Don't send your money down the, well, you know. Asset management tools can save dollars wasted by expiring leases and redundant licenses, but they can also team up with network management and security tools for the ultimate in control.
Are you looking for more dollars for new technology purchases and initiatives? Like many campus administrators, you might be surprised to learn that your previous technology investments could be hoarding your cash. In fact, one oft-overlooked (and yes, decidedly unsexy) aspect of IT management on your campus can have a sizable impact on your tech budget: IT asset management.
Why Track and Manage?
In short, IT asset management means effectively using software tools to help you keep track of not just what hardware and software you have running, but much more: when you purchased each machine; what processor each is running; who installed what on them, and when; how heavily they’re being used; and when and how they will be (or have been) retired. And since many of your campus IT assets probably are not computers yet still fall under your province, you can add that same level of management need to audiovisual equipment, digital cameras, lab tools, and anything else you should be tracking.
One way that such tools can save you money right away is by helping you monitor license usage more efficiently. That means tracking which software products are being heavily used, and which aren’t being used at all. License monitoring is one place where you can expect a quick return for your effort. (Perhaps you can transfer some of those 100 licenses purchased for a photo-editing program for one department, to another department that’s been asking for the same program? What about the usage of that obscure lab reporting software purchased at the behest of an instructor—is anyone actually using it?) IT asset management programs can also help you assess whether you’re renewing software licenses in a timely manner. Other savings lie in determining when hardware warranties are due to expire, for better replacement planning. Or, perhaps you want to keep track of how a particular machine has held up, and under what sort of use. Such information can help you determine whether to buy more of the same. Disposing of old hardware can be an asset-tracking nightmare by itself: For security reasons, you want to make sure hard disks are scrubbed of sensitive data, for example, and monitors are disposed of in an environmentally correct manner.
IT asset management software can assist you with all of that, and although it’s been thoroughly exploited by savvy corporate CIOs, it’s still something of a new concept on higher education campuses (see box below, "The Value of Full Lifecycle Asset Management.”) Importantly, asset management tools can also assist with a whole constellation of other issues, ranging from chores that used to be performed solely by network management tools, to functions traditionally found in security products.
And remote control options in a number of systems can allow administrators to monitor systems (and fixes) remotely, from a central location—an indisputable way to save staff time and money, and cut down on classroom outage time. Today, a number of companies in varying technology sectors make tools that offer indispensable IT asset management functionality; they just approach it from different angles. The challenge is to assess need, sort through the various products and categories (see box, "Wealth of Overlapping Solutions,” below), and determine which will work best for your situation and management needs.
The Value of Full Lifecycle Asset Management www.sunflowersystems.com). Sunflower’s customer list includes a number of large government clients (including areas of the Departments of Justice and Education), and the University of California system.
Stanford University (CA), for one, implemented Sunflower 18 months ago, as part of a much larger campus overhaul of its financial management systems. The school is using the inventory asset management module (Sunflower Assets 3.7.1), and agreement assets module, among others, and is in the process of implementing the IT management module. Departments are required to use the capital equipment modules, but use of the IT module is discretionary.
According to Ivonne Bachar, director of the Property Management office at Stanford, her office’s objective is to offer the university a single repository of data that can be used for capital and sponsor-owned, as well as IT assets. Sunflower was appealing, she says, partly because it can interface with an Oracle back-end database and financials. Stanford tracks IT assets and other items, she explains, including site licenses and software versions loaded on machines. The tracking software is also used for more complex monitoring: tracking the stewardship, accountability, and transaction history of sponsor-owned, donated, loaned, and leased equipment. It also helps with replacement planning and with the disposition of assets, she adds. Tracking how IT assets are disposed of when they are deemed ready for retirement can be hugely complex. Disposing of potentially hazardous equipment, following regulations like HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley, confidentiality concerns, and security issues all come into play.
Managing AV Assets
In the corporate world, IT asset management software is traditionally used for tracking hardware and software. But colleges and universities may also want to track other high-tech assets—especially audiovisual equipment and other digital accessories—simply because there’s so much of it to manage. Additionally, with some software packages, monitoring and remote control of media and instructional technology equipment can be accomplished in real time. That enables you to extend central help desk capabilities to classrooms through the same asset management system.
According to the University of Minnesota’s Classroom Technical Services department manager and engineer, Jim Gregory, there’s a long list of assets for which an IT or AV department might be responsible. That includes video and data projectors, laptop and fixed computers, digital cameras, touchscreens, Web cameras, PDAs, photoplay devices, and any sort of switch that can be computer-controlled. Without tracking and/or monitoring software, Gregory says, there’s simply no way a large institution can handle the sheer volume of equipment a network or AV administrator often is responsible for. With the right product, anything in the classroom that can be added to the network can be not only tracked, he says, but also controlled.
That’s evident at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, where Gregory is an engineer and department manager for Classroom Technical Services, within the Office of Classroom Management. He uses AMX Meeting Manager to manage equipment in 65 buildings: 300 classrooms across three campuses, spread over seven-plus miles. The department uses Meeting Manager to track and troubleshoot every piece of equipment under its control—often allowing a repair to be scheduled before a problem hits. (Because classrooms are laptop-ready at the University of Minnesota, the software is used more to monitor the classrooms and ancillary devices than the computers themselves.) Once a Meeting Manager network is set up and all devices are connected, the software collects information from each classroom and sends it to a server for storage. At the university, the data can then be used to generate reports as specific as a printout of all rooms with projectors whose lamps are within 50 hours of burnout, for example. Or, system errors can be gathered from all projectors so that the central help desk can respond appropriately. Reports can be integrated into a scheduling system, allowing an administrator, for example, to track how much use a given piece of equipment gets—whether it’s a data projector, a computer, a VHS deck, a DVD player, or a camera. Gregory can then compile numbers for upper management, regarding how certain equipment is being used. "We can then make informed decisions about our investments in technology,” he says. "Without this, we’d have to deal with everything anecdotally; you’d have no sense of what’s actually going on in the classroom.”
Another benefit of this type of IT asset management: Because the network is used to monitor classrooms 24 hours a day, seven days a week, "We can assign a tech to go out and fix a problem before classes start,” Gregory says. "That can happen before a faculty member even reports it. So, we can achieve a much higher uptime in the classroom.” And in the event of a serious problem—unauthorized removal of a projector from the network, for example, or an extended outage—a text message can be sent to pagers and cell phones of specified staff members. If a theft occurs, a report can be sent directly to campus police.
At University of the South (TN), the small liberal arts institution where Wayne Bussell is the system administrator for computer labs and classrooms, an IT asset management suite, NetSupport, and remote system management provided by NetSupport Manager, are saving the school both time and money. Even better, the savings started almost as soon as the products were installed. Roughly four years ago, Bussell says, the school was running only Apple Macintosh computers. After a big push to move to PCs, he says, "there was no way I could visit every machine and do the upgrades necessary; I had to find something to automate it.”
Using NetSupport, installed in 2003, Bussell is currently managing 85 machines, and really likes the features and control it gives him. For example, the inventory control module can collect a complete software and hardware inventory from each computer. Bussell says savings were realized almost immediately: "Our return on investment was within a month.” The original cost of the entire suite: about $4,600 for 75 licenses.
After installation, the system works by creating a client installer package that immediately polls every machine on the network, returning asset data such as system name, manufacturer, memory size, serial number, workgroup, processor, network adapter, printers, hard drive size and available space, USB connectors, and much more. The software also can perform tasks like deleting files, or sending executable files for users to run.
The school maintains state-of-the-art IT equipment, Bussell says, and managing assets closely has helped his staffers do that and still save money. For example, he’s been able to monitor a specific group of computers from the same manufacturer, to gauge how they are holding up. That, he says, "It helps us to evaluate our next purchase.” Another module in the suite allows him to monitor Internet use on each computer in the lab, both by tracking Web usage and blocking select URLs. Still another selling point for him, he says, is the ability to distribute files to a specific machine or machines, since instructors often have material on a flash drive or disk that they want distributed. NetSupport Manager and DNA (enterprise systems management software) have that capability. "Any time you can automate something,” Bussell concludes, "You’re better off. For us, this solution has met expectations and more.”
The LANDesk product line from the vendor of the same name is one example of software that not only blurs the lines between asset management and traditional network management tools, but also the line between those tools and security products. Beefing up security was a big driver for Dartmouth College (NH) administrators when they selected LANDesk, although the school is also using the product for remote network management and basic asset tracking. Enterprise administrator Timothy Chiacchira says he runs three LANDesk modules: Management Suite, Patch Manager, and Security Suite. With these modules in place, he says, "I know every share, every folder; who has a guest account; even if there’s a remote share on a drive, which could indicate a hacker.” But Chiacchira says he uses LANDesk primarily for distributing new versions of operating systems and other software, and for standardizing computer hardware through monitoring. All 1,200-plus administrative computers at Dartmouth are monitored by the system, including central servers; and though faculty and student systems are not currently covered by the asset management capability, installing LANDesk on student computers is in the works, says Chiacchira, chiefly to help track who’s running what.
With LANDesk, he says, "We can standardize the OS build, along with what software we support, and make sure every system conforms.” He links up LANDesk to a Microsoft SQL Server backend for data storage; LANDesk can also be used with an Oracle database. The product also includes an asset management module that can be used for tracking IT assets in detail, including depreciation, users, contracts, and maintenance agreements.
Before LANDesk (and before Chiacchira), Dartmouth used various less formal methods to track installed software. IT administrators knew their machines and which client was linked to which machine, Chiacchira says, but the school didn’t necessarily know exactly what software was on what machine, nor could IT administrators block installation of certain products, as they do now on the LANDesk-managed machines. Chiacchira and his staff can also detect machine changes, such as if a memory module has been removed, a machine is down, or if someone has removed or added software. With LANDesk, he says, he no longer needs to write and execute login scripts to monitor the network. Instead, the product auto-monitors not just Windows, but Linux devices, printers, and just about anything that LANDesk can install a monitoring agent on, even Mac OS X.
The Ultimate ROI
The savings are clearly there, but measuring the direct ROI of an effective IT asset management program can be difficult, say campus technologists. According to the University of Minnesota’s Gregory, one way that the ROI of an asset tracking implementation can show up is as "value-added benefits.” That includes gains in areas such as classroom uptime, equipment ease-of-use, remote solutions to classroom problems, reports and trend analysis of technology use, remote shutdown and lockout of classrooms, help desk capability, and theft prevention. Of course, the ultimate measure of success is the degree of faculty and student satisfaction, Gregory points out, which has long-term strategic and financial impact.
Many schools are just starting to realize that good practices in managing and securing technology assets can provide a big payback. Increasingly complex networks and bigger and bigger IT budgets mean that there’s more to keep track of, more dollars at stake, and more time and staff spent tracking assets. Vendors, for their part, are offering progressively sophisticated solutions in response, including suites of products with various types of tracking and management modules to choose from. In short: Today, whether you’re looking at managing a relatively small amount of equipment in a single department, or an entire institution’s technology investment, products for IT asset management are out there. It’s time to assess your need, build your short list, and start saving staff hours, money, and downtime.
A Wealth of Overlapping Solutions
The concept of managing IT assets via software is still fairly new to much of higher education, just as several years ago, it was an emerging concept for many businesses. But an ever-expanding range of asset management tools are now available to campus IT professionals. In general, solutions that can be used for IT asset management may be grouped into several classes: a) large systems for traditional fixed asset management, b) targeted solutions for managing IT assets specifically, and c) systems that do both.
From the ERP side. For managing buildings and associated elements, most schools of any size use some sort of facilities management software, often as part of a larger ERP suite. Oracle/PeopleSoft (Oracle Enterprise Asset Management, and now PeopleSoft EnterpriseOne Asset Management, SAP and Sungard SCT (Enterprise Data Warehouse offer products in this category. While it’s possible to track IT assets using modules from these products, they’re generally designed from a financial perspective and intended for fixed asset tracking and management. They may not have the capacity and level of detail required to manage campus IT assets well.
From facilities, to IT assets. But according to Gartner analyst Michael Bell, a few software companies with good penetration on the facilities management side are reaching out to include IT asset management. Bell cites MRO Software as one example, which in February launched Maximo Enterprise IT, which highlights IT asset management. One challenge: Purchasers of Maximo Enterprise IT and other Maximo solutions tend to be from completely different departments: IT vs. facilities management.
IT network, security, and asset control. Further along on the asset management continuum are solutions that specifically address IT asset management, usually including remote-control network management features, as well. LANDesk, NetSupport, and AMX Meeting Manager are three in this category; some such products have modules with asset-tracking features, or they allow you to add asset-tracking features, security, and other specialties. LANDesk (spun off from Intel Corp. several years back) includes modules tailored specifically for security, as well as the more complex aspects of asset management.
From the business world. Other IT asset management solutions, largely used by the corporate sector to date, come from companies such as Peregrine (Asset Tracking, Computer Associates (Unicenter Asset Management, BMC Remedy (which acquired Marimba Software, OpsWare (Asset Tracking Edition, and Altiris (Asset Management Suite. The Altiris product, like some others, is part of a complete IT asset management solution.
Fixed and IT asset management. One product that combines both traditional fixed asset management capabilities, and IT-specific asset management solutions, is Sunflower Systems. Sunflower also offers a module for managing mobile assets, which could be useful for tracking items such as laptops, tablets, or PDAs on campus.
More overlap. Other types of software solutions—such as help desk solutions—overlap with IT asset management. Also, traditional configuration and system management tools can be used for managing IT assets. Those include Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS, Novell Zenworks, HP Novadime, BMC Marimba, and some smaller players. Looking at even more product overlap, the Altiris Management Suite also could be included here, as could LANDesk. Bottom line? Think: convergence.