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Shedding the Desktop

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 10-08-2009 Print

Shedding the Desktop

If you'd said even a year ago at Sunoco that you were dropping the expensive corporate e-mail system for a free Web-based service like Gmail, everyone would have been aghast, says Sunoco CIO Peter Whatnell.

But times have changed. The tough economic climate is causing many corporate managers to re-examine their capacity for risk--to ask what it would take to get them to agree to fewer assurances about how a service would operate in exchange for saving money.

At oil giant Sunoco, Web-based services would save several hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. "Previously it was a case of 'This is what I want--how much will it cost?'" Whatnell says. "Now it's, 'How much can I save and what are the consequences?'"

Whatnell is also president of the Society for Information Management, and he finds his fellow members thinking along these same lines. A service like Gmail is still not considered mainstream, he says, but it's growing in popularity: "It's a question of when, not if."

So Whatnell's staff is evaluating several Web-based e-mail services--Gmail, Microsoft Live, Yahoo! Mail--partly because many employees already use them at home and understand how they work, which would save on training costs. Most people use only a small number of features in software anyway, he says.

The IT staff's time is one consideration--Web-based e-mail services are so generic, they don't require much customization and would be easy to set up.

Another consideration is the sensitivity of the information these services would convey. Unlike individuals, corporations have to guard their intellectual property, comply with industry regulations and be prepared to make information available if they're subpoenaed in a lawsuit.

"Where is my data? Who's got it? How do I know it's properly protected?" Whatnell says. "Depending on the industry you're in and the sorts of data you're talking about, you might have a certain standard of what you can bear."

Whatnell's team has other money-saving plans. It is moving 60 of the company's smaller sites off the private telecommunications network and connecting them to Sunoco through the Internet over a virtual private network.

The staff has also considered adopting a Web-based office suite--Google Apps, Microsoft's upcoming Web-based version of Office or some other service. However, they are less serious about that than they are about the e-mail because office suite technology is not very mature. "It would have to be a substantive cost difference," Whatnell says.

Still, one of his ultimate goals for Sunoco is a virtualized desktop, which would eliminate desktop operating systems and applications and all the support and licensing and operating costs that go with them.

If an employee has a problem and called the help desk, "You don't send a technician who charges 72 bucks an hour," he says. "You send a guy from the mailroom with a new PC."

Virtualization on the desktop is also an immature technology, even though the promise of alternative desktops has been around for years. (Sun Microsystems with its JavaStation and Oracle with its Network Computer both tried to tackle the problem in the 1990s.)

For now, Whatnell's staff is evaluating how many applications are written in a way that they could perform well on a virtualized desktop. Even if it turns out that the company could drop only 80 percent of its conventional desktop applications and maintain the rest, he says, the trade-off might be worthwhile.


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