What are the management issues related to your telecoms and networks infrastructure? How can you reduce the management burden? What technologies exist to be able to do this? Cath Everett finds out how to stay on top of networking.
Managing your networks and telecomms infrastructure is one of the biggest – and most costly – headaches that you are ever likely to face.
According to Celia Hyde, commercial director at IT services and consultancy firm Small Business Computing (SBC), most small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) fork out some 60-70% of their annual IT spend and a great chunk of their time looking after these systems. In many cases, the situation isn’t helped by the mish-mash of products in place, bought from different vendors at different stages of the company’s growth.
As Chris Potts, operations manager at the Museum of Garden History, explains: “The technology that you buy is often incredibly basic at first, but because more complex and useful elements are added as you grow, most often by various suppliers and engineers, the end result is that you can have systems that are expensive to maintain and difficult to use.”
Your typical infrastructure might include a private branch exchange (PBX) based phone system and uncontrolled mass of phones, including cellular ones, as well as an ISDN or ADSL internet connection.
You may well have a few unmanaged hubs floating around, and a local area network (LAN) hooking up PCs of varying types and ages, all running a variety of different operating system releases, probably from Microsoft. There may well even be a couple of servers on there too.
But it doesn’t end there, as SBC’s Hyde explains: “Functions that should be in place, but often aren’t, relate to security, data back-ups, virus protection and firewalls. This is typically because these security-related technologies do not add any visible functionality to the network, but considerably increase the cost of implementation, even though they do provide critical protection for the network.”
As a result, she says, too many SMEs live in the hope that they won’t be affected by security threats, although awareness and willingness to spend has increased lately in line with the growth in the amount and the negative impact of viruses.
The biggest issue for companies like yours is skills-related; whether that’s finding reasonably priced systems support staff or third-party service providers, according to Jeremy Jackson, a director at high-tech public relations agency Mahseer, who has responsibility for IT.
“In London, for companies unable to afford a full-time systems administrator, the options are limited. Finding a company that is prepared to invest to acquaint themselves with your system, to fully understand the issues involved in adopting new technologies and to develop a project plan that can be implemented in manageable steps, with back-up plans if necessary, is my biggest challenge,” he says.
Although there are a wealth of organisations vying to offer IT services, most are reactive, and are only prepared to tackle – and charge you for – issues on an event-by-event basis, or to address a task list under a monthly maintenance contract. They are not, however, typically prepared to take on overall management of your system.
Another issue related to this skills situation is the dearth of comprehensible management tools for the non-network specialist.
As Clive Longbottom, service director at analysts Quocirca, explains: “Many SMEs can’t afford full-time systems managers and the people who look after the environment on a best effort basis don’t know whether 30% network loading is good, bad or indifferent, and whether they have a problem or not.” In this scenario, a set of tools that advise staff on what technical issues mean in business terms would be a positive boon, adds Longbottom. While vendors such as IBM’s Tivoli, BMC and Computer Associates are working in this direction, their offerings are very expensive and not aimed at your company, which doesn’t help much.
And it is this cost issue that ends up being a major problem time and time again. According to SBC’s Hyde, the biggest single expense you’re likely to face relates to ongoing management and maintenance, with the upfront price of systems constituting only about 20% of what you’re likely to have to spend overall.
But she warns: “This is often not taken into account by SMEs, who assume that having bought and installed kit it should run smoothly for years, without having to spend any more on it.”
Hidden costs come in many shapes and forms. These can range from the wasted effort involved in trying to fix something without having the necessary skills in place, to the time spent trying to re-tune and optimise systems that have been put together on the hoof.
Another not-so-obvious one is the cost, in both time and effort, you could spend struggling with badly performing and poorly put-together offerings. The Museum of Garden History’s Potts explains: “Hybrid systems are expensive to maintain because each piece of the technology jigsaw is different, with its own peculiar functions, each needing their own tweaks. Also, IT professionals and engineers rarely come prepared for the vast range of technologies that characterise SMEs, and will replace rather than fix whenever possible.”
On the telecoms side, however, it is easy for you to rack up enormous costs as the business grows, particularly with mobile phones, which often are not paid for under business contracts.
Potts says an automatic dial ISDN connection, for example, may work well for three people, but by the time the company employs 10, prices become extortionate. “The problem with expansion and hybrid systems is that what may be cost-effective for a small enterprise is rarely so for a medium-sized one, even if the infrastructure can withstand the increase,” he warns.
Mahseer’s Jackson believes that the main issue with an unreliable network is not so much the downtime that results but the distraction of it all. “It’s the inconsistency that causes problems. A dead motherboard or monitor is a dream because it can be fixed.
Inherent and un-replicable issues are the bane. These are hugely time-consuming and cause a lack of confidence in users,” he says.
So what can you do about all this, and is there anything in particular you should bear in mind?
SBC’s Hyde believes that one of the most important elements is to set realistic expectations for managers as to what the business can get for its IT-related spend. If you haven’t got one already, then assign an annual budget for systems maintenance and any contingencies that might arise.
As part of this, it’s a good idea to put together an analysis of the financial impact of any downtime to the business and to assign sufficient financial resources to cope with this eventuality. Being able to provide disaster recovery plays an important part here to ensure there can be a fast return to business in the event of problems such as theft or fire.
But it’s also crucial to plan for the need to replace kit into the future, something that can be helped by depreciating hardware over a three- to five-year period to build up capital for that replacement. It helps to maintain up-to-date records of all your hardware and software purchases, including copies of all different types of media and software licences, too.
As a senior ICT manager comments: “SMEs don’t always have sophisticated accounting tools in place to see where their costs are, but it’s important to find a balance between upfront costs, ongoing charges and support costs.”
While initial upfront costs may be higher for one technology or service than another, it’s important to think about how your business is likely to develop over the next few years and ensure your purchasing fits in with this.
On the LAN side, if you have some technical knowledge, consider getting yourself some asset discovery and management tools such as LANdesk Software’s Management Suite. This enables you to gather information about what’s happening in your network in real-time and to tackle issues such as inventory management and software distribution.
It’s also probably worth taking a long and hard look at your telecoms operator and related contracts, especially in relation to mobile phone usage, and look around the market to see if you’re getting value for money.
Bernd Ostergaard, a research director at Forrester Research, says there are plenty of alternatives these days, and suggests it might be worth going to a telecoms broker, such as Project Telecom, to help save you time in finding the best deal. Such organisations generally charge either a small upfront fee or take an agreed cut of the cost savings made.
Ostergaard also recommends looking at the opportunities provided by developing a voice and data convergence strategy. This would mean throwing out your old kit and introducing new technology, such as a voice over IP network. This, he says, can cost 40-50% less than having traditionally separated data networks and telecoms lines, and is becoming more of a realistic option as broadband becomes increasingly available.
Your final option to consider, however, is outsourcing the management of your network and telecoms infrastructure to a third party, thus allowing you to concentrate on your core competencies.
Again, convergence should make this process smoother – once your voice and data streams are all running over IP-based networks, it makes it easier and cheaper for outsourcers to manage, which, so long as you have good service level agreements in place, should make life easier and cheaper for you.
As Quocirca’s Longbottom concludes: “Think about keeping control of the business imperative and strategy, while outsourcing the grunt work to those who make a living out of understanding why Windows 2000 has just gone down. It’s important to realise that technology is just a facilitator, not a solution in itself, and that SMEs are running a business, not an IT house.”