Category Archives: Real SMB IT

Real SMB IT: Automate

In the small to medium enterprise, everybody is stretched thin.

Everybody wears many hats,and nobody has enough time.

That includes your IT team. Fix that issue, support that problem, assist someone else with another.

However, in many cases, your IT team has a way to begin getting out of that assistance rut: automation

One very large key to reducing your IT costs and staying sane is to ensure that you consolidate as much as possible and even more importantly to automate as much as possible.

I have seen technical support issues that routinely took excessive amounts of time to resolve, when the issue was a configuration or connectivity issue that can be automated through various tools or methods.

When something is done repeatedly and routinely, do your best to find a way to have it automated.

When Software Licensing Forces Your Decisions

I’ve got a story here that leaves me a little bit frustrated.

First? A little background: We are currently in the process of replacing an ageing accounting system with a newer, more modern system. (Our current system is older than my son, and he is 17)

Like most enterprise tools, this new system has a multitude, and variety, of different user licensing options. Certain levels of license give full access to the tool, other levels of license allow a device to access it, and other levels of license just allow fringe access to particular pieces.

And as you may have guessed, the more access a particular individual requires to the tool, the more expensive that license is. And that is where my frustration comes in.

For every one of our processes and requirements, we have to determine whether the task can be done as economically as possible regarding those licenses. For example, if we allow a road warrior to input his expense claim; does that mean he needs the full-boat license that costs as much as a small car? Because if it does, the hell with it, we will have to change our processes and have that expense claim submitted some other way.

This tool is an accounting package- and as such? Yes, we pay the full boat license price for the accounting team and the people need to do the deep dive into the software. But having to review each and everything we are trying to do with an eye to seeing if it escalates the price of the license required is very frustrating.

As a small to medium business, it severely changes the language of the business case to add hundreds of thousands of dollars in license costs, simply to enable somebody to submit an expense claim or other minor piece of work.

The small to medium business take away

Enterprise class software can be expensive. And having to fight through these licensing battles makes it just more so.

Have you experienced this? Let me know!

 

ITIL – Without the ‘Word’

I’ve written about ITIL quite a bit on this blog, and in fact I am using ITI L in an IT service management form in this new role of mine, but here’s a little secret; I don’t think I’ve used the word more than a dozen times.

OK, OK, ITIL  is an anagram, for IT Infrastructure Library, not a word. (yes, I know!)

Here’s the thing, our organization already has a strong engineering and project management framework in various processes and disciplines. So let me ask you a question? Does it make sense for me to try to teach a new language, a new discipline or a new protocol, or just continue to use the words and language that we are already using?

Language, and words are powerful devices. And for us the language and the words already exist.

As a business we have a strong understanding of lessons learned, a strong understanding of risk reduction and mitigation, and we already have ISO 9000 certified processes.

Perhaps as we make our first steps away from the little baby steps that we are currently doing I may change my mind about the terminology, the words, the semantics, but for now?

ITIL is predicated on learning problems from incidents that occur, so what is the difference if I ask what lesson did we learn from that incident?

For me?

I’ll stick with the words, the terms, and the language that we, as a business, already know.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Real SMB IT: VoIP

Voice over Internet Protocol – Most commonly shortened to VoIP. As a small to medium enterprise, are you using Voice over IP? Or have you had frustrating issues and trouble with a VoIP system?

Voice over IP is simply digitizing telecommunications data and allowing us to communicate using the same Internet technologies that permit us to visit web sites or send email.

While there are many benefits to using VoIP, there is also one large caveat.

That caveat is that VoIP requires a more stable and reliable Internet network connection than simple email does to operate properly.

To give an example, if you access a web page, you may not even notice if there is a small delay as a picture or small piece content shows up a little bit slower than other pieces of the site. In fact, the Internet communications ‘Language’ or ‘Protocols’ assumed that there would be delays or missing information and are designed to correct them automatically.

While a web browser may not care if a small piece of data is delayed. Well, VoIP cares very much about those delays. These little delays have interesting names such as jitter and latency – but they all mean something is slowing down!

Each delay caused by jitter or latency may be small, but cumulatively those delays can effectively destroy a VoIP communications call. This is simply because our spoken words do not take well to delays. (Have you ever tried listening to a radio station that is just beyond the range of your radio receiver?)

And here is when it can be tough identifying issues with VoIP, what makes it more difficult is that these delays we are talking about are not just delays in your own office, but delays in every device that exists between the telephone we hold in our hands, to the recipient of the phone call.

One of our teams experienced this problem first hand. VoIP performance from their hosted provider was very poor. The VoIP system was a constant source of frustration. Fortunately, their VoIP provider had the ability to supply us with some monitoring data that identified this issue for us.

If you look at the picture below, each of the small green blocks you see shows shows network delays, each small bump of green would cause an issue with a VoIP call, and the locations where the green blocks look like hills would have left the VoIP system pretty much unusable. (click on the image to enlarge it)

Here is the key piece though, if you look at the ‘Last 30 Hours’ frame in the picture – you will see that these delays continue to occur in the middle of the night when no staff members were in the office! This frame demonstrates that it is not only the devices we can control – but devices outside of our direct control that can affect successful implementation of a VoIP system.

In summary, Voice over IP systems can be a fantastic business tool, however care must be taken to ensure that the network connectivity supporting the system is as stable as possible.

Jitter and Latency

‘Free’ Can be a Good Idea

Living in the ‘snow belt’ temperate climate of Canada, there is a spring ritual I have to perform. While this ritual does not require the chanting and ritual sacrifice required during early historic turns of the equinox, it still takes a little magic and a few potions, with each potion balanced ‘just so….’

That is to say, each spring I have to reverse the work I did last fall, namely getting our swimming pool back into operation after its winter hibernation of thick coverings and the disembowelment of all parts which are then tucked safely away from the frigid winter elements.

(living in a heavily forested area just adds to the joi-de vivre of this ritual, yes the picture below sums it up with more eloquence than I can)

After a long winters hibernation, our northern swimming pools want to be pampered with just the right amount and the right balance of the ingredients that magically turn water stained green or black into that familiar swimming pool blue.

The thick winter coverings are removed? Check..

The previously disembowelled parts are restored to their rightful place? Check..

The first doses of the spring potions have been added? Check..

After the initial ritual of opening of the pool, the little test strips you buy usually do perfectly well in advising you of the pools state -

Ahhh, but the opening ceremony usually needs a little more tender loving care than those quick test strips can provide.

So for this part of the ritual I fill a small bottle with water from the pool and go to my local pool supply store. In this case, I showed up about 15 minutes before they opened, and like devotees queueing for the latest device from Apple (AAPL) , there was already a line up of others performing the same ritual that I was.

The reason we were lined up like iPhone fans waiting for the latest gadget? This pool supply store has a computer test system that performs for the pool opening ritual the same thing we see in all the crime shows on TV, a few squirts of water into various tubes and and the computer screen lights up with not only the required potion, but the amounts (down to two decimal places – which was 4.06 Kilograms of Alkalinity boosting potions in my case)

Which segues into my topic

With this line of people performing this spring ritual?

The price I paid for them to tell me which potions I needed?

Zero, nada, zilch, nothing…….

In my admittedly completely unscientific visual survey, I saw one or two people take away the information from the computer and just leave the store. But the rest of us?

Yes, buckets, cannisters, bottles or tubs of the potions needed to get our pools to a sparkling blue.

You can call it a ‘loss leader’ if you like. But the amount of product I saw going through the check-out line just says good business to me.

Your thoughts?

Real SMB IT: Computer Hardware Fails, Plan For It

We all know that after a certain number of years and miles that our cars will begin to break down more often. Many of us know someone who is a master do-it-yourself person that can choose to keep making repairs until that clunker becomes an antique classic. But for most of us, when the cost of repair and the risk of breakdown reach that tipping point, well – we look at replacing the car.

When it comes to your computer hardware, I don’t recommend that do-it-yourself idea, classic computer hardware belongs only in museums.

One benefit we have with cars, there are statistical references that we can base our decisions on, for example, we know the higher the mileage the more likely things are to break. Unfortunately we can’t measure our computer use in miles. Vendor marketing teams may try and convince us that the server your financial tool runs on will last forever. But it definitely won’t.

And that server holding your financial records and data is running 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.

We can debate what service life a server is. A quick search on Google shows dozens of conflicting arguments.

 The SMB Takeaway

In the last couple of weeks, three separate small businesses have told me about their computer server failing.

Gone.

Dead as the proverbial doornail

It will happen to you – it is not a question of ‘if’. It is a question of ‘when’.

Plan for it.

Photo Credit Stephen A. Wolfe via flickr

The Department of Scary Numbers: SMB Backup And Recovery

This eWeek article has a host of scary numbers about the lack of confidence in the consumer grade tools that many small to medium businesses  are using for a critical job.

That job?

That job is the backing up (and if necessary, restoring) their critical data. And I am willing to bet that the numbers they are mentioning are actually worse than they state.

The content of the article makes it fairly certain that they are referencing the smaller end of the ‘small to medium business’ – but I know that the problem exists at the larger end of the scale too.

And why do I believe that numbers are actually worse?

Because many smaller businesses don’t realize that some of the business critical tools that they use need special care and skill to make sure you have successfully made a backup.

For example, you have a folder full of documents or pictures? sure, it easy to copy them to a USB drive or DVD. but you won’t have much luck trying that with the database used by your accounting software, or the one used by your inventory, shipping, or invoicing software.

The first reason is that you usually don’t know where that database is, and secondly, those database files cannot be simply copied from one location to another – your computer server will always have them ‘locked’ in a way that copying is not permitted.

With no copy of those databases – you have no backup of your most critical transactional data.

That is also why I believe that larger SME’s can fall into this trap.

These larger businesses may have improved business class tools to perform this critical task, however their understanding of them may not be as in depth as they could. be. As an example, a larger business could post more transactions to its accounting system in one day than a smaller business may do in one week.

Yet that accounting database is still backed up only once a week, the same way it was years ago…

DDS Backup tapes circa late '90's

The SMB Takeaway

The information and data located in your accounting, you billing, your receiving or your inventory programs is the life blood of your business.

Ignoring the possibility that something could happen to it is the most extreme level of negligence. Sooner or later something will happen to it. (it is only ‘when’, not ‘if’)

 

 

 

Real SMB IT: On ‘Technical Debt’

What is Technical Debt?

When you take out a loan, you understand that the money you receive today comes with a liability of repayment, and of course, that repayment comes with interest.

If you are an executive or manager in the small to medium business space, you should understand that a similar type of debt comes along with your IT spending too.

The term Technical Debt was coined several years ago, primarily as a way of demonstrating risks in the application development life cycle. (in other words when writing or modifying software programs- and before you state that you don’t write software programs, that contractor modifying your ERP or sales program? Yes, you got it…)

I believe technical debt goes beyond developers though. As soon as you have signed the check for some new piece of software or business tool, you are already incurring some technical debt. This is because you are now going to be living with that decision for a while.

As an analogy, imagine that you have recently purchased a 2012 model year car, then imagine that you visited your local auto show and you see that the upcoming 2013 model of the same car has twice the features, better fuel economy, and even a little bit less expensive.

As nice as that 2013 model may look, if you are like most of us, until you have fully paid the lease or loan payments in full, that fancier model is far out of reach.

That type of technical debt is unavoidable. Yes, you can argue that if you don’t buy anything, that debt does not exist. That is a truth, however you are also not obtaining any possible efficiency or value either.

Then, there is the interest payments due..

This next level of technical debt is both insidious and expensive. (and the reason the term was coined)

This technical debt results from poor standards, poor planning, poor or non-existing documentation as well as lax or non-existent controls.

I am not going to explain this one in detail though! Because Andrea Dallera has already done that perfectly in this post titled; On technical debt (now with chickens!)

Photo Credit Alan Levine via flickr

It’s Not An IT Project

It is critical that we focus on our customers.

I don’t think many of us would raise our hands and argue argue that point.

In our service economy, customer retention and loyalty have become key measures of profitability.

As a growing business, you have worked to define clearly who your customer is, you have developed a particular set of activities that serve your customers, and work hard to measure and monitor the health of those customer relationships. Lets not omit that you have linked this effort to the economic well being of the business and its employees.

As your business has grown, you realize that all of these measurements and activities can no longer live in one person’s memory and Rolodex. You realize that the current ad-hoc approach needs to improve to ensure that you are capturing the required data that allow you to respond to customer or market demands.

Then, as marketing expert Ian Lurie states, it’s computery screeny stuff, make it an IT Project to implement a customer relationship system.

And as soon as you say ‘IT Project’, you are creating a problem. Your strategy, your vision, and all of the activities that serve your customers are key, and they go far beyond your technology team. A weak technology team will leave you in a mess. A strong one will do everything possible to document each step and requirement, then translating that into a tool.

A tool that IT thinks will be perfect for you. But IT won’t be using it will they? IT will not be spending their days using that tool that is so key to that strategy, that vision.

A regional Sales Director of an international services firm once told me that the tool they used was fine for many aspects of their sales cycle, but frustrating in others. As an example, the tool would enforce a minimum level of margin. On its own, you could state that avoiding selling below desired margin is a benefit, however imagine a penny-ante initiative that could unlock a huge new customer? Certainly you would want some controls in place, but a lower margin – perhaps even a loss leader that opens that door?

The SMB Takeaway

Sure, it is computery screeny stuff, but it is not IT stuff. Your technology team can enable your vision, can enable your goals. They can provide tools that capture the data that allows you to retain and serve your customers.

But it is a business project. It is business stakeholders that will successfully (or unsuccessfully) be using that tool. Not IT.

So it needs to be business managers, not IT Managers that make the key decisions

Where I Agree to Disagree on Cloud Computing & The SME

An article by Todd R. Weiss written on an HP site titled; Small Business Cloud Challenge: Getting the IT Talent You Need

To quote the opening line;

With a typically tiny IT staff, it’s often tough for small businesses to find the time and resources to develop and begin a real cloud computing strategy

The article continues on describing the challenges facing SME’s in attracting ‘cloud engineer’ talent. (what is a cloud engineer anyway?)

Yes, I believe that the information in that article is wrong, and I have that belief for the reason I wrote here. To summarize that post, if you are a smaller business with limited or no technology staff, you take a huge capex and opex hit buying some kind of enterprise software tool – or you spend a monthly Opex expense and rent it online from the likes of Salesforce.com or Netsuite that can grow with you as you need it.

For larger SME’s, your IT teams already have the virtualization and development skills, the learning curve to move that effort to the ‘cloud’ is definitely not beyond the skills of your team.

As this article by Brian Hopkins at Forrester Research states;

Many SMBs I talk to are adopting a cloud-first policy and eschewing investment in big enterprise systems,

And don’t take my word for it, the December 5th edition of eWeek** has an article by Chris Preimesberger that states;

.. the menu and drag-and-drop user interfaces have become so familiar and easy to use that coding and scripting applications and cloud service have basically become a thing of the past.

For small to medium enterprises, the only question I have; Why would you not look at this cloud computing?

**The print edition of the periodical, I attempted to find the digital edition on their website, but searching by issue date and author name failed to locate it