Agricultural firm uses remote management to refresh hardware image

A Calgary-based supplier of agricultural products has planted the seeds that will make deploying a new PC image to thousands of its users less time-consuming and resource-intensive, according to its IT executives.

Agrium has already provided the new image to employees it brought on as part of the acquisition of fertilizer supplier Royster Clark last year. Next month it will be rolling it out to the rest of its approximately 1,700 individual workstations across several large plants. The company is using Novell Canada’s ZenWorks integrated with its eDirectory product, a decision that director of IT infrastructure Bruno Picone said was saving Agrium about $30,000 per project.

Until recently, Picone said, re-imaging a machine required 20 minutes and the image was connected to specific hardware. ZenWorks, in contrast, means IT staff can image 10-15 machines in the same period, often without traveling between sites.

“When you buy new PCs, you’re not going to get hardware that matches your old hardware,” he said.  “When we bought Royster Clark, we were using IBM in Calgary. They had Dell machines, but the new image can work on any hardware, and they can carry on like nothing ever happened.”

Agrium is also in the process of upgrading to Windows XP, but when it moved to Windows 2000 about seven years ago it the company made a decision to lock down the desktop image, Picone said. The idea was to be able to service users more easily if they had a problem. That lead to inventory issues, he said.

“Prior to deploying new hardware, we had to buy more than we needed so in the event one failed, we could take one out of inventory, put our image on it and away we go,” he said.

Novell Canada CTO Ross Chevalier said some companies are also turning to ZenWorks to deal with the management of mobile devices such as RIM’s BlackBerry. These handhelds can cause major security issues, Chavelier said, because they don’t have to be cradled to access mission-critical data. In those cases, he added, ZenWorks can add a layer of much-needed management.

“You can backup handhelds, push apps out and apply policies to handhelds so that if you mess up the password three times, it will do a forced wipe,” he said.

Picone said Agrium has also looked at other management tools from Alteris and Softricity, but so far has found no reason to move away from ZenWorks.

“In the beginning, they didn’t like the lock-down, but we had a mandate to cut down our support staff,” he said.

Now, for every 150 employees at a site, Agrium has one full-time IT person to service those users. For sites with less than that, they can be dealt with remotely, Picone said.

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