How good asset management can make your business more efficient

Ensuring your company's computing infrastructure is up to date is essential to maintaining a competitive edge. If other companies are using the latest hardware and software, when yours isn’t, it could mean they are gaining an advantage. But, on the other hand, buying new applications and equipment for employees who don't actually use them will be a waste of money. So the middle ground, where you selectively upgrade the users where it will be most beneficial, is clearly the most cost-effective strategy. In order to do this, though - and particularly in a large company - you need to have a clear idea of what hardware and software you actually have. This feature looks at the tools you can use to keep track of your company's IT assets, and how you can ensure that the upgrades you make are neither too little nor too great for your company's needs.

The process starts with an inventory of what you have at your disposal. You could just go round from workstation to workstation with a spreadsheet, but that would be hugely labour intensive. Fortunately, there are tools that will do some or even all of the work for you automatically, both for your software and the hardware it's running on. After all, as part of its normal working, a computer has to have a clear idea what hardware it has and what software is installed on it. The question is, how do you get this information off each individual system and into a central database. This is where the many asset management suites that are available come in, most of which work via a small agent you install on your client systems.

For example, Express Metrix will provide information about software, hardware and system configurations in one integrated package. On the software side, it will also tell you how frequently your users access each of their applications, when they use them the most, when they open and close them, and even if they are actually using them or just leaving them open while they work on something else. It has a facility for logging your purchases as well, so you can tally this with the data from the inventory logging system. There’s even a 30-day trial available, which will provide an inventory of up to 25 PCs on your network.

Like a number of asset management suites, Express Metrix provides detailed reports summarising the hardware and software of your client systems.

The ability to reconcile between what has been purchased and what is actually being used is extremely powerful, as it will allow you to be sure that your client systems are legitimately using software you actually bought, and also whether you have purchased software that hasn’t been used, or even installed. You can also see where you are spending your IT budget, and what hasn’t been upgraded for a while. Software with a sophisticated reporting facility will let you analyse your software usage. For example, if you have purchased a block of licenses, you can see if you are under- or overusing these, allowing you to cut back or purchase more to keep things legal. Either way, you will save money – by not wasting money on licenses you don’t need, or by avoiding any legal penalty for unlicensed software.

Express Metrix’s reports will even tell you what cost will be associated with truing up your license numbers, which sounds daunting but can be balanced against the savings which could be found in licenses purchased but not used. A separate Unused Software report tells you what you bought, how many have been installed, and how many are used within a specific timeframe, plus the associated unused value. Particularly handy is the ability to contrast the purchased, installed and used license numbers together, as you might have purchased less than you installed, but actually use fewer than either. This implies that you need to uninstall software from systems where it isn’t being used, and transfer these licenses elsewhere.

One of the key benefits of asset management is the ability to see where you have unused software installed, which could be reallocated or not purchased at all.

Hardware reports can be equally useful. As is typical of many suites, Express Metrix will analyse and report on a huge range of specifications of your client systems from the video card features to the MAC addresses of the network cards on each one. Again, the reporting facilities make this information very powerful. For example, if you’re planning an application or operating system upgrade, you can see which computers fail to meet specification recommendations, such as having insufficient RAM. The cost of hardware upgrades can then be included alongside the software updates. Alternatively, if some systems have already been purchased with the newer software, you can create queries to exclude these. With Express Metrix, there’s even a sophisticated purchase tracking system, to help you tie your purchase orders into inventory and users. When the purchases arrive, the actual serial numbers can be reconciled with these orders.

The advantages of a full software inventory can go well beyond officially licensed applications, too. For some asset management suites, including Express Metrix, all applications will be listed, so you can see if your users are running software you don’t want them to. It’s even possible to set up policies to block the usage of these applications, so users receive a configurable message when they try to run them explaining the situation. This lets you, for example, prevent your users from playing games at work. You can also limit peak usage levels for your licensed applications, so you don’t exceed your license quantities.

In contrast to Express Metrix, Snow Software provides software and hardware inventory in one suite, but a separate product focused specifically on software license control with more powerful features in this area. Snow's Inventory will analyse the clients on your network and provide details of all software and hardware, including Macs, which some asset management suites don’t support. Similar capabilities to Express Metrix are available. You can see which systems are using which applications, and control your licensing quantities. You can also ensure you have the latest service packs and virus definitions installed, as well as create and enforce policies, preventing illegal or unwanted software from running. Remote desktop control is built-in, too, so manual configuration of individual systems can be implemented across the network.

Snow Software's Inventory lets you drill down to client machines to find out which security patches and hotfixes have been installed.

Although Snow’s Inventory has license management abilities and broadly similar features to Express Metrix, its License Manager provides much more sophisticated facilities. Alongside the abilities to monitor software usage, License Manager can also create a license pool, or departmental pools, taking back licenses that aren’t being used so they can be redeployed elsewhere. It goes beyond management of client systems, with the ability to manage Oracle database options and virtual instances on Unix platforms including Sun Solaris, HP-UX and IBM AIX. The support for virtualised environments goes well beyond this, with the suite able to track licenses in App-V, hyper-v, VMWare, Citrix, and Terminal servers. You can manage what individual clients are able to do, and create policies for software with specific functions, without having to name each application individually – blocking all games software, for example.

Express Metrix and Snow’s suites are just two highlights among a truly crowded market.

FrontRange Solutions’ Discovery and License Manager provide similar facilities to Snow’s products, with Discovery able to track virtual clients as well as physical ones, as does Sassafras Software’s K2 KeyAuditor and KeyServer. The venerable Lansweeper provides inventory and license tracking with the ability to scan without needing to install agents on your client systems. It supports Linux and MacOS as well as Windows, plus VMware and Hyper-V virtual environments. There’s even a freeware version, making Lansweeper a good place to start with tracking your assets.

Some asset management suites let you see when software is most used during the day, so you can base your licensing provision around peak usage.

However, Sysaid Asset Management has an entirely free version, with no limitations, although it doesn’t have the custom reporting functions of the Pro or Enterprise editions, nor the advanced permissions control. It also has management tools you can run on iPhone, Blackberry, Android or Windows Phone 7 devices. Layton Technology is another fully integrated suite of asset inventory and license management. However, LicenseMetrics exclusively tracks software license usage, so you can make economies on license purchases, while Lime Software focuses specifically on keeping track of Oracle licenses.

Novell is, of course, one of the oldest names in networking, and its ZENworks suite includes an Asset Management module. While this has pretty much all the features we have already mentioned, it also has the ability to deploy software across the network as well as monitor its usage and create an inventory. However, this does require adoption of ZENworks in a more fundamental way on your network than with the other suites we have mentioned. Symantec is another familiar company that also provides asset management, in this case in the shape of its Altiris Inventory Solution. This provides core asset tracking facilities, but not the detailed reporting of license usage found in some suites. ScriptLogic Asset Manager on the other hand does provide this metering function, with an active facility to prevent more copies from running concurrently than you have paid for.

Another option to detailed software inventory and management is increasingly offered by cloud-based services. It’s still true to say that putting your business workflow entirely in the hands of the vagaries of your Internet connection involves a risk, but cloud-hosted software promises to sidestep the need for tracking software installations because applications don’t permanently reside on the client systems, instead being loaded from the cloud only when required. Using Google Docs negates all licensing issues, too. Even cloud-based solutions that come with a subscription fee, such as Adobe's Cloud, unfetter the license from specific client systems, tying it to users instead, so only those who actually use an application will access it.

A recent survey by Avanade has shown that 74 per cent of companies are now using some form of cloud-based services. But that’s still a long way from totally outsourced software provision. For the foreseeable future, locally installed client resources will remain the cornerstone of business computing, and keeping track of what you have will still be fundamental. Using asset management software to make sure that you keep your systems and software updated, but only as much as you need, will keep your IT spending as effective and economical as possible.