Asset ID’s a Dirty Job – Tips and Tricks When Conducting a Physical Audit

By George D. Peterson Jr.

During my stint in the military and in the civilian world, I’ve had the pleasure (and the pain) of having to identify, document, and track various IT assets across an organization and at many geographically separated locations. I’ll never forget the days of having to look and account for hundreds of pieces of IT equipment from an inventory listing—searching from room to room, office to office, and sometimes crawling on hands and knees under desks and tables, fighting through dust and cobwebs to get serial numbers off of hard to reach items. Although some organizations have electronic methods of inventory, like scanning barcodes and serial numbers, I don’t believe the days are over for those who do asset management the gritty, old fashioned way. In this regard, here is where I hope I can help with some interesting and creative approaches I’ve picked up that can make asset inventory go a lot easier, if not less dirty. Here are some of my favorites.

Sometimes I’ve engaged in a game I like to call “Guess the Serial Number”. It’s when you look at the back or the underside of a piece of equipment and see numerous barcode stickers and numbers that “could” be the serial number (some laptop models, switches and routers provide plenty of this kind of entertainment). I’ve also looked at letters and numbers in a serial number string and wondered “Does that look like a 5 or an S?”, “An 8 or a B?” etc. Sometimes if I didn’t have a good viewing angle to see the numbers up close, I did quite a bit of squinting and strategically angling flashlights and mirrors to get a good reading (As a bonus, I think I’ve come up with a good eye test that would make an optometrist proud). For newly arrived IT shipments that I’ve dealt with, I’ve learned to check for similar characters in the serial numbers. I’ve usually found that the first or last characters of each serial number are the same—sometimes with only a one character difference. Determining which serial number characters repeat made the inventory process go more efficiently, especially when two people are conducting the inventory and it’s known between the two of you which serial number characters will change. Many of these shipments have also came with shipping documents, invoices, waybills, etc. which have helped me to resolve conflicts regarding which serial number character is which.

Have you ever wondered about that strange looking computer sitting off in the corner between that old space heater and the bookshelf? It has never booted up properly, is no longer supported under any warranty, and is way past its life cycle. It’s tempting to say: “Let’s just toss it in the dumpster out back. It’s taking up too much space in here.” To use a common phrase I often see under bottle caps: “Try again!” Despite the length of time that has passed, most IT items (even very old ones) are still on someone’s hand-receipt. If you have IT assets in your area that fall in the “dead weight” category, make sure to track down the hand-receipt holders or database administrators (if it’s a trackable item online). Some of this equipment may still have some kind of value or could be broken down for spare parts. If that’s not the case, hand-receipt holders will need to generate turn-in documents for proper removal from their accounts, or for physical turn-in or destruction. They may also breathe a huge sigh of relief that the one item they’ve spent years searching the hidden corners of the organization for has finally been found.

In approaching the task of asset management, I try to emphasize the importance of conducting an accurate inventory. In some places, doing a 100% hands-on inventory is impossible due to some IT equipment checked out for use elsewhere, or inaccessible in locked rooms and offices. It is possible though, to get as close to 100% as you can, but it requires cooperation and coordination from both parties. From my end, I’ve found that people won’t be as receptive if they don’t know why you’re there or what you’re doing. By announcing who I am, what I’m doing, and what kind of support I need from them, they’re been more inclined to provide assistance, and probably won’t want to be seen as standing in the way of an executive level directive to conduct asset inventories (of course, I never said this, but wouldn’t it be nice for them to think you have that kind of clout at your disposal?)

There is nothing I can think of that can disrupt an accurate inventory more than when equipment is moved or relocated after your inventory has placed it in a particular room/office. A typical example is after an inventory, a non-functioning monitor on one desk is swapped out for a working one in another office down the hall. What happens when no one else knows about it? If your inventory says an item is in Room X, but is really in Room Y, it raises the question of what else has been moved after an inventory. Movement of equipment from one place to another is certainly not unheard of, since short notice requirements and the unexpected are facts of life. If at all possible, hand-receipt holders must be kept aware of what’s being moved around in order for them to keep their inventory accurate. In some places, hand-receipt holders are notified FIRST before any equipment is moved, and features are in place that will disable or drop a user from a network or a domain if the item is disconnected, or unplugged and moved to another location.

Lastly, I think it’s important to conduct inventories often. If an inventory is conducted today with 100% accountability, the chances of having that same 100% two or three years from now may be highly unlikely—especially in a large environment where equipment is constantly being purchased, transferred, acquired from other hand-receipts, or otherwise turned-in. A frequent inventory process not only helps keep an equipment account current, but also minimizes the chance of missing anything due to long stretches without an inventory. If IT assets are lost or misplaced, a short time span between their last inventory date and when they’re discovered missing can help keep the inventory fresh in your memory, and make it easier to remember when and where they were inventoried.

If you’re familiar with some of these already, then you’ve probably fought some of the same asset management fights I have, and have the battle scars and the stories that we can sit down and talk about some day. If not, then feel free to use some of these as “weapons” when you conquer your next inventory.

About the Author

George Peterson is the Systems Engineer Contractor for CACI International, Inc.