Taking stock of the network

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EQUIPMENT INVENTORY is perhaps a network administrator's most painful task. But it is also necessary if one wants to have any hope of knowing which computers need replacing or whether all operating systems have updated service packs.

In some ways, the problem feeds on itself. An administrator often must spend too much time fixing problems and attending to emergencies to make a full and comprehensive inventory. The situation can worsen when the network administrator position changes hands.

When you take over as the new administrator, the first thing you should do ' after putting out the fires ' is get a handle on what systems and equipment are in place. The previous administrator likely had little time to devote to that task, so there might not be much to work with. Generating inventory data from scratch is often easier than trying to decipher the last administrator's notes. As a result, you also might not have time to attend to it properly. So the person who replaces you down the road will have even less to go on than you did, and the cycle of pain will continue.

BDNA Insight 4.1 from BDNA can break this cycle. It vastly reduces the legwork in the inventory process by gathering data directly from information technology devices throughout the network, which lets administrators concentrate on managing the network.

Insight's setup is easy. It installs on any server running Red Hat Enterprise Linux or Windows Server 2003, and a wizard helps set the IP range of the network and other basic parameters.

The administration interface is accessible from any computer on the network via a Web-based interface. When first installed and run, Insight uses BDNA's proprietary technology to create a Fact- Base for the network. Fact- Base is the central element that makes possible all the things that Insight can show you. It does this without installing agents on any client devices or needing administrator access to sensitive computer systems.

After Insight finds and identifies everything, you can view your inventory in a variety of ways. We were pleased that we could look at operating systems, applications and databases in addition to printers and other network equipment. Each list is grouped by subtype, and there are tabs for each major grouping. When you click on a tab or list header, the charts show the subtypes of the next level.

That flexibility helps ensure that every computer is up-to-date and compliant with your organizational policy. It could also allow an administrator to more easily track the progress of a data center migration.

Insight can help you balance the network's load by identifying systems that are over- or underutilized.

The information BDNA Insight gathers on application software is organized according to the BDNA Catalog, a compilation of up-to-date information about popular software. This catalog includes support and warranty data in addition to information about the program manufacturers. BDNA Catalog remains up-to-date by regularly checking the company's database, much like the familiar Windows Update process.

Because of legal concerns, maintaining licensing information for all of a network's applications can be a time-consuming burden for administrators. Insight also makes this easier by showing you the number of software installations.

With nonadministrator user access, which can be provided through Active Directory, Insight can gather more detailed information about each computer. The CPU, its memory capacity and some serial numbers are shown in the reports' windows. That information lets you track when upgrades are necessary and keep vital insurance information in one place.

Insight can pull usage information for certain applications with a user account. It can show how many people were using the application at a specific time and how much of their computers' resources the application occupied. That is handy information when deciding whether to eliminate concurrent-use licenses to save money.

The recent popularity of virtualization can considerably complicate inventory maintenance even as it simplifies other areas. The ease with which an administrator can deploy and replicate instances of a virtual application makes keeping track of software and licenses more difficult. BDNA Insight can handle the challenge. It requires no software agents, so Insight can track license usage and provide Virtualization Maps that let you see what applications are in use and where. Insight lets a network administrator benefit from virtualization's strengths without worrying about its weaknesses.

This month, BDNA plans to offer a new version of Insight with a number of new features to make inventory gathering easier and more thorough. Version 5.0 will give you a better picture of your inventory as time progresses. It will let you compare aspects of different scans so, for example, you could quantify which upgrades were performed between two fiscal quarters or measure adoption rates of new platforms or standards. Organizations that have already purchased Insight 4.1 will be eligible for a free upgrade to 5.0.

Insight's cost depends on the number of full-time equivalents BDNA determines your network contains. An FTE is essentially an employee who works full-time, since the number of people in the organization is roughly proportional to the size of the network. Government pricing for BDNA Insight licenses starts at $65 apiece for fewer than 10,000 total FTEs. The unit price drops as the size of a network increases. That is a slightly more expensive initial investment than we would have hoped for. However, because the licenses are perpetual and include the first year of technical support, the investment could pay off over time.

BDNA also offers FastInsight, a two-week, fixed-price installation that will give you one complete inventory snapshot. Although the price of $45,000 for networks as large as 30,000 FTEs might seem like an attractive short-term solution, we believe the perpetual licensing plan is the way to go.

BDNA Insight is just what any network administrator needs to get a handle on the organization's IT inventory. If your budget can accommodate the initial expense, you will get good use out of this package for years to come.

BDNA, (202) 625-8375, www.bdna.com

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