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License model? License muddle is probably a more accurate description of how most large companies acquire and manage their software. The fact is that keeping tabs on who has got what application in any organization is a logistical nightmare.
To keep it all straight, every company should have an asset manager responsible for ensuring (at the very least) that all software is licensed and therefore legal. But, in practice, it's often not clear whose job this really is, and responsibility gets passed on to you guessed it the network administrator.
What's Out on the Network?
The first problem facing the network manager, then, is figuring out what software (and even what hardware) is out there. This is far from straightforward because IT departments buy software from many different sources, and often there are also rogue departments buying software for themselves independently. Many organizations would be hard pressed to say how many PCs they have within about 30 percent of the actual number and what cards and other peripherals may be attached to them is anyone's guess.
Fortunately, life has been made easier thanks to the availability of sophisticated automated inventory management products from the likes of Hanover, N.H.-based Tally Systems and many others. These product scan the network and look for computing devices and the applications loaded on them. These can provide a definitive answer to the vital question: "Do we have unlicensed and therefore illegal software?"
Aside from avoiding license hassles, network managers who keep tabs on the applications running over the network also have the opportunity to reduce security risks. "You need to understand the structure of your IT infrastructure, because if you have a piece of rogue software, this may not be just a security issue, but also a corporate liability issue," said Glen O'Donnell, an analyst at Stamford, Connecticut-based research house META Group.
Perhaps most importantly, solid inventory control can lead to significant cost savings, in both obvious and less obvious ways. The obvious way is by eliminating payments for licenses for software that has not been deployed. These savings can be large: Without a reliable inventory management system it's often tempting to overestimate the number of licenses required in order to stay legal. The alternative is the tedious and time-consuming job of walking around an organization with a clipboard visiting each PC and recording its contents.
But there is another more subtle way of creating savings, and one that inventory management software vendors are increasingly recognizing: By monitoring software usage to keep tabs on which applications are actually being used, and by whom, and how often.
The benefits of rock solid software usage statistics, rather than simple inventory numbers, are hard to overestimate. At the most basic level, why pay for a license for an application sitting unused on a hard disk? The same is true of rarely used applications, especially in organizations that support a wide variety of applications that do similar functions.
META Group found that one of its clients was supporting more than 1,000 applications, although some of these applications were used by fewer than 10 staffers. By consolidating applications, it reduced the number of applications supported by more than 75 percent. This can have huge cost reduction implications, not only in terms of support and configuration, but also in terms of simplification of network traffic and time saved implementing patches and upgrades.
From a network point of view the impact of application usage monitoring software is small. That's because once a small piece of client software has been installed on each computer on the network, the only extra network traffic is a small amount of delta information the deviation from the previously held data which is returned over the network to a collection server.
There are other benefits as well. Your organization may allow certain applications, but expect them to be used only occasionally. If the company puts in place usage policies, then application usage monitoring can flag when applications like these especially bandwidth hogging ones are being used too often, or when their usage becomes too widespread.
"This enables companies to control who gets what and who's using it according to the policies you put in place," says O'Donnell. "Clearly there are privacy issues, but it comes down to corporate culture. My own view is that these are corporate resources being used and the company has the right to protect them from abuse."
One company now offering an application usage module as a bolt on to its core inventory management product is Tally Systems. Its TS.Census Usage Module is aimed at companies with 100 to 5,000 PCs, and John Mahon, a vice president of sales and marketing, highlights another benefit of usage monitoring software: it can provide important information to use in license negotiations with large software suppliers. "A lot of organizations are getting ready to have license negotiations with Microsoft, and they need accurate information or they are in a weak position," Mahon says. "Everyone uses Word, about half use Excel, and no one uses Access. That's the saying and it holds true for other licenses as well. If you know your precise usage figures, it puts you in a much stronger position to negotiate."
It's likely that as Microsoft increases the use of subscriptions-based licenses, usage monitoring will become more popular, but even ignoring Microsoft, the point is a valid one: The more you know about the pattern of usage of a particular application in your organiszation and the more accurate the data you can provide, the easier it is to talk to software vendors about license matters from a position of strength.
Internally too, accurate application usage statistics can be valuable. It's easy for employees to think that they need an application, but it often turns out that some of these employees never actually use it. With the right information it becomes easy to make decisions to re-allocate a license for a particular application from one employee who never uses it to another who probably will without needless arguments and memos.
It's certainly true that network administrators have enough demands on their time without being in charge of asset management as well. But if you do happen to land this added responsibility, using automated inventory tools over the network you run can make the job less painful. And if you save your organization a large sum money, some of the savings just might find its way in to your next fiscal year's budget making your job a little bit easier in the future as well.