Energy company flips the switch -- leaves SMS in the dark

Margie Semilof

Windows administrators at Cinergy Corp. have some good advice for IT administrators who are thinking about changing or adding to their desktop and server management tools.

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    It's all in the planning, said Frank Cook, support services supervisor for the Cincinnati-based energy giant. The software, no matter which vendor you choose, does not make up for lack of preparation on the part of the managers.

    Cinergy recently installed client and server management software for its 7,100 Windows desktops and 600 servers, which are mostly running Windows 2000 with a smattering of NT on both counts. The company's main operations are in Cincinnati and Plainfield, Iowa, with satellite offices throughout Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. There is also a large trading facility in Houston.

    The company opted to use software made by Altiris Inc., a Lindon, Utah-based company. The planning stages, which began in October 2001, lasted roughly six months, Cook said. By comparison, installation only took about three months. The software has been in operation since August, although all features are not yet operational. So far, the company is using inventory tracking and the ability to deploy hotfixes and patches to servers.

    Cook and Jeff Starke, principal technical consultant in Cinergy's server group, said that the company was looking for a comprehensive package for software deployment, reporting and inventory as well as remote software distribution. Cinergy had previously used Microsoft's Systems Management Server (SMS) but switched to Altiris for several reasons.

    For one thing, Microsoft was in-between releases, and Cinergy wanted certain features immediately, Starke said.

    Altiris had an infrastructure design that was better suited to Cinergy's enterprise. With Altiris, commands flow from a central server to each workstation without passing through other servers, which makes management of the infrastructure easier, Starke said.

    The Altiris software also included pre-designed reports, which help administrators pull up information, such as the number of laptops and desktops in the enterprise, the breakdown of desktops using Windows 2000 or NT, and the processor speeds of individual desktops. Reports are general, but IT administrators can customize them.

    "With SMS, we would have had to design our own," said Cook, who added that SMS administrators at Cinergy said that designing similar reports for SMS would have taken "months and months."

    The reports are useful for diagnosing various network activities that could lead to trouble if left unchecked. For example, when an Internet worm penetrated the company firewall, it took IT managers only one hour to figure out which machines had been hit. The worm had only reached a few workstations, so in a short period of time they could tell that they didn't have a major issue, Starke said.

    Of course, the trickiest job is figuring out how to turn all of this management data into useful business information, a process that Cook said has more to do with how the company is structured than anything a software package can do.

    But first, the company treated the management software as if it was general business software. Both Cook and Starke said that the company spent a lot of time re-fashioning employee roles and procedures to accommodate this shift.

    Some of the company's best practices include:

  • Defining the IT staff roles and responsibilities, so everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Cinergy has specialists who work on packaging software, specialists who support the software itself, and specialists who run the infrastructure. By contrast, many companies have one group of employees who do it all.
  • IT administrators need to be well aware of what is in each software package and what its impact will be upon distribution.
  • Administrators need a good marketing plan so clients know what to expect. "We have a long-term business plan for this software," Cook said. "Our feeling is we are just at the tip of the iceberg."
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