Battle Ground Academy, a prep school in Franklin, Tenn., is in its second year of issuing tablet PCs, pre-loaded with Microsoft Office and classroom software, to its students. At first, the students were free to add any other applications that suited them. "The IT director and the headmaster wanted the kids to have freedom and control," says Andrew Peercy, administrator of IT operations. "Then they realized the more freedom we gave them, the more headaches they gave back to us."

With computers crashing, notes and assignments lost, and parents complaining that their kids couldn't do their schoolwork, Battle Ground changed its policy. It now disallows all but the biggest and best-established instant messaging software, and all but the best-known audio software (such as iTunes). Peer-to-peer sharing software such as BitTorrent and some games are also forbidden. Since changing the policy, computer malfunctions have dropped, students are able to complete their work, and life is easier for everyone, Peercy says.

Standardizing brings benefits

Admittedly, high-school students are more likely than adults to install harmful applications onto their computers. But more and more small businesses are finding that setting rules as to what applications employees can and can't load onto their work computers can bring definite benefits.

First, computers loaded with a standard set of applications are easier to trouble-shoot and support than those that have been customized. "We have a lot less downtime than we've ever had before," notes Melissa Johnson, office manager for two Gold's Gym franchises in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, Fla.. The franchises switched to a standardized setup when they began working with managed services provider Data Balance about a year and a half ago. "Because our configuration is standardized, different tech support people can work easily with our profile. It helps that it's all the same," Johnson says. In addition, imaging software, which sets a computer to a pre-established configuration, can easily be applied remotely, making it very simple for tech support to zap a malfunctioning computer back to its standard state.

Second, standardized PCs are less likely to need support in the first place. "It's impossible to write every piece of software to work well with every other piece of software," explains Ed Correia, president and CEO of Sagacent Technologies, Inc., a managed services provider. "The more software you put on a machine, the greater the likelihood you're going to have issues, particularly since uninstall operations don't usually delete everything. So there's wisdom in keeping machines as pristine as possible."

In fact, Correia says, a computer with standardized applications will actually last longer. "We've all experienced how wonderfully a computer runs after its hard drive has been reformatted," he says. "That's when there are no applications on there fighting each other." The more conflicts there are between applications, the more they make the computer work, he says, and that extra work will shorten its lifespan.

Making standardization stick

For many businesses, the biggest obstacle is concern that employees will resist being told what they can and can't load. And, Correia says, standardization isn't right for every business. "It comes down to the culture of the business," he notes. "If people have well-written job descriptions, if they understand what they're there to do, we don't have a problem getting employees to abide by a standardization policy. In companies that are loosely operated, where there are no job descriptions and people feel they're there for fun, we can run into problems. One size doesn't fit all."

A related question is how to enforce standardized configuration. For many businesses, setting a formal policy and addressing any infractions privately with the offender is the right approach. For others, setting the software itself to act as policeman makes sense. "We locked down the PCs," says Tim Pierson, IT directory at Apple Physical Therapy. "The application configuration we deployed is what they have. The end user can't load or view anything else unless they get IT's permission. We make exceptions when people need something and explain why they need it."

And at Battle Ground Academy, although students can load applications if they choose, IT staff use KBOX, a systems management appliance, to remove forbidden applications as soon as students connect their tablet PCs to the school's network. One student came in and complained that a piece of blacklisted software kept uninstalling itself. "That's how we knew it was working," Peercy says.

Whichever mode of enforcement you choose, explaining how standardizing benefits the company is key to employee acceptance, say those who've been there. "There absolutely was resistance when we instituted this policy," Johnson recalls. "But the fact is, without this policy, someone could download something that would affect everyone on the network. If the company can show that this will increase the time the network is up and help everyone get their jobs done, it doesn't have to be a negative."