Equipment drift is the unplanned, unmonitored movement of computer equipment from one person to another. Equipment drift may happen as personnel change positions or locations, or it may happen because employees feel they are “entitled” to the machine when they leave the company. This problem is potentially costly for many organizations.

The cost of most computer equipment has dropped to a manageable level when you consider only the physical equipment. However, add in the information and data stored on the machine and all the time that goes into replacing that information and data, and the value increases exponentially. Let’s take a look at how properly tracking computers internally can help reduce technology costs.

Taking a lesson from Episcopal High School
Imagine having 750 laptop computers distributed throughout your organization. For some companies, that kind of tracking and maintenance sounds like a nightmare waiting to happen. For Steve Eisenberg, director of IT for Episcopal High School in Houston, one would think that adding laptop computers to the school curriculum had the potential to be the largest headache he’d ever faced.

More than 600 students and 150 faculty members have laptops at Episcopal.

“These laptops are an integral part of the kids’ education,” Eisenberg said. “They are used every day, in every class, and by every student and teacher. In the beginning, we knew there would be some lost or stolen, so we insisted that every student purchase an insurance policy through the school.”

What Eisenberg didn’t count on was that the computers would drift away from the students to friends’ and relatives’ homes. At the beginning of the program, Eisenberg said he suspected many students took advantage of the insurance policy, but there was no way to prove that laptops reported as stolen were actually being filtered away from the school intentionally.

The loss of even 15 to 20 laptops each year can quickly become very costly for any organization, and that’s about what Episcopal High School lost in the first year of its computer program. For example, if the average cost of a low-end laptop is $1,500, then the annual loss from the program would be $22,500 to $30,000 per year, and that’s not taking into consideration anything outside the original cost of equipment.

To help combat the loss, Eisenberg began using ComputracePlus from Absolute Software. ComputracePlus is a program that sits beneath the operating system of each computer and checks in each time the computer is connected to the Internet. The laptop is then tracked according to the serial number and a unique ID number that is assigned by the software program. This allows Eisenberg and his IT group to know who has which computer, who has a loaner computer if repair work is being done, and what software is on each computer.

“We purchased the software for all of the laptops, but initially installed it only on half. But we told the students that it was on all of them. As soon as we did that, the reports of lost or stolen machines dropped to virtually zero,” Eisenberg said.

Tracking wireless devices
AirPrism, Inc., a Redwood, CA-based software development company, also uses a software program to track its computers—in this case, mobile computers. But the software that this company depends on is something that has been designed in-house.

“We’re a small company,” said Bob Vieriatis, vice president of marketing. “We have only about 25 people and 12 to 15 devices that we’re tracking. We don’t have a huge logistics problem here like many companies do.”

AirPrism’s software is designed to be used by larger companies. It works similarly to the Computrace product. However, since the AirPrism software is for use on wireless devices, it can be scheduled to call in at a certain time every day if the device is enabled for cellular communication. The IT department sets the call-in schedule, and if a unit doesn’t call, IT can send out a search signal to locate the machine. The software also tracks configuration and users and does periodic backups of all the data on the device.

Tracking challenges
“The biggest challenge to making any tracking program work is getting a handle on what’s out there,” Vieriatis said. For example, in an organization where there are hundreds of computers or pieces of mobile equipment, logging every machine and connecting it to a user in a database for the first time is the most daunting task.

Unfortunately, for an organization that hasn’t been tracking its equipment internally, the initial move to tracking might open the door for machines to drift away. For example, if an organization has 50 salesmen with laptops and five laptops that float as extras, it’s very easy for one or two of the 50 and one or two of the floaters to disappear during the initial inventorying process. And if there’s no tracking in place, once those machines disappear, there’s no way to track them down.

This kind of loss happens every day in corporations around the world. It’s not uncommon for a company experiencing rapid growth to shuffle people and machines around regularly. As that happens, a computer will eventually drop off IT’s radar and may be thrown out during the upgrading process or taken home by a disgruntled employee. These factors make getting an accurate initial inventory and tracking process in place an essential cost saving and security issue.

Once all computers and mobile devices are included in the initial database, the tracking becomes a matter of installing a tracking agent or developing an updating system that is closely monitored. But Vieriatis is quick to note that no solution is foolproof.

“No matter what solution you’re using, there will be times when a device goes missing and is never seen or heard from again,” he said.

In that case, what’s important is being able to quickly duplicate information on a new computer, he said.

Tagging vs. software
One alternative to software tracking programs is radio frequency identification (RFID) tags. These tags are attached to the machine, and then tracked using radio frequency waves. Like software, a single person can track the RFID tags from one location. However, the tags may work only within a certain area range of the tracking center or on equipment that’s larger than the typical laptop or mobile computer.

The real challenge with RFID tags is the cost benefit and size of the tag.

“The tag size for notebook computers becomes really inconvenient,” said Bill DeKruis, vice president of marketing for RF Technologies.

RFID tags are currently too large to fit on a laptop computer without being cumbersome. Cost will be the prohibitive factor for desktop computers. However, DeKruis said that RF Technologies is in the process of designing tags that would be imbedded inside the housing of a mobile or laptop computer, but “there are still some challenges with that,” DeKruis said.

Cost, effectiveness, and convenience
The challenges for tracking hardware are ultimately cost, effectiveness, and convenience. There isn’t any single solution that meets all of the challenges, but the current technologies do make it possible to reduce the cost of equipment drift. After all, some protection is better than none at all.

Considering that the average value of a laptop is considered to be five times the cost of the machine, the question isn’t “Is it cost effective to track our computer equipment?” but rather “How are we going to track our computer equipment?”