IT asset management best practices for any data center

Choosing a data center asset management tool depends on how the infrastructure functions, the mix of hardware and software in action and more factors.

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Underutilized servers, unneeded and expensive software licenses, outdated systems struggling to function -- wasted IT resources could be hanging around any data center.

As organizations strive for greater efficiency, automation, consolidation and compliance from their IT teams, they need to understand what hardware and software assets are actually in place across the data center and beyond. IT asset or inventory management (ITAM) tools gather, store, analyze and report detailed hardware and software information in the context of established business policies and best practices.

Seemingly trivial data center asset details translate into real money and performance metrics. For example, a server running Microsoft Windows Server 2012 is easily overlooked by IT staff. But if the company has established Windows Server 2012 R2 as the standard operating system version, an outdated OS could create system performance and compatibility problems and compliance issues, requiring corrective updates and proper licensing. Similarly, a server that has been in service for six years has outlived its service contract or possesses insufficient computing resources to run the latest business workloads. The IT team must plan for a hardware upgrade or replacement.

IT asset management best practices vary from data center to data center. Here's how to choose your organization's best path.

Call my agent

The ITAM platform gathers details from systems operating within the data center and office network. Some ITAM products, such as BMC Software Inc.'s FootPrints or Zoho Corp's ManageEngine AssetExplorer, use software agents while others, such as ServiceNow's Discovery or BDNA Corp.'s Technopedia Discover, are agentless. There are arguments for and against the use of software agents.

Generally, agents offer better insight into a broader range of hardware systems and devices than agentless tools are capable of delivering. Look for agent-based ITAM for heterogeneous or remote data centers. Agents operate on the individual system, caching details and reporting changes to a central ITAM server as-needed, rather than constantly checking for changes and eating up network bandwidth, like an agentless tool.

Agents used to be intrusive, imposing major performance penalties. That's not the case with today's servers and virtual machines, but the code base for agents needs to be maintained and updated. Agentless ITAM is maintained by patching and updating a central server, not each and every agent distributed across the enterprise. Without agents, organizations can implement ITAM with less political pushback from stakeholders who resist changes to their existing systems.

Agent-based versus agentless tools for data center asset management is not an all-or-nothing decision. Organizations will deploy agents on systems that require or benefit most from them, centralizing data collection without agents on the rest of the infrastructure. The tool's options and the information that IT wants to gather both factor into agent-related choices. ManageEngine's AssetExplorer provides both agent-based and agentless options in the same product for organizations in this situation.

The big picture

Organizations typically adopt technologies like ITAM to solve specific problems: software licensing oversights, erratic hardware maintenance and so on. Companies deploy multiple tools over time as they tackle different tasks, each tool building unique data to a different repository.

Other processes, such as physical inventory tracking systems (e.g., to identify specific servers or other systems in the field), can spawn even more tools and data for the enterprise to grapple with.

Once an organization gathers all its IT asset data, it should compare or correlate information from the different sources and tools in use.

Implementing several ITAM platforms and products -- an undesirable scenario of deployment cost and labor at best -- rarely generates compatible data or a way to store data in a common way. Incompatibilities may exist even when tools integrate with Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager or other common management applications. The result? Multiple incompatible repositories scattered across different servers, often owned by siloed business units with little interest in other data.

A company may unify or federate each ITAM tool's data to produce a more complete asset management picture. This is an extremely complex undertaking. Even when data formats are compatible (such as a simple Excel .CSV format) and track the same asset details, the contents of each data set must be reconciled. Multiple tools will report the same operating system version, but list differing .DLL and driver files, for example. Neither tool reports definitive information about OS licensing status.

Expect substantial manual work when unifying ITAM data. IT teams must locate, compare and evaluate data stores, ultimately creating a single unified repository that each ITAM tool can use. Organizations bring in professional ITAM consulting services to help manage this data scrubbing and data organization, as well as to determine the inventories in place, the data in those inventories and whether the inventories can be merged or fairly compared.

Consolidate, but keep up ITAM

Virtualization usually reduces the total server count within a data center. So why does ITAM still matter? Virtualization, consolidation and other converged infrastructure packages solve different sets of problems in the enterprise. ITAM practices are intended to improve efficiency by melding IT and business, which doesn't stop once assets are virtualized.

Use ITAM to improve business processes, develop data to guide strategic decisions, ensure hardware and software compliance, control inventory and increase system or workload availability.

Some software vendors demand periodic license audits to ensure that the user adheres to their current agreements. Properly deployed and configured ITAM tools report on the number of application instances in service, the current version of each instance and other key details. Organizations therefore ensure compliance or discover and rectify issues before the vendor audit.

ITAM inventories identify unauthorized software in a virtualized environment. Rogue or obsolete software takes up precious computing resources in a highly consolidated environment. In some cases, unauthorized software is nefarious and, if undetected, poses a security and compliance threat.

This was first published in March 2014

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