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Agencies keep track of IT assets

Wide-scale asset management solutions are still best, but even small rollouts can pay off

By Larry Stevens

Many federal and local agency information technology shops are finding themselves between a rock and a hard place these days. On the one hand, they're being asked to beef up security. On the other, military and homeland security initiatives — as well as a general funding crunch — have taken a big bite out of IT budgets.

Asset management software can provide a one-two punch aimed at both problems. On the security side, it can help managers track the exact number, nature and whereabouts of the IT assets they need to protect. And on the financial side, it can help managers eliminate unused software licenses, reduce support costs and even determine the most reliable products before making purchasing decisions.

The tracking technology is not new, and the market is maturing with some finely crafted solutions, but that doesn't mean that deploying asset management tools is old hat at most agencies.

In fact, industry analysts say that of the agencies that have deployed IT asset management solutions, few have gotten the full value out of the investments by linking the software to related systems that manage procurements, finances and other assets, such as buildings and non-IT equipment.

Although easier than it was a few years ago, creating those links is still not simple — for organizational as much as technical reasons — but the payback can be enormous, experts say.

Beyond the benefits, other forces are urging greater government use of asset management software.

Last summer, Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. signaled the Bush administration's interest in the topic when he suggested that asset management might become a new management agenda category that OMB's grading system would evaluate. The government probably won't add this new category anytime soon, but many agencies took Daniels' comments as a word to the wise.

At its most basic, IT asset management software begins with inventory discovery, a process that automatically identifies all devices on a network. But many products go further by providing functions such as software metering, which measures actual application usage, and contract management, which links leases and service contracts with data about the asset to which they relate.

Many products can also create canned or custom reports that detail, for example, which PCs have sufficient memory and processor speed for an operating system upgrade or even the failure rate of each vendor's products. In that way, they can serve as useful acquisition planning tools.

At the U.S. Postal Service, the move to asset management was driven by security concerns.

"We wanted to make sure everyone has the proper security software, including firewalls, virus software and virus definitions," said Wayne Grimes, manager of customer care operations at USPS.

USPS had been gradually rolling out its asset management systems during the past few years. However, the Code Red worm, which infected more than 359,000 computers July 19, 2001, and homeland security requirements sped up adoption of the technology. Because the Postal Service has about 350,000 devices — including mainframe, Unix and Microsoft Corp. Windows computers — administrators use various asset management products. During the past year and a half, however, they have focused on using products from Altiris Inc.

Another security concern at USPS arose from the fact that hundreds of business partners regularly access devices on the USPS network. Asset management software maintains a directory of each server and its authorized users and monitors access. Besides providing a layer of security, that approach helps with management functions such as capacity planning.

Using asset management products to improve end-user support wasn't a high priority for USPS IT managers, Grimes said, but "the icing on the cake is that we can discover problems proactively." For example, the agency is beginning to monitor which software is downloaded to each PC and then provide that information to help-desk personnel so they can better diagnose problems caused by software conflicts.

In fact, one support-related function resulted in substantial cost savings for USPS. When officials wanted to upgrade from Microsoft's Windows 95 to the Windows XP operating system, they assumed they would have to purchase upgraded desktop computers for all users. But by using asset management tools, they discovered that 12,000 PCs had already been upgraded with sufficient memory and disk space to run XP.

Automated Roll Call

By starting with security and gradually moving into support, the Postal Service illustrates one way to roll out IT asset management software. The Montana Army National Guard represents a different approach.

To support the group's more than 800 PCs, Col. Mike McCabe and his 11-person staff used to spend more time staring at their car windshields than at computer screens. "We're the fourth largest state and our users are spread all over it. On-site service was a real problem," said McCabe, deputy chief of staff for information management for the Montana Army National Guard.

So in June 2002, the group deployed Computer Associates International Inc.'s Unicenter Asset Management and Service Desk modules. Now, on a regular basis, the software checks the devices on the network in a sort of automated roll call. "If a printer goes off-line or a drive is down, we know about it immediately, sometimes before the user is aware of it," McCabe said.

McCabe is also using the asset management tools to get a handle on software usage. In the past, the Army National Guard sometimes bought more licenses than necessary to ensure that it complied with its contract requirements. But with an exact knowledge of where the software is installed, officials will be in a better position to negotiate for the exact number of licenses they need.

Finally, officials are also improving security because staff can easily detect when any device, server or desktop is disconnected from the network.

McCabe said that implementing the software was not difficult. The bigger issue was cultural. "We had to get [the staff] used to accessing the information and solving problems remotely rather than getting into their cars as soon as they get a service call," McCabe said.

Life Cycle Support

Regardless of their initial focus, once they begin with asset management, most agencies gradually use it to automate an expanding number of tasks and tie it in with other systems.

"The biggest trend we're seeing is that more agencies are adding features that take care of the entire life cycle of the asset," said Ken Boyd, chief information officer of Remedy, a BMC Software Inc. company and asset management solution provider.

For example, the tighter the integration between asset management and financial management systems, the more accurate the cost data will be for an asset as it moves from procurement to final disposition.

Tracking an asset through its life cycle can also produce better information about when maintenance and repairs will be likely, which helps with budget planning.

Pat Cicala, president and chief executive officer of the research firm Cicala and Associates LLC, pointed out that there is often a synergy when agencies expand the asset management umbrella. "The benefit of asset management can increase exponentially when you move from point solutions to end-to-end processes," she said. A central asset data repository can support a wide range of management functions and can become "strategic to the organization."

Patricia Adams, an industry analyst at Gartner Inc., agreed and said that integration of the various management systems is inevitable. To address this requirement, many asset management vendors offer suites of applications that can be integrated with little or no work on the agency's part.

The good news is that, in general, even if your agency has to write its own application program interfaces to integrate products from different vendors, the process should not be overwhelming. The bad news is that technology is less than half the problem, sources say. Getting people to buy into and support tighter links among management systems is much more daunting.

"The major job will be re-engineering [business] processes," Adams said. "If I had to break it down, I'd say it's 80 percent process and only 20 percent technical integration."

However, it's important to note that if your agency is still using only a point solution, you're not alone. David Friedlander, an industry analyst with Giga Information Group Inc., estimates that so far only 5 percent to 10 percent of organizations have integrated asset management with contractual and financial information or tied it in to back-office financial, human resources or other systems.

Still, Friedlander is upbeat about the future of asset management. "In the next three years or so, many agencies will get [more integration among management systems] because of the potential benefits at the end of the road," he said.

There are certainly benefits for agencies that implement an asset management point solution. It can reduce costs and solve some security problems. A longer-range goal can be end-to-end integration.

Most experts suggest starting small, getting used to the technology and implementing the process and cultural changes needed to make the system yield the most benefits. Then gradually add more functions.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.


Key features of asset management

Solutions for managing information technology assets vary in scope and focus. Here are some of the most useful functions:

* Auto-discovery tools search the network and create a database of all devices, operating systems and software applications.

* Inventory management tools maintain a database of everything on the network as well as off-network IT assets such as handheld computers, wireless phones and even equipment such as computer desks. Managers can use those tools to create reports, such as how many PCs are ready for an operating system upgrade.

* Contract management tools track the status, type, terms, conditions, payments and other details regarding leases, warranties and other contracts.

* Software metering tools track where applications are loaded and how often they are used. These tools help agencies purchase licenses only for applications they actually use.

* Financial management tools track costs associated with each asset, beginning with procurement and ending with the disposition of the asset.

First published May 12, 2003

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