Maintaining a network of over 300 users and 250 network printers, with systems configured in a variety of ways depending on their function, would pose big challenges for anyone. Spread that network over a 40-acre manufacturing plant and throw equipment leasing into the mix, and you’ve got a task rivaling the perpetual boulder-rolling of Sisyphus.
The challenge facing Darren, an IT professional at a manufacturing plant in the southeastern United States, was not only to support the 300-plus users on the network (many of whom are computer novices). He also had to undertake the arduous process of tracking expired leases on equipment, swapping the machines out with new systems, and then configuring those systems according to their function on the network.
Darren’s experience may provide some valuable insights for others in similar situations—insights that can help save money, reduce the time required to configure and deploy new hardware, and eliminate needless complications.
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You can learn quite a bit by reading about the methods other administrators and engineers use to resolve challenging technology issues. Our hope is that this column will provide you with unique solutions and valuable techniques that can help you become a better IT professional. If you have an experience that would be a good candidate for a future From the Trenches column, please e-mail us. All administrators and their companies remain anonymous in this column so that no sensitive company or network information is revealed.
The network in Darren’s company runs Novell NetWare and Lotus Notes, with a few servers running Windows NT and Windows 2000. Fiber-optic lines and Cisco routers and switches support the infrastructure.
The various workstations and laptops connected to the network serve a variety of functions. Some systems, for example, are configured for the specialized purpose of graphically monitoring the production process. The laptops are used primarily in the warehouse for inventory monitoring, utilizing barcode readers to collect data. And some workstations are used mainly for Internet browsing.
A proprietary workflow management program tracks production on each of the machines in the plant. It keeps tabs on the parts produced on each line and includes a reporting feature to generate statistical output on production.
All of this is spread out over 40 acres in 40 buildings, and each building is known simply by its number.
The equipment-leasing challenge
Many companies have turned to equipment leasing as a way to save money up front and keep their hardware current. While this option may be a viable money saver for many, Darren’s experience shows that it can be just the opposite if the process isn’t properly managed.
When Darren was first hired, his assigned task was to begin the difficult process of pulling all of the machines whose leases were up and swapping them out for new systems. Because his plant had also switched vendors, that meant swapping out the old Compaq systems for IBMs.
Further complicating matters, the company was shorthanded, so nobody had been able to follow up on the leased equipment that was due back. Darren found that between 30 and 40 machines were either due back or overdue, and some of those were actually sitting around the plant unused.
“Essentially,” Darren said, “we’re paying for nothing. The leases have been overdue for some time; we’re still paying, but the PCs are just sitting here.”
Simplifying the process with a database
Luckily for Darren, the company used a database to keep track of the leases on the systems. A report from the database displayed all of the information he needed to track down what was due or overdue, including the name of the person to whom the item was originally shipped (usually the head of the cost center), the name of the person currently using the machine, and where it was located. In a 40-acre plant, knowing where is just as important as knowing what.
“I spent my first days on the job shadowing another guy just to learn my way around the plant," Darren said. "If I hadn’t, I would’ve never found my way back to my office.”
But just because a system was due back or even overdue, that didn’t mean that Darren could pull it. He first had to have a new and configured system to replace it. Not all of the PCs whose leases were due up had available replacements yet. Because so many of the leases were coming due at the same time, Darren said, they didn't have time to build new machines.
In cases where no IBM machine was available to replace a Compaq, Darren had to either swap the overdue machine for one still on lease but unused or leave the overdue item in place until an IBM system arrived to replace it. It wasn't necessarily a problem to hang onto a system whose lease was up, because equipment wasn't considered overdue until the end of the month. However, Darren said that he just had to hope he would have a replacement ready by then.
Ghosting to save time
Often, the problem wasn’t that a new system wasn’t there, but that it hadn’t been configured with the necessary software. Before beginning the tedious process of pulling all of the machines whose leases were due up, Darren had to configure the new IBMs with the correct software. The configuration of each system depended on its location and purpose in the plant.
Shop-floor servers, for example, use proprietary software to track production and keep statistics on the items that are created. Systems in other areas are installed with SAP, and all of them use Lotus Notes. The configuration process was particularly time consuming because the company doesn’t use Symantec Ghost or similar imaging tools to facilitate the deployment process.
Darren had to manually configure each of the new IBM PCs as they arrived before he could replace the Compaq systems that were due back. He had to know where the new PC was being used so he could install the correct software. The information contained in the database and on the invoice was important in helping find the appropriate systems. Because each system's location in the plant determined what software it required, Darren could call the person to whom it was shipped to confirm where it would be installed.
Does this invoice come with a map?
The size of the plant presented Darren with another obstacle to keeping up with system replacement. Not only did he have to keep track of which machines needed to be replaced and configure the new systems, he also had to do the swapping out. That meant transporting the newly configured PCs to their locations in the plant and pulling the old systems.
When he first undertook the task, with nearly 40 machines waiting to be replaced, Darren was busier with the physical task of swapping out machines than he was with attending to network tasks.
“I was basically a moving man for two and a half weeks,” Darren said. “All we did was pick up equipment and haul it to swap out somewhere.”
The database helps to keep tabs on leased equipment, but it’s still not an easy job to physically keep up with systems that are due back.
“There’s always something coming off lease,” he said. “I’ve lost four pounds trying to run everything down.”
Winning the leasing game
At this point, Darren has reached the end of the initial list of systems whose leases were either due up or overdue. In the next two months, he has to swap out only a few machines whose leases will expire. After that, however, things become interesting again when about 20 leases will expire in a month's time. Then, Darren will begin pushing the boulder back up the hill.
His experience shows that leasing equipment saves money only if you take steps to keep up with the contracts. Because some of the overdue systems were left unused while the IBM replacements were being installed, Darren’s company was essentially paying double. Keeping adequate staff on hand to keep up with the leases would have eliminated this problem before any of the systems were overdue or waiting to be sent back.
Darren said his task would also have been much easier if the company had purchased disk imaging software (such as Symantec Ghost) to facilitate the configuration process. Having to manually configure each new system that arrived consumed valuable time that could have been spent elsewhere.
Unfortunately for Darren, there’s no easy solution to dealing with the issue of working with a network that is physically spread over a 40-acre manufacturing plant. He just needs to have a good pair of walking shoes.