Simplifying IT Management

By Jeff Vance

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Bogged down by daily alarms, failures, and pressing patch requirements, a typical enterprise CIO is more like an EMT, putting out fires and responding to emergencies, than a C-level executive, who plans, manages, and strategizes.

New technologies like WLANs, VoIP, and instant messaging create new problems, making enterprise networks more and more complex. To get a handle on IT chaos, the obvious first step is to automate manual processes. How else can you hope to cope with ever-expanding and changing networks?

Some front-running innovations include a variety of software suites, such as automated configuration management, patch management, security policy generation and enforcement, and IT health monitoring.

The one commonality among these disparate tools is that they give CIOs a bird’s-eye view of their key systems.

However, these systems also create new layers of complexity. Is automation just substituting one set of problems for another?

Rob Nye, CIO of B+H Ocean Carriers, expresses concern about some automated tools. B+H Ocean Carriers is a trans-oceanic shipping company that specializes in the worldwide carriage of bulk liquids. Its annual revenues are in the $100 million range, but the company’s IT staff is small.

To simplify data-synchronization issues for this global company, B+H turned to a terminal-server Citrix model, with everything centralized in a data center in Rhode Island. With a centralized data pool, a flawed patch could pose real problems for the whole company.

“Automated patch management gives me pause,” Nye said. “I’d rather collect all the patches, review them, and then we can patch on a monthly basis."

According to Dennis Drogseth, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates (EMA), IT complexity comes in many forms but automation, while adding yet another layer to the cake, is a necessary evil these days.

“The new layers of complexity are occurring through greater density in the infrastructure and increasing demand for new types of services, including converging IP services such as VoIP,” Drogseth said. “Add to this higher levels of hardware performance and increasing geographic sprawl in the Internet age, and the reality is that, without effective automation, IT will simply die on the vine.”

But with budgets tight, where do you start? The IT automation movement is in no way unified, so what should be your top priorities? It’s a judgment call, but a few technologies seem to be gaining momentum:

  • IT Health Monitoring Services,
  • Configuration and Patch Management Tools,
  • Configuration Management Databases,
  • Policy Generation and Enforcement Software, and
  • Compliance and Auditing Tools.
  • A Helping Hand?

    Christine Washburn, as vice president of marketing for MSP Silverback Technologies talks to a lot of CIOs and she sees them constantly straddling the fence between IT, and business management; expected to be conversant in each area. In essence, they are translators, communicating business goals and needs to the IT staff and trying to explain IT concerns to management.

    Washburn said most of the CIOs she talks to mention the need for better IT intelligence and better tools for communicating that intelligence.

    “In the past, many technologies didn’t have reporting or documentation aspects, so trying to pull things like an SNMP dump or other technical statistics into a spreadsheet and then reformat the data into something meaningful to a business person was a very manual and frequently fruitless process,” Washburn said.

    Since many companies have completed major technology build-outs, deploying enterprise-wide CRM and ERP systems, for instance, CIOs now need to document the ROI of these systems.

    EMA's Drogseth agrees. CIOs need a tool that provides automated insights into how services are consumed by whom, when an how often.

    “Service monitoring is needed for optimization, service planning, and service accounting,” he said. “It is one of the most important, though still emerging, IT management areas. This is the single most valuable piece of information for CIOs, enabling them to work on a par with their business allies—not so much for pure cost or charge-backs—but, in fact, for having true insights into demand.”

    CIOs should find a tool that provides “effective analytics targeted at key areas,” said Drogseth. Configuration management is a good place to start, and if configuration management is tied to other forms of analytics, so much the better.

    “The IT shop needs to have good topologies and an inventory of its total resources,” he said. “IT needs an automated and enabling foundation for uniting its management investments from different brands in an effective way.”

    One candidate to tie together disparate systems and deliver analytics from across the organization is a configuration management database (CMDB). Not to be confused with automated configuration management software, which configures and monitors IT devices, CMDBs are an ITIL concept, and they are intended to provide an overview of an organization’s device inventory, data stores, applications, and configurations.

    As a platform technology, CMDBs facilitate the sharing of data across devices and applications in a multi-vendor network. Additionally, CMDBs also provide analytics on customer metrics, service usage, and other business-related information.

    “One could argue—to make or stretch a point—that CMDB initiatives will completely redefine the management marketplace overall, and reset IT expectations for just what a framework or platform investment should be . . . (But) it will probably require ten years before we see standards and implementations that really step up to this requirement,” Drogseth said.