Managing Your Organization’s Technology Assets

Inventory and track technology assets efficiently to save your organization time and money

This article was adapted from a forthcoming IT workbook created by TechSoup's MaintainIT Project, an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers.

IT Asset management refers to any set of processes and procedures that help an organization keep track of its technology resources. At the simplest level, asset management is really just inventory control. What hardware and software do you own, and where is it located? In its more advanced forms, asset management can help you better understand how your staff uses technology, with the goal of becoming more efficient and standardized in your purchasing and decision making.

Most organizations use software to help track their assets. A Microsoft Excel spreadsheet will do in a pinch, especially for smaller organizations. However, lots of programs are designed specifically for asset control. A few of these programs are discussed in more detail in the Further Resources section that follows. Among other things, an asset management system should be able to record serial numbers, vendor contact information, warranty information, software license numbers, activation keys, hardware configuration and networking data (for example, IP address, subnet mask, etc).

Keep in mind that asset management is a continuous process rather than a one-time event to help your organization comply with regulations and license agreements. Any time you acquire new software or hardware, it has to be entered into the asset management system. Any time you move a computer or dispose of it, those changes have to be recorded.

IT managers and software vendors sometimes distinguish between hardware asset management and software asset management (also known as SAM or software license management). The term IT asset management encompasses both hardware and software. As you’re doing research, you’ll also see reference to asset management as it relates to finance and investment, which is completely unrelated to the topic of this article.

Why Use an Asset Management System?

  • Avoiding duplicate purchases.

    When you’re managing 20, 50 or 200 computers, how often do you lose track of what you own? How often do you over-purchase, buying extra licenses or extra copies that you don’t really need? The software may be hidden in someone’s filing cabinet. Maybe you decommissioned an old computer and never reclaimed the software licenses. If a colleague needs a new computer, do you have an unused PC in the building? Does it have enough power and memory? Do you have the right software licenses? It’s easy to lose track of computers, printers, routers, cell phones, PDAs, and it’s even easier to lose track of software CDs and software licenses. Asset management can help stop you from buying more than you need.

  • Automating reports and inventories.

    How many PCs in your nonprofit are more than four years old? Which computers need an update because they have an old version of Adobe Reader or Flash? Which machines don’t have enough RAM to run Office 2007? You can answer all of these questions with good asset management software.

  • Renegotiating license agreements.

    With asset management software, you’ll know which machines have installed copies of a particular program. You might find that you have 35 copies of Microsoft Office installed in your organization, but you’ve paid for 40 licenses. Maybe you installed Adobe Photoshop on someone’s PC last year, but that staffer moved on to another project and doesn’t use the software anymore. In other words, you may be able to remove unused and under-used copies of a program and then renegotiate that licensing agreement. Or you can reclaim forgotten copies of the software and offer them to other employees. Even if you can’t renegotiate your licensing agreement, you’ll have a better sense of usage patterns so that you don’t over-purchase in the future. Some asset management software will actually keep track of how often your end-users are running different applications (this function is sometimes known as software metering).

  • Saving time.

    Having all of your IT information in a single, centralized location will save you countless hours of frustrated searching. How many times in the average month do you need to track down a software license number, an activation key, the phone number of a sales representative or a tech support department?

  • Complying with software license agreements.

    Once you buy a copy of Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft Office, it’s easy to start installing the software everywhere, regardless of how many licenses you actually own. There might be three or four people in the organization who think they’ve been empowered to install software and manage licenses. Or it could be that no one is doing this. Whatever the reason, lack of centralized asset management often leads to violations of software licensing agreements. In other words, if the Business Software Association (BSA) ever audits your organization, you could be faced with significant fines for mismanaging software.

  • Standardizing your IT environment.

    After you have an up-to-date inventory of your hardware and software, you may notice that you own three different graphics editing programs and four different word processing programs. And you have 12 different hardware configurations. If you’re trying to simplify maintenance and troubleshooting by standardizing your IT environment, an asset management system will help you establish a baseline. It also helps you ensure that new technology acquisitions meet the standards that you’ve established.

  • Responsible accounting.

    If you receive funds from government agencies or large foundations, your activities are, no doubt, overseen by a wide array of financial regulations designed to prevent fraud and abuse. Furthermore, you probably have your own set of internal regulations and guidelines to adhere to. For example, if you purchased new computers within the past few years, your funders may ask you to locate those PCs and match them to your purchasing records. Also, if you bought a grant-funded computer to help manage mass mailings to your constituents, that computer should be dedicated to its original task for a certain amount of time. Asset management tools can help you in locating and identifying equipment in this way.

  • Planning and budgeting.

    If you always have an up-to-date inventory of your current hardware and software, it’s much easier to predict your future requirements.

Evaluation Criteria

  • Decide what you’ll track.

    Make a list of the information you’re tracking now and discuss with your colleagues whether you should be tracking anything else. This can help you decide on an asset management tool.

  • Do you need software for this?

    A lot of small nonprofits use a notebook to track their IT assets, and it costs about $4. If you’re ready to go digital, a spreadsheet may be all you need if you only manage a handful of computers. However, even for small organizations there are advantages in using specialized asset management software such as TechAtlas or Spiceworks.

  • How much does it cost?

    TechAtlas is a free program that combines asset management, technology planning and help desk management functionality. You can use it to document the configuration of desktop PCs, servers, printers, local networks, wide area networks, Internet connections, and more. It’s easy to use, and WebJunction provides documentation, training, and support. Spiceworks is another free program with good asset management functionality.

  • How automated is it?

    Some asset management programs are better than others at detecting changes in hardware and software on your network. Some asset management tools don’t have an automated scanning utility at all, and you’ll need to manually enter information about the software and hardware components of each PC. With other programs you have sit down at each machine (or login remotely) and begin the scan one machine at a time. With more advanced asset management programs you can set your machines up so they periodically send information about their current hardware and software configuration back to a central location, or the program itself queries all the computers on the network.

Once You’ve Found an Asset Management Tool

  • Create a baseline inventory.

    Once you’ve picked a tool, do a complete inventory of the hardware and software in your organization.

  • Assess your licensing compliance.

    Once you have a complete list of all your software, compare it to your current software-licensing agreements and ask yourself if you are under-licensed in any key areas.

  • Look for savings.

    Do you have more copies of a program and more software licenses than you really need? You might be able to renegotiate with the software vendor, sell some of your unused copies, or plan better so you don’t over-purchase again next time.

  • Simplify.

    After you’ve completed your inventory, ask yourself and your staff, “Are there any ways we can simplify and standardize our hardware and software so that we’re supporting fewer configurations?”

Further Resources

IT Asset Management

  • The Wikipedia articles on asset management in general and software asset management in particular have useful information.
  • Systems management software suites often include tools for managing hardware and software assets. Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager 2007 is one such package and it’s available to many nonprofits through Techsoup. In addition, help desk management applications, network monitoring programs and other IT management tools often contain asset management functionality. So look around. You might already own an asset management tool.
  • TechAtlas and Spiceworks are two free products with robust asset management features. If you’re looking for a standalone, proprietary asset management program, there are dozens to choose from. Examples include SystemHound, Computer Admin, and Numara Track-it.

Software Asset Management (aka Software license management)

  • Microsoft has developed lots of material on software asset management. You might begin with SAM Step by Step. They also created a free tool called the Software Inventory Analyzer that crawls your network and collects information about the installed Microsoft programs.
  • Keyfiler and LicenseKeeper (Mac only) focus solely on software asset management. They appear to be fairly simple tools and might not work well in a larger nonprofit. For a discussion of other low cost techniques for managing software licenses check out this review at Lifehacker, especially the comments thread.