Asset Management Systems

We tested six asset management systems to see which one managed both hardware and software resources most effectively. Our Editor's pick won for its superior auto-discovery and great price.

September 24, 2004

17 Min Read
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All Grown Up

The products we tested illustrate how much asset management has matured over the past several years and opened our eyes to the amount of convergence occurring in the service-desk market, which includes network and systems management, helpdesk, asset management and desktop management. Most of the products we tested support all of the above in one form or another. Although we limited our grading criteria to asset management (see Report Card, below), we highlight a product's other functionality if it's a benefit to IT.

According to our poll, one of our key criteria, autodiscovery, is--not surprisingly--near and dear to your hearts as well. The more information a system finds on its own, the fewer hours you'll spend hand-entering data. To be sporting, we warned vendors that we have a diverse network, and grading would be based on how much of it they could find and identify (for a look at the lab setup, see "How We Tested Asset Management,").

LANDesk Asset Manager did the best autodiscovery job, with only our SAN remaining incognito after the first pass. The product supports SNMP detection, and using SNMP and a second discovery run, we found most of the equipment comprising our SAN. LANDesk also offers slick "zero footprint" detection that let us inventory a machine as completely as its agent would--without putting an agent on the box. For merger-and-acquisition due diligence, for example, this feature could be astoundingly valuable. CA's Unicenter Asset Management countered with a special "Detect My SAN" function within its autodiscovery subsystem that did a decent job of ferreting out our equipment; it couldn't detect iSCSI cards, but our Adaptec SANBlock and Network Storage Systems' NAS were both identified correctly.

Vendors at a Glance Click to Enlarge

Altiris Asset Management also did a good job of autodetecting equipment on our network but was more touchy than LANDesk or Unicenter about our network configuration--it did not like our setup, which limits communication between ADS (Active Directory Services) boxes on our three subnets. ManageSoft showed poorly in autodiscovery, requiring a separate distribution server on each subnet to correctly identify its machines. ManageSoft also uses ADS for discovery, limiting its usefulness in heterogeneous environments. NetSimplicity didn't, sadly, offer network detection simplicity, importing network data from Windows Domains only. Likewise, NetSupport autodetects only Windows machines--rather limiting in a network environment hosting many assets--including routers, switches, hubs and appliances--not running commercial OSs.

The quality of the data imported varied wildly. The top-end products we tested--LANDesk, Unicenter, Altiris and, to a lesser extent, ManageSoft--provided ample information about our machines and their components. The lower end came off as more secretive than the Lone Gunmen--some provide so little data that we guarantee you'll be entering some manually.

As for bulk imports of network data from other repositories, CA's product wowed us with its special add-on ETL (extract, transform and load) tool that let us massage existing data to make it fit neatly into the Unicenter model. Because this product is not part of the core system, we did not consider it in our scoring, but even the offer of such a tool puts Unicenter ahead of the competition. Most other products allowed data import, but when pressed, these import mechanisms devolve to just the machine-name.

Getting data into the system has been a stumbling block for years. With that issue mostly resolved through import and autodiscovery, the new hurdle is getting enough actionable information out of the asset-management system to warrant the expense. This is where ManageSoft shined. With hundreds of canned reports and a "CIO Dashboard" providing quick-reference information for top-level managers, it stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the competition. CA's Unicenter squeaked ahead of ManageSoft in this area thanks to two very nice reports, Instant ROI and Instant TCO, that we found right on the start-up page. Instant TCO lets you calculate systems costs, and Instant ROI helps you begin tracking software licenses almost immediately. LANDesk is no slouch in the reporting department either; its canned reports are solid and will help you bring your hardware and software costs under control.

NetSimplicity's visual "floor plan" of assets is appealing, but its reporting functionality is lacking for a purportedly enterprise-class application. Altiris Asset Management has the most common-sense reporting of all the systems we tested, and though it might take a little longer to configure the suite because of the added functionality, the payoff is easily generated custom reports.

Speaking of reporting, IT pros appreciate it when vendors realize we have some needs that are not wrapped up in ROI and TCO. Most of the products we tested offer a bevy of pregenerated reports that show things like "machines needing more memory" and "machines underutilizing disk space."

Finally, many of the vendors told us that the majority of their customers ask for consulting services for custom reports. That's something to consider when budgeting for asset management.

Asset-management vendors have it tough dealing with security and rights management. The asset-management system requires rights to every machine it's going to manage to look at performance information, to query the registry and to get info on every file in the system. Although other products in the service-desk area also stumble over rights, few of them touch as many machines as asset-management products--all your desktops and servers are potential targets for agents, and if you're serious about software asset management, even more boxes will crowd into the crosshairs.

Do you work off of a directory? If so, which one? Where does the system get rights to log in to each machine that requires an agent? How do you deploy agents to Unix and Linux boxes that normally have installation reserved for a few users--especially when, if you have a good security policy, those users can't log in remotely? Some vendors obviated these issues by limiting you to Microsoft domain controllers--PDC (Primary Domain Controller) or ADS--and by not supporting agents on non-Windows platforms. Others maintain their own security, with shell scripts that we downloaded from a Web page and used to install the agent manually. Neither is a perfect solution, but at least vendors addressed the problem rather than leaving our network flapping in the wind.

In this department, LANDesk took the lead because it offers the broadest directory support--both PDC and LDAP (ADS support is through LDAP)--and maintains its own security. CA and Altiris ran a close second on directory support, while the others locked us down to Windows directories. For internal security--who can see what reports, and who can force changes on a desktop--LANDesk is probably sufficient for most enterprises; it handles this through Windows Groups. But the products from CA and Altiris let us maintain this information separate from any particular OS vendor, giving them the advantage.

For lease- and end-of-life management, we did not see the level of support we had hoped for. Ideally, a checklist, for example, could be established to tell your staff what must be done right before a lease expires, and then a policy could be made to create trouble tickets for associated helpdesk applications. Unfortunately, none of the products tested have this functionality built in.

NetSupport and Altiris do have prebuilt reports to show pending lease expirations. ManageSoft has no built-in reports around lease end, but does let you customize reports, so you could build one. To our surprise, NetSimplicity required Microsoft Access for reporting. We did not feel requiring MS-Access was an enterprise-class idea, and our testing proved us correct. The reporting engine for Visual Asset Manager was the most clunky of all the products we reviewed, and the reports were extremely limited in scope.

And the Winner Is ...

Our Editor's Choice award goes to LANDesk's Asset Manager, which earned perfect scores in autodetection and hardware resource management. Altiris and CA held their own, featurewise, against our leader but were hampered by higher prices. Any of the three will ably support enterprise-level heterogeneous management of IT assets.

If you're shopping for an affordable, Windows-only suite focused on software asset management, NetSimplicity or NetSupport might fill the bill, though they didn't fill ours. Although NetSimplicity's price is sweet, be aware of what you're not getting. Speaking of cost, note that all prices are list, as tested, and reflect our scenario of 10,000 nodes across three subnets. All vendors except NetSimplicity offer volume discounts, so, as always, negotiate.

LANDesk offers stellar reporting and control, plus integration with several other packages, all behind an intuitive interface that will let you handily manage both hardware and software assets. If your network is complex and you need to keep a tight grip on all of it, this is your best bet.

LANDesk's solid system builds on the company's long history of providing autodetection and desktop management. Overall, LANDesk Asset Manager worked more reliably and detected our assets more consistently than its rivals did. Big wins include its ability to pull information from both LDAP and ADS identity pools; exhaustive autodetection, including SNMP support; and a cohesive overall view. It's easy to add in LANDesk's helpdesk, desktop-management and imaging systems, and with each, the power of the central repository grows. Unique to LANDesk Asset Manager is the "zero footprint" inventory of all hardware and software assets in your enterprise ... or in an organization you're considering acquiring.

LANDesk's tenacious autodiscovery is the best in the pack. It scanned our network in many different ways--LDAP, ADS, SNMP and TCP--and then performed "IP fingerprinting" on machines that we didn't recognize. We found that most unrecognized nodes were routers, switches and hubs, but if you're tracking down a lost machine, this functionality could come in very handy. LANDesk can't tell you where the machine is, but it can give you enough information to positively determine whether it's on the network.

LANDesk Asset Manager 8, $280,000 to $310,000 (as tested). LANDesk Software, (800) 982-2130, (801) 208-1500. www.landesk.com

Altiris' Asset Management Suite uses an object-oriented approach that requires more setup time than the other products we tested, but it's worth it. Like LANDesk and Unicenter, this package integrates with many other suites, primarily those for helpdesk, imaging and desktop management. We had some problems associating equipment to non-OS resources--such as a hard disk with a SAN box or a network card with an appliance--and Altiris submitted bug reports to resolve these problems while we were testing. Overall, if you're familiar with Altiris products and your network environment is not terribly complex, Asset Management Suite will serve you well.

The suite's autodetection capabilities were not on par with rivals. For example, we hit some problems when querying domain controllers on different subnets--even with provably correct credentials we received authentication errors, and we couldn't autodiscover anything not in the domain. But Asset Management Suite's modularity and its quick online software updates are pluses.

Altiris Asset Management Suite 6.0, $460,000. Altiris, (888) 252-5551, (801) 226-8500. www.altiris.com

With Unicenter Asset Management, CA has assembled a comprehensive package, with just a few gotchas along the way. We hoped to include CA's Argis Asset Manager in our tests along with Unicenter, but we couldn't get the product into our labs in time. Still, even though Argis offers tracking and financial reporting, Unicenter provides enough reporting and integration with other CA products that it stands alone very well. The end-of-lease and end-of-life scores are based solely on Unicenter's functionality, lowering its overall score by a small amount. We suggest checking out Argis, which is included in the Unicenter price.

Unicenter's autodetection and agent deployment features are competitive with LANDesk's across the board, and in some areas even came out on top. Unicenter automatically detected our SAN and offers MIB management for SNMP autodetection, using a simple interface. Unicenter has a wealth of prebuilt reports, and CA also offers many other suites--including helpdesk, desktop management, and network and systems management--that can be integrated through the Unicenter common interface. If you choose this product, you won't be disappointed, though we strongly recommend negotiating price; CA offers volume discounts. Also note that the price CA quoted us for Unicenter Asset Management includes Argis Asset Manager--this is a CA pricing fluke that actually makes it less expensive to purchase both products.

Unicenter Asset Management 4.0 SP1, $550,000 (includes Argis). Computer Associates International, (888) 423-1000, (631) 342-6000. www.ca.com

DNA was something of an enigma at first, blending a bit of autodetection/import, a dash of reporting and a pinch of asset association. The product's simplicity is alluring: We got just what we needed for asset management, and its integrated helpdesk offers some bang for the buck.

DNA's autodiscovery and bulk-import capabilities are middle-of-the-road, with IP scans and PDC/ADS import supported. The graphical interface is nice, but we'd like more drill-down capabilities--show us a list of all the machines that have too little memory, for example. Application metering and software inventory are DNA's strong points, though they're limited to Windows. DNA does offer a "Lease Agreement Expiration" function that shows leases coming due in an admin-defined number of days.

Windows shops that want no-frills asset management likely will be pleased with NetSupport. If you have in-depth reporting and discovery needs or non-Windows servers to manage, however, look elsewhere.

NetSupport DNA 1.01, $225,800; annual maintenance 20 percent. NetSupport Group, (888) 665-0808, (770) 205-4456. www.netsupport-inc.com

ManageSoft has some of the best reporting capabilities of the systems we tested, and reporting is a key ingredient of asset management. However, ManageSoft's autodetection leaves much to be desired, and if you can't get your asset information into the product, reports do you little good.

ManageSoft's poor showing in the autodetection department stems from its PDC requirement; it works with ADS as if ADS were a PDC, but if you have a Novell domain or any other LDAP identity server, you're out of luck. In addition, we had to place a "distribution server" on each PDC's domain--this requirement represents time and money that we didn't have to invest with the other products.

We were pleased with ManageSoft's ability to manage our IT assets after they were in the system; its choice of OLAP Cubes for reporting and an investment in canned reports made it feel more complete than the other products from a reporting perspective. If you understand OLAP Cubes and can grok the data model, you can write your own reports right in ManageSoft's reporting tool. Although the product doesn't have built-in support for end-of-lease reporting, you can run queries against the Cubes and develop one. And ManageSoft's "CIO Dashboard" is one sweet piece of reporting that competitors could learn from. This interface gave us an overall view of our world, and let us drill down to the gritty details of systems.

If you're in a Microsoft-centric shop with few domain controllers, ManageSoft probably will make you happy. Heck, if you don't mind maintaining the extra distribution servers on each subnet, even multi-domain shops should be pleased, if they can finagle pricing down to a reasonable level.

ManageSoft 7.2, $450,000. ManageSoft Corp., (800) 441-4330, (617) 532-1600. www.managesoft.com

We were struck by VAM's graphical interface. It was cool to locate a system on a floor plan, click on it and have immediate access to product info, complete with links to related items and issues. This feature is not enough to overcome the product's weaknesses, but it is unique, and we were duly impressed.

NetSimplicity targets the lower-end market, as evidenced by its very low price, but VAM has serious shortcomings that limit its worth in the enterprise. Although we're certain some of you have Microsoft Access in your data center, most organizations don't. ADS-only importing also curtails the product's usefulness--if you have to enter everything not part of your ADS system manually, your costs are raisedsignificantly before you get any benefit. Of course, if you feel you can enter data more cheaply than paying for the competition and don't mind installing Access on a data center server, VAM might be the choice for you.

VAM is delivered only over a download, but its installation was as smooth as any of its competitors, so that shouldn't matter much. It was, however, limited in its ability to detect our melting pot of a network; we could add assets that were not detected, but that would have been about 25 percent of our equipment! We also experienced some confusion when we accidentally imported the entire ADS tree--users and all--twice, and VAM let us do so with no warning message.

Our attempts to test reporting functionality were also frustrated by this product's requirement that we have a printer installed. Our test machines always start out with fresh installs of the OS, but we went along and added a printer ... then were floored by the requisite that Access be installed--not a reasonable requirement for an enterprise-class server-based system, but still we persevered.

We found VAM's reporting functionality definitely subpar; the system spawned a copy of Access for each of the product's limited canned reports we ran. While VAM provides enough basic reports that the system is usable, this is definitely the product's weak link.

Visual Asset Manager 2004, $2,495. NetSimplicity, a Division of Forgent Networks, (866) 248-0480, (512) 437-2700. www.netsimplicity.com

Don MacVittie is a technology editor at Network Computing. Previously he worked at WPS Resources as an application engineer. 

We brought six asset-management suites into our Green Bay Real-World Labs® to test. We installed each product on an Intel-based white box with two 2-GHz processors and 512 MB of RAM. These 1U servers also have 10/100 and Gigabit Ethernet network connections.

Our shop is divided into three distinct networks: one for our NWC Inc. business applications lab and two for general testing and client deployment. We installed the products on one of the general testing segments and required that each autodiscover devices on all three networks.

Because our business applications lab is a production environment, we set aside a single testing PC on that network for an agent. This maintained the stability of the production network while letting us test the products' ability to install agents onto remote devices.

Our cross-network testing let us gather information from machines with agents deployed on these remote networks. To ensure that the system under test was comprehensive enough to inventory and control enterprise IT assets, we tested each product's ability to discover and inventory not just desktops and servers, but any device on the network. After autodetection, we looked through the results to ensure that each system found our switches, routers and wireless APs from a variety of vendors, including Cisco Systems, Allied Telesyn and Extreme Networks, with the bulk from Cisco. We also checked each system's ability to autodetect a SAN or NAS and the devices behind it. As expected, the best products detected everything; the worst pulled from a PDC and just validated those results.

For repository and reporting purposes, we gave each product its own copy of SQL Server 2000, though a couple didn't need it. We also used Netscape 7.0 and Microsoft IE 6.0 to ensure that the products offering Web interfaces supported more than a single browser. Not surprisingly, some didn't.

The convergence of asset management with network and systems management and helpdesk systems should consolidate the market within a few years. An example is Remedy Software's purchase of Marimba Software--just one of many mergers on the horizon that will strengthen the market and give you one less vendor to deal with. Think about it: Pure-play asset-management vendors require solid autodiscovery to be cost-effective, and autodiscovery vendors have an excellent technology in need of a purpose. Integrating helpdesk systems into asset management provides real-time systems tracking while letting you accurately pinpoint which departments are black holes for IT staff time.

 

 

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