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Assessing a customer's site: The value of a hardware/software inventory

A complete hardware and software inventory of your customer's network is worth the work -- for both of you.

When a customer hires you to network their computers or redesign an existing network, one of your most important tasks is assessing the customer's site. Before you can design (or redesign) the customer's network, you need a thorough understanding of the current computing environment and what your customer's hoping to achieve from the new network. In this article, I'll examine the crucial first step in assessing your customer's site.

Compiling a hardware and software inventory is the vital first step in assessing your customer's site. Many organizations maintain their own network documentation, and you can certainly ask for a copy. However, the information you're given may not suit your purposes. I've been involved in a number of consulting projects, and only on rare occasions has the customer-supplied documentation been sufficient for my needs. In some cases, the inventory data is outdated. In other cases, the inventory data is not complete, perhaps only consisting of serial numbers with no description of the PC's hardware.

Serial numbers are almost completely irrelevant in a consulting project. What you need is information such as the type of CPU, amount of memory installed, hard disk size and the OS running on each workstation. This type of information will give you a much better idea of the scope of the project than a list of serial numbers ever would.

To put this into prospective, a list of serial numbers tells you how many workstations need to be networked. This allows you to determine how many client access licenses you need to buy, but it won't tell you much else. The computers could be running Windows 3.11 for all you know. That's why it's important to collect a detailed hardware and software inventory. A detailed inventory will tell you at a glance whether the workstations are running a current version of Windows. If the computers are running an older version of Windows, then the inventory will tell you if the existing hardware is sufficient for an upgrade to the current version. You may find that you have to perform hardware upgrades or completely replace some PCs. You simply cannot reliably judge the full scope of the project until you have a detailed inventory at your disposal.

Even if you are reasonably sure that all of the hardware and software is current, a detailed inventory is still important. Imagine, for example, you have a customer who wants to network a thousand newly-purchased PCs. Because the PCs are brand-new, you can be pretty sure that they are running the latest Windows operating system. If you base your cost estimate for the project solely on that assumption though, you could be in for a rude surprise. For example, without a detailed hardware inventory you don't know for sure if the computers in question have network cards installed. Imagine what it would do to your bottom line if, after giving your customer a firm price quote, you discover that you have to purchase a thousand network cards.

You should never take on a large-scale consulting project until you know exactly what you're getting yourself into. The best way to determine the network's current state is with a comprehensive hardware and software inventory. To put it simply, this inventory protects you against financial loss related to bad assumptions on your part.

Being that most consultants charge by the hour, you may find that your customers are reluctant to pay for the extra time that it takes you to compile a detailed inventory. You might be able to convince your customers to pay for this time if you help them understand that a comprehensive inventory benefits them, too.

There are at least three ways in which having a comprehensive and up-to-date hardware and software inventory can benefit your customer. First, it can save your customer from sticker shock. As I mentioned before, by having an inventory at your disposal, you're better able to provide the customer with an accurate estimate of the project's cost. If you don't base your price quote on a detailed inventory, then you may have to go back to your customer several times to ask for additional money to account for various unforeseen circumstances.

An up-to-date inventory also helps your customer with software licensing compliance. A full software inventory lists every application and operating system installed on the network. Your customer is able to compare the inventory against the list of licenses that have been purchased. This gives them the opportunity to take care of any discrepancies so that they are not caught by surprise should they ever receive a software audit.

Another way that a full hardware/software inventory can benefit your client is from a disaster recovery standpoint. The customer can give a copy of the inventory to their insurance company, making it much easier to obtain a settlement should the building ever burn down. Without having an inventory on hand, it would be difficult to convince the insurance company of how many computers were actually lost during the disaster.

As you can see, a full hardware and software inventory can protect both you and your customer. As such, I recommend taking an inventory as a first step in any major consulting project.

About the author
Brien Posey is an award winning author who has written over 3,000 articles and written or contributed to 27 books. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at


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