Project Management

Automated change-management tools ease the tedium of gathering data

Gathering configuration details can be a huge drain on your time. That's why so many IT managers forgo this vital step in the change management process. Automated change tools can keep you on track by providing the data you need, when you need it.

By Alex Bakman, CEO of Ecora Software

Whether you are talking about troubleshooting problems, rolling out new servers, migrations, consolidations, security assessments, or disaster recovery planning, almost every IT project hinges on the ability to manage change. Any tool that helps you automate mundane tasks associated with change (e.g., installing patches and documenting servers) will save time and dramatically raise productivity.

Nonetheless, gathering configuration details manually is so tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone that it is done rarely, if at all. But not having access to such details could mean security vulnerabilities, fines due to noncompliance, and inadequate (to put it mildly) disaster recovery preparation. Still, many companies run these risks daily because overcoming this challenge would require enormous resource expenditure.

This doesn’t have to be the case. Many automated solutions now exist that provide the detailed data necessarily to manage change, while enabling you to plan and accomplish more projects in less time. These tools offer a broad spectrum of data gathering services. To help you see what these change management tools can do for your data-gathering efforts, here is an overview of their abilities.

Tools of the change-management trade
The automated change management products that are currently available include: Ecora Software, whose CEO is Alex Bakman, the author of this article, also offers two change management tools: Configuration Auditor and PatchMeister (patch analysis and remediation). Check out some of these tools for yourself. You may be surprised how many projects you can get done once these tools are in place.

It’s all in the configuration details
Change management tools can make gathering the information listed below simple and straightforward, which in turn leads to simple and straightforward troubleshooting in the future.

Assessments
One of the first steps for any large project is to find out what’s out there. How many servers? Where are they? What’s installed on them? The rate at which devices and applications are added to an enterprise can be staggering. An initial configuration report will not only set expectations, but also serve as the jumping off point for all other projects.

Documentation
Something as simple as written documentation of all key configuration settings can save hours or days of downtime in the event of troubleshooting or a disaster. A server or router can be up and running in a matter of minutes when you know all of its proven, secured settings. In the event of a significant disaster, configuration reports can help restore an infrastructure up to 70 percent faster than backups. When you can click a button and get current configuration documentation, that becomes an invaluable tool for disaster recovery.

Change reports
The knowledge gleaned in a configuration report becomes especially useful in subsequent projects, because you can run reports to see instantly what has changed. A change might show an active user ID for a consultant who left three months ago and who still has admin privileges to all of your servers. Scheduling reports a week apart provides a useful snapshot of what is happening in your environment. Such reports are the first thing an IT person should reach for to troubleshoot a problem. When you know how things were configured before the problem, the when, where, how, and what went wrong is all right there.

Service packs, hot fixes, and patch levels
These are crucial in today’s environment and have spawned an entire industry. Running a configuration report can show you what is installed, what is missing, and, as is the case with some programs, where to find the missing patch. Assessing the state of patches and service packs across an enterprise is an important project for security, compliance, and performance. Automation enables you to wrap it up quickly and maintain consistency easily. According to an FBI report, over 90 percent of all security breaches result from missing patches.

Baselining
The setting of baselines is critical for maximizing efficiency. Baseline reports—common to most automated systems—can be used to spot deviations and noncompliant devices in a one-to-many comparison: one standardized against all other devices. This could be the fastest way to verify that your “gold standard” is being adhered to across the enterprise—a key component for standards compliance.

Take the time now to reap the benefits later
It takes time to implement best practices for managing IT projects, but the most useful place to begin is knowing your environment down to the most minute detail and tracking what happens to settings over time. Automated solutions for systems and configuration management give you this knowledge, along with the crucial documentation that adds the utmost value to projects.

As an IT manager, you know that anything that frees up your resources and time is invaluable. If you want to save time and raise productivity dramatically, consider using an automated change management tool.
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