The business of IT intelligence

Asset management software helps lay the foundation for enterprise architecture

Intelligence is an imperfect science. Just ask the CIA or the 9/11 Commission.

Or ask EDS Corp., the contractor trying to wrangle thousands of legacy systems into the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet. When EDS first started work, the Navy thought it had around 5,000 legacy applications to integrate. But EDS found more than 100,000.

As enterprise architecture and consolidation become government IT priorities, IT departments often don't know exactly what systems they're running, how they're configured, what applications they deliver or what services they support.

Sorting it out

'We firmly believe that you can't properly support what you don't know,' said General Services Administration spokesperson Mary Alice Johnson. 'Without taking the time to develop a system to discover and maintain an accurate inventory of assets, you don't know the breadth and depth of skills required to support the assets comprising your infrastructure.'

Establishing such an asset management system delivers real return on investment. Analyst Forrester Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., says organizations can save 15 to 30 percent on software licenses, and Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., says that systematically managing IT asset lifecycles can cut costs by 5 percent to 30 percent annually.

As IT infrastructures grow in complexity, so does the need to manage IT assets.

'IT asset management will become increasingly important as we plan to transition to [Internet Protocol Version 6], move to optimize infrastructures and incorporate new technologies, for example, in response to [Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12],' said Richard Burk, chief architect for the Office of Management and Budget.

And as Burk points out, one can never expect to achieve compliance with Federal Enterprise Architecture if one doesn't fully know the existing architecture.

Like other areas of enterprise management, asset management is a broad topic and what, exactly, an asset management platform includes varies from one vendor to another. At its broadest, it can include everything from specifying a piece of equipment for purchase through its disposal at the end of its useful life.

New focus

'Classic asset management focused historically on the procurement process, overhead and maintenance,' said Dennis Drogseth, vice president of Enterprise Management Associates in Portsmouth, N.H. 'But in reality, you need to understand that assets include the full infrastructure, services you are paying for, and applications you purchase or develop.'

Early asset management software and procedures typically took an asset-centric view, providing an overview of all the items that go into managing an asset, including procurement, configuration, deployment, maintenance, contract and license management, and support.

The process starts by finding out what the enterprise owns. At its simplest, this can entail merely keeping a spreadsheet listing all the assets.

While that may work for smaller organizations, today's asset management software includes the capability of auto-discovering all the hardware and software assets in a system, as well as their performance characteristics.

This ensures that managers have accurate, current information for guiding their operations. But knowing what is there is just the start.

'Anybody can document assets,' Johnson said. 'The challenge is to maintain it over time.'

What's included

IT asset management software should, therefore, also include usage and performance monitoring, remote configuration, software license management and patch management.

Recently, asset management software has evolved from handling resources to focusing on underlying services, something BMC Software Inc. of Houston and others refer to as business service management. Instead of looking at, for example, all the servers in a data center, the software auto-discovers which servers, applications, storage and network connections are used to deliver a particular service, such as e-mail. (For more on BSM, see GCN, Oct. 10.) But this is not an overnight change.

'We all like to believe that trends happen in two weeks,' said Drogseth, 'but in this market, all meaningful trends take three to 10 years.'

Nevertheless, organizations are moving in that direction.

'We are just beginning to employ the asset inventory module of our service management solution for our portion of the agency's infrastructure,' said GSA's Johnson. 'There are some program offices using this technology more than others. We envision moving to a standard enterprisewide solution.'

Evolving challenge

Another challenge in the evolution of IT asset management has been the fracturing of management responsibilities.

'People have been working in fragmented silos, defining their own policies and procedures,' Drogseth said. 'But you can have 10 brilliant engineers working on their private policies and destroy the infrastructure.'

Coupled with this has been a proliferation of tools, often from different vendors, to store, analyze and visualize data within an organization.

Each tool may be valuable in its own right and meet the narrow needs of the person who installed it, but they don't talk to each other or provide an overall view of what is happening.

'What you have created is a handgun situation: You are arming one professional to shoot another with his tool,' Drogseth said. 'You have 2,001 agents collecting data, conflicting data stores and conflicting views of the world, which is an expensive, redundant way to work.'

IT management vendors have been getting better in this area, led by Computer Associates International Inc., which several years ago mandated that all its tools speak to each other.

But from the process standpoint, adoption of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library best practices, together with the shift to service-centric asset management, opens the opportunity for actually bringing all assets into a common management structure.

ITIL calls for organizations to create something called a Configuration Management Database to provide a common data source used by all staff.

'The CMDB is a consistent trusted source of information so that all these professionals are accessing a consistent set of data,' Drogseth said. 'It is a collaborative resource so people are not viewing the world in separate ways.'

The ITIL doesn't specify any particular architecture for the CMDB but just describes its functionality and lets vendors or organizations create their own designs. Dozens of vendors have incorporateded versions of a CMDB into their products. A CMDB is not an end in itself'rather, it enables other IT functions to achieve their purposes.

'CMDB is an enabler for a lot more than asset management,' said Drogseth. 'It reshapes everything from service management to change management to capacity planning to problem resolution.'

But IT asset management is a good place to begin using a CMDB. It's less time-consuming and complex to set up the data stores based on relatively stable assets than it is to capture and analyze the constantly changing performance characteristics of information technology.

Asset management tools have evolved in different ways. Platforms from Computer Associates and Hewlett-Packard Co. grew out of their overall management frameworks. Others are extensions of help desk or telecom software.

Given the dozens of asset management solutions on the market, the problem is determining which best suits one's own needs.

'Agencies should look for one that is customizable/extensible, handles multiple asset types, has reporting capability, integrates with'or is a module to'a service management solution, has a discovery capability and embraces ITIL principles,' Johnson said.

What to look for

That's quite a shopping list, but all the features don't need to be implemented at once. There are simple, low-cost products requiring a fair amount of manual input, as well as ones that are quite expensive and complex but automate the management process.

Buying one that is too simple will hamper developing enterprise standards, while buying more than you need right now can tie up staff in implementing the asset management software and learning how to use it, rather than delivering value to the organization.

'Agencies need to understand what their needs are and select a product that matches their size and the evolution of the IT organization,' Drogseth said. 'They need to make an investment that will enable them to grow but also fits where they are today.'

Establishing a full CMDB and an effective asset management infrastructure is a multiyear project. Not only do the organization's culture and procedures need to evolve, but so do the tools.

But starting down that road now will deliver real, measurable benefits in reduced workload, better asset utilization, lower costs and improved asset utilization'the utopia of enterprise architecture.

'The reality is [that] the infrastructure is not an academic exercise, it is an organism,' Drogseth said. 'The network affects the applications, servers affect the applications, and you need to manage that continuum consistently and fluidly in all its interdependencies.'

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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