When system administrators at the University of Utah Health Sciences department rolled out PCs for a new orthopaedic centre, they used automated configuration management software from locally headquartered company Altiris. As a result, they had all 350 machines up and running in a day, instead of the week they would have needed to do the same job in the past.

As well as its teaching role, the university is also a major provider of healthcare across the state, and where healthcare goes, IT surely follows - Health Sciences has around 5000 computers across its many sites, says Clint Criddle, its IT client support team supervisor.

Criddle says that his team has come up with a number of ways to simplify the job. For example, all the hardware is pretty standard, and they have defined standard images and application sets for specific roles, such as a nurse's station. "We have a lab with typical set-ups for patch testing, we also test on our own machines - they're standard configurations too," he adds.

However, he says the addition of the Altiris software had made it a whole lot easier still. It enables his team to deliver anything up to a complete user setup, as well as giving remote control of PCs for administrative and support purposes.

"We used to deliver applications with Novell Zenworks, but the move to Windows XP broke that, so we started doing it by hand," Criddle says. "We have a team of 10 managing around 5000 computers, so any tool we can use to minimise the effort is a great benefit.

"We looked at LANdesk and a couple of others. We've now had Altiris in for about nine months. Deploying it to the clients is the biggest part, but having Novell on the machines made it really easy. We were able to roll it out to 1500 or 1600 computers by adding it to the Novell login script, and have done 500 to 600 more since. For new equipment, we include it on the standard images.

"We can do anything we want with Altiris, from regular audits to printer installation and application deployment. We use patch management too, so we can control when patches go out and to which machines." He says they don't bother fixing dead hardware now, just replace it under warranty and redeploy the software.

Mixed PCs and thin clients
Around half of the 5000 computers are Windows-based Terminals (WBTs) - thin clients running Windows CE and Citrix ICA client software, linked to 200 Citrix application servers. Criddle says his team prefers HP's T5000 WBT, not least because it comes preloaded with Altiris client software too, so there's no extra licence cost, and he can use the same management tool for PCs and WBTs.

"A lot of computers in our environment are in examination rooms and so on, and they only access remote applications that are only available over Citrix," he adds. "But we are seeing a lot more PCs now - prices have come down, and Altiris makes management easier. Plus WBTs have problems, like the Flash plug-in for IE just kills the processor on them, it really needs a PC."

He acknowledges too that only having to manage Windows systems makes life easier - the university medical school has some Unix and Linux, and there are a few Macs around, but it's mostly Microsoft.

The Altiris software at UU Health Sciences runs on two HP Proliant bladeservers: a deployment server for imaging and a notification server with seven 60GB drives for the patch database, etc. A separate team manages the Health Sciences network, which goes out to local clinics and other offices in towns all over Utah.

Criddle says that a useful feature is the ability to set up a package server in each clinic to store software distributions locally, instead of doing it all over the WAN. Each clinic only needs one update and then sees the same image deployment speeds as the sysadmins do at the core.

Managing migration
He is also making use of an Altiris client tool called PC Transplant, which can move application and user settings from one PC to another, plus the CarbonCopy remote control program, which Altiris now owns, having bought it from Compaq.

"We're in the middle of migrating from Windows 98 and 2000 to Windows XP," he says. "It is a lot of work to go over a PC that a user has had for years and copy over all their settings and so on. PC Transplant does it for us. We are in the process of installing CarbonCopy too, it's Web-based and a lot less intrusive than the clients we've used in the past."

Criddle says the one thing he would change if doing the project again would be to bring in consultants to help configure the Altiris server. "We did not use professional services," he says. "I think it would have cost more, but would have been money well spent because we would have avoided a lot of trial and error, figuring out how to set up the configuration server. It wasn't that there was something we couldn't do, it's that there's so much more functionality there that you aren't aware of."

Next, he is looking at adding application metering - and one big benefit of automating the client management is it's given him the staff resources to do it.

"In the past, all we had time to do was work on computers - and they were long days," he says. "Now I can afford to rotate a couple of people onto other projects. Everything we thought we might want to do, we've been able to do - that was a positive surprise."