Making the most of your IT Assets

The Peel Regional Police force has 800 desktop computers, 41 servers, 160 laptops and 208 printers. Its systems are mostly running Windows 2000, with a bit of Unix and VMS. Mike Stevenson, enterprise administrator for the police force serving Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, Ont., could tell you

more about where those systems are and what software is running on them.

That’s because the Peel Regional Police — Canada’s fourth largest police force — has solid asset management tools and procedures in place. It’s not like that everywhere. Many government organizations have much less knowledge of what hardware and software they have and where it is. Some have software installed for which they could not produce licences if asked; others have licences they are not using. Sometimes nobody knows how many computers there are or where they are located.

“”You’d be surprised how many government organizations are actually paying for things that they don’t have,”” says Wendy Lucas, vice-president of solutions at Mississauga, Ont.-based reseller NexInnovations Inc.

Government is not unique in this. The private sector has the same problems, perhaps even more than the public sector. Especially with recent downsizing brought on by a weak economy, many private companies “”definitely do not have a handle”” on their technology assets, Lucas says.

Compliance issues

But both the public and the private sector have more and more good reasons to address this problem. In the first place, not having current data on software licences is becoming increasingly dangerous as software vendors crack down on the unlicensed use of software — in some cases demanding audits to prove that all software in use has been properly paid for.

“”It’s not just Microsoft, it’s all the vendors out there,”” says Paul Bodnoff, president of AssetMetrix Inc., an Ottawa company that provides a hosted asset-management service.

“”Especially in tougher economic times, they’re motivated and interested in making sure that there customers are accurately licensed.””

But many customers, Bodnoff says, are happy to pay for what they’re using — they just don’t know how to find out what that is.

This was a major impetus for the Peel Regional Police’s decision to implement asset management software from Computer Associates International Inc. about four years ago. “”We realized that we cannot keep track of the legal aspects of all the software,”” Stevenson says.

Concerned about licence compliance but lacking complete information, some organizations overcompensate and pay for more licences than they actually use.

That’s only part of the potential savings. More benefits come in the form of saving staff time.

Research firm IDC has concluded that organizations with good asset management practices save about 15 per cent on IT staffing costs versus those that do not, says Rob Colraine, director of infrastructure deployment at IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto.

For instance, Stevenson says, the Peel force has instant access to information about leased hardware, which would otherwise have to be gathered by going around to every machine to check serial numbers. When budgeting, Stevenson can quickly call up information such as how many servers have processor speeds of less than 300 MHz or which PCs are running applications not compatible with the latest version of Windows.

And when the force buys or leases new hardware, Stevenson says, it can negotiate a better deal from vendors because of its ability to share detailed data about installed machines with the vendor’s support people, saving them time and effort after the sale.

The province of Manitoba put in an asset management system about five years ago as part of the introduction of a “”managed environment”” that depends heavily on outsourcing. The province established standard hardware and software lists and insists that all new installations conform to the standards.

Although the province has automated tools for detecting hardware and software configurations, it also maintains control by making employees go through procedures to add software or move a PC.

Knowing the makes, models and technical specifications of all its PCs saves the province time and money, says Dan Kerr, the province’s chief technology officer. Manitoba, for example, has recently been preparing for an upgrade to the Windows XP operating system.

Centralized management

“”We’ve been able to assess our environment to determine how many computers meet the minimum technical specifications required, which ones could possibly be upgraded without replacement and where they’re located,”” Kerr says.

Unlike most provinces and Ottawa, Manitoba has centralized IT asset management.

That reflects a policy that the government is a single unit for purposes of acquiring technology — which also means software is licensed to the government as a whole, not to individual departments.

“”Our view is that we’re the government of Manitoba and licences are for the government of Manitoba,”” Kerr says.

Though not fully implemented yet, this policy aims to make future reorganization easier by eliminating questions about transferring licences. Kerr says other governments seem interested in moving this way.

Does asset management come more naturally to the public sector?

Public sector ahead on records-keeping aspect

“”One of the things that the government generally does well is they have good record keeping,”” says Jack Heine, vice-president and research director of business management of IT research at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn. Heine says that adds up to an aptitude for good asset management practices that many private-sector organizations lack.

“”In the government they have more process definition,”” adds Allan Andersen, vice-president of marketing for enterprise management at Computer Associates.

While software tools that can detect hardware and software and maintain databases of what’s out there play an important role in asset management, Andersen says, it’s also important to have clear processes for acquiring, disposing of, moving and otherwise rearranging technology. IT people in the private sector tend not to do as good a job of this as their government counterparts, he says.

Because government organizations emphasize policies and procedures more than private companies — where fostering innovation and responding quickly to customer and market needs get more emphasis — the culture is more conducive to following procedures.

But if government organizations’ strengths in asset management come partly from a culture of accountability that promotes careful record keeping and following rules, its weaknesses come from almost the same source.

Heine says governments find it harder to use the knowledge they derive from asset management to cut costs by standardizing on a few suppliers and then pressing them for volume discounts. Pressure from industrial constituents virtually forces governments to spread their buying power around, he maintains.

Also, because government organizations don’t have the profit-oriented culture that private ones have, leveraging asset-management information to drive better deals doesn’t come as naturally, says Heine. And a budgeting system where “”if you don’t spend it today, it evaporates”” makes it harder to refresh technology at the most opportune time.

For instance, he says, desktop prices are very low this fall, and it might be sensible to buy now for next year’s needs, but “”if they haven’t budgeted for that, they cannot take a dip into next year’s budget and buy today.””

It seems, though, that government organizations are thinking harder about getting more bang for their technology bucks than they once did. Heine says the Canadian federal government has shown a strong interest lately in reducing its total cost of technology ownership.

Lucas says public-sector customers for a hosted asset-management service her company provides seem concerned about getting a better handle on information about their technology assets and having more up-to-date information about systems.

One factor behind the interest in asset management, she says, is the wave of consolidations and mergers that have taken place in government — particularly at the municipal level in some provinces such as Ontario — in the past few years. The amalgamation of several municipal governments into one in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, for instance, was supposed to yield cost savings, but governments going through this kind of process must first come to grips with what technology they have in place. This is often a challenge when several organizations have just been combined into one.

Integration is the future

Once they have a basic picture of their technology configurations, Lucas says, many organizations start looking to integrate more data concerning those installations — information about leases, software licences, service contracts, warranties, repair history and the like, and to tie in asset management with other systems.

Stevenson says integrating asset-management data with help desk systems means that when a technician gets a call, he or she can see the exact configuration of the problem PC right away. And integration with software delivery systems means that upgrades are sent only to those desktops that need them rather than being reinstalled on machines already running the latest version.

Kerr foresees integrating asset management with human resources and security applications, so that, for instance, when an employee leaves the organization, it is easy to see what hardware should be collected from that employee and what access privileges need to be turned off.

Though this sort of integration is still a work in progress for most organizations, it reflects an ongoing shift toward not only tracking IT assets, but using that data in more and more ways.

“”They’re looking from birth to death of that asset,”” Lucas says.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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