How does your IT really stack up?

Author Henry Miller was ahead of his time when he said that in life's ledger, there is no such thing as frozen assets.

Asset feature

Author Henry Miller was ahead of his time when he said that in life's ledger, there is no such thing as frozen assets.

When he wrote that in 1956, the few companies that had computers knew exactly where they were - in a warehouse somewhere, surrounded by a horde of operators constantly replacing valves. These days, of course, computers, software and network components flow throughout organisations like water, filling every vacant space, changing regularly, propelled by a fast-moving current. How do you keep track of it all, and what drives a company to do so?

One of the most obvious drivers for an asset management system is cost reduction. Knowing exactly what hardware and software is installed on the network can save helpdesk staff valuable time in helping to resolve a problem. It can also enable you to tally your actual inventory against supplier invoices, for example.

"The things that users should be looking to achieve from their asset management are things like discovering invoicing errors, reusing their assets more effectively and reduction of software spend by reharvesting licences where appropriate," says Jonathan Price, consulting manager at IT management software supplier CA.

You can also use an IT inventory for other tasks such as identifying under-used assets (does the marketing manager really ever use that scanner?) and identifying asset theft (just where did that 512Mbytes of Ram go?).

But there are other reasons for building a proper IT inventory. Mark Nutt, divisional director of technology solutions at systems integrator Morse, identifies security as one issue. Knowing what is on your network makes it easier to protect.

The other reason is licensing compliance. A good IT inventory can help you ensure that, should the auditors come knocking, you will have evidence to support your claims that you are using fully licensed software. And it can sometimes bring unexpected windfalls.

Paul Fairhurst, infrastructure manager at Wigan Borough Council, installed the Activesam asset management tool from Monactive in August. "We found that we were 20% over-licensed for virus checking," he says. The council thought it needed more licences for its Sophos software than the 2,150 it had paid for, but in fact it was only running the software on 1,800 or 1,900 machines. The extra knowledge saved the council between £5,000 and £6,000.

Still, getting to that point is not as easy as it looks. Several companies offer tools that enable you to look at your licensing information and reconcile it against evidence of executables collected from PCs around the organisation. But because most licence agreements come in paper form, entering and maintaining this information can be a huge administrative overhead, warns Mike Newton, spokesman for the Business Software Alliance, which represents software suppliers.

"I wish we could wave a wand and make it simple, but we can't," he says. "We would encourage people to make use of the multiple licensing schemes that suppliers offer because that enables you to lump things together rather than keeping lots of jewel cases lying around."

Just as the promise of software licence reconciliation requires more work than you might think, so the other capabilities of asset management products should be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, many sales people will tout autodiscovery as a key feature of asset management tools. The idea is that you turn the software on, it sniffs around the network and finds all of your devices. However, it may take more work than that.

Companies with remote locations connecting over virtual private networks, or connecting periodically via ISDN lines, for example, could find it difficult to get a clear picture of their network. For example, when Mark Wiezbicki, IT manager at Southampton Football Club, installed Microsoft's Systems Asset Manager, he had to physically visit five locations that connect to the club's offices using a VPN .

Wiezbicki's team compared the data from the successfully discovered machines against his Active Directory machine listing to find those machines that had not been picked up. These included laptops that were not connected when they ran the software. "They gave me a bit of software which I installed onto a USB key, and for individual machines that we had not managed to pick up we collected the data from that. It was done and dusted in a week and that was only because it took me time to get out of the office."

Wiezbicki's experience with the software was positive, but would things go equally smoothly for a retailer with 1,400 branch outlets connecting via ISDN or VPN over broadband? Most branch offices might contain one or two PCs - certainly not enough to warrant installing a separate copy of the asset management software locally. "If you have a central discovery service then you have a real problem in that type of configuration, and we would be no different in that situation," says Ian Dunn, chief executive at asset management supplier Monactive.

Some companies, Monactive included, solve this problem by either manually sending out the software agents that install themselves on a PC to log its specification and assets, or forcing the central Windows server to download and install the agent on to the desktop the next time the machine logs on. However, manually sending it out places the onus on the user to install it, and forcing a download assumes a suitably configured network and server operating system. Such issues do not make the problem unsolvable, but they do add more complexity.

And what about legacy equipment or unsupported platforms, such as the Macintosh? Monactive's product supports the Mac, but not all software does. And for retailers, will the asset management software pick up barcode readers? That is highly unlikely.

The answer, according to Patrick Bolger, chief executive at service desk and asset management software supplier Hornbill Systems, is to complement software tools with properly refined processes. "You need a combination of the two," he says. "There is no way to shortcut that. If you are going to do asset management or configuration management, it starts with the procurement process."

Some tools theoretically reduce the need for effective procurement processes by finding assets on the network when they appear, he says, meaning that you could try to discover equipment after the fact. "But that is managing through chaos," says Bolger. Better to log equipment and software as it comes into the organisation and use the discovery to help track its whereabouts, configuration and use.

A central procurement department that approves and logs all purchases will go a long way towards making your asset management system more effective. If you do not have such a department, you have to improvise, like Wigan Council. Fairhurst's team has had a relatively loose hold on software purchasing. Departments will often purchase their own software, making it difficult for the IT department to track licensing, for example.

"In theory, we have central purchasing of IT, but the organisation as a whole does not have a central purchasing officer to enforce everything," he says. "The previous CEO believed in devolving power and that had many advantages, but there are some disadvantages."

Consequently, Fairhurst's team is gaining approval for a new rule which would require all departments to submit licensing information regarding their software purchases. The IT department can then correlate these against installed applications found by the asset management system. Fairhurst is also planning to make the asset management software's database available to the council's helpdesk staff to improve problem solving efficiency.

Understanding where the asset management information will be used in the company is a vital part of the project that should be assessed at the outset, says Nutt. "Is the company approaching asset management as part of its enterprise management or service management strategy, or is it looking at asset management as a separate project?" he asks. Perhaps finance is getting antsy about the growth in IT expenditure and wants to pin down the value of the installed assets, or maybe the service team wants to increase its throughput.

Price's view is that an asset management system will become a foundation component to help an organisation become more effective in IT. Placing asset management within a wider maturity model linked to broad goals will help customers realise the best value from it. "We tell customers that discovery of the assets out there is a necessary step, but it is not the end game," he says.

Examples of how an integrated asset management system could be used to fulfil corporate goals in subtle, but advanced ways include supplier comparison. Correlating helpdesk information with an asset registry could enable you to approach a desktop PC supplier and tell them that they experienced a greater percentage of hardware faults per PC then their competitor, for example. Such information could be useful when negotiating contracts.

Most IT departments face a constant challenge when mapping strategies that will take them from point A (where they are now) to point B (where they want to be in the future). But before you start, it pays to understand exactly what assets you are setting out with. That should make the journey run more smoothly.

Case study: asset registry gives helpdesk a boost at law firm

Before IT law firm Taylor Wessing bought in an off-the-shelf asset management system, it was using a custom Access database, with limited results. "We did not hold any information other than the machine name and when the machine was last logged on to, and by whom," says IT project manager Sharon Mone. That was all the information the company could log at that time, because anything more detailed would have caused expensive inefficiencies. "We would have to visit each PC and do a manual audit on each machine," says Mone. "When you have 600 machines, that is a lot."

Taylor Wessing needed something more substantial that detected not only the specification of the machine, but also the software that was running on it. That would enable helpdesk staff to understand the environment that someone was working in when they called the helpdesk with a problem.

Mone was asked to purchase a more effective asset management system, and chose Assetworks, an asset registry from Hornbill Systems, which also sold the firm a helpdesk management system. The company began deploying the software in June, and Mone noticed some benefits straight away. The software's autodiscovery feature queries machines on the network, automatically building a database of their configurations and installed software. Because Taylor Wessing prohibits the use of certain applications, such as iTunes, the IT department could find out who had installed illicit software and address the problem.

The asset registry is also useful when rolling out new software and hardware, explains Mone, because it enables the IT team to work out who has the correct drivers installed. But to Mone, one of the biggest benefits comes in reconciling software licences. Because the reporting part of the software lets her count the software installations across the network, she can compare this data against the supplier licensing contracts that she has signed. "You can see at a glance what you have, but also the expiry dates as well. You can see when something is due to expire and when you have to renew it."

In spite of of the productivity the asset registry offers, getting it working was not without its hiccups, "People here do not always log off and reboot their machine, and it is only when they log in to their machine that the audit starts," Mone says. "People might not log in for weeks or months, so we would have to force people to log out and log back in. That is still an issue."

It is a particular problem with mobile users, many of whom are trainee lawyers on secondment who may not connect laptops to the network for weeks or months. In this scenario, all that the IT team can do is take a note of the asset label on the machine (which is created using an internal naming convention). Clearly, even in the world of automatic asset registries, some things are still manual.


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