How to maintain hardware and software

The management of hardware and software assets has become much more complex since the days when the corporate user had one PC on the corporate LAN running a small number of applications. These days, users employ a range of applications on their PCs, laptops and handheld devices, each requiring support. The complexity is compounded by the increasing number of corporate users working on the road or in remote offices that are beyond the reach of traditional LAN-based management systems. With more systems and more applications in more places, budget-constrained IT departments face a considerable challenge.

In addition to cost and control considerations such as inventory and asset management, or logistical concerns such as technical support, hardware and software management is in many ways a security issue. As more people work from remote offices, on the road or from home, IT departments have come to realize that user-initiated configuration changes and out-of-date software on remote machines are the new weakest link in corporate security. The following are four considerations for the simple, secure management of hardware and software assets in the enterprise:

1. Discovering and Tracking Hardware and Software

Simply put, the first step toward the effective management of hardware and software is learning what hardware and software is deployed. As employees change departments, new people are hired and existing employees leave the company, PCs and other devices are redeployed and loaded with different software versions. As a result, it can be very difficult to track hardware or software seat licenses for the purposes of resource deployment and the management of IT spending. Discovering all hardware and registered software can help save you money, and identifying unapproved software on a device might save you from a destructive virus or hacker.

Easy does it: The IT staff requires a means of silently and automatically discovering every piece of the hardware on the network, as well as what version of what software is on those devices. Look for a solution that is easy to deploy and integrates easily with your existing infrastructure. Your solution should update information about each system in real time, and enable you to view and assess the needs of groups of devices or users separately from the larger group.

Holding handhelds: Many companies haven't set corporate standards for the types of handheld and mobile devices that are supported. Very often, employees purchase their own devices and are using them to access sensitive corporate data. Discovery of handheld devices is a critical security issue because they are so easily lost or stolen, along with confidential client or corporate information and passwords stored on the device. If you didn't know one of your employees was synching his email to a PDA, you wouldn't know when the person who stole the device does the same. Your asset discovery and management solution must be able to discover a range of mobile devices when they connect to your network through a cradle or wireless access point, as well as identify what software is installed on them.

Keeping things fresh: By having a clear, up-to-date picture of your hardware and software assets, your company can be much more nimble in allocating resources for IT infrastructure. Hardware and software upgrades, software license purchases and asset obsolescence can be forecast more accurately for future requirements.

2) Software Distribution

Your IT department faces the ongoing challenge of distributing new software, virus profile updates, operating system patches and updates of existing software. The objective here is to push out updates to PCs, laptops and other mobile devices, without requiring workers to insert CDs or download files. Deployment of software should take place without the need for user intervention and without using bandwidth users require to keep working.

You are the IT professional: Don't rely on a busy employee to install a security patch correctly -- or at all. Enforce corporate security standards and optimal system configurations from a central management console. Dropping off or sending CDs for a user to install wastes the employee's time and will make more work for your help desk when the install goes wrong.

Out of office: While the bulk of the devices on your network are probably PCs, it's important to employ a management solution that can accommodate the special needs of mobile and remote workers. Timely distribution of virus profiles or security patches is extremely important in these situations, since mobile and remote devices operate outside your corporate firewall. Since users generally connect to the network on a dial-up or wireless connection, software deployment should use as little bandwidth as necessary and pick up where it left off if the connection is dropped. Shipping CDs to mobile or remote users is expensive if you have a lot of them, and it means low productivity for at least a day.

Take it away: The other side of the software distribution challenge is the removal of outdated or unauthorized software from employee systems. Your systems management solution should enable you to remove software when a newer version of an application is deployed, when deployment of an application exceeds the number of licensed copies, or when a user downloads and installs an application that threatens network security. If a PDA or laptop is lost or stolen, it might even be necessary to delete any sensitive data or applications before the new owner causes any damage to your network.

3) Help Desk Support

As long as humans are using computing devices, they will need to speak to another person when something goes wrong. However, help desk requirements can be minimized with a comprehensive management strategy. That strategy should include options for remote control of mobile devices and easy access to information about the user's machine.

Excellent visibility: Knowing everything about a user's system from the start of a help desk call radically simplifies the job of tech support personnel. If tech support can see which version of the user's operating system is installed, relevant patches can be sent immediately.

Anywhere they roam: Shipping PCs back and forth for minor problems that could be remotely fixed means considerable downtime for that employee. But whether the user is down the hall or in another country, you can minimize the amount of time IT staff spends on user support by implementing a management tool that allows help desk staff to remotely control and troubleshoot the system. In instances where the user has only a phone line to connect to your help desk, the management solution should enable communication with the user via an instant messaging application or chat tool.

4) Image Updating, Retiring Assets and Migration

In these budget-conscious times, IT organizations must often choose to upgrade rather than replace older systems. However, replacing the operating system on a large number of PCs and laptops can be a monumental task, with drastic implications for worker productivity.

Nice and easy: Choose a management tool that can enable automatic, global operating system migrations across your entire network. Again, operating system upgrades should be free of CD shipping and/or user intervention, in order to keep employees working and complete the update in a reasonable amount of time.

Group dynamics: Different departments in your organization, such as sales or research and development, likely have different needs for system configurations. Some groups' system images change frequently, while others are relatively static. Employ management solutions that can address the needs of different groups, rather than applying a one-configuration-fits-all approach.

Make it personal: When reimaging or migrating a user system, it is important to protect user settings and information. For many users, losing their Web bookmarks, contacts or VPN settings would be catastrophic and mean hours of unnecessary searching for information and calls to the support desk. Your management solution should be smart enough to detect user settings and replace them once the new operating system is installed.

The Bottom Line

If your IT department is like most, they are understaffed and have a million things to do, above and beyond critical systems management tasks that directly impact the productivity and security of your organization. These management tasks could easily be administered with the right set of tools. Your IT organization requires a solution that is comprehensive, easy to deploy and easy to use. Otherwise, the growth of mobile and remote user populations and their associated support headaches will bury your IT staff in mundane maintenance tasks and leave your organization open to preventable security breaches.

Rob Veitch is director of business development at iAnywhere Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Sybase Inc.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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