Proactive Asset Maintenance for Nonprofits

Originally published by @TechSoup at https://blog.techsoup.org on May 26, 2021.

For small nonprofits struggling to keep pace with day-to-day work, planning ahead can seem like a luxury. Especially when it comes to IT asset maintenance: If everything is functioning well right now, why mess with it?

But a little work now can save a lot of work in the future. It can also prevent downtime, security incidents, and other issues that can hurt your organization.

What is proactive asset maintenance? Essentially, it refers to the practice of using your knowledge about your IT environment to effectively deploy new hardware and software, respond to service requests from staff, and keep up with general maintenance. It will prolong the life of your hardware and prevent issues from interfering with productivity.

Plan for Life Cycles

If a staff member needs a new computer, you could just order one and be done with it. But if you step back a bit and take a wider view of the organization, it’s easy to see how every decision to add technology can affect your entire technology ecosystem.

Think of every technology as having a life cycle. There’s the time before you acquire it when you’re researching and planning, then implementation, peak performance, ongoing maintenance, and finally end of life. Each stage requires something different from you and can affect other parts of your ecosystem. That’s why planning is so important.

Even technologies that are not integrated and do not rely on each other in any way are related via your role as the person in charge of your organization’s IT. Your time and attention matters. All new IT should be seen in the context of what is already operating or available.

Consider the following questions:

  • How will the tech work with other tools or systems?
  • What new maintenance processes or workflows need to be developed?
  • How frequently will the new technology need to be maintained?
  • What is the typical life span of the technology?
  • What technology will need to be retired to eliminate duplication?

Once you understand a little more about your technology life cycles and how new technology will fit into your IT environment, you can begin to make a plan. A good plan might include details about how you will acquire the technology, how much it will cost, how you’ll implement it, how you expect it to be used, and how long you expect it to meet the organization’s needs.

Maintenance is an especially important part. How often will you need to upgrade or repair your technology? What will the schedule look like for tuneups or overhauls? As is true for a bike or a car, you might be able to get away with an ad hoc approach to maintenance for a while, but eventually you can expect it to begin to run poorly or even break down. Regular maintenance minimizes downtime and performance risks.

Your plan will also need to include retirement dates — when you expect to remove or replace the tool or service — and timelines for each step of the transition from one tool or system to another. This might include a selection process and data migration, both of which can take a lot of time depending on the technology and your needs. You’ll also need to keep track of dates for when to cancel a support contract or terminate renewals to ensure that you don’t end up paying for a service you don’t need.

The life cycle will eventually bring you back to deployment, or what it takes to bring a technology into use. You’ll need to configure it in a standardized way to ensure that every staff member can get what they need. And you’ll need to put appropriate controls in place so that only authorized users can access it. You may also need to implement a policy for its use to make sure your staff knows how to use it without engaging in behavior that could put the organization at risk from security threats or bad publicity.

Overall, you will likely need to coordinate with staff members and contractors to ensure that important steps don’t get missed. It can be helpful to create a deployment checklist so that you can be sure that you’ve covered all your bases and thoroughly tested the technology ahead of its launch.

But you know what they say about planning. Even if you do everything right, you should still expect additional fixes or adjustments down the road. Planning for this inevitability will keep your deployment on schedule and running smoothly.

Manage Hardware and Software

The bulk of a technology life cycle is its middle — all the years your team is successfully using the hardware or software. For those to be good years, you need an intentional approach to managing your technology.

Let’s start at the beginning. How you deploy your hardware will make a big difference in how you manage and maintain it later. For example, if each staff member configures their computer and downloads software on their own, you’re going to have a network where no two machines are the same. That makes troubleshooting harder for you, and it might also make collaboration harder for staff members. A better approach would be to create an image of your software and data on a virtual machine and keep it updated as new features or patches are released. Then, whenever you need to deploy a new computer, you can do it quickly and trust that it will be ready to use and compatible with the other machines at your organization.

An orderly network of devices then makes it easier to monitor software and hardware. A remote monitoring management (RMM) system is a useful tool for making sure your endpoints are secure and to address issues even before a request comes in. An RMM system requires you to install an “agent” on each machine, which then allows you to receive information about each machine’s health and status. If a machine goes down, you can get a notice right away and take action. An RMM system can also tell you when it’s time to perform routine maintenance, whether there’s shadow IT on your network, when to patch software, and more.

The ability to monitor your networks is especially important now that so many people are using their own devices and are working outside of an office environment. IT policies are an essential layer of protection, and socializing those policies so that everyone knows what’s expected cannot be overlooked. However, there’s a fine line between doing what’s needed to secure your organization’s data and intrusion into the privacy of staff members. There’s no easy answer, but many organizations have found that a virtual private network offers the security and control they need while maintaining boundaries that allow staff members to separate out their personal lives. Other organizations have invested in single sign-on solutions that create an online environment where staff members can get work done and then log out at the end of the day.

Organize IT Requests

Not all maintenance can be planned. Outages, broken hardware, malfunctions, and user errors are regular occurrences at every organization. You’ll also need to add new users, reset passwords, change permission levels, and perform other common service tasks.

A good organizational system can go a long way toward ensuring that each request is prioritized appropriately and acted upon in a reasonable amount of time.

First you need a way for people to make requests. Staff members could send you an email or a chat message, but you’ll still need to gather, prioritize, and record information about each request. Creating a folder or chat channel can help, especially if you’re able to create tasks and put them in order.

For organizations that might field multiple requests per day, an IT ticketing system can help manage and resolve requests more quickly. A ticketing system typically offers a type of portal that allows users to enter information about their request. Many ticketing systems enable users to also contact IT via phone, email, or chat. Organizations that offer technology as a service to constituents might also enable social media requests.

On your end, these systems let you sort through requests, add notes, assign staff members, pull up histories, and more. Many help desk systems include ticketing components along with other inventory and management tools. Popular IT ticketing tools include HubSpot, Jira Service Desk, Jitbit, and Samanage.

One additional tool to consider is a remote desktop tool that allows you to access and control another user’s computer without being in the same room. This can be especially useful for configuring, updating, and troubleshooting staff computers, and it can also facilitate user training. Remote desktop capabilities are typically included in help desk software and many IT management systems. A few systems that focus primarily on remote support include Wrike, ConnectWise Control, BeyondTrust Remote Support, and TeamViewer.

For smaller organizations without the bandwidth to manage IT systems internally, it’s important to still have a plan for maintenance. TechSoup’s Help Desk services provide virus protection, secure cloud storage, regular updates and tuneups, and security patches, as well as on-call technical support.

Keep Up With Maintenance

IT maintenance requires consistency and dedication. For example, if you don’t back up your data according to a defined schedule, there could be gaps. A data loss incident could jeopardize critical work.

Backups, updates, antivirus scanning, and other routine maintenance tasks need to be carried out regularly. While it might be tempting to “set it and forget it,” that approach can be particularly risky with backups and patching.

Patching can be incredibly complex. The developers do not know the particular details of your technology environment and cannot anticipate every factor. Some developers are better than others at doing their own testing, but regardless of how much you trust the vendors, it’s useful to test patches in your own virtual environment before going live with your users.

Virtual machine software such as VMware, Microsoft Azure, or Amazon Lightsail can create duplicates of your servers, computers, and software, giving you a safe environment to test drive patches and predict the user experience before going live. In a virtual environment you can also experiment with configurations without risking data or disrupting workflows.

Be Proactive

To dive deeper into best practices for IT asset maintenance, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) is one of the most authoritative resources available. Visit IBM’s website to learn more.

But know that you don’t need to be ITIL certified to protect and maintain your IT assets. A proactive plan of any kind can help prevent a crisis that might cost you staff time, revenue, or reputation. The key is to think ahead so that you’re not forced into reaction mode. By planning months, or even years into the future, you’ll make your job easier, and your technology will run more smoothly.

Additional Resources

Top photo: Shutterstock

Originally published at https://blog.techsoup.org on May 26, 2021.

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60+ organizations with kindred missions working together to get critical tech know-how and resources to changemakers around the world. meet.techsoup.org