Feature

Spring clean your IT systems

To get from where your IT department is now to where it needs to be, the manager needs to get down to a good spring clean. Maya Anaokar reports.

Having tackled Y2K, and survived, in the spring an IT manager's fancy may lightly turn to thoughts of love. But you'd be better off thinking about how you will implement all those projects you thought of while working on Y2K compliance because your system is probably still a long way off being able to take them on. Between the current state of affairs and a system ready for transformation comes a good spring clean.

Consulting director John Emberton of Sema Group believes an annual spring clean is a good habit to get into. "Think of spring cleaning on a year-on-year basis that can help you decide what needs to be replaced because it's getting progressively worse," he says. Sema does IT health checks as part of everything it does for clients and uses a balance business score card approach, which Emberton says IT managers can adopt themselves.

His advice is to approach spring cleaning from four dimensions: customers, finance, departmental staff and business processes. Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about a good blitz on the department:

  • are the customer satisfaction surveys better this year?

  • are you meeting service level agreements?

  • is there an application backlog?

  • was it easier or harder to draw up this year's financial budget? If it has been a pain what's different?

  • what are people's attitude and team spirit like in different parts of the IT department?

Emberton says if you can't answer these questions then it is a prompt to think of the fundamental way in which the department is run and its dynamics. "What you can often do is set improvement objectives for next year and then next year you can assess them. It can be done in low key fashion but it can lead to real action," he says.

Where to start

Exactly where to dust and straighten up the IT department will depend on the kind of company the IT department services. Rene Katerberg, project director with CMG's advanced technical division, says a good place to start is to learn about the business side of the company.

"Speak to the business managers and get to terms with them because often there's a culture difference between IT and business, with different expectations of how the IT department should be," says Katerberg. He suggests a quick audit of the culture and says it could be worth bringing in outside opinion as it might be difficult to get a new view from within.

Katerberg adds that before any spring cleaning can be done, the IT department needs to know where your business wants to go. "If you identify that then you can align the IT department with the business, that's the most important thing. It's the IT department's job to use technology to help the business achieve its goals," he says.

He also recommends that the IT department considers itself a business in its own right and be business focused. "If you have a business focus then you can have a look at the IT department and look at the services, where the gaps are. It might necessitate internal re-organisation to be more business focused but these need not be lengthy or costly."

Richard Lanyon Hogg, principal consultant for IBM Global Services, offers a similar global view of how to approach a spring clean. He points out that more than ever before an IT department's activities can have an impact on the company's brand name and share price.

He says, "This is a new concept to industry and regardless of the industry, people expect technology to respond instantaneously. Business models change much more quickly these days than ever before. For example, there is almost a new model for Internet service providers every quarter which needs technology to deploy it."

Lanyon Hogg's advice to IT managers is, like Katerberg's, to assess if their departments are capable of meeting the business' needs. To do this Lanyon Hogg recommends concentrating on three areas: optimisation, business availability and e-frastructure - IBM's little idiom for IT architecture capable of supporting business over the Internet.

Under optimisation, Lanyon Hogg advises looking beyond the technology to the people and the department's processes from an effectiveness and efficiency point of view. Ask if they are all providing value for money in an affordable manner. Ask what are the core staff competencies and whether it is still cost effective, for example, to run a help desk. And like Katerberg, Lanyon Hogg says it is essential that the IT department manager understands what the core business is and how his or her staff can add value, one aspect of which is business availability. Lanyon Hogg says the IT department must be capable of responding to the business' needs, so ask if the department is responsive. If it does not meet users' needs consider how that can be changed.

Lanyon Hogg's final advice is to think of i before e: infrastructure before e-business. "It's up to the IT department to establish the IT architecture that can meet customer demand, can scale and is secure and reliable. All this must be in place before starting e-business," he says.

Security is something John Maruca, director of emerging technologies at Mastech, thinks many companies are complacent about. As part of a spring clean Maruca advises a security audit. "Checking the security of the network in relation to how customers, vendors and on-site and off-site staff use it is a useful exercise for spring cleaning. The last thing anyone wants is to have inappropriate people accessing information they should not see," he warns. A network audit to establish if the company is ready for e-business is also worthwhile, he says.

Assessing past failures

Other general advice about spring cleaning involves looking at past failures or problems. Keith Hodgson, director of SXC, an enterprise systems management solutions provider near Swanley, says addressing areas that have caused most concern over the previous year is a good place to start. "For example, the helpdesk needs to hook into systems management and if you're getting recurring problems it could be that you've got the wrong help desk product," he says. Maruca, agrees, adding that a persistence problem may be indicative of serious trouble brewing. He also suggests meeting with customers to better understand their needs. And Gary Cooper, research manager at Butler Group, suggests examining the kind of information the department puts out and finding out if users still need it or want it delivered in that format.

Cooper says, "Often users accept the IT department's output as is. They may complain about it among themselves but never do anything about it. IT departments need to be proactive and find out if this is actually what people want. What often happens is that you can reduce your output considerably which brings about cost savings."

Another of Cooper's tips, as well as numerous other people in IT business, is to conduct a software audit to check that software on the desktop is still required and legal. There are many tools available to help managers do this which fit different budgets and sizes of companies. Smaller firms may find a manual audit adequate but the larger the company the less efficient such a project would be. The benefits of assessing what software you have includes reduced costs, if you can ditch unneeded software, and more efficient machines as you get rid of the screen savers and other junk downloaded from the Web. You can extend the audit to clearing out e-mails that people needlessly keep, as well as other files that use up disc space.

Although the price of hard drives has come down, maintaining them clogged with trash is silly. A good look at the age of the data may free up gigabytes of space, especially if you backed everything up to avoid post-millennium problems. Ed Skibbe, marketing director of Pine Cone Systems, which makes datawarehousing tools, says getting rid of dormant data frees up disc space thus reducing the need for human intervention. Like the software audit, this can also be done with the aid of tools rather than a manual trawl.

While you're looking at storage and disc space, think about your back-up and restoring procedures. Butler's Cooper suggests checking the back-up routine to ensure it is done at the right time and within the right timescale. And checking that information backed-up can be restored is always useful.

Paul Eaton, storage business manager for Hewlett-Packard, adds, "Consider how back-up processes could be speeded up. Users do not like being disrupted by lengthy back-up times and investing in new technology may be appropriate. And consider whether it's worth automating back-up. Some sites still have a person putting stuff into storage arrays."

Eaton also advises checking the age of media used for back-up. For example, tape media do wear out so you should recognise which ones are at the end of their life.

If all this sounds great but you don't have time to do it, the experts warn that you run the risk of lurching from one firefighting episode to another. Hodgson, from SXC, says, "Part of the issue is that companies are reluctant to spend money and lack of human resources is often a problem. Some companies may want to consider using contractors - they do provide a lot of value to companies. They bring in new skills and ideas and permanent staff are often too busy to get on with spring cleaning."

But if you're planning to launch onto the Web or migrate to Windows 2000 somebody is going to have to flick a duster around the IT department.

Dust down your software licence bill

Checking what software is on the company's desktop, who uses it and how frequently, is a recurring theme among the experts. David Phillips, product marketing manager at Wick Hill, recommends sorting out what is running on the desktop, getting rid of the rubbish and making sure of the correct licensing agreement.

He says the consequence of not knowing what the company has is twofold. You could be paying too much for useless software or risking a fine or imprisonment for pirated software.

Phillips says some companies over-license because no one knows the exact number of users. "In an organisation with hundreds or even thousands of seats, finding out software usage on a day-to-day basis has not been possible," he says. While an uneconomical way to run an IT budget, it does ensure the company does not fall foul of copyright law. But there's no excuse for this approach anymore with all the software tools now available to tell IT managers what's going on.

There are two types of software available to monitor IT networks: inventory and metering. Phillips says the ideal package includes both, is simple to use and has a comprehensive set of reports thrown in.

Inventory software gives a snapshot of what hardware and software there is and where it is located. This is great but Phillips believes it is more important to know the actual usage. "A user with a PC packed with applications may not use anything other than the word processor but the company is paying for unused software," he cautions.

To calculate usage data you will need a metering component since the combination of inventory and metering gives an indication of who uses each package when and how often. This information enables IT managers to provide software needed and to optimise licensing agreements. It also enables desktop hardware to be optimised for the required applications. This has the benefit of saving money and ensuring efficiency.

However, while these tools can be used for licensing compliance of desktop-based applications they do not offer much help for dealing with Web-enabled software, accessed by users through a standard Web browser, Phillips notes. Web-based licensing has to take into account that a much wider range of users can access applications. The traditional way of selling licences is to charge for the number of seats that can be physically counted.

Now, however, Web-enabled applications are driving the trend towards site licensing, where the company makes a one-off payment that allows the whole organisation to use the software concurrently. Suppliers and customers still need to agree on the cost of the site licence based on an accurate estimate of software usage. This will also need to be checked and reviewed at regular intervals assuming the site licence will be upgraded, maintained and supported over time.

Tidy up your task/time matrix

John Emberton, Sema Group's consulting director, says using a matrix to get your mind around complex objectives can be a useful way to approach spring cleaning. The following matrix is one, he says, can help people reassign time making the department more effective and more efficient.

Consider:

  • things that you do today that you want to avoid in the future

  • things you've been doing but want to do less of because they're not healthy for the staff

  • things you'd like to be doing but haven't been able to do very effectively

  • things you want to do lots more of because they've been successful

    Air your project plan

    It is possible that sprucing up the IT department may make you think about embarking on more ambitious projects. Diane Finn, head of membership at the National Computing Centre in Manchester, says, "Spring is always a time of renewal and rebirth, so what about writing out a list of all those supposedly 'vital' IT projects which appear in the press today? Managers should score them one to five in terms of benefit to your business in the next 12 months.

    "Then ask your users what they would like from you in the same timeframe, and once you've identified the priorities, you can then see whether your existing infrastructure will cope and what additional resource, if any, you need to deliver."

    Examples of current hot topics are:

  • customer relationship management

  • e-commerce

  • Linux

  • Windows 2000

  • mobile computing

  • intranet

  • groupware

  • compliance with the new Data Protection Act

    Your spring clean checklist

  • Audit software on the desktop. Is it still required?

  • Check that the number and version of applications running on the network matches the licence agreement. This is a good time to assess how many licences it will be possible to trade in on your next upgrade, which is cheaper than buying new software

  • Examine information sent out to end-users. Do users still need it or want it delivered in that format?

  • Address areas that have caused most concern over the last year: run diagnostics and examine the database's history for regular problems

  • Audit processor capacity to make sure it is capable of doing what people require

  • Check back-up routines - ensure they are done at the right time and within the right timescale for customers. Run an exercise to restore backed up information

  • Attend conferences and seminars - a great way of finding out about new products and hot topics

  • Clear out old e-mail files to speed up networks

  • Audit storage use and consider moving long dormant files to near-line or archival storage, or even deleting useless information

  • Do not be complacent - run a security check of the network. Can unauthorised users access the network?


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    This was first published in April 2000

     

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