Oct 24 2007

Keep an Eye on Inventory

Develop the right strategy and find the right tools to track small, costly components.

Develop the right strategy and find the right tools to track small, costly components.

Asset management is an essential part of information technology on campus. After all, if you can’t account for an IT device, how can you maintain it, repair it or replace it? Devices such as routers, switches, firewalls, servers, load balancers and network appliances represent a significant outlay of campus funds. Therefore, most universities require their IT departments to keep accurate inventories of their devices, especially when some of the equipment can be as costly as a pre-owned Lamborghini.

There are three levels of IT asset tracking: the device level, the card/module level and the component level (see sidebar). Each subsequent level increases in complexity.

A Lot of Pieces, Little Peace

If the inventory department expects IT to use component-level tracking, you must decide how far you will go in keeping tabs on components. In other words, what do you track and what do you not track inside of your IT devices? And where is the cutoff point where components are not tracked at all? This is one of the most important questions to ask the inventory department.

You will find the requirement for asset tracking usually stops when an item is valued below a pre-set cost. Typically the cutoff point is $5,000 — although some campuses use a lower figure, such as $3,000. If a component is valued below the limit, it does not require formal asset tracking. But this doesn’t mean that you become complacent or casual about handling these components. You still must establish internal controls over your spares.

My department did a quick accounting of the number of components on the University of California, San Francisco campus enterprise network. There are approximately 20 high-cost components inside of each of the 1,200 network devices operating on our campus network. When you do the math, it becomes clear that component-level asset management necessitates having our network staff track somewhere in the vicinity of 24,000 individual components. It is easy to see how component tracking can become a monumental task.

Although campus IT might try to dissuade them, inventory folks sometimes insist on tracking all internal components. And they have the right to insist. In the final analysis, the inventory folks hold the fiduciary responsibility for assuring the accurate tracking of the university’s assets. In this case, you’ll have no choice but to deploy a system to effectively track components. The last thing you want is to be out of compliance with university policy and run afoul of the campus auditors. The outcome of colliding with an audit is a memorandum called a “Management Corrective Action” or MCA. An MCA can land you right at the door of the university’s upper management.

If component-level tracking is required, you have to figure out how to physically tag the components. Here you will encounter significant issues. Placing an inventory tag on a component installed inside of a device operating at 145 degrees Fahrenheit is not the wisest idea. Assuming that you can fit the tag on a tiny component, the tag’s glue will likely melt at such high temperatures. The tags will fall off and land either on the bottom of the chassis or on other components. It doesn’t take long before this creates a real mess inside the device. You could place the component’s tags on the device’s chassis instead, but then you’ll have to remove the tag every time the component moves. This isn’t practical because the glue is often permanent and won’t let you peel the tag off once it’s been applied to the chassis. So you have a chassis littered with tags, resembling those well-traveled cars with a multitude of bumper stickers.

Some IT organizations work around this sticky issue by tracking components only upon receipt of the equipment. They capture the component’s serial number when the device is received from the manufacturer or when it is first deployed. After that, they no longer track the movement of individual components. Other options include using a bar code reader to scan the component’s label into a database. The database can then couple the component to the card or device. Or, if you are feeling especially brave, you can install a radio frequency identification system to track components. But you should be aware that RFID devices can emit radiation that sometimes causes errors in the sensitive CPU, memory and internal systems of the components you want to track.

Asset Management Tracking Solutions

Tools exist to help manage the inventory process. These include homegrown inventory applications, off-the-shelf database applications customized for inventory tracking, and full-blown IT inventory applications (see sidebars).

If you work at an institution where software developers have extra time, they can write a custom application for tracking IT inventory. The upside to this solution is that the developer can customize the application to meet your specific inventory requirements. As a result, you get a tool that precisely matches your needs. The downside is that maintaining custom applications can be expensive, and user documentation is often not what it should be. Also, if the software engineers who created the custom application leave your school, you can find yourself in a serious situation should you need to fix a bug in the custom application or add a new feature.

Off-the-shelf database applications such as FileMaker Pro and Microsoft Office Access 2007 can provide you with a useful asset management tool. These applications are relatively inexpensive, and they are well supported by the vendors who sell them. But the database applications need templates that include the appropriate fields and reports, so you’ll have to customize them quite a bit to make them work as inventory applications.

Network management packages containing asset management tools provide a more workable — albeit expensive — solution. These specially designed applications focus on IT asset management and can effectively track inventory. They require data entry but no programming. CiscoWorks LAN Management Solution is probably the most enterprise ready because it is a suite of products that support a wide range of devices as long as they are Cisco devices. LMS does not work with other vendors’ devices.

Whichever way you track your inventory, once you have implemented IT asset management, be sure to put the proper procedures in place to keep your inventory current. After spending considerable time and effort to develop an inventory system, you don’t want the information in the system to go stale.

Asset Management Levels

Of the types of IT inventory tracking, device level is the most basic, followed by card/module level and component level.

  • Device-level tracking is the least complex, because you need to account for only the device itself. The internal components, such as processors, cards and power supplies, all roll up into the value of the device. In inventory parlance, this is referred to as “add to value” or ATV. Basically, ATV means that nothing needs to be accounted for separately because it is already included in the device’s overall value.
  • At the card or module level, the IT department needs to track all the individual cards and modules associated with a device, such as processor modules, I/O cards and interface cards. The device’s value is the sum of the chassis value and each individual card or module.
  • With component-level inventory, the IT department must track the chassis, the cards, the modules and all the individual components associated with the chassis or cards.

Database Applications

  • FileMaker Pro Version 9.0 — Complete Package — Win, Mac — English CDW•G Price: $289.99
  • Microsoft Office Access 2007 — Complete Package — Win CDW•G Price: $214.99

IT Asset Management Applications

  • CiscoWorks LAN Management Solution CDW•G Price: $23,761.99 (1 server, 1,500 devices)
  • LANDesk Inventory Manager CDW•G Price: $29.99 per node (device)
  • Wasp MobileInventory Combo with Inventory Management CDW•G Price: $2,016.99

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