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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Building an IT "Empire" - Part 1: Managing those desktops!

When I first came on board here at Contra Costa ARC, there was no IT infrastructure to speak of. It was a mishmash of unconnected, unmanaged bits and pieces with little cohesion or consistency.

All the desktop computers were deployed without modification, either directly from Dell (complete with crapware galore), inherited from the county, or built by a system integrator and then equipped with Office 97 and all subsequent patches afterwards. The lone agency server (hosting the accounting and payroll systems) was running NT server on a Pentium 3 500mhz processor... with DAT tape backup (never really was sure if any of those tapes had uncorrupted data on them). The file server was an XP machine with a shared out folder. Email services were a conglomeration of personal accounts and a domain poorly and expensively hosted by Earthlink. It wasn't pretty, but it worked for them... mostly.

I can imagine that this scenario is probably more common than not for non-profits who cannot afford full-time IT staff. When I finally had a complete picture of the task before me, it was more than a little overwhelming, but I enjoy a challenge.

So where to begin? Well, I realized I needed to overhaul the desktop management process first, since that's the core component of the infrastructure here. I have since set about identifying and refining my toolset for this aspect of my job, and it's a big piece of the puzzle. My next several posts will catalog the details of my processes and the tools I use to manage the PCs here at CCARC. Below is a list of topics I will cover:

  • Setting minimum hardware specs, OS requirements and creating a software "package"
  • Purchasing PCs and software
    • Using TechSoup.org and the Microsoft Donation Program: Don't pay full price for that OS!!!
    • Dell: A consistent source of quality desktops and laptops for under $500
  • Managing workstation images
    • That first build: patched and up to date in one afternoon with Autopatcher!
    • Minimize driver hunting with Driverpacks.net
    • Batch software installs with ninite.com
    • Enable remote support with Echoware and a Remote Desktop tweak
    • Final custom touches with Group Policy Editor
    • Wrap it all up with Acronis True Image Workstation and Universal Restore
Before I had this process nailed down, it would take me a minimum of a day and a half to build a PC with Windows XP Professional SP2 from scratch, taking into account all the updates and patches that had to be downloaded. I didn't have a lot of experience with imaging PCs but I knew there were ways to streamline the process.

These days it takes me less than an hour to go from blank hard drive to deployable, managed XP or Win7 Pro desktop. Considering that I am building about 10 PCs a month, that's 11 times faster than it would be without these techniques. When you're running the show solo, that kind of time savings is critical.

In my next post, I will talk about how I decided on minimum desktop hardware specs, what OS to use, and which software I deploy on agency PCs.

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