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SAM: How Clean is Your Data?

Posted on Thursday, October 12, 2017
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By Richard Baglow
SAM Specialist

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My role over the last 7 and a half years or so has involved many kinds of SAM (Software Asset Management) projects from designing SAM solutions, delivering Effective License Positions, audit defence and optimisation, to implementing fully managed SAM services. Every customer I've served has been unique, not just in size and environment, but also in awareness of Asset Management; dealing with different roles and job specs; attitudes toward SAM, compliancy and understanding of the benefits and relevance of SAM. In combination with this, when I delivered consultancy work I was exposed to many different toolsets, some discovery tools claiming to deliver SAM, some network scanning tools built for other functions and some extremely good inventory solutions - all with varying degrees of software recognition.

Throughout all of this, one thing has stood out as the primary component of a successful project: Good, clean, accurate data. And this doesn't mean just automated inventory data. It includes what we call "manual data". Data that a tool or entitlement cannot give you. A wise man once said, buying a cooker does not make you Gordon Ramsay. A SAM tool is not a silver bullet; it still requires good data input for any organisation to realise its true value.

Essentially there are three main data sets that are relevant in a SAM engagement. The first we can cover pretty quickly as it's not the main focus of this blog; that is Entitlement data - evidence of the licenses your organisation holds. The next is automatically generated inventory data. Most tools have this element in built in; some will rely on a 3rd party solution to gather the raw data. Thirdly, there's manually gathered functional data, gaining information from technical people to infer how software should be licensed.

Data automatically generated from your inventory

Let's start with automatically generated inventory data. Out of all the Effective License Position Reviews I've been involved in in the last 7 or so years, the ones that have taken longer than the budgeted timescales have all had one thing in common: poor data and poor understanding of why that level of accuracy is required and in the required format. Most organisations have some level of inventory tool. If they don't then at the very least they will download one for free (MAP toolkit, Spiceworks and so on). However, this is often worse than having no tool at all!

A tool with this level of data often changes the perception of toolsets. For a non-SAM person, at face value, lines and lines of data look great. They have a free tool, they have what they believe is data. However, upon closer inspection these data sources lack the ability to accurately identify the versions and editions of software. They also cannot differentiate between licensable and non-licensable software. There is no ability to map virtual server relationships or identify hardware accurately (Cores/Processors/PUVs etc) vital for good SAM.

Data gathering is the most important element of a SAM Project and the beginning of that project shouldn't be spent laboriously trying to work out what version something might be. Inventory data should have the ability to be reported on quickly and that data should be easily accessible.

With accurate data, Excel can be a useful tool

Another point is the format of that data. It's vitally important that the format of the data is malleable. Excel is sometimes ridiculed in the SAM world as being a poor way to keep data. I agree, using an Excel document to keep an inventory of your estate is about as useful a chocolate teapot. However, once you get good auto-generated accurate data into Excel, it is invaluable.

Much in the same way Michelangelo shaped a piece of quality marble to create David, you can create a best fit licensing position out of quality data inputted in Excel. Conditional Formatting, V-lookups, Remove Duplicates, Text to columns, Data Validation, all help you to mould the data and analyse it in order to work out the most optimal way to license an estate. But if the source of that data is poor then you will always be on the back foot. A wise man once offered me the expression "Garbage in, garbage out" and it is so very true.

What's your inventory tool?

My advice to anyone going into a SAM Project is before you do anything: do you have a fit for purpose inventory tool? Can that tool quickly and efficiently gather trustworthy data without gaps, without false positives. Can it successfully recognise not just Software but Hardware as well? Can you pull a quick report that gives you the device name, the operating system, the processor and core count, the VM/Host relationship, the installed applications with the version and edition, can it recognise if the software was installed as part of a bundle or standalone?

If you can answer yes to the above then you are half way to the beginning!

Then there's Functional Data

The final data set is the manually gathered functional data. This is where the SAM tool, the SAM Project, needs manual data input.

I've known some tools or consultants claim that they can create an Effective License Position 'in just 5 minutes'. Some vendors use their own internally developed tools whereby they can take your raw inventory data and feed it through and automatically allocate licenses to a particular product.

In my experience, this doesn’t work. If you trust it blindly, it could mean you end up with an incorrect result that could be financially crippling if too many licenses are applied, or put you in a position of risk if the wrong, or too few licenses are applied. Manual function data is crucial.

It is essential to be able to access this knowledge efficiently when it comes to manual functional data. This means asking the right questions, often of very technical people, in order to extract the information required to make a decision on how a piece of software should be licensed. It is a skill in its own right, and involves swimming through a lot of "irrelevant" technical information, to grasp the key nuggets of information that are important. Without a consultant or SAM Manager to lead these discussions, a tool on its own, even if it provides accurate inventory, will never be able to deliver a successful SAM Engagement.

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