Implement these disciplines for effective systems management

Systems management disciplines are essential for effectively managing your IT systems. Here are the five phases you should include in your systems management process.

You need some form of systems management discipline to effectively manage the availability, performance, security, and other aspects of your IT systems. If you don’t, your systems won’t be of much value to your business. Systems management covers many, if not all, aspects of IT operations. I’ll examine the main phases of implementing systems management and cover the key disciplines you need to consider in managing each phase.

The traditional formula for effective systems management of any system, process, or activity is comprised of five phases. These phases are designed to address the key issues faced by most IT managers today, including:
  • What activities must be performed everyday?
  • How do you know these get done when they’re supposed to?
  • Who is responsible for performing each activity?
  • How do you know if it’s being done effectively and efficiently?
  • Who tells management how it’s going?
  • Who gets blamed if things don’t go right?
  • How can you improve what you’re doing?

Phase 1: Set objectives
The first and most important phase is setting objectives. Here, you determine the requirements of the business and end users. Without properly determining what needs to be achieved, it’s nearly impossible to execute the other phases effectively. You must understand user objectives, so your plans and activities support them.

In mature IT organizations, setting objectives often takes the form of defining service level agreements (SLAs) by enumerating the different services to be provided to the users and the corresponding attributes, such as performance, availability, and features.

Phase 2: Plan
In the planning phase, based on the objectives determined above, you define a plan to meet those objectives. This plan usually covers the resources to be deployed, the activities to be done, the measurements to be tracked, the tools to be used, and how the people are to be organized.

In an earlier article, I emphasized the need to address the four elements of systems management: process, data, tools, and organization. This need certainly applies to the second phase of effective systems management. To further define these four elements, I would say that processes deal with how to perform the task, data refers to the information required to perform the process, tools are the equipment needed to perform the processes, and organization refers to the people that support the process and how they are set up to do so.

Phase 3: Execute
In the execution phase, you actually perform the steps that were planned in Phase 2.

Phase 4: Measure
Here you record relevant data regarding the execution of the plan. Many different measures can be tracked, falling into categories such as performance (speed of execution of a task), capacity (number of concurrent tasks executed), failures (number of problems, frequency of problems, areas affected by problems, number of repeat problems, number of detected problems, and so on), and recovery (problem resolution time).

Phase 5: Control
The control phase gives the manager a means to correct the first four phases on an ongoing basis. In this phase, you can verify whether the measurements meet your objectives. Here, you can reexamine and refine your plans to more effectively support your objectives, and eliminate execution problems. You can review how you execute your plans to ensure that the execution has not, itself, caused availability problems. Finally, you can reevaluate your objectives to determine whether they should be upgraded or downgraded, to more effectively balance user requirements against what can actually be achieved.

Phase 5 never ends; rather, it circles back to Phase 1, giving the manager necessary information for revisiting phases one through four, and creating a closed-loop process. If you skip any of these phases, your management system is likely to become obsolete quickly.

The control phase is crucial to ensuring that the system is consistently managed well. Many IT shops develop excellent plans and objectives, and perform extremely well when they first implement their plans. Since they fail to check on what is happening, however, changing technology, environments, and user requirements leave the management systems behind.

All five phases are interdependent. If you fail to get an accurate picture of user requirements in Phase 1, your plans will be misdirected and insufficient. If you skip planning in favor of early execution, your activities will lead to resource conflicts and poor performance measurements. If managers fail to monitor the process, they cannot determine its ongoing effectiveness.

Identifying the systems management disciplines
If you apply the fundamentals of management to information systems management, you can tabulate the systems management disciplines necessary in any system, big or small (see Table A). The only difference is how extensively the disciplines are implemented.
Table A
Phase Discipline Description
1. Setting objectives 
Service management
Identify, negotiate, and agree to services to be provided, quality measurements, and IT performance targets to be provided to users.
2. Planning
Application and systems design
Plan and design IT infrastructure to meet service levels committed to user.
Capacity planning
Plan for system growth requirements.
Configuration management
Create and maintain system configuration information.
Asset Management
Create and maintain asset inventory; track and monitor use of such assets.
3. Execution
Problem management
Detect, record, and resolve problems.
Backup and recovery
Design alternative systems and resources to immediately restore IT services when problems occur.
4. Measurement  
Performance management
Monitor system performance data; tune system for optimal achievement of service levels committed to users.
5. Control
Change management
Control all changes to the system to ensure that change does not degrade system performance.
Security management
Control and administer access to the system to minimize threats to system integrity.
Availability management
Monitor and control system resources and IT operation to maintain system availability.

In this article, I examined a number of the issues related to implementing systems management disciplines. The next step is to describe each of these systems management disciplines, and detail the processes themselves. The nitty-gritty of procedures, data, tools, and organization to support these disciplines can differ dramatically for each organization. You will need to concentrate on the disciplines that are especially critical in your IT environment and have the most impact when it comes to addressing users’ availability requirements.

The Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute is a consortium of publications—books, reference guides, tools, and articles—developed through a unique conglomerate of leading industry experts responsible for the design and implementation of “world-class” IT organizations. For more information, visit the Harris Kern Enterprise Computing Institute’s Web site.

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