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Progress mixed on tracking IT equipment

The federal government is taking steps to improve its management of information technology assets, but its efforts have been impeded by a lack of funding, according to survey results released on Monday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Seventy-three percent of the 154 federal information technology personnel canvassed by CDW Government Inc. said they could account for all their agency's IT assets. The survey indicated that the concept of tracking IT assets is a relatively recent one, as 70 percent of the respondents said their organization has been doing so for three years or less.

"Looking at the survey, we've definitely seen a more progressive trend to tracking equipment than we have in the past," said Ben Bourbon, director of defense sales for CDW Government. According to the survey, the leading benefits of asset tracking are improved data security, reduction of theft and more efficient IT upgrades.

IT asset management has been under greater scrutiny recently as agencies have faced heat over the loss or theft of laptops containing personal information. Both the Veterans Affairs Department and the National Institutes of Health have lost laptops containing medical data and other sensitive patient information. And on Monday the Government Accountability Office released a report detailing how millions of dollars in IT and other equipment was found missing from the Health and Human Services Department's Indian Health Service.

The main barrier to asset tracking remains the cost, Bourbon said. Federal agencies are taking asset management very seriously, he said, but they face the challenge that there are no specific allocations for IT asset management in any appropriations bill.

Tracking assets can be as simple as manually logging the serial numbers of IT equipment into a spreadsheet or database, an approach 30 percent of the agencies surveyed use. More effective methods include placing bar codes, magnetic tags or radio frequency identification tags on new IT equipment.

Bar codes that can be scanned into a database are the most common tracking device in use, but newer magnetic and RFID tags allow equipment to be followed in real time from a central location. These tags are expensive, however, and generally are limited to large shipments. Magnetic tags set off an alarm if a device is moved out of its designated area, making them suitable for larger, more costly devices but not useful for mobile items such as laptops and cell phones.

GAO recommended in its report on the Indian Health Service problems that HHS enforce its policy requiring bar codes on its property to combat future theft and loss.

The final challenge once an agency has implemented its asset management strategy and logged its equipment is to make sure that data is widely available. The survey indicated that currently, IT employees are most likely to be able to access that information. It would be beneficial if finance and procurement offices had access as well, Bourbon said, in part to prevent redundant purchases.

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