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Workshop Certain things in life are true, such as exercise is good for you, common sense is not so common, and budget for IT management and operations tools is hard to come by.

Browse around the websites of any number of software companies and you will find technologies to make IT operations more productive, reduce costs and risks, and generally make the lives of hard-pressed operations staff easier.

As anyone who has had to pass around the tin cup will know, such tools are rarely high on the priority lists of the various stakeholders in the organisation compared to capabilities with a more directly visible business benefit.

Given that IT service delivery managers don’t have a blank cheque book to play with, the tooling that ends up in place can be less than adequate. We don’t want to dwell on the fragmented nature of many IT management environments as we have covered this before. Here we raise the question about what tools are actually seen as essential, rather than a nice-to-have?

The line between what’s necessary and what’s useful depends on the size of the problem to be tackled. Certain support requirements – keeping systems and desktops patched, say – may not be as big an issue for the smallest companies. It doesn’t take long for a certain threshold to be reached however, beyond which things get markedly harder.

But what ‘things’ are they? In our experience, the first to go to pot is knowing what you have, in terms of systems, software, networking, virtual machine images and so on, coupled with knowing what facilities your users have or need.

Keeping a repository of such assets is fundamental to just about every IT operations activity – not least it is the basis of good financial management, as it is impossible to keep on top of costs if you can’t keep track of systems and their users.

Discovery tools can help here, particularly if the IT environment has extended beyond the reach of a clipboard and pen. It can be a challenge to make sense of what’s discovered of course, and beyond this it takes diligence to keep things up to date, but such tools do provide a head start.

The broader picture of asset management incorporates configuration management, which is where you can start to document how assets are set up and the dependencies between them. We have talked previously about keeping a mapping between services delivered and systems under management, as a basis for prioritisation and reporting – configuration management is all about keeping on top of this mapping, particularly as this changes over time.

If you have a picture of what you have, who is using it and the various dependencies, you can start to monitor it all. Simpler forms of monitoring can apply to the smallest of organisations, particularly if people are working remotely – for example a tech-savvy person can keep tabs on whether everyone is doing backups.

While more complex, continuous monitoring isn’t for every organization, it becomes necessary as the threshold moves up an order of magnitude, from tens or hundreds to thousands of systems. It’s not just about the number of assets to manage but also their locations, as they become distributed across a broader range of sites, remote data centres, machine rooms, wiring cabinets and so on.

The vision for monitoring and event management is that it can make IT operations somehow proactive, spotting things before they happen – but in reality, just being able to react in a timely fashion before users start picking up the phones would be enough.

Better monitoring begets better reporting: don’t underestimate the importance of feeding back to the business about the state of the environment. Regular reporting can so easily get neglected in the drive to solve more technical problems, but quite ironically, this can lead to perceptions of poor service so it is worth keeping the business informed.

Which capabilities might be considered ‘nice to have’? Incident management and service desk tools will possibly always fall into this category, as the world will not collapse if they are absent. Similarly luxurious are automation and remediation tools, be they for service provisioning, fault diagnosis or resolution.

Many organisations struggle on with home-grown tool sets or open source tools in these categories, in the knowledge that it’s the best they’re going to get; meanwhile, other companies benefit from more forward-thinking senior management that see such capabilities as part and parcel of a well-run, motivated IT department which delivers the best possible levels of service to its users.

There’s a chicken-and-egg thing going on here – a number of research studies have told us that IT organisations higher up the ‘maturity stack’ when it comes to IT management are more likely to have such tools in place, but equally, using them can free up the time required to become more proactive. Of course you may read this and think, what a load of tosh, all you need is Microsoft Visio and a spreadsheet. Equally however, you may have found certain tools a life saver beyond certain points. Whatever your experiences, we’d be very interested to hear from you.

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