Princeton Weekly Bulletin, March 23, 1998

University-wide project provides 1,102 new, standard desktop computing systems

PDI: Where are we now?

By Justin Harmon

Dale and John Grieb, the couple most responsible for the implementation of the initiative to standardize administrative computing hardware and software, no longer stage planning meetings in their kitchen over scrambled eggs at 3:00 a.m.

"I have a life!" observes Dale, with apparent disbelief. "Wow."

Dale, who already had a full-time job as department manager in Chemical Engineering, spent a year (and much overtime) as chair of the team charged with identifying the right hardware and software, purchasing it, installing it, and training staff to use it. John, whose day job is lead programmer analyst in the Office of the Registrar, was the team member who oversaw the installation of new machines and the upgrading of existing machines to the new standard. Now a new team led by Director of Information Services Jacqueline Brown is carrying the initiative forward, so that the University can maintain a standard of administrative desktop computing even in the face of rapid technological innovation.

Before PDI

Before the Princeton Desktop Initiative (PDI), desktop computing at Princeton had evolved in a relatively decentralized manner. Units worked with technical specialists to develop discrete databases serving their own needs. Departments made their own decisions about which platforms and software to adopt for desktop systems. More recent technological developments offered computing systems that would enable departments to share information across the University; standardized desktop hardware and software offered the promise of facilitating that exchange. Standardized systems seemed likely to cost less to maintain.

Seeing an opportunity to create practical efficiencies and to save money, Provost Jeremiah Ostriker found the resources to create a cost incentive for administrative departments planning new desktop purchases to buy standardized systems. He then appointed the PDI team and served as its liaison and advocate within the central administration. Vice President for Computing and Information Technologies Ira Fuchs and his staff provided the group with technical advice and support and negotiated with vendors of hardware and software.

Dell Pentium 166 MMX

Thus, in time, Dale Griebs PDI team delivered 1,102 new standard desktop systems (Dell Pentium 166 MMX, equipped with the Windows NT Workstation 4.0 operating system and Microsoft Office Pro 97, including the applications Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access and Outlook).

The PDI team also has delivered 26 new laptops. They are providing upgraded equipment to 95 more users (including the purchase of 35 "end of life" machines -- functional models nearing the limit of their commercial viability that may be purchased for less than the cost of an upgrade, in some cases). And, as John Grieb observes, they are implementing a new, more complex operating system, Windows NT, which is "a major step, even for folks who were already using Windows." Moreover, the team has seen to the training of 1,231 employees in the new systems and applications, delivering approximately 10 hours to each employee in the five-month first phase. The second phase of the training process, which features more advanced instruction in the same systems, continues at Mercer County Community College through June.

The PDI team lacks a precise count of the surplus machines generated by the initiative, since some number of the desktop units entering the University surplus program would have been replaced in any case, but it appears that as many as 200 machines were recycled through purchases by individual employees, according to Ed Yuncza, manager of capital and salvage in the Purchasing Office. Another 90 were redistributed around the University for use in teaching labs and other environments where access to central systems is unnecessary. About 30 machines were donated by the University to charitable organizations, such as schools. The balance -- 400 or so -- were scrapped. (These old machines lack the capacity to run memory-intensive new applications, according to John Grieb, and the software they can run is often no longer sold or supported by the manufacturers. Rapid developments in software thus limit the practical life cycle of any machine.)

Potential of the team process

For her team of 20, Dale Grieb expresses only praise: "I learned what outstanding talent the University has. We all enjoyed having the chance to work across units -- the more connected we are, the more we can take satisfaction in our daily work."

Says Ostriker: "Dale and John did a fabulous job. But more than that: this was the experience that sold me on the potential of the team process for getting things done. Everybody on the PDI team had clear assignments; they reported in regularly; and they did excellent work."

Now Dale Grieb and others are developing a mechanism for maintaining the standardization of desktop equipment into the future, even as rapid evolution continues in technology. Ostriker has appointed a Desktop Systems Council under Jacqueline Browns leadership, which will periodically upgrade the specifications for new machines and software, establish conditions for the administration of software on the standard machines, and oversee staff training. The Desktop Systems Council reports both to the vice president for computing and information technologies and to the provost. Dale Grieb will serve on the committee for its first year to help ensure a smooth transition.

Already, the systems council has upgraded the hardware standard to allow for faster processing speeds: whereas the Dells purchased for the PDI initiative buzz along at 166 MHz, new purchases will roar at 333 MHz. The council also will identify and provide software upgrades that eventually will allow such functions as shared calendars and collaborative editing. The council will recommend and deploy a new e-mail system that will provide greater standardization and flexibility.

Training remains a challenge

Most software upgrades will be made to existing standard machines from the central system (with prior notification to users), so that those who remember to log off their terminals at night will keep apace with the new capacities of all standard machines.

Training in the new technologies will remain a challenge. Janice Guarnieri, education coordinator at CIT, is exploring such options as self-paced computer-based training and changes to the education series regularly offered through CIT, as well as continued contractual arrangements with Mercer County college and other training vendors to meet the anticipated demand.

"The step were taking has the potential of being of tremendous value to us as an institution," Fuchs said. We are ahead of most other colleges and universities in implementing standard administrative systems, so what we are doing is being watched with interest."