Category Archives: support

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.

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

A Small Business And Sharepoint

I had a hallway conversation with the owner of a small business that provides outsourced IT support and technical services for other small businesses.

As old techies are wont to do, we were swapping war stories (in other words, technical issues we had fought and beaten in the past!) when he mentioned a problem that he was having at one of his small business clients. For this particular client he had installed a Microsoft Small Business Server product to give his client basic email, file storage, and printer services.

Now this Microsoft small business product also contained a basic version of a collaboration tool called Microsoft Sharepoint Team Services. First, I must say that this next part is incredibly unusual, but his client had found this Sharepoint collaboration software by themselves and were actually using it.

I made that incredibly unusual comment as some tongue in cheek humor! And that is because many companies explicitly invest money and time into these types of collaboration products and then attempt to drag their staff kicking and screaming into using them. And here was a small business that found it by accident and just dove in – head first.

My friend described how his client was using this Sharepoint collaboration tool for various types of documents and had placed huge amounts of data into the software. And this is where his problem was found, his client was experiencing software crashes, corrupted documents and various other problems. I had previously mentioned that I had implemented a 10 thousand document ISO 9000 PMF repository using that same Sharepoint collaboration tool, so he asked if I had any idea on the issue.

I had the privilege to tell him that I had a really good guess.

The ‘Express’ version versus the ‘Full’ version

For many years Microsoft Corporation has fairly successfully given some basic products away for free, but to get more advanced functionality commonly used in our businesses, you needed to pay for the full version of the software.

As an example, for years you were able to use a free copy of Microsoft Outlook Express  for your basicMicrosoft Office email needs, in fact it was installed by default on many computers when you purchased them. But for shared calendars and other more advanced functionality, you needed to pay for it and purchase a full copy Microsoft Outlook.

And Microsoft has done the same thing with this Sharepoint product. Sharepoint Team Services itself is a a freely available download for licensed Microsoft Servers, and when you install it? It  uses the Microsoft SQL Server Express database engine. Notice the word ‘Express again. It works, and is also freely available.

But similar to my Outlook example, these freely available Express versions of these tools have some limitations that do not exist in the full featured ‘pay for it’ versions of the same software. The full featured ‘pay for’ products are Microsoft Sharepoint Portal Server, and the full Microsoft SQL Server product.

And my guess about his clients issues was based on these limitations. Because one of the limitations in the Express version is the physical amount of data that you can place in the SQL Server Express database. If you reread the above paragraphs, note that this small business owner said that his client had put ‘huge amounts of data in it’.

I suggested he take a look and see if they had put enough data into the software to be running up against the limit of what that Express version of the database software could handle.

As a note, a couple of weeks later he told me they had.

The SMB Takeaway

I give this small business credit for their head first dive into the software, although they should have told their IT Services provider, as he did not know they were using it – it was not being backed up! Think what they could have lost…….

However it brings up a lesson that in ITIL terms we call Capacity Management. (My first post on ITIL for small to medium business is here)

Capacity Management is defined as meeting current and future business requirements in a cost-effective manner. In English, it basically means purchasing IT assets based on your expected usage not just today, but next year. As a bad analogy - if you have decided that next year you and your spouse are going to have a baby, buying the two seat sports car right now would be poor future planning or poor Capacity Management.

My friends client found the software by accident, but this goes beyond the one software tool shown above, if you are looking at purchasing any type of IT software or hardware, consider where you will be next year, and the year after that. Buying a new server just big enough to hold all your office productivity documents and spreadsheets today, what about the new document or spreadsheet you create tomorrow?

 

Seats, Services, And Strategic Planning

Last week, I referenced a great article by Isaac Sacolick Writing at the Engineering News Record, titled; Tablets, Laptops and Virtual Desktops: Trends for CIOs to Watch. (The article needs registration now, I guess direct access was limited time only)

In my first post about that article titled; Software & Asset Management (or Butts in Seats) I wanted to lay a bit of groundwork for this follow up post by advocating the creation of roles for all of your IT assets. This includes software, and the computing resources, platforms and tools required for each – and including adding in the services required to support them. My reason for this is that this concept of roles becomes a powerful tool in managing your IT assets, from procurement, through deployment and into service and support. Each stage of the asset life-cycle can be greatly simplified if assets are kept together in ‘baskets’ of assets needed to support these various roles within your business.

Computing devices, which now can encompass devices from smart phones, to tablets and right on up to laptops and desktops are used to create, or consume information. As you defined the roles within your organization, it becomes apparent what levels, amounts and types of content are either created or consumed by each role.

With this information, your evaluation of new technologies is simplified, as the strengths, weaknesses and capabilities of each type of device or technology can be reviewed using your roles as baselines for evaluation.

The sample role I used in the first post was a role simply called ‘Mobile-Executive’ and to that role we attached a sample basket of requirements. To use that role as my example again, if that mobile-executive role requires extensive consumption (or display) of data, such as dashboards, enterprise software reports, and email access – your evaluation of tablets such as Apple’s iPad can be fairly straightforward.

Here is one case in point, an ITWorld Canada article about SAP AG CIO Oliver Bussman by Jeff Jedras titled; What’s on the iPad of SAP’s CIO?   

…a number of analytical and business tools he needs to run SAP’s IT organization and strategy. They include access to business information, financial data, human resources data, and a CIO dashboard.

There is one part where Mr. Sacoliks’ view of the future is farther out than mine, and that is his point that ‘power users’ are becoming more prevalent on alternative devices and technologies.

I cannot quite see that yet, in many cases power users spend most of their time in the creation of content. These power users may be creating complex documents, writing software code, performing computer aided design etc. These roles can requires significant computing resources, in some cases, such as software development they may also require application specific development environments etc. Many of these difficult to support (at this time) using some of these newer devices or technologies. (A review of one of CAD vendor Autodesk’s products in the September 5th print issue of eWeek with hardware requirements of 8 Gb RAM and dual processors with eight computing cores points out that difficulty)

 The SMB Takeaway

I believe that it is critical that we be looking at where new technologies fit into our businesses. And identifying the roles that create and consume information provides a powerful framework in applying these maturing technologies. We need to understand and exploit the strengths, and differences of each new technology or device.

As this article at Silicon.com states about tablets;

don’t consider it a laptop with no keyboard

@maritzavdh Sometimes the problem is not the problem. It’s that everybody has a different view of the problem. And everybody thinks they’re right

Software & Asset Management (or Butts in Seats)

I was going to try and cover the below referenced article in one post – length has relegated that to two! this is part 1….

A thought provoking article by Isaac Sacolick Writing at the Engineering News Record, titled; Tablets, Laptops and Virtual Desktops: Trends for CIOs to Watch

The era of planning a simple replacement of corporate computers every three years is over. Alternative devices and technologies need to be considered by IT leadership within their strategic planning processes – and soon. These devices have the ability to effect improvements in everything from productivity to employee engagement.

To contribute my own point of view, I actually want to start at the bottom of Mr. Sacolik’s work; at something many managers at the larger end of the small to medium enterprise rarely consider;

..it’s an ideal time to develop an application asset database, segment users based on usage patterns and then catalog platform requirements on the more critical applications

One Tech To Bind Them?

Within our business technology, one size does not fit all.  The technology assets required by engineering professionals, which could include development environments for software engineering or CAD (computer aided design) in other realms of engineering, is not the same as technology assets required by mobileiPad Device professionals, which again is not the same as the technology assets needed by administrative staff who may be using primarily office productivity software.

Asset And Service Catalogs…. & Roles?

If you catalog all IT assets, which includes software, and the computing resources, platforms and tools required for each – and then add in the services required to support them, you have now given yourself the ability to create workforce asset and service ‘seats’ or roles. And these roles can be a powerful management tool;

Ask yourself from a management and financial standpoint;

I have 400 computing devices scattered around? Or all my computing devices are managed via 6 roles, or seat types.

Which sounds easier?

From IT asset acquisition, deployment, through on boarding new employees, to supporting service levels, throughout your IT asset life-cycle, dealing with these roles or seat types can tremendously reduce time and cost.

To give one example; you have defined one seat or role as ‘Mobile-Executive’. Through your research and planning, you have determined that all persons that meet this criteria, or role, require ultra mobile computing power, general office productivity tools, secure remote access capability, general reporting from key corporate applications, cellular provisioning, and critical support turnaround for device failure while travelling.

The Seat

You are hiring a new executive to fill the Senior Vice President, Sales, seat starting in two weeks, which of the following most likely describes the current process in your business?

a) Sales and IT negotiate everything listed above one by one via meetings or email, hoping nothing is omitted or;

b) We usually perform the productivity loss method of trial and error, having our SVP spending his time on the phone with IT getting resources – versus on the phone with prospective customers or;

c) Our IT team receives an IT Service request that simply states; ‘..all requirements for role ‘Mobile-Executive’ for …….’

(as a side note, for organizations with a higher IT maturity level the services portion can support your IT SLA costing or billing initiatives as well.)

Defining your IT Asset catalog, and defining the roles required in your business, will let you improve your understanding of exactly what roles can be improved by the different assets or technologies Mr. Sacolik writes about, and will assist you in looking strategically where these assets would be most suitable for, as;

Each can open up several new options in outfitting the organization to do work faster, better and with fewer costs.

Note: this concept is not new – global IT outsourcing firms have used this concept for years, as ‘per seat’ margins would be totally devastated if for every one of 10,000 managed devices hours of meetings were required for configuration and deployment.

Update, Part 2  is here

Learning ‘Cloud Computing’ From Historical Microsoft

The Term  ‘Cloud Computing’

Over hyped, often misunderstood, and definitely sensationalized in some cases. That being said – the concept of simply renting your technology needs is going to be a large factor within the realm of IT over the next few years.

Epitomized by Salesforce.com, this model of sourcing computing resources draws much debate, but I believe this debate often overlooks what I believe is one important issue. And we already have a road map that outlines how that issue was finally resolved. To see that road map, there is a lesson we can learn if we travel back in time to the early 1990′s to Redmond and visit Microsoft Corp.

The Bottom of the Pyramid

During a debate on twitter, Mark Thiele pointed out an article he had written describing what he describes as a pyramid concept in the business and technology context of small vs. large organizations. I won’t repeat the post, but as a summary, consider that Fortune 1000 sized business (the thin pyramid tip) have multiple persons dedicated to single roles and responsibilities, and that as you move down to the thicker base of the pyramid, in the Small to Medium enterprise we probably don’t have these dedicated experts.

I am going to borrow Mr. Thiele’s pyramid concept and paraphrase, that the closer to the bottom of the pyramid, the smaller the organization, and the more hats we wear.

Back to Microsoft

If you could travel back to the early 1990′s the leading organization for providing networking services (or LAN’s) to business was Novell with their Netware product. Novell Netware was the 800 pound gorilla of its day, but it had a weakness. Netware was a product that required dedicated specialists to do the the most basic configuration changes. To print your document meant arcane commands and menus to provide ‘captured‘ print queues. Lets not get into ‘binding‘ the network cards so your computer was actually connected to the network.

During this same period, the early versions of Microsoft Windows were not used in the same sentence as Netware when it came to LAN technology. With the release of Microsoft Windows For Workgroups, Netware Administrators laughed at what they considered a half baked product. In many ways it was half baked.

But at the same time, as half baked as it may have been, a person that wore more than one hat (not a Netware specialist) could put their computer onto the corporate network. A person could set up a printer without help from ‘Certified Netware Administrators’. Within a few years, the Introduction of Windows NT, and other Microsoft tools allowed the small to medium business to perform more, and then even more duties with a mouse point and click, and without the need for arcane expert commands by specialists.

In a classic description of a Disruptive Innovation Microsoft grew from the bottom of the pyramid along with may of their customers from a PC based operating system that needed certified experts to add networking capability to a position where they are now the 800 lb gorilla and the top of the pyramid.

But Cloud?

In our lesson, there is one thing still missing; ‘Big’ software was still different. What I call ‘Big’ software were those line of business or enterprise class tools that include Resource Planning, Customer Relationship Management, Service or Supply chain management etc. For these products, you bought complex software and once again, needed dedicated experts to get the thing running. The larger the business, and larger the software, the more experts you needed. At the extreme, experts in the ABAP programming language used by SAP AG can pull in consulting contracts at a $1000.00 or more – and that is Per Diem….

Smaller organizations? Those of us closer the wide base at the bottom of the pyramid? Similar to those early versions of Windows for Workgroups, we are going to use these tools, because we can do it ourselves, while wearing one of our many hats. And as we grow? Yes, the tools will have matured a bit, and we are comfortable growing with them. As we grow larger? same thing. And each step of the way, we may not be wearing as many hats any more, but the tools improve, more people view the advantages and reduced costs and have progressed through the learning curves.

I will let the pundits continue to debate whether or not these ‘Cloud‘ or Software as a Service (SaaS) tools are ready for prime time, or ‘enterprise’ ready. Because as far as I am concerned the writing is on the wall to be read.

Today you are using these tools as a smaller business with no internal IT support, in a few years you are larger with perhaps limited IT support, and as you get larger, these tools are going to grow with you.

To me its simple, if you have grown from a 5 million business to a 100 million business using these tools, then you hit 900 million. the tools have matured, you have matured, and why in hell would change? why would you install racks of servers and software and spend millions to do on your own when you already  have it?

Like Microsoft vs. Netware circa 1993-94. I don’t believe you will.

 

On Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)

Several times I have used the term Total Cost of Ownership or TCO in posts on this blog. For this particular post, I want to define it a little better, and show how it can affect SMB’s in their IT Costs.

Technology research firm Gartner Group coined the term back in the ’80′s as a cost analysis model for measuring the costs of an IT asset over its entire lifecycle. At one point they even had a Compact Disk based program that allowed businesses to plug in their IT costing numbers and the tool would assist in qauntifying this TCO.

I have generally used the term TCO only in reference to purchasing physical devices such as computer hardware, although the original TCO toolsets were designed to support acquisition of larger IT ‘systems’ such as complex software that consist of both software and hardware components etc. For these larger, more complex systems, the tools were not perfect, as they do not account for true derived value (eg one system may have a significantly higher cost, but also a significantly higher benefit) and they also could not account for time value of money and other quantitative financial measures.

So does TCO matter?

The answer is yes. The concept of Total Cost of Ownership is still key for managers in the small to medium business because it forces us to stop thinking that the initial purchase price (one direct cost) of any IT asset is the actual price that you are going to pay.

Your purchase price does not include the ongoing and often hidden costs (indirect costs) that accrue with an asset over that assets lifecycle. When purchasing any IT asset. (including something as simple as a single personal computer) These direct and indirect costs will include both dollars and time in;

• Planning and acquisition
• Deployment
• Management and support
• Retirement/replacement

Direct Costs

The direct costs are the easiest to understand and at least some of them are the costs we usually associate as the common expenses of the IT asset purchase. These can include capital expenditures or lease fees for servers, or other IT assets. The labor required for deployment or any potential professional services or outsourcing fees. Direct costs can also include budgeting for help desk labor hours, training labor etc.

Indirect Costs

Indirect costs are generally a little more difficult to categorize. These type of costs include assumed costs for providing ongoing support through a concept called “shadow” support. (when advanced and skilled users provide support) For example, the mail-merge expert helps out other staff members get mail-merges working correctly. And secondly there is the calculation of downtime. This refers to the lost productivity due to planned and unplanned system unavailability.And it is this hidden downtime factor that I have written about.

The quick note takeaway

The actual calculations in the TCO toolsets will vary by large amounts depending upon your industry, and your level of IT maturity – in other words, the more automation in your IT operations, the less expensive this total cost of ownership can be.

But as a general average, Gartner provided this little rule of thumb; On average, consider your indirect costs to be approximately five (5) times the direct asset purchase price – per year. (yes – annually!)

The Danger!

Here is the danger. Using the above rule of thumb, you calculate that the powerful business class name brand laptop with lots of processing power, RAM, DVD-R, and huge disk space at $2400.00 will have a full TCO cost over five years of about $12,000.00

So you look at the Bill & Teds computer Co. No-Name special unit at $400.00, which over the same five years would only be about $2000.00

However, if you do this, you actually risk increasing the TCO cost due to the indirect costs listed above. Lack of productivity, downtime as substandard componenets fail, upgrades trying to get the device to improve. (see this previous article) All of these indirect and hidden costs can dramatically increase the cost of that asset over its lifecycle.

Update: Some newer numbers on TCO by Gartner are referenced here

A Picture is Worth a Thousand……

Many of us have heard the old adage; A picture is worth a thousand words.

Now what about simplicity? what is that worth?

Now, how about pictures and simplicity?

Imagine this situation:

Your business rents heavy-duty construction machinery.

Your problem?

You are having an issue with machinery being returned damaged. Unlike, say, renting a car, were a small knick or ding in the paint job is quickly visible, with heavily used construction machinery that is used on or in harsh environments?That can be harder to track and manage.

The resolution?

Date and time stamped photographs of the equipment before being delivered to the customer. Then again after it is returned.

“So now when [damaged equipment] comes back, we can prove it, and I know the courts will uphold that time stamp,” Box explains. The company collected about $100,000 from customers to pay for damaged equipment in the first three months the new system was in place; previously, it would have had to pay the cost of repairing the equipment out of its own pocket.

The SMB take awayHeavy Equipment

In this case? Simplicity!

I love it.

Photo Credit Bill Jacobus via flickr

Software: Hacks upon Hacks

For all SME executives (and IT Teams) an excellent article by Eric Brown titled; Application Modernization – Replace, Rewrite or Replumb?

I urge you to read that article, Mr. Brown explicitly demonstrates and defines the decisions we need to make when looking at our technology systems. Specifically, (as Mr. Brown’s title suggests) the tough decisions on fixing versus replacing old software or IT systems.

For this post I wanted to pull out one small tidbit;

The AAR systems had both languished in disrepair for years with hacks upon hacks added to each to add new functionality and make the system work.

Defining ‘Hack’

The term ‘hack’, and of course ‘hacker’ has become a pop culture term meaning the typical bad guys stealing your private information, writing viruses, and all of the other nasty stuff that make our computer lives difficult.

In the technology world however, it has a couple of  alternate definitions, and one simply meaning the quick and dirty doing what is necessary to get the job done.

As a physical example, imagine that you want to move a ceiling light 4 feet in your kitchen. Rewiring the complete light to the new location is one thing. Using electrical tape and wire connectors to ‘bandage’ on that extra 4 feet of copper wire is a hack. (A risky one too)

First, as I will demonstrate below – a ‘hack’ is not necessarily a negative thing on its own, but when they get out of control – and worse, when the reason why it was made was never written down, you get ugly bandages of software attempting to keep things running. This is not just a big business problem, it can be worse in smaller businesses. You may use a tool such as Salesforce.com, if you are a slightly larger organization, perhaps some accounting, planning, or manufacturing tools such as Dynamics  (among many other possibilities).

And let me put it bluntly. Many small to medium business technology teams make decisions in ad-hoc formats, and consider actually writing things down to be just as much fun as a root canal.

Your first step should be guidelines on how modifications to IT systems are made, and second? Yes. Write the bloody reasons for that decision down, along with detail of the modifications. (I will state the ‘why’ in a minute)

Consider this example.

Years ago I worked with a business that purchased a type of software tool. (And here is how quickly not following those guidelines can create problems down the road)

We bought that software from a company in the United States. And our business was Canadian.

Simply enough – we don’t have ‘States’ or ‘ZIP Codes’. (As a side note, over the intervening decade, vendors have gotten better at supporting both with State/Province)

So the team modified ‘State’ to ‘Province’ and ‘Zip’ to ‘Postal Code’ within its database and application screens.

Simple!

Until the first invoice was generated from the system. State and Zip not there? software died.

Hack! Modify the invoicing piece of the system to use ‘Province’ and ‘Postal Code’

Simple!

Until the first management report on regional activity. Canadian Postal Codes can contain letters. Software died!

Hack! You get the idea.

Earlier I stated I would answer the ‘why’ question about these type of hacks.

Imagine a year or so later, version 2.0 of that product comes out. How will the upgrade go? My guess is that it will probably not work at all from those ‘hacks’. The worst part is that no one will understand why because they aren’t written down.

The SMB Takeaway

I realize that this example is fairly simplistic, but if you are a CFO, COO or General Manager responsible for IT, I hope it demonstrates that allowing ad-hoc and undocumented modifications will cause problems. Maybe not today, or even next year. But they will eventually.

Understand the risks, ensure you have guidelines, and most definitely, ensure that it is documented.

As another note – we are currently dealing with a system of our own that sounds like the twin brother of the subject used in Mr. Brown’s article. But that is for another time……

Designing Process Backwards Revisited

It was just a couple of weeks ago that I wrote  Design Process Backwards. Simply stating that when building internal processes, look at the end result that you are trying to achieve first. Then work backwards from that goal to identify what can be done to achieve those them.

On the HDI blog, Aileen Diefenbach has written an excellent example of this in piece titled; Translating User Feedback.

Step 1, start with the feedback of people directly affected.

Step 2, identify and pair the feedback with appropriate processes

The above article is about implementing IT Service Management via ITIL, but the same framework holds for all business process designs.