10 Steps to Simplifying Systems Management

By Ericka Chickowski  |  Posted 2008-07-09

As IT departments have matured over the years, many of their organization charts have sprouted into weeping willows of hierarchies that can flummox even the most organized CIO. Each branch waves in the winds of technology on its own, with its group of specialized technologists acting individually to work on very specific problems. There are merits to such a system, but one big disadvantage is that it makes high-level management of IT systems a real pain, says Roy Illsley, senior research analyst with Butler Group.

Each group has its own unique sets of servers, desktops, appliances and more to help them serve the business. They also often share systems with other groups, and even the systems unique to a specific group have the potential to greatly affect another group’s systems. Unfortunately, many IT departments are not equipped to efficiently manage all of these systems from the top. Systems management duties and roles are rarely delineated with a big-picture strategy in mind, and many enterprises fail to utilize tools that can give them a window into systems across the IT department and the business at large, says Illsley, who co-wrote a recent Butler Group report titled, “IT Systems Management Technology Comparison.”

 “This approach has created tensions between the requirements of the business users and the capabilities to manage the technology of the IT department. The result of this siloed approach is that IT resources are locked into technologies, and organizations face expensive retraining or new hiring costs if technologies new to the organization are selected,” Illsley wrote in the report. “The new, more holistic approach to systems management is that of simplification, so that the IT department can manage the technology stack at a higher level, and therefore enable it to manage a wider range of technologies more efficiently.”

Recently, Baseline chatted with Illsley and asked him to offer some no-nonsense advice for implementing holistic systems management practices and tools in an organization. The first five are organizational changes, while the last five deal with tool selection.

1. Start with an inventory.
It sounds very basic, but this fundamental step is crucial to the development of a sound systems management strategy, and it is often ignored by IT management.

“You can't manage anything unless you know what it is you're managing,” Illsley says, “so the first thing is to know your assets.” This means coming up with a detailed asset inventory across all subgroups within IT and mapping their interactions.

2. Affix values to assets.
Once the asset discovery process is complete, it is now time to create a prioritization of assets, Illsley says.

“The next step is to understand the value that those assets are bringing to the organization,” he says. “Are they delivering an important service? Are they redundant? Are they sitting there as a backup-and-recovery system or what?”

3. Link it back to the business.
The next step is to figure out how all of these assets deliver services to the business. This step may very well rearrange the system priorities you set out in step two. It should also affect how system resources are managed, Illsley says.

“You've understood what you've got; you've understood the value of what you’ve got, but can you now link that back to what the business values in terms of how I do things, why I do things, what is important is it integrated with a business service? Do you have business service management so you can look at a prioritization of process to technology?” Illsley says, explaining that by doing so, “you can then alter the resources according to their needs.”

4. Staff up appropriately.
An enterprise needs to have the right competencies and skills necessary to properly handle holistic systems management processes and tools, Illsley says.

“A tool in the wrong hands means you’ve just got a fool with a tool,” he says. “If I give a bloke a hammer, he could miss the nail and miss the wood. The hammer's a tool, but you've got to have the skills and the competencies to use it to build something beautiful.”
Some organizations may have many specialized workers in IT, but none with requisite expertise to orchestrate high-level systems management. IT leaders need to be honest with themselves in evaluating current staff’s ability to do the job and might even look toward business-side leaders with technology skills to move into the role.

5. Streamline the management duties.
As new systems and technologies are added into the infrastructure, they are often just tacked onto the existing data center management schema, Illsley says. To really get a handle on overall systems management, he believes that enterprises have to do a better job with how they cluster technologies and set out responsibilities for their management.
“IT structure has got to be adaptable to change as the technology is changing,” Illsley says.

He likes to point to virtualization as a prime example of how inflexibility in hierarchies can get a business into trouble.

“Before virtualization, you had a mainframe team and a server team and a desktop team and a network team and an application team,” he says. “Now you've gone to virtualization—do you start a virtualization team? If you do, who looks after the servers? Is that the server team or the virtualization team? The virtualization team cuts across everybody, and therefore you'd have a problem. So you need to make sure that the structure works for how the tools and the technology are implemented.”

6. Look for a tool that bridges visibility gaps.
The biggest obstacle to systems management as a result of IT fragmentation isn’t confusion over responsibilities—it is a lack of overarching visibility into day-to-day operations. When seeking a new systems management tool, Illsley recommends that enterprises ask a key question.

“Can the software cut across these and reorganize them and get them to a point where you're looking at them as one group?” he says. “Because you're never going to get the mainframe boys and the Windows boys talking together, but can you get a small window into the silos so at least you've got a greater flexibility with the people to do better things?”

In the case of virtualization, for example, the tool should be able to give good visibility into the physical and virtual systems.

7. Seek the most interoperability for your buck.
Just about every IT organization in existence today deals with the complications of running a heterogeneous environment. Illsley believes that enterprises must choose.
“If you think about any IT organization, they may well be a Tivoli shop, and they may well run CA, and they may well have Microsoft, and they may have XY and Z system running, so they need to ask how easily it supports and plays these vendors' solutions together,” Illsley says. “Are you creating a problem for yourself by doing it at the API level, or is it something that works at a metadata level so it is quite easy to do?”

8. Shop green.
Environmentally friendly IT practices are not only signs of solid corporate responsibility, but they also save a lot of green. And one of the easiest ways to effectively diminish power and cooling requirements is to improve systems management practices. When upgrading management tools, Illsley highly recommends factoring power management controls into the decision-making process.

“Thinking about practicalities like power management—can I use the tool to make myself environmentally aware?” Illsley says. “Can I record what I'm using, [and] can I adjust the power consumption to meet the demands of the business effectively and remain environmentally friendly?”

9. The more automation the better.
Reducing the manpower necessary to run systems is the name of the game in systems management, so the tools you choose need to be able to automate both simple and complex tasks. For example, to improve power management, a tool could automatically shut down desktops at quitting time and start them up prior to workers’ arrivals.

“Ask yourself: Can it use things like behavioral analysis and a behavioral learning system to recognize use patterns?” Illsley says. “[Say] it’s a Monday morning at 9 a.m., and everybody is going to be logging on. Therefore, it should say, ‘Let’s save this background activity for later, and let’s make these resources available. Let’s do some
pre-work and fire up the operating systems on these desktops and these servers, so when they come into the office, everything is fine.”

10. Finding a Fit.
Nowhere is scalability as important as in systems management. Illsley says that it is absolutely crucial that an enterprise choose its tool based on whether it is built for the right size of organization and how well it can grow with an organization. This is especially critical for organizations expanding rapidly through mergers and acquisitions, which can really strain staff when it comes to managing newly gained systems, desktops and staffs.

Ultimately, all of these steps fit together to form the backbone of a cohesive systems management process. While some of his advice may seem rudimentary, he firmly believes that the principles it is based on are still not acted upon in the typical organization.

“Taking a holistic perspective to managing the organization’s infrastructure requires a different approach and one that many IT organizations are not equipped to adopt,” he wrote in his report. Part of it may just be a question of resources. If you’re an IT manager or executive who is getting pushback from those who hold the purse strings over the purchase of systems management tools, Illsley leaves you with a few parting words of encouragement for the big pitch.

“I think a lot of these tools now are building their return on investment on the fact that they can deliver the capability of saving money,” he told Baseline. “If you say, ‘I'm going to implement X applications this year, and I’m going to install them on these servers, and they're going to need these people to manage them,’ [these tools] are going to absorb that and automate some of the activity and reduce the management of these new systems.”

This is key for many organizations, which will be asked to do more with less in the coming months. According to a recent Butler Group survey, 73 percent of IT staffers expect their budgets to be reduced or remain flat in the coming year.