August is always a quiet time for companies, but for IT decision makers, housekeeping could be more important than sunning themselves on a palm-fringed beach.
One task ideally suited to the late summer period is asset management, a system that allows firms to keep an accurate record of their changing hardware and software assets.
Asset management is one of those tasks everyone knows they should do, but seldom get around to. Done properly, it can help a company trim its IT running costs and ease the workload on IT staff. Having a clearer view of IT infrastructure should also speed up an organisation's licensing audit.
At Tussaud's - which owns UK attractions such as Alton Towers, Warwick Castle and the London Eye - the company-wide Windows and Intel architecture was out of date and out of control. Each attraction had its own IT team and infrastructure.
When Chris Dare arrived at Tussaud's two years ago as head of IT, he faced a daunting task. "There was some centralised co-ordination, but no central IT strategy," he said.
One of Dare's early decisions was to ask the different IT departments within the Tussaud's group to report to him.
However, one major problem remained: no one knew exactly what IT was out there. "Each attraction had an idea of its IT, but there was a lot of room for improvement," said Dare. His first task was to take a reliable inventory of the 1,200 or so PCs and servers.
"The main problem was that we leased a lot of hardware but there was very little tracking of equipment. We did not know what was on or off lease; we had no record of what software releases we had; and we did not know what was loaded, by whom, or where it was."
Dare opted for Intuit's Track-it automated asset management tool. Track-it was already part of Tussaud's helpdesk software, which captures a machine's hardware and software profiles when a call to the helpdesk is made or when users log on.
The audit was done in stages - Dare completed one large site a week (about 250 machines) over six weeks. "We were surprised by the numbers. They were higher than anticipated by about 10% to 15%," said Dare. "Machines that we thought had been decommissioned were found to be still in use."
Dare also got a clearer view of which machines were leased and which were owned. Moreover, discrepancies between leasing invoices and what machines were being used showed that Tussaud's was paying for more than it should have been. "It was not a significant amount, but it was annoying," said Dare.
When Tussaud's stopped paying for machines it did not have, the savings paid for the asset management software.
For the first time, Tussaud's was able to provide accurate figures on what software it had and what it was licensing. The audit also meant the company could apply for Fast (Federation Against Software Theft) accreditation.
"We have got bronze and we are aiming for gold Fast accreditation," said Dare. "Since directors are personally and corporately liable for software piracy, it is worth it."
IT staff have also benefited from the asset overhaul. Having accurate figures on the hardware and software inventory allowed Dare to get a snapshot of the workload placed on IT staff.
"We found it was one support person to 100 desktops, whereas the industry standard is about one to 50 to 75 desktops," said Dare. "The findings gave the support people a real boost. We proved they were overworked, which meant I could justify additional resources."
But the key benefit of running the asset management exercise was to support a company-wide migration to a Citrix thin-client architecture.
The migration started with an l8-month pilot thin client roll-out at Thorpe Park, a small site with 60 old machines.
"We have now centralised applications such as human resources, finance and customer relationship management and have got control back. We will also be doing a full review of our retail and admissions systems," said Dare.
The pilot roll-out also highlighted a perennial problem faced by IT managers in all industries: end-users loading software on to their machines without authorisation. To stop this happening after the PCs had been converted to thin-clients, the CD and A drives were disabled.
"If users want any software they send a request to the helpdesk. We will then test it and deploy it. Users have to go through the approved process," said Dare. "We had to do a second audit before the roll-out. It sounds like a huge amount of work, but with the Track-it tool the user profile shows what has been added."
The pilot also showed that attached devices, especially personal digital assistants and cameras, needed to be better managed.
"These were not picked up by the automated audit tool. We learned that we should have standardised on which PDAs and cameras users could have. We do not have a problem with them adding such kit, but they need to tell us so that the environment is supportable and stable," said Dare.
But has the asset management exercise added to the bottom line?
Dare believes it has made the IT department leaner and more efficient. "We have got through the past two years without increasing the IT headcount, even though the user base has increased by 20%. Although thin terminals are not half the price of PCs, they are cheaper, and the old 486s perform like new machines," he said.
All about asset management
According to senior Gartner analyst Patricia Adam, asset management consists of: inventory (counting what you have got and what you are actually using); finance (price, depreciation, book value, amortisation); and contracts (terms and conditions, warranties, service level agreements)
- Asset management is 80% people and processes and 20% tools/software
- Asset management is not a one-off exercise - it is an ongoing process
- The tools market is not fully mature, and inventory tools (often part of configuration and helpdesk software) are mostly standalone from asset repository (storing finance and contract data) tools
- Asset management can typically save 30% per asset on lifecycle costs and improving existing asset management can save about 15% per asset. Most large companies will find they are paying for more licences than they need.