By Harris Kern

Whether you manage a large IT organization or a small one, you need some form of systems management discipline. Systems management is the combination of four key elements: processes, data, tools, and organization, which are all needed to manage a system efficiently and effectively. 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. Organization refers to the people that support the process and how they are set up to do so.

If you let even one of these go by the wayside, your systems management could suffer. Read on to see how important each element is in the success of your system management efforts, and to see what points you’ll need to consider before deploying your systems management infrastructure.

Ignoring an element will set you back
I’ve seen too many IT organizations develop exhaustive procedures, yet fail because they have not tackled all four key elements. To illustrate, let’s take a look at some examples of implementations that lacked one or more of these elements.

  • Process element ignored: Many help desks have no escalation procedures. Obviously, this leads to many complaints by users (and their management) when they don’t receive appropriate attention and support. To add insult to injury, in many cases, IT management becomes aware of these problems only when users complain.
  • Data element ignored: Often, help desks fail to adequately identify the data they need to gather from users. In one organization I worked with, its help desk had more than adequate staffing and clear procedures for handling calls. However, nobody quite knew what information to request, and there was no standard form for recording details. Whenever the caller’s problem was passed to technical support, the support person usually had to call the user again for more information. This delayed problem resolution. Productivity suffered, and users were dissatisfied. Eventually, users decided that calling the centralized help desk was a waste of time and began calling support specialists directly.
  • Tools element ignored: This is the most common systems management mistake IT organizations make: They erroneously believe you can simply throw bodies at the problem. Another organization I worked with had a help desk that was in total disarray because the staff was demoralized. We discovered they had no computerized means of recording and tracking calls; they were simply using a paper-based logbook. When management asked for weekly reports, the help desk staff needed a whole day simply to sort and filter their call records. Adding staff simply led to more paper shuffling, and even more lost call information.
  • Organization element ignored: Many IT organizations seem to think that you can have an effective help desk simply by seating people in front of a phone to answer user calls. They fail to recognize that it’s also important to organize the people making up the help desk. Organizing a help desk includes identifying the appropriate staffing and skills requirements, creating clear reporting lines within the help desk organization, and distributing responsibilities efficiently amongst the help desk staff. Without the right people and the proper organizational structure, there’s little chance that calls will be handled properly, and there may be little cooperation among the help desk staff. Calls will most likely pass from one person to another without ever getting resolved adequately.

Understanding your systems management requirements
To deploy an optimal systems management infrastructure, you must first thoroughly understand the system you intend to manage. Knowing the technical aspects of your system is not enough. To design a cost-effective, practical systems management infrastructure, you must consider the following points:

  • How critical the system is to the business: Consider how much of the business will be affected if the system is not available, in terms of lost productivity, increased expenses, lost business opportunities, and erosion of customer satisfaction.
  • Size of the system to manage: Size can be gauged in terms of the amount of resources (hardware, software, people, etc.) being utilized, the amount of data being processed, or the number of users being served.
  • Complexity of the system: A system can be complex because multiple operating systems are in use or because many types of users (customers, suppliers, managers, and staff) are sharing the same set of applications. When multiple components are shared, you run a greater risk of dysfunction or reduced performance due to competition for scarce resources.
  • Distribution of system components across different locations: Increasingly, components are distributed across servers and workstations in different buildings, cities, or even countries.
  • Ownership of resources: It’s harder to coordinate systems if many different owners have the final say as to what is done, simply because you have to get permission from many different people and coordinate all their decisions and actions. In a highly distributed computing environment, it’s common to have different owners for the workstations, servers, communication facilities (often owned by a telecommunications company or service provider), and so on.
  • Security requirements: Do your systems and information assets have to be protected? Do you have to add access control and authentication?
  • Skill sets: When devising a systems management infrastructure, consider not only the skills of the IT organization, but also those of users. As systems become increasingly distributed, management responsibilities may also be distributed, and everyone involved is likely to need new skills and training.
  • New technologies: Keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming technologies and be familiar with your organization’s long-term IT goals so the systems management infrastructure you design won’t be made obsolete by rapid change.
  • Environmental dependencies: It may be difficult or impossible to control the external environment in which your systems operate, but you can limit the impact of changes in the external environment on the operations of your systems. For example, if the power supplied to your equipment is prone to outages, you can deploy backup power generation facilities and establish procedures for switching to them.
  • Standards: You cannot deploy the right tools without considering corporate hardware and software standardization policies. Also consider company operations rules, such as security guidelines and employee management standards.

By focusing on the four key elements while considering the points above, you’ll be well on your way to designing a cost-effective, practical systems management infrastructure.

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