The Zombie Apocalypse: an IT Asset Manager’s Survival Guide

Zombie Response Van

Zombie Response Van

IT Asset Management is not a profession commonly associated with the undead peril.  Little do their colleagues know, that the beleaguered ITAM specialist faces an ever-increasing horde of mysterious, shambling, moaning zombies.

Here, we detail some of the most common zombie types, and tell you how to spot them…

 

1) The Iron Zombie

Physical zombie server. Trip hazard, vermin house, dust collector...

This increasingly rare zombie species is nevertheless still found in forgotten corners of IT offices, blinking its faded LEDs in sinister fashion, and blowing dust out of its 3.5″ disk drive.

In its laptop variant, this is where your Visio licenses go to die.

Typical Habitats:

  • The footwell under sysadmins’ desks.
  • Corners of network switch rooms.
  • Third drawer down in the filing cabinet (laptop subspecies)

Hazards:

  • Ancient support contracts.
  • Last resting place for expensive developer tool licenses.
  • Heat output overwhelming air conditioning.
  • Incoming malware easily able to overcome unpatched 8 year old Operating System
  • Support or lease payments for an expensive paperweight
  • Broken toes.
  • Mice.

Ways to find them:

  • Trip over them.
  • Follow the sound of dust-clogged fan bearings.
  • Invite a software license auditor into the building.
  • Physical audit of technical office locations.

2) Virtual Zombies

Zombie virtual machiene. You can't photograph these, so here's a diagram.

This modern zombie species is increasingly prevalent, both on-site and off.  As well as simply being untidy, they can have all manner of impacts on the business: one forgotten major-vendor database instance, for example, can suddenly make every processor core on the entire physical backend entirely licenseable (including backdated support. At full list price. Scared yet?).

Gartner analyst Philip Dawson, at the Gartner Datacenter Summit in London, in November 2013, stated that 40% of VMs are over 3 years old, with 20% at least 5 years old.

Typical Habitats:

  • The company virtual farm.
  • Amazon Web Services.

Hazards:

  • Invisibility (or frustratingly visible opacity).
  • Tendency to be service critical without anyone realising. If you turn it off, who is going to scream?
  • You know all that careful capacity optimization you did on the server farm?
  • You can’t patch what you can’t see.

Ways to find them:

  • Invite a software license auditor onto the company network with their own discovery scripts.  This may be expensive.
  • Trawl credit card records for Amazon spend.
  • Agentless discovery, preferably with good quality application and dependency mapping.

3) Bring-Your-Own-Zombie

Bring your own zombie will eat your MDM licenses.

A recently discovered zombie species, the Bring Your Own Zombie is typically created when a user acquires a shiny new device, and either forgets or declines to deregister the old one.  It’s early days for BYOD, of course, so stats are hard to come by, but Amtel estimate a 10% rate of zombification for mobile devices. Okay, they’re an MDM vendor, but even at half that rate, a company with 10,000 BYOD refreshing hardware on a two year cycle will build up up a zombie army of a thousand devices over the next four years. That’s a lot of risky data, and a five- or six- figure excess MDM spend.

With many Mobile Device Management applications being paid for on a per-device subscription basis, the gradual buildup of BYODZ’s can steadily increase your bills, to no actual benefit.  And what of the device itself?  With no clean deregistration, and cleansing of corporate data, your data can become very viral, very quickly.

Typical Habitats:

  • Odd drawers in employees’ houses.
  • Ebay.

Hazards:

  • Will eat your MDM licenses.
  • Software Auditor: “So you’re licensing this software by device? Excellent, can I just take a look at your list of registered tablets and smartphones?”.
  • Never underestimate the corporate-data bandwidth of a padded envelope.

Ways to find them:

  • Amnesty.
  • Ask Joe in Accounting if he’s really still using a Nokia N85.

4) Zombie.bat

Zombie script file

This broad category of zombie includes all scripts, undocumented file imports, complex spreadsheets, mysterious VBA code, and the like, that get created in a productive afternoon by a sysadmin, intern or helpful hobbyist, and which embed themselves into nondescript but rather important tasks like starting up the directory server, or producing billable timesheet reports.
Gartner, at their 2013 Datacenter Summit, expressed a concern in one keynote that undocumented code is on the rise even as IT departments look increasingly to industrialise infrastructure.

Typical Habitats:

  • The finance department. In fact, any department.
  • Microsoft Access.
  • Arcane startup scripts on important servers.

Hazards:

  • Easy to create, difficult to support.
  • Undocumented, unattributed, unseen.

Ways to find them:

  • Have a major outage, trace it back to a six year old Perl script.
  • Wait for a call to the Helpdesk about the important and complicated Excel sales spreadsheet that was written by an intern several years ago, and which has broken.
  • Work with sysadmins to catalog critical code, and preferably built it into a solid CMDB with critical service dependencies

The serious points

Zombie assets are a genuine and growing issue. At best, the problem means that the return on investment in IT infrastructure is not what it should be. With IT budgets squeezed and the increasing demand on CIOs to run their functions as an effective business unit, this is an unnecessary impact on the bottom line, arising directly from IT Assets.  IT Asset Managers should never ignore that.

Additionally, there are plenty of additional circumstances where a lack of control over assets at the end of their lifecycle can lead to unforseen and even dramatic negative consequences:

  • Zombie hardware may still be under support contract.  Leased hardware, if not returned, can incur significant penalties and additional costs.
  • Uncontrolled end-of-life can mean uncontrolled disposal, with the associated risks of data loss, environmental damage and penalty, and negative publicity events arising from either.
  • The relative ease of deploying VMs in the datacenter inevitably risks sprawl.  Datacenters end up “fragmented” in the same way that a PC’s hard drive can, with pockets of unused capacity walled off around badly optimised server images.  “Lost” VMs in particular are a big threat: even if you can’t find them, a hacker or a software auditor might be able to.

What can be done?

At the 2013 Garter IT Financial, Procurement and Asset Management summit, research VP Patricia Adams recommended an “Action Plan for IT Asset Managers”.

  • From “next Monday”, Adams advised, IT Asset Managers should ensure their team is part of the process for staging a VM, focusing on collection of data prior to deployment (as this is easier than doing it reactively.
  • In the “next 90 days”, define an end of life process for virtual applications, and ensure that data on assets and software is accurate.

A recent CIO Asia guest article recommends adopting the ecological principle of “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” in managing VMs.  Reduction, in this case, by controlling the VM request process and ensuring that each request receives appropriate review and authorisation. Re-use, through control of unused VMs, e.g. by archiving permanently or temporarily, to allow their underpinning architecture to be repurposed. Recycling, by identifying and releasing stranded capacity, where other bottlenecks in the system mean that resources sit unused.

Emerging challenges like BYOD sprawl need new initiatives to reduce risk. Last week I attended a seminar held by members of the software compliance industry (in other words, auditors), and BYOD was a headline presentation topic. Compliance teams are establishing ways to audit these devices, so software consumers need to develop processes to keep them in check.

If Asset Management is accountable for the optimised use of IT assets, then the IT Asset Manager needs to consider their own accountability, even where these functions are directly controlled by other teams.  Get involved, work cross functionally, and ensure that the risks are communicated clearly and vigorously.

Photo credits:
Zombie Response Van: Author’s own photo. The van belongs to Zed Events who hold “Zombie Apocalypse” events in a disused shopping centre in my home town of Reading, UK. I’ve not been, but it looks awesome, and I imagine it’s actually very good practice for the IT Asset Manager faced with a particularly gnarly, uncontrolled Amazon account.
Iron Zombie: From Flickr, used/modified under Creative Commons license, thanks to Vinny Malek.
Virtual Zombie: Author’s own diagram.
Bring-Your-Own-Zombie: From Flickr, used/modified under Creative Commons license, thanks to magic_quote
Zombie.bat: From Flickr, used/modified under Creative Commons license, thanks to *n3wjack’s world in pixels.
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