a desktop.”

Security and risk mitigation

Two years ago, people would go to work and access their work applications. Today, the challenge is not the technology, but making sure data is secure, says Bragg.

So mobile access and device management is set to become part of every IT department’s desktop IT toolkit in the next few years. Gartner estimates that, by 2018, 40% of organisations will use enterprise mobile management tools to manage some Windows PCs – up from less than 1% today.

But that is only half the story. IT will not only be expected to manage multiple devices, it must also support cloud-based applications, some of which may not yet exist.

Speaking at a recent Computer Weekly CW500 Club event, Richard Gough, group IT operations manager at Punter Southall Group, said it made sense to move certain applications to the cloud, while others require plenty of due diligence. “It is a no-brainer to use Mimecast for email,” he said. “It is an obvious one. And we use”

Email, messaging and even complex applications such as customer relationship management (CRM) are good candidates to migrate off-premise. But, says Freeform Dynamics’ Vile, moving a vertical application is much more risky: “You spend a lot of time defining your policy, workflow, rule set. A lot of this is not pure data; it defines how your business process works. Getting data out of the cloud using ETL [extract, transform, load] tools is pretty easy. But trying to transform cloud-enabled workflow is a lot harder.”

So there needs to be an element of risk mitigation if the application to migrate to the cloud is business-critical.

“Theoretically, there is nothing we will not put in the cloud,” says Punter Southall’s Gough. But where he struggles is when he encounters new, innovative tools from companies that provide specialist software, such as the tools that actuaries use for risk analysis. “These companies won’t sell the software to you any more,” he says. “They won’t let you bring it on-premise. They only want to deliver it as a service.”

Vile adds: “You have to do the due diligence. What happens when you want to switch?”

Gough’s biggest concern is, if the provider’s business folds, how can the customer replicate the value-added processes and services on-premise or with another cloud provider? “There is no concept of a cloud escrow,” he says.

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