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Managing a large number of computers on a network becomes a daunting task once you grow past a small department level of 20 computers or so. Think of all of the tasks that network administrators are called to do: deploy hardware and software; keep up with patches and upgrades; account for inventory, assets, and licensing; provide security; migrate users, profiles, and environments from one system to another; provide reporting on many of these features to management; create and maintain a set of policies for users and groups' access to resources and software, and so on.
There was a time when you could at least count on your network environment being one kind of vendor's products or another. You might have had NetWare servers and Macintosh clients, or Windows or Unix servers and clients; and systems didn't move around on you. Today a network administrator is asked to perform all of these tasks on not only servers and desktops of various OSs, but laptops and handhelds as well. Before long managing cell phones may be part of the equation. Corporate mergers complicate issues by blending cultures so that you may find yourself supporting a diverse and chaotic networking environment, and you don't need to be in a big company for that to be the case.
The solution is to deploy a network management package such as SMS, LANDesk, Altiris, Novell ZenWise, or some other package of this type to automate many of the tasks mentioned above. These packages, which often integrate into network frameworks like Tivoli or OpenView are not cheap, but they can offer a very rapid return on investment to companies that deploy them. One study done a couple of years ago by IDC tried to measure the value of installing a management package in the manner it is most often measured, return on investment or ROI. They found by interviewing companies that averaged installation costs of around $750K that the 3 year savings amounted to around $1.9M in IT management productivity costs, $120K in reduced downtime, $600K in administration delays, $205K in improved revenue, and gains of $720K in improved IT management efficiencies.
Thus with a total of $3.0M the break even point for this project was around 9 months. Even if you deflate these numbers, the typical management software installation will almost always have less than an 18 month break even period, and in at least half of the cases less than a 12 month break even period. That's assuming that the people who do the installation and training are skilled in their areas of expertise. Another study claims that just by standardizing your software which these package make it easy to do will save a company perhaps 15% of their IT costs as well.
The thing that ROI doesn't measure, and it's always the major flaw in these studies are the lost opportunity costs, because they can't be measured. For example, you might have taken on that project of importing dates from Turkey if you have the inventory system in place that you planned. And you would have had that system if your staff wasn't visiting each workstation to roll out Windows XP SP2. These are good things to keep in mind around budget time if you want to make your life administering networks easier.
Barrie Sosinsky is president of consulting company Sosinsky and Associates (Medfield MA). He has written extensively on a variety of computer topics. His company specializes in custom software (database and Web related), training and technical documentation.