Can you handle the truth about your company’s IT?

It’s what you don’t know that can hurt you. What a company doesn’t know about the true state of its computing hardware and software can be costly in terms of inefficiency and risky in terms of the exposure to security threats.

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Consider what you think your business has in the way of hardware and software: how current is it, how productive is it making your employees and what danger is there in having your company’s data or information compromised? Then go and find out the truth. It may shock you to know what you don’t know.

Then ask yourself: when was the last time your business took stock of what it has, or assessed if IT investments deliver the function, efficiencies and productivity you expect?

Truth is that many business operators don’t have a clear picture. And not knowing the state of your company’s computing resources means the business probably isn’t as successful as it could be, since the right computing tools may not be in the right employee hands. On top of that, a lack of insight into the current state of software fixes and patches may mean that systems are highly vulnerable to intrusion or failure.

What a company thinks and what it actually knows about its IT can be entirely different, according to Toronto-based IT product and services company Softchoice Corp. Softchoice has during the past couple of years has conducted more than 200 IT inventory assessments for Canadian and U.S. companies both large and small, examining the state of hardware and software components.

The IT product and services company in June released a report detailing the results of its many investigations. Softchoice found that on average 39 per cent of desktops and notebooks used by businesses surveyed were older than they thought. And nearly two-thirds of organizations surveyed are violating their own operating system deployment policies – and didn’t even know it. Softchoice also found that half of all PCs owned by those surveyed had moderate to severe infestations of “malware” – malicious software, including things like viruses, worms, or Trojans. Malware exposes these computing resources to potentially disastrous risk and seriously slows system performance. These investigations also found that one in 16 corporate PCs is missing anti-virus software entirely, while 23 per cent of PCs are missing major operating system service packs.

Arguably more alarming is a state of denial that exists in many companies.

“What we see are two attitudes: one, I don’t have a problem or, two, even if I do have a problem, I don’t have a problem,” says Edwin Jansen, manager of the Softchoice services group that was responsible for the study.

The price of denial for most businesses is a cumulative cost. Problems add up when there are a number of individual systems that need all sorts of quick-fix software patches and virus signature updates. And a business may not give too much thought to how it’s its IT professionals are struggling to support aging hardware just to keep these systems running until they realize how much of their time is spent doing just that.

“It is a death by 1,000 cuts scenario, but it is a death that’s happening,” says Mr. Jansen. “The more PCs there are, the more problems you may have. (But) you could argue that it’s tougher on a smaller company that needs to be more productive and move faster. Small and medium-sized companies have the same problems as larger companies, but they don’t have the same access to tools, people and budgets to fix things.”

A company might neglect basic upkeep in IT investments, thinking there’s nothing much to be gained in performing such simple tasks. But over time the cost in lost efficiency and the expense of repairing these problems adds up, Mr. Jansen says.

“The average cost of a virus outbreak takes about seven complete person days (to repair). Adware and spyware can degrade system performance by 2,000 per cent.” What often discourages businesses from closer examination of their IT inventory and performance is the perception that such management is expensive, time consuming and probably not worth the cost of what might be gained.

Drew Phillips, an IT manager at Amteck of Kentucky Inc., admitted he undertook an IT assessment with no lofty expectations other than to piece together what he had in the way of IT resources. Mr. Phillips was the first dedicated IT person hired by the company, which employs approximately 150 electrical contractors, so there was little record of IT purchases and maintenance schedules.

Amteck’s IT assessment revealed that there were a number of users with unsupported software including programs like Napster, the controversial music downloading software. Mr. Phillips discovered a number of personal systems where virus definitions were out of date, as well as computing hardware that was on the verge of failing.

“It really helped in terms of determining where I needed to go from here,” he says. “We were able to assess and predict what gear was on the verge of going bad. In hindsight, it’s been very good for me. Some of those computers I marked as going bad did go bad.”

Mr. Phillips designed a spreadsheet to more closely track the software and hardware in use by his company and has developed a standard list of programs that users are permitted to operate. He also recognized that many users didn’t have the IT resources to effectively and productively do their jobs, and now knows what’s needed and where.

And knowing what he now knows helped Mr. Phillips reduce the amount of time he now spends on hardware-related support.

I would say it gave me an hour extra each day,” he says. “I was spending on average between two and three hours a day on help desk related questions and now it seems to be two to four per week. So (the assessment) has helped me focus on larger areas of our network and software/Web development as well.”

Seeing is not only believing, but absolutely essential if a business is to get the most out of its IT investments – or simply to keep things operating. It’s unwise for any company to function without the means or desire to accurately look into the engine that drives virtually all key business processes and applications.

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