Gartner Forum Focuses on Effect of Distributed Computing on Total Cost of Ownership

As distributed computing begins to dominate enterprise IT, total cost of ownership (TCO) will skyrocket, according to the Gartner Group (Stamford, Conn.). Companies can take steps to keep these costs in check, however, by ways such as assigning appropriate kinds of client systems to the right kinds of workers, identifying the hidden costs inherent in distributed computing infrastructures, and improving their helpdesks and worker training programs.

Tammy Kirk, an analyst on Gartner’s managing distributed computing research team, explained the complex relationship between distributed computing and TCO at a strategic forum held in Morristown, N.J. "There’s a conflict between the need to distribute information and the effort to achieve economies of scale and lower costs," Kirk said.

Managing a distributed computing infrastructure -- defined by Gartner as "an organizational and technical infrastructure that enables work to be done independent of location, time or access mode" -- can be more expensive because of the increased variety and number of components that need to be managed, Kirk said, including notebooks, NCs and personal digital assistants (PDA).

The adoption of PDAs, for example, is following the pattern of PC adoption in the 1980s, Kirk said. IS often doesn’t even know the equipment is being purchased. Now, some companies are having to install Palm Pilot servers to lighten the load on existing servers caused by workers synching the information in their PDAs with their desktops.

It’s true that PDAs haven’t infiltrated all organizations yet, but consider this: By 2000, Gartner estimates that 50 percent of the total workforce will be mobile. And the TCO for notebook computers is 65 percent higher than for desktops.

But even companies with few mobile workers will be affected by distributed computing, Kirk said. By 2000, desktop personal computing will be subsumed by enterprise initiatives, Gartner estimates. PCs will become only one choice among many client systems. Most workers will use network computers, NetPCs, notebooks or PDAs, Kirk said.

The proliferation of client devices isn’t all bad, however. Those companies that assign the correct type of client device to the correct type of worker stand to reduce costs by 25 to 50 percent, Kirk said.

Even if companies begin to take advantage of the variety of client devices, however, many companies will fail to cut TCO in distributed computing environments because they will focus too much effort on cutting capital costs, Kirk said. In fact, end-user operations account for a larger percentage of TCO than capital expenditures.

End-user operations, which include all the time and money spent helping end users to operate their computers, are just one of the many hidden costs inherent in distributed computing. Despite the increased focus on the cost of PCs, most companies still focus their budgeting and cost prediction efforts on well-understood, properly accounted for costs instead of those engendered by immature and emerging technology, Kirk said.

Hidden costs are higher in distributed computing environments in part because these systems require more labor, skill and support. As companies implement distributed computing, however, helpdesk and other support budgets aren’t being sufficiently increased, Kirk said. As a result, many workers use peer support and training in place of formal support resources.

But peer support can undermine other TCO-cutting efforts, such as standardization and version control. It can also hurt IT’s credibility with other business units, because the helpdesk is the most visible part of the IT organization, Kirk said. To resolve these problems, companies need to improve worker training and implement improved helpdesk procedures and resources, such as automated support systems.

The bottom line, Kirk said, is that enterprises that pay attention to TCO can reduce and stabilize costs while implementing distributed computing. Those that don’t, however, will see costs increase by 50 to 100 percent through 2001.