Reg Technology Panel

Minimising the impact of user anarchy

Whose infrastructure is it anyway?

If you ask the question about who is responsible for delivering IT solutions to the business and maintaining hardware, software and networks, you'll generally be told it's the IT department.

In a recent research study, however, we uncovered something that made us a little suspicious of just how much IT departments are actually in control.

When we asked around 2,500 IT chiefs, support staff and other IT pros how confident they were in the IT department's knowledge of what equipment and software was in use across their organisation, only about one in six said their records were accurate and up to date. Beyond this, there was a very high degree of variability, right down to the three per cent to four per cent who don't even bother to keep records.

But how hard can it be to keep track of things? Surely, it is just a case of making a note in a database somewhere of what has been deployed, replaced, reconfigured or upgraded. Easy to say, but it doesn't take much working out that there are a couple of obvious challenges.

Firstly, in larger organisations, the IT department cannot usually be considered a single organisational entity. With hundreds, sometimes thousands of IT staff in multinational corporates, for example, resources are typically spread across many groups with different disciplines, responsibilities and alignments with the business.

Each of these groups is typically procuring, retiring, modifying and extending elements of the IT infrastructure with varying degrees of coordination between each other. There's a lot of people involved, often working under time and bandwidth constraints and, therefore, a lot of potential for human error and oversight. This is one of the reasons why IT asset records and configuration management databases are so often out of line with reality in these kinds of environments.

There is then a factor that affects organisations of pretty much any size. Regardless of policies and controls, it is generally impossible to prevent local business units and even individual users procuring equipment or software through their local budgets or expense accounts. In many organisations, it is not at all unusual for PDAs, PCs, printers, wireless access points, personal productivity applications, and even workgroup or departmental servers to sneak in under IT's radar and find their way onto the network.

Regardless of the routes components take into the organisation, we then have the issue of users increasingly regarding it as their "right" to reconfigure, upgrade or extend the hardware and software they use – everything from changing the security settings on their PC so they can use the latest online public services, to installing PCMCIA cards, extra memory, freeware, open source software, beta versions of browsers, etc.

The reality is that the average IT department stands little chance of completely controlling the way in which IT is acquired and used. And as we look forward, with the proliferation of personal productivity options that are extremely accessible and have inherent connectability, the challenge is likely to get worse rather than better.

Maybe the answer is to just go with the flow, and let the masses out there in user land just get on with it. This probably isn't such a good idea, though. Apart from the accountants not being too happy about no one really having a handle on what has been bought, where it is deployed, and whether it is still active, there are a few other impacts to consider from a cost, service level, and risk prospective.

If it can be classed as technology, users will expect the IT department to support it, regardless of its origin and the degree to which it has been manipulated by enthusiastic amateurs. There is an obvious potential cost here if IT takes this burden on board, and either way, there will be an impact on end-user satisfaction.

Telling a user you cannot support them because their latest shiny toy was not supplied by the IT department, or because the way in which they tampered with their company equipment means it needs to be taken away and rebuilt, does not do much to enhance the relationship between IT and the business.

If you do provide support, the chances are it will take much longer to troubleshoot and resolve issues as technical staff first need to determine what exactly they are dealing with. This again impacts the satisfaction of the typically impatient user.

So what's the answer?

Well, if you can't completely control what's going on, at least make sure you have visibility of it. In practical terms, this translates to a need to audit the IT components that have found their way into the organisation.

Not surprisingly, the research tells us that the IT department's knowledge of what's installed and how it is configured is directly proportional to the frequency with which audits are carried out.

Furthermore, the findings clearly illustrate that end user satisfaction with IT support services is directly proportional to the completeness of asset and configuration management records, corroborating some of the previously highlighted dependencies.

All of this highlights the importance of up-to-date asset/configuration management databases (CMDBs). Fortunately, one of the biggest risks associated with under-the-radar activity, namely that most of the uncontrolled or potentially insecure equipment ends up being connected to the corporate network, can also work to our advantage.

If a component is connected, it can be electronically discovered and audited with the appropriate monitoring and interrogation capability in place. Most asset management systems nowadays provide such capability, and solutions are available from a few hundred dollars/euros for use by small IT shops with a few dozen assets, to high-end solutions that can help to keep track of assets and their configuration across very large enterprise infrastructures.

So, if you are out there running around with your clipboard every six months counting PCs, printers, access points, etc, and getting users to turn out their pockets looking for rogue PDAs, you're probably not doing yourselves or your users any favours.

The research suggests that automating the asset auditing and management process is probably one of the simplest and most cost effective ways to simultaneously remove an IT headache and boost the level of service provided to the business. ®

The research study was executed independently by Freeform Dynamics with sponsorship from Numara Software. More details are available in a short research note that is free of charge and may be requested here.

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