IThelp

How NIST gained better control over IT management

Government offices and workers are supported by massive IT infrastructures. But managing those IT resources can get to be extensive, to the point where organizations can end up spending their time maintaining the resources instead of focusing on their core missions. In a worst-case scenario, the support technology can become less of a help and more of a hindrance.

Over at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the IT staff was starting to feel the strain of managing the agency’s IT resources, which was complicated by the fact that NIST employees work at labs across the country and require support for  vastly different types of computers and equipment.

NIST had a system in place to handle all requests for IT support, but it was aging and would soon no longer be supported. That gave the Chief of Customer Access and Support for NIST Timothy Halton the opportunity to move the agency’s entire IT support infrastructure from local servers into the cloud while, at the same time, becoming compliant with the Information Technology Infrastructure Library [ITIL] best practices doctrine.

ITIL offers a framework for identifying, planning, delivering and supporting IT services and is widely accepted as the best approach to IT service management.  It is used in thousands of government organizations and private companies worldwide. Its wisdom is currently contained within five core guides that have been refined and simplified over the past 20 years. Most vendors that offer IT management services strive to be ITIL compliant.

Halton wanted NIST to have access to an IT management suite that would make supporting the agency's 5,000 scientists much easier and quicker. Specifically, he wanted a tool that was ITIL compliant and that could handle incident tracking, problem detection, change requests, IT asset management and service request fulfillment. Halton also needed a system that could be configured to NIST's precise needs and one that could display workflows relating to IT management graphically. And it needed to be Section 508 compliant so that disabled users on either end − scientists needing IT support or technicians fixing problems − could easily use it. Finally, Halton wanted to maintain a robust knowledge base to help with future incidents.

That was a pretty tall order, and NIST looked at various solutions before ultimately deciding on ServiceNow to begin implementation. Besides automating enterprise IT management, all of the ServiceNow programs run completely in the cloud, so NIST would be able to eliminate its increasingly cumbersome hardware IT support systems.

ServiceNow offers a variety of services for IT management right out of the box, said Chris Pope, the company’s senior director of product management. "There are 23 preconfigured modules that many organizations can almost plug right in and start using," he said. "They include things like an IT help desk, billing, scripted workflow and the ability to spin up virtual machine modules."

More complex operations, such as the one at NIST, require some tweaking of the programs before they can run fully within an agency framework. Still, Pope described the changes as mostly configuration-based, with no additional programming required most of the time. The contract was awarded in July 2011 and was fully running across the agency by June the following year, a testament to the installation speed of the complex software suite.

ServiceNow screenshots

ServiceNow1

The Business Service Availability tab in ServiceNow's cloud-based IT Management suite can show users at a glance what types of incidents are happening and how long they are taking to fix.

ServiceNow2

The IT Manager Dashboard in ServiceNow's cloud-based IT Management suite shows in real time all the problems that are happening within a network, how serious they are, and how they affect overall operations.

Halton began the training with the 140 staff members who manage most of the IT at NIST. They each took a class to become certified and proficient with both ITIL and the new ServiceNow software. Most people took to the software right away, he said, but some were surprised to learn that the new IT support structure runs completely in the cloud.

"The beauty of the cloud is that everything is running at a facility in Culpepper, Va., but there is a complete backup of everything at another facility in Miami," Halton said. "In an emergency, everything can be switched over in about an hour."

Some IT staff members wanted to know where the data was being served from, though Halton thinks it doesn't really matter. Even so, he is creating a module that will tell technicians which one of the two ServiceNow data centers is actively serving the agency at the time.

Eliminating the local computers from supporting IT management gave Helton’s office one less thing to worry about, he said. For the 5,500 scientists and support staff that Halton's department supports, NIST now pays a seat-license fee and lets ServiceNow manage hardware and software upgrades, patches and redundancy of IT management operations.

And the system is evolving too. Recently, billing capabilities have been added, so that if a user needs new equipment, it can be approved by the finance department, billed to the appropriate group and ordered or installed as a seamless part of IT management.

Going forward, Halton would like to leverage NIST's internal and evolving social networking infrastructure to crowdsource answers to IT-related questions. He is working to marry that component into the new cloud-based IT management programs.

Halton said that even with the huge strides that NIST has taken to streamline IT management, there's still more to do. For example, even under the current system, many parts of the IT management process still require scientists to actually talk with technicians. "How many people do you talk with when you order a book from Amazon?" Halton asks. "Nobody. And I think we can get to that with IT support too."

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