Laying down the burden

Faced with an increasingly complex technology landscape, and rising user expectations, more and more iSeries/400 sites are...

Faced with an increasingly complex technology landscape, and rising user expectations, more and more iSeries/400 sites are turning to outsourcing.

In a nutshell, outsourcing describes what happens when companies decide that they want some or even all of their computing services provided by a third party. Indeed, a typical AS/400 outsourcing arrangement could include, installation, maintenance, network monitoring and administration.

The good news for users is that the AS/400 and iSeries should be an ideal platform for outsourced services. Guy England, IBM EMEA channels manager explained: "iSeries represents an excellent platform to host services on; it can be used to host Windows, Domino, Unix, Linux, Java, RPG, Cobol, as well as many other environments."

There are a number of companies offering outsourcing services to users, including IBM itself and a range of its iSeries business partners, such as Syan. England, however, acknowledges that local partners also have a lot to offer users. He said: "Certain local partners have skills in a particular application or service and may be appropriate to a given customer situation." Perhaps not surprisingly, IBM claims to have one of the broadest outsourcing capabilities in the industry. This covers the likes of server and software management, as well as network and project management.

One of the most important things that users should be aware of is that, contrary to popular belief; outsourcing is not the sole preserve of blue chip organisations. Companies such as mid range outsourcing specialist Digica, for example, are aiming to put outsourcing back on the agenda of companies that had previously dismissed it as too expensive.

Niki Torrance, Digica marketing manager explained: "There has been so much press coverage about multi-million pound outsourcing deals and this has left many companies, especially SMEs, thinking that outsourcing would be too expensive for them." Both large multinationals and smaller organisations are struggling with the effects of the ongoing skills shortage and the technology demands of the current business climate. Outsourcing could provide the answer.

The simple fact is that many IT departments need particular technical or applications skills, but not in a sufficient quantity to justify employing someone full or even part-time. This is particularly the case for smaller companies, which have both limited resources and the current economic downturn to contend with. Torrance of Digica said: "An outsourcing supplier usually has a much wider range of skills than most organisations would want or could afford to keep in house."

Richard Smith, sales director of ERP software specialist GEAC, which is currently expanding its range of services to include outsourcing, echoes these sentiments. He said: "A large proportion of AS/400 users are SMEs and this is one of the reasons why outsourcing is a valid option." He added: "They are always looking for pragmatic, cost-effective solutions to help them run their business more effectively."

OK, so outsourcing can keep my recruitment, management and training overheads down, but what else can it offer? One of the biggest benefits, especially in a world rocked by the events of September 11, is security. A good outsourcing provider should be able to house your server at a purpose-built site, with state-of the-art security. They should also provide excellent communications links, power supply and, if needed, disaster recovery.

On a more mundane level, outsourcing servers such as the AS/400 can also save space and give users a clearer idea of what they are actually spending on technology over a given period of time. This should make managing that all-important IT budget much easier. Moreover, outsourcing a mission-critical machine such as the AS/400 could free an organisation to concentrate on its other business objectives.

There are a number of options on the market for organisations interested in outsourcing their AS/400 or iSeries. Digica, for example, offers Operations/400, an operations outsourcing service for AS/400 users at a cost of £45,000 per processor per annum. The AS/400 is housed in a purpose built datacentre as part of the Operations/400 service with Digica providing full operations and technical support. If required, the service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Other options include Remote Disk Mirroring, Applications Outsourcing and Standby/400, which, as its name suggests, provides access to a standby AS/400 machine.

Very life-blood
So how should companies set about outsourcing their AS/400 and iSeries servers? The most important thing is that users should look for outsourcing vendors that can deliver. There can be no mistakes or compromises when dealing with a company's mission-critical server, often the very life-blood of its business. Mark Mahara, managing director of mid range business intelligence software specialist Silvon Software said: "Clearly the most important thing is to make sure that you are dealing with a credible supplier. You have to be convinced that they have the infrastructure to run the applications that you require."

Richard Smith of Geac also believes that this is the case. He explained: "Make sure if you are going to outsource a key application, that the company you are going to outsource it to really understands that application in great detail and has all the skills required to support it." It could even be worth visiting outsourcers' datacentres and getting testimonials from existing customers.

Growth capability
It is also worth remembering that your IT requirement is likely to grow over the next few years, so users should ensure that their outsourcer is capable of growing with them. This applies not just to the AS/400 but also to other elements of the business. Torrance of Digica said: "You may need a supplier who can provide not just AS/400 operations, but also applications management and help with your desktop environment, or someone who understands your line of business and can help you with your IT strategy."

Perhaps most important of all, however, is to ensure that there are matrices, against which you can measure the outsourcer's performance, built into your contract. England of IBM said: "The key point with setting up any outsourcing deal is to create a very detailed agreement about what will and won't be provided to the customer by the outsourcer."

This is where Service Level Agreements (SLAs) guaranteeing specific service standards come in. Organisations should be prepared to devote some serious thought to this part of the outsourcing deal. If effective SLAs are not negotiated, then you could live to regret it later.

Of course, there is a lot more to an AS/400 outsourcing deal than just technology. For this reason, it is also worth keeping someone in-house who possesses company-specific IT knowledge so that they can help manage the contract with the supplier.

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