How to cover your IT assets

A narrow product focus has isolated IT asset management from business goals and other company assets for too long. Find out how the industry is redefining the asset management value proposition.



A narrow product focus has isolated IT asset management from business goals and other company assets for too long. Find out how the industry is redefining the asset management value proposition.


Contents
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

True to Microsoft's word, the long-awaited Microsoft Windows XP Service Pack 2 closed up numerous loopholes and tightened security throughout the operating system. For this reason alone, it was a compelling upgrade. But as the August debut of SP2 loomed closer, IT administrators around the globe began balking as they realised just what a massive effort it would be to upgrade hundreds or thousands of individual PCs with a patch that weighed in at nearly 100MB.

Pushing such a large upgrade to large numbers of systems at once threatened to logjam corporate networks, potentially bringing e-mail, transaction systems and other applications to a grinding halt. As a result, IT administrators found themselves working with Microsoft to hold off the upgrade to SP2 -- ironically delaying a resolution to the same security problems about which they'd been vehemently complaining about for years.

The complexity of the SP2 rollout was a textbook case for the justification of IT asset management (ITAM) software, a category of application that allows IT administrators to keep up with the hardware configuration and software loaded on desktop PCs and servers that might be located across the building or across the country. It's been around for years, winning gradual corporate acceptance by many but still being ignored by a surprising number of organisations.

Gartner research into asset management penetration has found that only 60 percent of its clients' hardware assets were tracked using automated tools -- but that 90 percent of the sites it had checked had "marginal" practices for hardware asset management.

"The ultimate challenge is a level of integration between people, processes, and technology."

-- William Baker, Resonance Group
Even those companies that are using asset tracking tools are not managing them well on an ongoing basis. This has serious implications for governance and asset cost-effectiveness.

"The total cost of an asset over its life has a dramatic impact on the organisation," says William Baker, CEO of asset management consultancy Resonance Group, who warns that most companies doing ITAM rely too much on technology without building policies that tie it in with overall business objectives.

"The ultimate challenge is a level of integration between people, processes and technology," he adds. "The IT asset management process should be governed by rules and regularly applied during the decision making process, but it's pointless to try using technology if they haven't got the processes in place.

"Most organisations set business rules that are often not captured centrally, and are typically contained in paper-based manuals and as 'someone said'. Automation of business rules will ensure that transactions are consistently managed and implemented across the enterprise."

Less than one-quarter of enterprises, Gartner estimates, have a full lifecycle IT asset management program that tracks IT assets from the point of procurement through to the point of disposal. This puts them at a disadvantage to fixed assets such as plant and equipment (P&E) investments, whose lifecycle is typically well known through depreciation and maintenance schedules derived years in advance.

These asset registers are, however, typically managed by a completely different part of the business using different methods and systems than those used to track IT assets. The two environments have little to do with each other, perpetuating a problematic rift in asset management strategies.

Benefits and implications


Contents
Introduction
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

ITAM policies came into the limelight a decade ago, when enthusiasm about client/server architectures was quickly tempered by the realisation that desktop PCs were extremely difficult, and therefore expensive, to maintain throughout their lifecycle. This meant desktop management tools were early into the market and are now quite mature, with features ranging from automatic hardware and software inventories to software licence compliance, patch and full upgrade management, automatic backup of data on remote systems, and more.

For the surprising proportion of companies that are still using manual inventories and simple Excel spreadsheets to track their desktops, the benefits of an automated platform are significant. Hobsons Bay City Council, which administers 66 square kilometres of coastal land in Melbourne's inner west, found out just how significant after it finally invested in an automated ITAM solution after years of manual updates and tracking using Lotus Notes and a separate reporting database.

"We're now able to look at a real picture of our IT assets and determine what needs to be upgraded, purchased, changed, or overhauled in the next 12 months."

-- Michael Govan, ITAM
Considering the council had over 400 PCs and related equipment across 30 sites, manual processes were expensive and fraught with error -- a fact that drove the council to shell out AU$18,000 for Centennial Software's Discovery ITAM system when it faced the need for an IT asset audit in the leadup to budget planning in February.

Discovery automatically found and polled desktops, servers, network equipment, and installed software to compile a consistent database of the council's IT assets. Its asset database is refreshed nightly, ensuring that any changes are immediately reflected in management reports that can be generated in minutes instead of hours. "Under the banner of good governance, it is essential that the council looks after its assets," says ITAM manager of information services Michael Govan.

In the past, this was difficult, he concedes. "We relied on people to follow set processes every time, and were probably only achieving 80 percent to 90 percent accuracy. The system was always a little bit hit or miss, and it was always previously a massive overhead from a resources point of view. We're now able to look at a real picture of our IT assets and determine what needs to be upgraded, purchased, changed, or overhauled in the next 12 months."

As Hobsons Bay City Council and countless other organisations have found, introduction of automated IT asset management systems is an epiphanic experience that can deliver immediate improvements in strategies for managing what is typically a considerable but poorly understood asset base.

Unlike conventional fixed assets, IT equipment does not go through a defined lifecycle based primarily on regular maintenance: desktops and servers can be repurposed to extend their life, may deliver different business value depending on the processes they support, and may be underutilised -- a costly waste of resources -- without companies even knowing it.

Losses from poor management can be considerable: Gartner's analysis suggested that inefficient or nonexistent hardware asset management processes could add seven to 10 percent annually to each device's total cost of ownership (TCO). By managing assets closely, however, those costs can be minimised as the infrastructure is restructured around more efficient usage of assets.

Software licence management systems, for example, monitor how often specific applications are used and can point out how many expensive licences are being wasted -- potentially saving big for companies that often buy licences in bulk to attract a discount but end up using just a fraction of what they've paid for.

Monitoring can also guide redeployment and consolidation of assets. For example, some companies are finding many servers are only utilising 10 to 15 percent of their computing capacity and sitting idle the rest of the time. Combining many devices into a single server running multiple virtual machines can eliminate redundant equipment and reduce management costs considerably while ensuring all of a server's computing power is put to good use.

But you can't improve it if you can't measure it. It is for this reason, the broader field of enterprise asset management (EAM) is focused on extending similar efficiencies across the entire organisation. There are generally unrecognised similarities between IT and non-IT assets -- P&E investments typically represent fixed costs, and IT assets have a significant fixed component in the purchase, installation and disposal cost of the equipment.

From this perspective, both types of assets can be effectively managed within the same asset register. However, EAM solutions also need to recognise that IT assets have an even more significant variable component that reflects the ongoing cost of user support, application configuration efficiency, and the system's business value. While P&E assets are simply tracked to ensure maintenance compliance, IT assets can be proactively managed to reduce associated variable expenses.

The push to centralise


Contents
Introduction
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

A broad and effective EAM solution is critical to delivering complete and adequate asset management. Yet EAM is trying to hit a moving target. Even as the business concept of asset management expands, the scope of ITAM is also broadening as IT infrastructures become more complex and distributed.

What used to be largely a conglomeration of desktops, servers and routers is now complemented by complex storage area networks; firewalls and other security tools; wireless and wired telecommunications services; application components linked using Web services interfaces; data and voice switches; and a myriad of other elements.

Just as every part plays a role in the functioning of the machine, each of these IT components plays a discrete, but important, role in the overall IT environment. Enterprise asset management systems must recognise both the importance of managing individual IT components and be able to step back and track the assets as broader functional ones.

Tools to provide this broad view are rapidly evolving as ITAM vendors rejig their tools. Microsoft, for one, will next year amalgamate its desktop and server-focused Systems Management Server (SMS) and network and service-focused Microsoft Operations Manager (MOM) into a combined system called Systems Manager 2005. A key focus of that platform will be on building in the intelligence to recognise -- and correct -- poor performance, without any user intervention, according to defined business policies.

"Systems are getting a lot smarter," says Michael Leworthy, Windows server product manager with Microsoft Australia. "The base platform is becoming a lot more intelligent around management, and self-awareness, and we've got much more in-depth management tools. Users previously had to design the operational functions for themselves, but we're trying to create more architecturally aware servers so the applications are aware of customers' data centres."

With a broad stable of discrete management applications, IBM is taking a similarly consolidated view of enterprise assets. The company's Software Group is currently building links between its Tivoli enterprise management environment and WebSphere application environment to facilitate correlation between equipment and network performance and logical service availability. The push will also link up with IBM's Rational portfolio of software development and component management tools, supporting the relatively new idea that software components have become as important to manage as physical IT assets.

Whereas Microsoft will actually combine its applications, IBM's integration will be virtual, with the individual products retaining their identity but integration providing smooth data exchange and cross-application policy enforcement. An additional application, currently called DB2 Information Integrator but currently in R&D, will create what regional middleware manager Mitchell Young terms a "relationship registry" that maps relationships between various data sources.

"As we move to this composite application environment, and as we move to business processes that span enormous levels of complexity, we need to really manage configurations in a holistic approach," Young explains. "We're not just managing the hardware and software resources, but might be managing resources that might be non-IT -- plant equipment, people, and application logic. Rather than combining [asset] databases into one, we have a federated data model that can look across them in the context of the business services you're supporting."

Conventional fixed asset management firms are also moving into the IT space, recognising customers' growing need for better accounting visibility of IT assets. Well-established models for areas such as contract management will only complement more conventional configuration and change management capabilities.

MRO Software, whose MAXIMO fixed asset management solution has enjoyed strong penetration within conventional maintenance environments, is among the vendors making the switch. MRO already offers ITAM capabilities through its MAXIMO MainControl add-on, gleanead from its 2002 acquisition of MainControl, and will incorporate those features into the heart of the next version of MAXIMO.

Adrian Hocking, regional sales director for MRO, believes the assed management giant has a lot to offer the IT world.

"The sophistication that's been developed in physical and production management -- the philosophies and business processes designed to ensure you don't stop production -- are starting to get applied to IT," Hocking says. He points out that the concepts are the same regardless of whether you're looking after PCs or SCADA equipment. "It's just that recent developments have enabled more automated management."

Australian ITIL


Contents
Introduction
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

Once you've got that management in place, how do you turn it into business advantage? The answer will come as a growing number of tools begin incorporating the precepts of the IT Infrastructure Library model to tie their improving asset management capabilities to specific business objectives.

ITIL has five core elements: business perspective, application management, service delivery, service support, and infrastructure management. These are elucidated by ITIL to give clear guidance for making, managing and monitoring service management policies.

"IT groups inside companies see ITIL as a standardised way of aligning themselves better with what the business is trying to do with IT."

-- Jason Andrews, BMC
The ITIL model includes the Configuration Management Database (CMDB), a centralised asset registry that correlates infrastructure performance to business service goals. By combining all relevant information into this, ITIL seeks to eliminate the silos of asset management information. CMDB provides philosophical guidance for the appropriate structure of consolidated asset databases.

"IT groups inside companies see ITIL as a standardised way of aligning themselves better with what the business is trying to do with IT," says Jason Andrew, director of service management for BMC, which recently released a consolidated CMDB tool designed to wrap together the information collection and management capabilities of BMC's enterprise management technologies.

"Many companies talk about ROI and understanding the TCO of their assets, but you have to ask how they can do that if they don't know the components that make up their infrastructure," Andrew says.

"Although there have been a bunch of point solutions [for asset management], there's never been one really consistent way of solving the problem. A consolidated CMDB will hopefully [do this]."

AAD sheds light on frozen assets


Contents
Introduction
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

Australia's three Antarctic research stations (and a fourth site on remote Macquarie Island to the north) are exercises in contrast. High-tech research equipment and tens of thousands of dollars' worth of IT gear is separated from the world's coldest, driest environment by a few inches of wall and some carefully maintained heating systems.

All these systems, both high-tech and low, rely on continual maintenance and attention to remain working. In the past, this attention was managed using a variety of paper records and spreadsheets that took a huge amount of effort and time to maintain. Just how much effort and time they required, however, wasn't clear until the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), which administers the stations, implemented MRO Software's MAXIMO asset management system early last year.

AAD used MAXIMO to build a register of the site's fixed assets, which range from pumps and valves to heaters and chairs and a complex system for producing potable water. Each has its own lifecycle requirements to be managed, including repair schedules and spare parts inventories. All of this information is now contained within MAXIMO and provided to employees through a simplified Web-based interface.

Introducing an automated system gave AAD a corporate memory that was impossible to create due to a rostering schedule in which all staff are replaced every 12 months. For this reason, ease-of-use was critical to ensure that workers learned and wanted to use the system rather than simply ignoring a mandate from AAD headquarters in Tasmania, thousands of kilometres away.

"We've tried to keep our asset base as high level as we could, so we avoid raising jobs on individual, smaller assets," says Jason Watson, MAXIMO project engineer with the AAD, from his position at frigid Casey Station.

"We have to keep it simple so that plumbers, carpenters, mechanics and others coming from varying degrees of IT literacy can learn it from day one. They're starting to get behind it, and it's saving an awful lot of work when we have to go back and produce reports."

An automated asset management system has also revealed a surprising fact -- workers at the bases spend around 40 percent of their time simply keeping the station functioning. By better managing the sites' installed assets, this proportion should be reduced over time, giving workers more time to handle other types of tasks.

One such task is planning for a relatively major IT upgrade, which will be implemented after a dozen e-mail, file sharing and voice over IP servers are delivered during the AAD's annual resupply trip this summer. With a robust asset management environment in place, each piece of IT equipment will join more conventional P&E assets so they can all be managed through a unified interface.

Collection of IT-related asset information will support the creation of a formal helpdesk system in the future, supporting both internal equipment and personal PCs that arrive at the stations where staff can log requests and we can manage them. The system will also allow tracking of support information regarding employees' individual PCs, many of which are brought with them when they arrive. "Because we've got a rather long lead time for getting data, it's quite important to know what's available and where it is," says Watson. "We're looking to get financial payback through rightsizing and making sure we get what we need -- but not too much of it."

Executive summary


Contents
Introduction
Benefits and implications
The push to centralise
Australian ITIL
AAD sheds light on frozen assets
Executive summary

If you're still tracking assets by hand, you're working too hard. Here are a few tips to make the most of your asset management.

  1. You probably don't know what's out there. And you will never find out without the help of an automated IT asset management tool. Find one with auto-discovery capabilities, stick it on your network, and you'll be surprised what's connected to your network.


  2. Rolling, rolling. Any IT staffer who's upgraded hundreds of PCs via sneakernet -- walking from PC to PC with an installation disk in hand -- can tell you what a waste of time it is. If you have more than a few dozen PCs, get an automated deployment tool that can automatically install patches or new applications from afar.


  3. IT assets can be redeployed. If you can find them, that is. Once you know how long a device has been installed, you can figure out when it needs to be replaced -- or reused. Ongoing IT asset management will tell you exactly whose PCs need to be replaced or changed to dumb thin clients.


  4. Know your fixed and variable costs. While IT asset management tools focus on keeping your PCs and servers running, conventional fixed asset systems (like those built into ERP systems) handle the nitty-gritty of depreciation, maintenance contracts, upgrade schedules and the like. Link the two together to both manage fixed costs, and to reduce variable costs associated with your IT equipment.


  5. Ferret out inefficiency. Servers are the worst culprits here: you install a new application, buy a few servers to support it, then find out they're sitting idle most of the time. Monitoring performance trends using IT asset management tools will point out the lazybones in your environment, then let you slash costs through virtual servers that combine logical functions onto a single piece of equipment.
  6. Consolidate logically, if not physically. Most companies track fixed assets in registers within the finance department, while PCs are the IT department's responsibility. In the name of efficiency, these should be combined into a single asset database -- or through a separate application with links into both independent systems.


  7. It's about policy, not just technology. Finding out what's in your environment is one thing, but you'll never know whether it's within limits if you don't have any. Make sure you have robust policies to ensure that asset management system metrics can be tracked against business objectives. For example, you may never know why that order processing service is logjammed until your asset management system points out that the application doesn't have enough server CPUs available.


  8. Licences cost. It may sound like a good deal at the time, but buying software licences in bulk is a surefire way to waste your IT budget. Companies do it all the time, and invariably the majority of their licences remain unused -- but it still costs money. Asset management agents will track actual usage against licences to help you whittle down licensing expenses.


  9. Components are assets, too. Few people give them much thought, but software objects -- the building blocks of all corporate applications -- are assets too. An enterprise application management framework should provide a means for archiving, tracking, upgrading, and monitoring the usage of these components, or at least link with a system that does, so they can be measured in economic terms and tracked through their lifecycles.


  10. ITIL brings meaning to a good idea. Perhaps the hottest trend in service management is ITIL, the UK-derived guidelines that tell companies how to ensure they deliver good IT service. Effective asset management is critical to ITIL success, and following its recommendations, is a great way to frame your asset management efforts in a meaningful context.


This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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