Managing Mobility in the Connected Home

There's a certain amount of irony involved with any IT pro who manages an increasing number of PCs and PC-like devices at home, many of them mobile PCs that aren't tethered to a particular desktop. At work, these machines are likely highly managed, particularly at larger companies. But for many of us, the home is a chaos of mismatched and out-of-date systems. Often, these systems aren't synchronized with one another other or with machines at work. The situation is equally bad for those who work in home-based offices or small businesses.

What's an overworked IT pro to do?

These were my thoughts as I recently reinstalled Windows XP for the umpteenth time this year. PCs, in particular, have a way of gunking up over time—slowing down and acting more erratically as the days and countless silly software installs pile up. Granted, I'm an extreme case, because I have to do a lot of software testing for work. But I sometimes wonder how normal people do it. After all, if I'm having problems with my PCs, surely Joe Public is as well.

Like many of you, I don't have to imagine what's going on in the real world. I get the same support calls from family and friends that you do. And like you, no doubt, I've stood slack-jawed as I've examined a spyware-riddled system that, frankly, could never be repaired without a full OS reinstallation.

Here are some general thoughts about keeping it all together. After all, we should be positive influences on those around us. And there's no reason why a bit of work-based logic can't come home with us on the weekends.

Run Your Environment Like an Enterprise
One tactic that's becoming increasingly common is for IT pros to simply treat their home, home office, or small-business network like an enterprise. You don't have to be restricted by the every-PC-for-itself mentality of workgroup-based computing. There's nothing stopping you from running a truly managed environment—for example, controlled by the Active Directory (AD) component of Windows Server 2003—at home. You can find single-processor PC-based servers running Windows 2003 or Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 for good prices these days, and your AD skills will help you manage your PCs at home as well you do at work.

Let Someone Else Manage Your Environment
Of course, you don't have to run a mini-enterprise to get most of the advantages of a managed environment. Increasingly, makers of security software suites are morphing their products into full PC care solutions, and these types of products might be just what the doctor ordered. In a rare bit of innovation, Microsoft actually sparked this trend with its recent release of Windows Live OneCare, which sounds at first blush to be yet another security software suite. But OneCare is much more. In addition to the antivirus, anti-spyware, and firewall solutions you'd expect from such a product, OneCare also includes a wonderful automated file-backup solution and a set of automated tune-up services that ensure your PCs are always up-to-date. And yes, I chose the plural "PCs" deliberately: OneCare is licensed for as many as three PCs, despite its very low price.

OneCare is such a good idea that companies such as McAfee, Symantec, and Trend Micro are rejiggering their own security suites to be more competitive. As a result, the industry itself is changing from a security focus to one based on full PC health. This trend is important and overdue, and these products are only going to get better. And they're wonderful for overworked IT pros because they're almost completely automated. No more moving from PC to PC to make sure everything's up-to-date.

Keep It Mobile
With notebooks set to surpass desktop PC sales in the year ahead—thanks to lower prices and more pervasive wireless access—there's never been a better time to go mobile. But managing both desktop and notebook PCs can be a nightmare. I've spent more time than I want to admit on duplicating applications, documents, and settings between my desktop and notebook so that I could hit the road with a reasonable approximation of my usual setup. Manually synchronizing all that information is horribly time-consuming and error-prone, although data-sync solutions can certainly help. (Sadly, Microsoft pulled its data-sync feature from Windows Vista, the next Windows version. Mac users who don't mind paying a $79 yearly subscription fee can use .Mac to accomplish some data-sync tasks.)

But you don't necessarily need a full synchronization solution. If you're using a Windows Server-based solution, you can simply utilize the offline files functionality to cache server-based data on your notebook. When you return home from a trip or a day out, the local data will be synchronized automatically. If you're not using a server of any kind, embrace the laptop as your primary machine and skip out on the synchronization all together. At the home office, you can connect it to a docking station—and external keyboard, mouse, and display—and get all the advantages of a true desktop. But your desktop can come with you wherever you go.

Take Advantage of Devices
Although modern devices such as BlackBerries, PDAs, and smart phones will never be able to replace full-fledged notebooks, they're coming awfully close, thanks to built-in keyboards, wireless email services, and faster, more battery-efficient processors. Even Neanderthals like me, who couldn't type an email message on a BlackBerry's keyboard under threat of torture, can still take advantage of these devices: Instead of writing email, for example, you can use them to triage email, deleting spam and unwanted mail, and reading only what's important. And if you're more sophisticated than I am, you might very well find that a BlackBerry is all you need for email. Lucky you.

Another useful bit of technology is a USB-based headset. With this inexpensive add-on, you can access Voice over IP (VoIP) services such as Skype through your notebook from anywhere in the world and make normal calls to any phone. So you could sit in café in Paris, for example, and take part in a conference call based in Seattle. No one needs to know the difference, and the noise-canceling technologies in many of these headsets will help mask the sounds of the baristas and customers around you. VoIP isn't just for road warriors, however: These services work just fine from home and can save you a lot of money while keeping you connected with customers and coworkers, wherever they may be.

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