Fast-growing businesses with several software and application deployments underway at any given time can mean big headaches for IT managers and big costs for businesses. IT administrators are often busy troubleshooting and updating workstations -- tasks that cost businesses time and money.

"IT people are always on the push to do more with less," says Michael Speyer, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Companies want IT staff to be "a little more creative and value-adding," he says.

A 2005 survey of 500 IT administrators by Dynamic Markets found that 94 percent of U.S. IT managers believe they are becoming more strategic to their organizations, but most of their time is spent on administrative tasks.

For many IT administrators in small and mid-size businesses, the most time-consuming task is managing individual workstations. By automating inventory management and daily tasks such as software distribution and security patches on desktops, laptops and other network devices, IT can focus on business goals.

Expanding IT automation

IT automation has traditionally been employed by large companies with considerable IT budgets. But some companies that offer automation solutions also cater to small and mid-size businesses.

"It's just as important for those folks to have the same benefit and to level the playing field for them," says Steve Workman, vice president of product management for LANDesk, which offers automation through systems and process software.

Businesses concerned about IT costs save money by using automation because they can shift IT focus to from troubleshooting to business solutions, providers argue. LANDesk says its customers usually receive a return on investment within 90 days.

LANDesk's Process Management software costs $15,000 for 50 employees. Competitor Altiris charges $92 per 100 workstations for its Client Management Suite software and offers volume discounts. Altiris, now part of Symantec, is also targeting the mid-size market with its Configuration Management Database Solution in June. It will cost $6,995 per concurrent user.

Solutions geared toward small businesses

The solutions offered by larger providers such as LANDesk, Altiris, and Microsoft are often complex and require installation and training, says Fred Broussard, an analyst with Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. But larger providers generally support more operating systems.

Broussard said that KACE, a Silicon Valley-based automation appliances provider, has been able to "package its solutions in an easy-to-use and consume form" for businesses between 100 and 500 employees.

KACE offers an appliance called a KBOX to manage and automate IT administration. It does not require additional software or hardware and needs minimal training, according to the company. KACE charges $9,500 to $12,900 per 100 workstations for its KBOX appliances.

IT departments "experience pain at all levels," says KACE CEO Rob Meinhardt, "but the amplitude of that pain increases to the point where you're going to pay for automation at about 100 employees."

IT automation will not eliminate a company's need for IT managers, says Broussard, because they still have to manage the process. "IT would just do other things that would add more value to the enterprise," he says.