Beating those patching blues

Keeping software and hardware up-to-date has traditionally been a very manual process for companies like Heenan Blaikie LLP, a law firm with eight offices across Canada.

According to Jack Ross, Heenan Blaikie’s Montreal-based IT director, his 30-person IT team used to keep up with software and hardware patches by scheduling updates on weekends and traveling to the firm’s various locations to get the job done.

In 2003, Heenan Blaikie began using IT lifecycle management solutions from Lindon, Utah-based Altiris to help deal with the software side — Windows and server operating system updates. But the company, which has been using Dell Inc. servers, desktops and laptops for the last two-and-a-half years, still had to do hardware driver and BIOS updates one by one, said Ross.

“If…someone tells me that with this specific server model there is an update that has to be done, I would have to [remotely connect] into each individual server and do the updates one at a time — if remoting is possible,” Ross said. “Even with OpenManage,” Dell’s systems management software, “we still had to do a manual update.” But Ross expects that will change soon.

Earlier this month, Dell said it has integrated OpenManage version four with the Altiris Management Suite, unifying the tools customers use to update system software, OSes and applications under one interface.

According to Bryan Rusche, Dell Canada’s server brand manager in Toronto, having multiple vendors’ hardware and operating systems in an IT environment, as well as different generations of hardware and applications, creates so many permutations that it becomes a very complex environment to manage. “If you take a look at where system administrators spend most of their time…[it] is spent maintaining updates to systems.”

The nice thing about management tools like Altiris’ is that they automate the process, Rusche said. “They give you reporting (capabilities) so you know what has been…completed successfully.” Now that Dell’s OpenManage and Altiris’ capabilities are available through a single tool, they can help the IT staff take inventory of the infrastructure. “(The tool) provides a snapshot of the various updates that have been installed. It basically goes to or or, takes a look at the list and says, ‘Here’s what we’ve got installed, here is what is critical and here is what needs to be installed.”

The tool enables the system administrator to automatically push out updates according to a set policy. After the updates have been pushed out, the software generates a report that tells the administrator which updates have been successfully completed and which ones did not install.

However, the tool will not do preliminary testing to see if the updates will affect the rest of the IT environment, Rusche said. “You still have to make sure you are ready to push (the updates) out. But it is completely flexible in that it automates the process to kick things off; you can choose what updates to do at what time and under what circumstances.”

Because the Dell/Altiris integrated tool is fairly new, Heenan Blaikie’s Ross said his firm has not had much of a chance to test out its hardware updating capabilities. But so far, just on the software side, Altiris has significantly reduced the time staff spends on updates, including travel time. “I would say we’re 90 per cent more efficient — without exaggerating.”

Other Altiris Management Suite modules can do software metering, “which tells me what kind of software and what version is on each computer,” as well as how many copies of each version there are in the company, Ross said.

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