Asset Management Grows Up

Asset management systems have grown up, offering better auto-discovery and advanced software tracking. Now's the time to seize the initiative and garner a fistful of savings!

September 24, 2004

8 Min Read
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As for product cost, we believe our Editor's Choice, LANDesk's Asset Manager, is worth every cent (see "Finders Keepers,"), and we expect pricing to get more attractive across the board. That's because the asset-management market is highly competitive. Discounts are plentiful and, as more small organizations consider employing the software to rein in IT costs, vendors are changing their products to meet user requirements. Some small, nimbler asset-management upstarts have amazingly good offerings that can run with the big dogs, while established vendors have revamped their suites to be more user-friendly and focus more tightly on their customers' organizational structures.

Moreover, it's relatively painless to switch between products, for those displeased with their current methods. We suspect this is a sizeable group--in our poll, only 19 percent cited product quality as a reason for staying with your current asset-management strategy.

The Nitty Gritty

The asset-management market has settled on a single deployment methodology: The software can autodiscover everything, but only those computers and devices on which you deploy agents are considered "managed." The good news is that managed devices have a lot more functionality within most asset-management systems. The bad news is that many key IT assets, including printers, routers and switches, cannot run agents. In addition, Linux support is still lagging because of its intrinsic protections--how do you remotely and automatically update an OS that isn't normally configured with nonadministrator accounts having superuser access, yet requires superuser rights to change system files? Furthermore, you'll be introducing an agent to stable production systems, never a move to be undertaken lightly.

On the plus side, all the vendors we talked with charge only for devices under management. The more machines with agents, the more information you'll have--and the more it'll cost you. Of course, you get what you pay for. If you simply want an accurate device count, you can do that without deploying agents to all your systems. But if you want to know when hardware changes or software is installed or uninstalled, you'll have to suck it up and deploy agents across the board.

Having done our time in the enterprise, we weren't surprised by one particular poll finding: The biggest gripe about asset-management implementations is the grunt work required to keep them up to date. So bear with us as we state what should be obvious: No asset-management system, no matter how slick or powerful, exists in a vacuum. It's vital that you have a plan for what happens after the glow of implementation has faded. If, for example, you've set out on a document-management project and were rudely awakened to the fact that day-to-day processes had to be put in place to keep new documents flowing in, you have an inkling of the planning required for successful asset management. Here are some questions to keep in mind:

  • When will new systems be entered into the asset database?

  • How will you track missing equipment or machines that need replacing?

  • Do you want software policies to be enforced automatically by the asset-management system? Or do you simply want notifications? A third alternative is to have a desktop-management package handle distribution and policy enforcement; your asset-management package would just note changes in hardware and software deployed.

  • How often and by what mechanism will you update your accounting systems?

The packages we tested can make these critical decisions easier, but you must plan and follow through.

One helpful planning tool may come in the form of the IT Infrastructure Library (see In the coming months, asset-management vendors will be talking up ITIL. Some of the discussion will be marketspeak, but some you should pay attention to.

ITIL, defined as a set of best practices for helpdesk, application delivery, trouble ticketing and the like, aims to help IT organizations manage, measure and control end-user services. But remember that though your vendor can support ITIL, it cannot give you an ITIL "solution." Rather, your staff must have guidelines and be committed to asset management long term for it to deliver a true ROI. ITIL is the place to find these best practices and guidelines. Asset-management software will, at best, make it easier for you to implement ITIL.

The Asset-Management Rewards

Can you say, off the top of your head, what the total depreciation is for your IT organization this year? How many licenses do you have for a particular piece of software? How many copies of that software are deployed? Do you have a record of which machines are having persistent problems that could be addressed before they require system replacement? While some vendors put the thumb on you to buy their helpdesk systems on top of asset management to answer this last question, tracking can be done in most enterprise-class packages even if your helpdesk software is from a different vendor. Some asset-management vendors have even created interfaces to helpdesk systems, or they sell asset management bundled with helpdesk software, letting you track what departments have a lot of high-cost equipment and how much time IT spends working on those systems.

Can you automatically detect when someone plugs a new machine into the network? Can you inventory it for hardware and software automatically after detection? You can if you have asset management. If you're overlicensed for a pricey application by 200 copies, the cost of your asset-management package could be recovered within weeks of implementation. And if you know how many licenses you have for a piece of software, all the packages we tested will generate a report telling you how many copies are deployed. Most also will discover how often they're used. Eliminating underutilized apps can save a significant amount of money.

Finally, because asset-management suites let you monitor what software is installed on managed machines, if you have a corporate policy against games or certain image types, you can find those files on hard disks. Some vendors will let you delete them automatically, while others think that managers should make that decision.

The only tricky part of the configuration process is autodiscovery. The better systems do TCP footprinting or something similar to determine what types of machines are out there. They do a good job but are bandwidth-intensive or too slow. Some vendors will let you pull information from your directories, but this process is problematic. We needed several attempts to connect to directory servers not on the same subnet as the asset-management server. And it's a rare organization that maintains all of its assets in ADS.

Overall, we'd like to see autodiscovery grow up as much in the next five years as it has in the last five. Today, you can get a list of machines, their OSs and devices from the network without installing agents-- good for inventorying what you have, but we want more. We want to discover automatically ADS and LDAP servers across subnets, connect to them with connection information we supply and match TCP ping response data directly with our directory data. Perhaps one day. For now, we have to work to get this information into the system, but barring mergers and acquisitions, it's a one-time cost, and it's much cheaper today than it was five years ago--at least you don't need to enter each system by hand.

Don MacVittie is a technology editor at Network Computing. Previously he worked at WPS Resources as an application engineer. Write to him at [email protected].

If you've been putting off implementing an asset-management system, it's time to pony up. Advances in technology and the stabilization of autodiscovery mechanisms mean today's suites accommodate the requirements of real enterprises. These systems let you inventory, allocate and manage network hardware and software. And you can find savings by keeping a tight rein on software licenses, leases and end-of-life status. Of course, you'll need a plan for getting started and the willingness to invest the ongoing effort needed to keep the system up to date; the IT Infrastructure Library can help you define policies, but this is not a set-it-and-forget-it project.

When defining our test plan (see "Finders Keepers,"), we took a cue from our reader poll and focused on getting data into and out of the system easily, asset-centric reporting, software and hardware tracking, and complementary packages. These apps include those for network and systems management, desktop management and helpdesk (or "service desk," as many vendors are starting to call it). We tested asset-management suites from Altiris, Computer Associates, LANDesk Software, ManageSoft Corp., NetSimplicity and NetSupport. Functionality varied almost as much as price, with lower-ranking products turning up their noses at discovering non-Windows systems.

In the end, LANDesk's Asset Manager took our Editor's Choice award by acing our autodetection and hardware resource-management tests. Bonus: It costs less than half of its closest rivals. The products from Altiris and CA were worthy adversaries, however. Altiris Asset Management Suite turned in consistently high marks and integrates well with other Altiris products. CA's Unicenter Asset Management was nearly on par with LANDesk in overall autodetection but lagged in ease of use; shops familiar with Unicenter, however, will find it to be perfectly functional.'

Asset-management companies, like many IT vendors, are using the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to sell products. The rationale is that tracking what's on your network is a form of change management. Maybe, but that's not the change management SOX covers. SOX regulators want to know who changes data in your databases and who changes systems that change data in your databases. Who installed a new router? Not a SOX issue. That's why we're glad 72 percent of respondents to our reader poll said SOX would have no impact on their asset-management plans. That's music to our ears because the sooner companies sort through what is a compliance issue and what's not, the sooner we in IT can determine what we must do for Sarbanes-Oxley compliance. We hope the vendor hype and FUD will die down soon thereafter.

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