DIY tips: How to cut costs and get more from your IT gear

Forget buying new tools; adjusting applications and resources can deliver results in a downturn

With tech budgets shrinking, network professionals are spending less time planning new purchases and more time trying to cut costs and squeeze more value out of existing IT resources.

"Cost reduction and cost containment is a priority, and this economic downturn is really a catalyst to become more efficient and better use the things we already have. If everything was rosy, we probably wouldn't be focusing so intensely on efficiencies right now," says Jake Seitz, enterprise architect at The First American Corp.

The Santa Ana, Calif.-based company established a task force to find the hidden gems amidst its current raft of software and high-tech tools, Seitz says. "We have a lot of disparate platforms and products, some of which have been a one-trick pony. We are reevaluating their capabilities and reusing them in different ways."

Seitz isn't alone. Many IT industry professionals realize they can find more uses for tools their company already owns and even kick off new initiatives without requesting any new funding. Here we've culled 10 ideas to consider.

Pool troubleshooting resources

Identifying areas in which staff can collaborate and more easily share information helps Brian Jones reduce manual efforts and improve response times when troubleshooting problems.

Jones, manager of research and network engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University's Tech Communications Network Services unit in Blacksburg, says his group recently moved in-house, off-the-shelf and open source tools into one centralized location with the help of wiki software from Confluence -- which he had on hand prior to the downturn. The software lets the network engineering and operations teams access data, documentation and tools from one toolbar.

"This way staff has the documentation it needs to address the problem as well as the ability to launch the tools to resolve the issues from that same toolbar," Jones explains. "It has really cut down on the time it takes to find the resources you need in a situation and helps staff efforts."

Use SNMP to track power usage

With green computing initiatives top of mind for their potential cost savings, many IT departments are tasked with trying to find ways to capture the power consumption and then reduce it across the environment. Without new tools, that task might seem a bit daunting.

Shane Bordeau, senior regional manager of strategic accounts at network performance management vendor NetQoS, explains that IT managers can use SNMP Management Information Bases to monitor power consumption -- without spending a penny

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IT managers can turn on SNMP polling across various devices, such as light systems, and monitor power usage and thermostat levels without investing in power monitoring tools from a vendor. Bordeau says the metrics can be captured, tracked, averaged and compared against bills to trend where unnecessary costs are accruing.

"Many things have poll-able metrics now and can be network-attached," Bordeau says. "Every penny counts right now."

Tap collaboration, social networking tools

Naveed Husain isn't feeling the penny-pinching effect of the recession as much as others in his field, he says, because he works in public education -- where every dollar needs to be stretched into three.

"We have never been able to throw money at things, so we buy things we know can be used in a variety of ways," says Husain, CIO at Queens College, a City University of New York public educational institution.

For instance, instead of investing in software to revamp the university's Web site and separate tools for project management, Husain tapped an existing enterprise Microsoft SharePoint license to do both. The collaboration software helped Husain build a standard look and feel across Queens College's various departments and not spend a cent.

"The whole idea when we decided to use SharePoint was to leverage what we were already spending money on, so we can really get everything out of it possible," he explains.

Husain also is putting social networking to use by building Facebook pages for university departments.

"This isn't cutting edge or new, but our students are already using this application and it is available to us for free so why not meet our customers there and provide them the resources they need in a setting they are comfortable with," Husain says. "And it's free for us."

'True-up' maintenance/software license contracts

An economic downturn provides the perfect opportunity to take an inventory of network devices and software licenses, track actual usage and associate a cost with what gets used in the environment and by whom.

"True-up maintenance contracts," says Lou Nardo, Netcordia's vice president of product management. "[It will] help stop over-paying on network device maintenance beyond what is still owned and deployed."

John Turner, director of networks and systems at Brandeis University, adjusts his organization's maintenance contracts during tough economic times. With some 900 edge switches, "it makes sense for us to put maintenance on core equipment and just spare the edge switches," Turner says. He adds that having maintenance on all the switches costs more than having a few spares on hand in case one breaks.

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"It's a risk and that shows up under the warrantee, but we do the same no-maintenance with access points and VoIP phones," he says.

Repair existing equipment

Brandeis' Turner also thinks more companies could get better at repairing equipment or replacing power supplies when times get financially tough. For instance, the cost to buy a new VoIP phone could be $400, when the price for repairs is more like $120. Even less expensive is the do-it-yourself-option.

"We can fix a VoIP phone in-house with a spare part and 20 minutes of labor for about $13," Turner says. "You turn to such methods in hard times, but really they make sense in any economic times."

Enable NetFlow and IP SLA

Turning features on in network hardware can deliver volumes of meaningful data and reduce manual efforts for IT managers. For instance, Cisco equipment includes features such as NetFlow and IP SLA, both of which often remain dormant unless activated.

"These features are built right into Cisco IOS and turning them on delivers traffic flow and performance data without spending more cash," says Josh Stephens, vice president and head geek at SolarWinds.

The network management company offers free downloadable tools that help IT managers use NetFlow statistics and IP SLA  to better monitor performance, revealing top conversations and bandwidth hogs, for example. IP SLA also lets network managers generate test traffic on the network to determine availability.

"Without IP SLA, network managers would have to telnet to each router and do pints and perform traceroutes to get the same information," Stephens explains. "This work would be a lot more manually intensive without turning on NetFlow and IP SLA.

Eliminate unauthorized application and device use

The recession has many IT managers thinking they should lose the nice guy mentality and lock down application and device usage in favor of business-critical demands. But many might not realize they can gather the necessary data without investing in more tools.

According to Russ Currie, director of product management at NetScout, the company's nGenuis Performance Manager product can be configured in such a way to deliver Web site statistics via a dashboard feature. Rather than investing in a new tool to monitor Web traffic, one customer used nGenuis to ensure his site could handle the load of dozens of employees simultaneously watching the presidential inauguration online at work.

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"We had a customer report that he set up rolling dashboards in our product during the inauguration in order to be prepared to take action if the online viewing interrupted business services," Currie says. "If you know there is an event coming, establish the filters and get that data right in front of you. If behavior impedes business, lock it down. Don't do a post-mortem on why things crashed when monitoring tools can give you insight in real-time."

Fine-tune existing network gear

First American's Seitz realizes that even though funds are dried up today, customer demand for IT innovations will continue at a breakneck pace. That's why he's working with F5 Networks during this downturn to review his existing network infrastructure and find ways to add intelligence to the gear to improve application delivery to mobile users.

"We have some 2,000 applications that we run and it would be impossible for us to support a separate code base just for mobile devices," Seitz says. "We need to be forward thinking because some of these things won't stop just because we don't have extra capital to invest; we just need to do it in a different way."

Restructure staff

With payroll budgets strapped, it's a good idea to take inventory of in-house talent and realign IT pros to the job most suited for them. Virginia Tech's Jones says he's doing just that as part of an effort to make the university's enterprise systems accessible from PDAs and other mobile devices.

"There has been restructuring to take advantage of in-house programming talent," Jones says. "We are looking at the big picture and realizing we need to make our apps easier to back up and maintain and that we have the programming knowledge in house to do that without having to turn to a vendor."

Squeeze more from freeware

Freeware and open source applications have become a must-have for many IT shops these days.

For John Kokidko, network operations administrator at Georgetown University, an open source application called Netdisco helps him discover the network, see what's on ports and potentially lock out threats. Designed for moderate to large networks, configuration information and connection data for network devices are retrieved by SNMP.

"We started using Netdisco because we needed to control infected devices via port shut-offs on our network. But because our network is ever-expanding, the app is now getting used beyond our original intention and helping us discover and view the network in a logistical sense," he explains. "It's a pretty powerful open source tool and it's free. Really how could we go wrong?"