IT executives are finding dashboards that let them quickly gauge the effect of interrelated events and take corrective action can make staff more productive and keep key systems humming.

According to Forrester Research estimates, companies could reduce IT budgets by as much as 30 percent with integrated management dashboards that link critical data from infrastructure monitoring software, application portfolio management and project management tools.

Creating such an automated dashboard is a priority for Arun DeSouza, chief information security officer at Inergy Automotive Systems in Michigan. DeSouza recently gained an additional title - manager of global service assurance - that requires he better track IT service levels.

"It is really important for an IT department to measure what you deliver and to show improvements in services over time," DeSouza says. "Even if the business units don't completely understand the technologies underneath what you are measuring, they appreciate the measure of IT performance."

As IT executives make an effort to run their departments more like a business than a cost centre, they need information that helps qualify the business consequences of events such as application latency and server downtime. "IT is starting to think about the metrics that tell us if our business is running well," says Bill Gassman, a research director at Gartner.

To get there, IT is migrating from static dashboards that have had to be updated manually to automated systems that draw data more frequently and from a wider range of sources. Some systems are home-grown, others are packaged offerings from vendors such as BMC Software, CA, Cognos, Hyperion, HP and IBM.

At the same time, the trend toward more advanced business monitoring is spurring new partnerships among systems management and business intelligence vendors. HP's DecisionCenter software - a product announced last week that helps IT managers plan IT capacity and projects with business performance in mind - is integrated with Business Objects, for example.

DeSouza is among IT users making the switch from static, in-house developed dashboards to an "automated super-dashboard" that he expects will help his department change its service delivery approach to better support the business.

"We used to focus mostly on measuring the network metrics. Now we track more financial indicators, and we still want to do a measure of customer satisfaction with key projects, as well as help desk response time and speed of resolution," DeSouza says.

Billboard style
One of the biggest challenges for users is identifying the appropriate metrics to track. A big reason dashboard projects fail is too much information, Gassman says. If a dashboard has more than five metrics, experiment to see which metrics really affect performance. "Everything else you should start whittling away because it just becomes a distraction," he says.

Equally important is not becoming over-reliant on a dashboard and assuming that because a graphical indicator isn't flashing a warning sign, everything is OK, says James Kritcher, vice president of IT at White Electronic Designs in Phoenix. He keeps tabs on multiple special-purpose dashboards that track help desk statistics, system availability, project portfolios and service-level agreement compliance.

"It's important to understand the data behind the dashboard - the data source, how the data is rolled up from multiple sites, how often the data is refreshed," Kritcher adds.

Having a handle on that can help ensure executives don't react too quickly to what may be negative results in their dashboard and wreak havoc on IT processes or technologies. "We are using cross-checked metrics from different sources to ensure that the metrics are not showing false positive," says Jean-Philippe Draye, a system architect manager at Avaya in Belgium.

His dashboard tracks conditions such as application availability and response time, as well as ongoing performance metrics such as the percentage of support requests solved on the first call. It's all on display on a big plasma screen for IT managers to view, including a ticker that runs across the bottom highlighting current outages.

Michael Nix's dashboard tracks similar metrics, but via a Web interface rather than a plasma screen. He checks the dashboard every morning and staff members monitor it throughout the day. In addition, Nix has extended the dashboard to users outside the IT department.

"We have a dashboard for three other departments that are heavy IT service users," says Nix, who is assistant director of IT services and communications technologies at the Kansas University Hospital Authority. For these users, the dashboard view is tailored to display each department's relevant applications and network segments. Looking ahead, Nix plans to create similar dashboards for the company's remaining department directors.

Some IT staff raised questions about giving other departments tools to track IT performance, Nix says. "My response was if we have something to be ashamed about in that regards, we need to work harder," he says. "I consider it a failing on our part if we are not already working on an issue before it comes to their attention because of the dashboard."

Legwork required
Building a dashboard doesn't have to be an expensive project. Just ask Craig Bush, who runs a custom dashboard he built using open source tools on a Linux workstation.

He uses RRDTool for the back-end storage database and MRTG as the front-end graphing database. For display graphics, Bush uses a Web application called Routers2.cgi.

"All open source, all free," says Bush, a network administrator at orthopaedic and medical device provider Exactech.

"It doesn't have the bells and whistles of some of the commercial offerings, but I can do pretty much anything they can do if I set my mind to it," he says.

While it may sound simple, Gassman cautions IT not to embark on a dashboard project lightly. IT needs to know the data is clean, secure and up-to-date, and systems need to be well integrated before attempting to build a dashboard, he says.

Once that foundation is in place, it is easy to pull together a dashboard, he says. "But for organisations that don't have that maturity level, to jump into dashboards just because some executive says he wants one, is just going to cause them headaches."