On the track of hidden assets

Like the old woman who lived in a shoe frantically trying to keep track of her children, information technology staff members have their hands full just trying to keep track of all the computers, peripherals and software in their organizations.

Unfortunately, it's not just good housekeeping at stake but hard dollars. Is the department paying for software licenses that aren't being used? Are you overspending on end-of-lease penalties and last-minute lease renewals? Are you paying maintenance on hardware or software that is no longer in use?

The answer is an asset-management program. If your assets are relatively modest, you may be able to get by with a spreadsheet or a simple database. Of course, most agencies have enough IT assets that tracking them in a spreadsheet will soon prove too daunting. If your assets are numerous and far-flung, you'll need an enterprise-level asset-management solution.

The Lay of the Land

A comprehensive asset-management product should cover four main areas:

Managing IT asset inventory such as desktops and software. Automating contracts, including leases and insurance. Automating procurement. Bringing asset data into budgets. You may obtain those capabilities in a single, comprehensive product or by assembling separate products that each deliver a subset of the capabilities.

Inventory-discovery tools, for example, are basic to automating IT asset management. Discovery capabilities are built into some products, but often, third-party products perform this function. In some cases, they may be better suited to your needs than the tools that come with the comprehensive asset manager. Such tools include Microsoft Corp.'s Systems Management Server (SMS), Tally Systems Corp.'s TS.Census (formerly Tally NetCensus), Isogon Corp.'s SoftAudit and Novadigm Inc.'s Radia.

Whatever discovery tool you eventually select, you'll be glad to learn that industry standards have been developed in recent years that allow these tools to collect much more information than they did in the past.

Only a few years ago, for example, no discovery tool could identify add-in cards occupying ISA slots because the ISA standard was not designed to carry such information. Thanks to recent standards — most notably the Distributed Management Task Force Inc.'s Distributed Management Interface and Common Information Model and Microsoft's implementation of these standards via Windows Management Instrumentation — discovery tools can reach much further into your assets.

Because of those standards, if your PC is running Windows 98 or higher, you probably have the name of the model of your computer and other inventory information already stored in your Windows registry file. A few simple lines of code are all that is needed to gather the information.

Of course, because computers can't report on themselves when they are turned off or not connected to a network, automated discovery must be supplemented by other less sophisticated tools, such as bar code systems or manual reports.

By themselves, inventory products can be extremely useful. For example, they can tell you not only how many systems you have in what locations but also how many of your desktops are capable of, say, being upgraded to Windows 2000.

Full-fledged asset-management programs — also called portfolio asset managers, asset-repository programs or ownership-management products — build on the features of inventory products. Those solutions add to the raw asset-inventory data provided by the inventory-discovery tools to include data on such things as maintenance contracts, license agreements, invoices and procurement costs.

A Growing Roster of Players

When shopping for a specific asset- management solution, you'll find that vendors can be grouped into three categories. The first group is composed of major players who target the enterprise-level asset-management market and compete head-to-head. These are Janus Technologies Inc., MainControl Inc., Peregrine Systems Inc. and Remedy Corp.

Janus, maker of Argis, argues that asset management does not have to come in the same box as inventory-discovery or even help-desk tools. According to this view, a single vendor will find it difficult to provide outstanding products in each of these areas. Therefore, it makes more sense to buy best of breed in each area, rather than insisting on a one-stop purchase. If the data is kept in a common repository, such as an SQL database, there is no compelling reason to buy everything from one vendor.

There is strong real-world support for Janus' best-of-breed argument. With this in mind, it makes sense to select individual products that store their data in nonproprietary databases and that support popular application program interfaces.

MainControl's MC/Empower, another comprehensive asset manager, also has modules for automated software distribution and installation. What's more, MainControl's strongest suit is its optional Reconciliation Manager, which compares planned IT assets with the actual IT inventory. Depending on your needs, you may use MainControl's own Enterprise Explorer for inventory discovery or use another vendor's product, such as Tally Systems' TS.Asset. Fortunately, MC/Empower works just fine with third-party discovery tools.

Similarly, Remedy Asset Management offers the benefit of tight integration with Remedy's powerful help-desk solution — if you've already adopted Remedy for your help desk, it makes sense to opt for Remedy Asset Management. But this product can also be used with third-party tools such as Microsoft's SMS and Tally Systems' TS.Census.

The one exception to the best-of-breed rule is Peregine. In addition to its asset manager, AssetCenter, the company has strong offerings in several areas, including help-desk and change management. And its recent acquisition of the Tivoli Service Desk suite of products promises even further strengthening of all those product lines.

The second group of vendors is composed of large enterprise systems-management vendors, such as Computer Associates International Inc. and Hewlett- Packard Co., which also provide asset-management tools that integrate with the systems-management suite.

HP Toptools, for example, integrates with HP's OpenView and third-party products such as Microsoft's SMS. Toptools provides inventory discovery along with features such as device-status monitoring. Toptools can even upgrade your PC BIOS and drivers.

Computer Associates' Asset Management Option is part of its comprehensive Unicenter TNG suite of integrated tools. This option has the advantage of running on a broad range of platforms. Companies choosing the Unicenter TNG suite should definitely consider Asset Management Option.

The third group includes vendors offering asset management as an addition to their help-desk products.

Tally Systems, for example, has an asset-management offering, TS.Asset, and a competent electronic software distribution product. But its flagship product is TS.Census, which is one of the best inventory-discovery tools available. If you adopt the best-of-breed strategy for your department or agency, you might buy TS.Census for discovery and select an asset manager more tailored to your needs.

Another more narrowly targeted product is Axcess Inc.'s ActiveTag Asset Management system, which provides electronic tracking of assets whether they are stationary or in motion — for example, wheelchairs in a health care facility. The product can monitor assets as they move freely through the enterprise while controlling theft and unauthorized use. This solution does not, however, provide the broad management tools of the likes of a full-fledged asset manager.

The array of offerings, in short, is more than broad enough to allow you to select the specific pieces that most closely match the unique characteristics of your IT assets. You'll save money and end up with the strongest overall solution. But some agencies may want the type of fully integrated solution that is only possible with a product provided by a single vendor. If that's the case, you'll want to look most closely at Peregrine's suite.

Making It Happen

Despite the substantial benefits, most organizations do not have a comprehensive asset-management system. The upfront price is a major hurdle because these systems carry major sticker shock. And count on spending even more for the training than for the software.

Any sales pitch to upper management should stress the cost savings expected, which should outweigh the total expected costs over time by a wide margin. But avoid the expectation that asset management will pay for itself in the first year.

In general, start your pitch by stressing the hard-money savings. For example, the system will ensure that the enterprise is not paying for leases it does not need. Then list soft-money savings, such as the fact that substantially less time will be needed to gather inventory information.

Finally, hit on the management benefits. The new system will enable asset and chargeback information to be included in budgets, holding managers responsible for the best use of their assets.

Implementing asset management is a big project. To be successful, it must begin as a management directive from the top. Because many of the benefits are long-term in nature, users and middle managers focused on daily operations may not immediately be aware of the real value of asset management.

Greer is a senior network analyst at a large Texas state agency. He can be reached at Earl.Greer@dhs.state.tx.us

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