A data center is the infrastructure a business uses to house its IT assets — space, power, cooling, network connectivity, wiring, etc. Depending on the business’ size, it may be a spare closet, a dedicated building or space leased at a public data center.

“The data center itself is infrastructure and doesn’t generate revenue or create differentiated business value,” says Mike Tighe, executive director, Data Products at Comcast Business. “So, the CFO frequently says, ‘Rather than utilize precious capital to build or expand a data center, there are other options including great public data centers where we can lease space.’”

Smart Business spoke with Tighe about data center best practices, including network and bandwidth considerations.

Why are data centers so important today, and what’s in store for the future?

The function of a data center is to ensure availability of IT applications and data. If employees don’t have access, they can’t be as productive and in some cases, the business can’t run. The trend to place IT assets -—applications, servers and storage — in public data centers is rapidly evolving for businesses of all sizes, either as a main data center or as part of business continuity strategy.

Over the next five years the trend of renting rather than owning IT infrastructure will accelerate as businesses utilize cloud-based infrastructure and applications. This is not just because of better economics, the ‘cloud’ enables rapid deployment and the ability to scale applications that drive better productivity.

When should you look at outsourcing a data center?

When IT becomes an important component of how you run your business, you have to ensure high availability. If, for example, you install specialized applications used for resource planning and creation of content, but the server starts going down because of power or network connectivity loss, it impacts your business’s ability to run.

Another factor is economic. As businesses make IT decisions, they may not have the capital to build or upgrade data centers, so they’ll look at alternatives.

What are some options to consider with public data centers?

By their very nature, there are more capabilities in a public data center because everyone is sharing the cost of the generator, the physical security monitoring, having multiple network providers, etc. However, some things to consider are:

  • Physical security procedures.

  • Redundancy of critical components.

  • The ability to expand as your IT infrastructure requirements increase.

  • Network for primary and backup connections. What providers have extended their network into the data center to provide connectivity and ensure access?

  • Location. Regional events including loss of power and natural disasters dictate that the backup site be located far enough from the main data center so as not to be affected by a single incident. Hurricane Sandy certainly brought home the point that a redundant data center far enough inland on a separate power grid helps ensure application availability.

How can companies build the right network?

Strong network connectivity becomes more important as IT assets are put into public data centers. Know how much your company’s bandwidth requirements are growing, and your network’s ability to scale for future requirements. On average, over the past decade, a business’s bandwidth requirements have grown around 50 percent per year. Look at network technologies that can cost-effectively scale — from 10 megabytes, an average site requirement, to one gigabyte, for example. Ethernet technology, which local-area networks are built on, is one solution that businesses are leveraging for their networks.

How do data center solutions impact a business’s bottom line?

With the economic downturn, use of company capital became a focus. Executives decided that the data center, while important, doesn’t produce any intrinsic value. And you can lease the space and preserve capital for projects that improve the bottom line. Companies can rent space by the square foot, rather than having to build another data center as IT needs expand.

Mike Tighe is a executive director, Data Products at Comcast Business. Reach him at (215) 286-5276 or michael_tighe@cable.comcast.com.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Comcast Business

 

Published in National
Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:28

How to select a data center

Installing the redundancy measures necessary to make sure company data is available 24/7, regardless of calamity, is prohibitively expensive and requires a great deal of know-how, which is why many organizations outsource their data protection to companies that are specialized to guard it.

“We live in an age where data has a critical role in our lives on a daily basis. Losing access to that data, whether from being knocked offline or because of a catastrophe, can be terminally disruptive, so having backup systems in place is critical,” says Pervez Delawalla, president and CEO of Net2EZ.

Specialized data centers are dedicated buildings constructed to house server equipment that hold data — business or personal, critical or otherwise. They are designed for redundancy in physical functions, such as power and cooling, as well as network redundancy to keep data available to its customers. But what separates one from another?

Smart Business spoke with Delawalla about how to grade data centers to ensure you find one that offers the best protection for your most valuable commodity, your data.

What are the differences between data centers?

The biggest misconception is that all data centers are built the same, which leads many to ask the question, ‘Why would I pay more for one when I could get it cheaper down the street?’ The answer lies partly in Tier rating.

What is Tier rating?

Tiers represent the availability of your data based on the probabilities of system failures in a given year. Tier 1 guarantees 99.67 percent data availability in a year. Tier 4 is 99.995 percent availability. These percentages are based on the life expectancy of equipment such as power and cooling systems and distribution panels.

So that 99.67 percent represented by Tier 1 equates to, in any given year, 29 hours that systems could be offline and data inaccessible. While that might not sound like much, if you’re doing the volume of online business Amazon does, you can’t afford that. In instances where customers are trying to get to your site nearly every minute of the day, it needs to be up all the time to accommodate them, so you need the maximum level of redundancy for protection.

Tier 4 data centers, on the other hand, guarantee a maximum of 2.4 minutes offline in any given year. The percentage differences, measured in tenths, may seem negligible, but it accounts for a big difference when your data is affected.

How reliable is a Tier rating?

Data centers can have their Tier rating certified by a third party. Certification bodies include the Uptime Institute, as well as more traditional auditing firms such as Deloitte and Ernst & Young, which have technology arms capable of making an assessment. There’s also SSAE 16 certification for service organizations, which is used for reporting on controls.

How can companies ensure they have the highest level of data protection?

There are different methods for achieving redundancy. For instance, you could employ multiple Tier 1 data centers that fail over to each other. But that can be expensive. It might make more sense to use two Tier 4 data centers, one of which can serve as a geographic redundancy — it should be located a great distance from your main office and your primary data center to guard against failure caused from natural disasters, such as earthquakes.

What else should companies ask?

Make sure you’re aware of a data center’s redundancy for its network — the physical fiber that comes through the building — and how it interconnects with the rest of the network and Internet exchange points.

Also consider the support environment. Not all centers have 24/7 on-site engineering support to take care of the back of the house, such as the generators. While customers often overlook it, it’s critically important to have someone physically monitoring those systems and on hand to react to any major outages or prolonged system failures. Similarly, it’s great to have engineering and technical support on the server and router side of it to work directly with customers.

Pervez Delawalla is president and CEO at Net2EZ. Reach him at (310) 426-6700 or pervez@net2ez.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Net2EZ

 

Published in Los Angeles
Monday, 31 December 2012 20:48

How to effectively implement VoIP solutions

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is changing the way businesses communicate. By converging traditional voice and data services on a single platform, VoIP lowers operating costs and provides greater efficiencies than traditional phone systems.

A good VoIP provider can build a customized system to meet your needs and is willing to let you test new features to see if it makes sense for your business.

“In the world of VoIP it is easy to try something on a trial basis to see if it will work for your organization,” says Alex Desberg, sales and marketing director at Ohio.net. “If your provider is unwilling to let you kick the tires without a long-term contract you might want to look at finding a new provider.”

Smart Business spoke with Desberg about VoIP, the importance of gathering employee feedback and the dangers of choosing flash over function.

How are companies wasting time and money using traditional phone systems?

We often hear clients utter the phrase, ‘We would like one throat to choke,’ meaning it would be nice to have one service provider handle everything. When you have multiple providers for services that work together like the Internet and phone, a lot of time can be wasted trying to track down the right person if a problem arises. We’ve also found that many organizations have taken on the responsibility of managing their phone system themselves. Because they are not experts in the field they tend to Band-Aid problems rather than having a telephone professional properly address options for improved customer service and long-term efficiencies.

How should a phone system serve a company and its customers?

A phone system must be a conduit of communication. It should be designed to deliver the customer to the solution they need. Any complication, ranging from difficulty dialing the number to being unable to speak to the person they are seeking, adversely impacts a customer’s experience. Whether it is a retail customer, a professional services company or a manufacturer, the idea is there should be one-call closure. Hosted phone systems have the ability to deliver the customer to directly what they need, if engineered properly.

Why should the correct personnel make decisions about hosted phone systems?

The role of managing phone systems is falling on two people these days: the office manager and the IT professional. The office manager doesn’t necessarily know much about technology, but they know how the business operates. IT professionals know how data works and what type of technologies work for a business, but they might not know how to apply phone technologies. By interfacing with office managers and IT personnel, we can quickly learn what works best for the organization and which features should be added to a new phone system.

If your customers are not reaching the right people on a regular basis it’s important to investigate. For example, I was with a prospective customer the other day and we talked for an hour about the advantages of changing their phone system. After the meeting I asked the receptionist about her thoughts. I discovered that if a customer called on the company’s second line, all of the lines rang busy. Nobody at the top level realized this because they never solicited information from their employees. Often businesses have meetings about cash flow and other financial principles, but they forget about discussing operations.

How important a role does technology play in communications?

It’s not necessarily the technology that’s important, it’s the function. You could have the most feature-rich, complicated phone system on the face of the earth, but if it doesn’t serve the needs of your customer then it has no value. There are a lot of bells and whistles and whiz-bang technologies out there that might not help your business. When choosing the right technology, start with what the company needs. It’s important that your provider uses a consumer-centric approach. After all, it’s impossible to tell a business what they should buy without knowing what they need.

Alex Desberg is sales and marketing director at Ohio.net.

Insights Telecommunications is brought to you by Ohio.net

Published in Columbus

What is sustainable IT? As many companies deploy sustainability strategies aimed at improving energy efficiency, preserving natural resources and lowering operating costs, IT is becoming a major part of this initiative.

“Over the past few years, many companies have focused on LEED Certification and sustainable design methods to achieve these objectives,” says Rich Garrison, Senior Principal at Alfa Tech. “Now, IT organizations are continually pressed to deliver more by way of applications and content, while being asked to lower capital and expense costs. This is combined with the fact that for many organizations, IT is one of the largest consumers of energy and natural resources to operate data centers, labs and office environments.”

Smart Business spoke with Garrison about the impacts of sustainable IT in today’s business world.

How does sustainable IT work?

Information technology leaders are turning to sustainability-focused initiatives to reduce costs and align with corporate sustainability strategies. Sustainable IT is simply the process of planning, designing, and implementing technologies that improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact.

How is virtualization and cloud technology impacting sustainable IT?

Sustainable IT examples include the wide adoption of virtualization technologies intended to reduce the number of physical servers and increase the utilization of these hardware assets. The next level beyond virtualization is the adoption of private or public cloud service offerings, which allows companies to utilize computing hardware, often hosted by third-party service providers. The primary objective is to have ‘just in time’ capacity, improved reliability and more predictable costs. While cloud is not for everyone, the adoption rate is high and on the radar for most IT professionals.

What role can Wi-Fi play with sustainable IT?

Another technology having a significant impact is wireless or Wi-Fi technologies. In today’s workplace, employees have an average of three wireless devices each. With the adoption of smartphones, tablets and laptops, some analysts predict conventional desktop workstations will be obsolete within the next five years. This adoption of wireless devices in the workplace combined with the evolution of a more collaborative workspace means there’s a demand for more reliable wireless networks with adequate bandwidth.

With new or remodeled facilities, it’s important to weigh the impact of architectural considerations on the performance of wireless technologies. The selection of materials and the building’s physical layout can significantly affect the wireless network’s performance. Predictive tools can help design a wireless solution during the building project’s design phase and eliminate potential issues in advance. As companies adopt wireless solutions, it also creates an opportunity to reduce and, in some cases, eliminate traditional structured cabling systems. From a sustainability perspective, this has major advantages when eliminating the use of copper material.

How are building monitoring and automation systems influencing sustainable IT?

As facilities organizations focus on building monitoring systems (BMS) and automation systems (BAS) to optimize the use of lighting, HVAC and other energy consuming resources, these BMS and BAS solutions are becoming more advanced and sophisticated. The products are becoming more network-enabled and require more advanced and reliable network infrastructure to support them.

For many companies, building management and control systems have become critical applications requiring the same level and support as traditional business applications. As part of the IT sustainability strategy, IT organizations also are leveraging these systems to monitor and trend their consumption of power and energy efficiency. There’s a significant need to engage IT professionals earlier when designing buildings or data center facilities to provide input or solutions for a well-architected network capable of supporting these building systems and applications.

While other IT-related sustainability initiatives can be considered, virtualization, wireless and BMS are greatly impacting both IT organizations and facility planning.

Rich Garrison is Senior Principal at Alfa Tech. Reach him at (408) 487-1209 or rich.garrison@atce.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Alfa Tech

Published in National

Instead of merely maintaining technology, IT service providers are increasingly being asked to become technology drivers and bring innovation and new product ideas to their clients.

Cliff Justice, author of the report, “The Death of Outsourcing,” was recently interviewed by CIO.com and stated that there was a shift around 2006 to 2007 from outsourcing as a commodity focused on price to a service that’s value-oriented.

“We’re clearly seeing this shift,” says Deen Ferrell, business development executive at Cal Net Technology Group. “Clients want an insourcing partner today. Insourcing requires a broader talent pool, one that offers skill sets in all areas where technology touches the organization. Ongoing research passes critical intelligence of emerging technologies to the field so it can be applied to benefit the client. The focus is on best practices that better integrate technology platforms into a working strategy that drives profit while reducing redundancy and cost.

“The good news is that this shift represents a stronger commitment from the service provider sector. Providers are now expected to add value beyond ground-level support,” Ferrell says.

Smart Business spoke with Ferrell about the trend toward IT providers who help move business goals forward and the benefits to businesses from advancements such as cloud computing and unified communications.

Why is the shift toward insourcing occurring?

Mom-and-pop shops aren’t getting the job done because of a lack of depth and bandwidth — the proverbial ‘can’t see the forest for the trees.’ Providers get so focused on dealing with immediate issues that they can’t step back and think strategically.

A successful insourcing partner impacts all areas where technology touches the organization, as well as providing standard IT support and maintenance that allows companies to maintain core efficiencies.

What has been the impact on information security?

Retaining and securing sensitive information is a critical component of IT services. In a global marketplace where information is king, an ongoing managed security strategy can give organizations peace of mind related to risk management, security assessment, compliance issues and gap analysis.

What is meant by unified communications?

A unified communications strategy allows information to flow seamlessly through an organization by using tools such as voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), video conferencing, mobility solutions such as iPhone, iPad and tablet integration, and call center functionality such as call recording and reporting.

How can cloud consulting benefit companies?

For cloud solutions to deliver on their promise of reducing cost and risk while improving competitive advantage, they must be viable, supportable and secure. Vendor research and management, with an understanding of hosted offerings such as Office 365, infrastructure as a service (IaaS) and software as a service (SaaS), are critical to helping the organization realize cloud potential while avoiding pitfalls.

How does insourcing promote innovation?

An innovative environment is one where workflow automation and collaborative computing free up valuable time and provide on-demand access to critical information through dashboards, scheduling and customer portals.

Insourcing partners are providing supplemental chief information officer services such as documentation, change management and vendor relations support, which allow companies to cut waste, streamline processes and better position themselves competitively.

With the insourcing crowd becoming increasingly innovative, cost-conscious and competitive, it appears that the outsourcing model is on its way out.

Deen Ferrell is a business development executive at Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at (818) 725-5062 or deen@calnet.net.

For information on the benefits of insourcing to Cal Net, visit http://www.calnettech.com/ourservices_OngoingSupport_InsourceBenefits.php.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

Published in Los Angeles

In today’s world, few things change as quickly as technology. Add to this the fact that technology change is usually toward greater complexity, and it becomes easy to see why some executives throw up their hands in exasperation when attempting to manage technology. Technology, however, is a key driver in execution and in maintaining your company’s competitive advantage — it can’t be ignored or delegated.

“One of the keys to managing technology is to not lose sight of the fact that it is a means to an end, not an end itself,” says Kirk O’Hara, vice president, consulting services at Executive Career Services.

“Executives need to understand the essential purpose of technology in their business, be able to incorporate it into their strategic plan and know how to easily and efficiently adapt new technology into business systems and operations,” he says.

Smart Business spoke with O’Hara about what executives need to know about integrating technology into their companies.

What should executives understand about technology and using it to execute business functions?

Leveraging technology starts with an understanding of how it can be used as a strategic resource. Every strategic plan should have a section devoted to technology and its role in driving the mission. This means that the IT department needs to be integrated into the company’s mission and not seen as an ad hoc department to go to when there are problems. In this respect, IT can be seen as going through the same sort of transformation that human resources did a couple of decades ago. Prior to that, HR was typically called ‘personnel’ and was seen as a necessary evil to avoid problems. Today, HR is viewed as a valuable strategic partner and talent management is a major concern of most executives. It is time for IT to be elevated to the same position.

Most executives do not need to get into the details of how technology works, but they should be familiar with the basic input, throughput, output cycle. For example, what data need to be collected for the input of business systems such as accounting, inventory control and customer relationship management? Remember the IT adage ‘GIGO’ — garbage in, garbage out. Collecting the data necessary to run a business is essential to maintaining a strategic advantage.

How involved should executives be with a company’s technology?

Executives should be intricately involved in the output. What reports are needed to properly manage cash flow, maintain optimal inventory levels and keep an eye on customer relationships? Part of the value of technology is that it can spew out a tremendous amount of information. In this regard, it is easy for executives to request too many reports and get lost in the information overload. The same can be said of business unit leaders and departmental managers. Monthly and quarterly reports accumulate over time and may never be used to make business decisions. Executives may want to try this simple technique. Occasionally discontinue a report and see if anyone notices it is missing. If no one complains, it is a safe bet that the report isn’t necessary.

Should a company make sure it has the latest hardware and software?

Throughput considerations will typically involve matters of technology, such as hardware and software upgrades. While it may seem wise to always have the latest and greatest technology, this isn’t always the case. Software updates often have bugs and new hardware may have higher failure rates. Unless your company is very technology dependent, it may be wise to put off updates until they have proven themselves in the business world, and only then when it is clear that the upgrades will have material benefit.

Leveraging technology isn’t all about systems. Executives also need to be sure that they are using personal technology efficiently and effectively. Smartphones and tablets are quickly replacing laptop PCs. Text messaging is replacing voicemail and email is a ubiquitous part of everyone’s work life. In addition to ensuring that technology is used as a strategic resource for the company, executives need to be sure that their personal use of technology is efficient.

How much should a company rely on technology to do business?

Above all, executives should ensure that in-person face-to-face communications aren’t lost in the crush of today’s workload. In-person meetings are essential when forming new teams, creating and nurturing new relationships and/or discussing areas that are emotionally laden or when intended messages can be easily misinterpreted. Email notes have their advantages, to be sure. They allow for a wide distribution where everyone receives the same message and they serve as historical records for documenting what was said.

Too many managers, however, try to manage through email, and this is poor technique. In particular, some executives will rely on an email note to convey a difficult message, for example, to address a conflict. A good executive will never opt to use email when a personal conversation is indicated.

Technology has pervaded — some will say invaded — virtually every aspect of our professional lives. We don’t need to get tangled up by it, however, if we keep the focus on how it can be used as a strategic advantage and never allow it to replace interpersonal interaction.

Still having trouble getting your head around technology? Find an IT liaison who speaks your language. After all, they are people, too.

Kirk O’Hara is a vice president of consulting services at Executive Career Services. Reach him at kohara@ecscpi.com.

Insights Human Capital Solutions is brought to you by Executive Career Services

Published in National
Friday, 30 November 2012 19:40

How to keep your IT department up to date

Many organizations have in-house IT staff that has been around for a long time. However, if the organization has not invested in employee skills, there is a tendency for complacency and stagnation, says Lou Rabon, Cal Net Technology Group’s information security practice manager.

“This stagnation comes in the form of believing that solutions the in-house IT people are providing are the best ones out there based on their experience,” Rabon says. “For loyal IT staff, their experience is usually only in one environment, and if no new education or experience has been acquired, then an element of risk is introduced into the organization. Not only will the organization be getting outdated and inadequate service and solutions, but the risk introduced may prove to be fatal to an organization’s data, as well.”

Smart Business spoke with Rabon about how to spot IT staff stagnation and what steps to take to address the problem.

How critical is the need to update IT skills?

Information technology experiences paradigm changes over very short periods of time. New, disruptive technologies are appearing all of the time, sometimes in as little as months. In information security, this trend is even faster, where minutes and seconds can separate effective solutions from completely inadequate, and expensive, defenses.

What are signs that IT staff might have stagnated?

If your IT person has been doing the same thing since 2007, you can be assured that there are going to be problems. Large and small companies should take stock and ask:

• Does current IT staff/policy favor convenience over security?

• Are there direct remote connections to machines because a virtual private network or remote access solution was considered too complicated or not possible?

• Are there passwords that are not complex or do not change?

• Do easy-to-remember — and therefore easily crackable — administrative passwords exist that have access to sensitive data?

• Is there a lack of visibility on the network?

• When problems occur, is root cause rarely determined and downtime frequent?

• Is there resistance to change?

• Are overly technical and confusing answers given when approached for advice or questions?

These are just some of the more obvious ways to determine if your current IT staff might need a knowledge refreshment or replacement. Unfortunately, most internal IT staff will believe everything is being done right, despite evidence to the contrary. This is what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect, ‘in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average.’

What steps can be taken to address this problem?

The first might be to look at how staff is managed. Maybe the reporting structure should be changed. In many growing organizations, IT will typically be CFO-led. Ideally, IT staff should fall under a COO or, better yet, a dedicated CIO who can look at the big picture of where an organization is headed and drive this strategy.

Another option is training. Incompetence of any staff might be a failing of the organization itself to properly invest in its work force. Picking the right training can be a challenge, but there are a number of solutions. Vendor training is an option and can typically be obtained at a reasonable cost, especially if the organization has used one vendor’s technology over a long time and can leverage fidelity for a reduced training cost. New vendors also can be looked at to displace existing technology and they may throw in training as part of a purchased bundle. Many specialty organizations offer training such as A+. For security, the SANS Institute has an excellent Security Essentials Boot Camp, which can start to embed some of the basic tenants of security for any staff working with sensitive information or information technology. Finally, continuing education at a local university and even some of the free courses released by institutions such as Stanford might be a good way to stimulate critical thinking and encourage the staff to refresh its skills.

Another solution, which could be the easiest, is to augment the staff with outside talent. Bringing in an outside consulting firm can give an internal IT department a kick in the pants. Personnel will respond differently to this, with some seeing it as a threat and others embracing the help. Both perceptions can be helpful. An outside firm will help you navigate the technology, but more importantly, a good outside firm will help you identify who in the organization you should keep and who should go.

What about outsourcing all IT work?

Some organizations are much better off going in this direction, depending on what internal resources are available. IT, in and of itself, is a business, and, if you’re a small to mid-sized company, you might want to ask yourself, ‘What business am I in?’ For those organizations that prefer to concentrate on their core competency, outsourcing is a great solution. Doing so can help dramatically reduce costs, increase efficiency and productivity, and increase the security posture of an organization. A good IT outsourcing company is continually investing in its team, and because it sees many different IT environments, it is in a unique position to see what works best and provide those best practices to its clients.

Risk in any organization must be managed and mitigated as much as possible. Continuing to employ or engage unskilled or inadequate IT resources introduces an unacceptable level of risk. Your first step is to take a hard look at your organization, and evaluate whether or not you need to invest in IT skills or bring in external resources to best manage the information assets of the organization.

Lou Rabon is information security practice manager for Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at (818) 721-4414 or lrabon@calnettech.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

Published in Los Angeles

When hiring a member of the IT team, weeding through all of the candidates out there is a tremendous challenge. Particularly if you are a smaller organization, it is likely that a non-technical person is doing the interviewing. In that case, it is very difficult to determine whether or not the person you are talking to actually knows their stuff. Even someone with a very technical background can be fooled by an impressive resume and a smooth talker.

“IT people are weird. I should know — I’m one of them,” says Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. “They are the hardest to hire and even harder to retain, and are sometimes hard to fire, as many of them make themselves indispensable as they convince management that their skills are unique. Many of them have technical egos that are larger than life.

“At Cal Net, we have roughly 35 talented IT engineers that we had to hire, train and retain. And we’ve had to let some go over the years. We would like to think that we have this down to a science.”

Smart Business spoke with Schuler about the best process for hiring and retaining the right IT people.

Should IT people be interviewed differently than other potential hires?

Like with any position, you should be screening for the personality traits. An egocentric IT person is the last person you want on your team. Some interviewers are naturally talented at sniffing this out. For others, I would recommend a personality profile. In my opinion, personality is more than 50 percent of what you should be screening for.

Another of the most important traits is good communication skills. We have all experienced the IT guy who wants to sit in a closet somewhere to minimize his contact with humans. If they do make enduser contact, it is usually a painful experience, as they will say the least amount possible so that they can head back to their cave. You should have the expectation that your IT person will be able to communicate as effectively as anyone else in the organization.

How should a company screen an IT person?

Start with, ‘Tell me about your IT environment at home.’ If they give you an answer along the lines of ‘I have three physical servers, running seven VMs for testing, and I’ve got my own mail server running Exchange, and I’m running VDI for my primary workstation,’ then that is a good first step. They view this as their ‘sandbox.’ If they respond, ‘I’ve got a laptop at home and I try to stay away from the computer as I get enough of it at work,’ then they probably aren’t a good technical fit. You want your IT folks to be passionate about technology, and most of them do their best research and learning at home, after hours.

The second easy way to screen is to have a short technical quiz that can be administered by anyone. Feel free to email me for our quiz.

Last, and perhaps the most time-consuming and difficult process, is to put them through a technical lab. We require that our new hires come in and build a network in an eight-hour time period. We have a point system that scores the candidate, as no one ever finishes the lab. This gives us an excellent assessment as to what they do know, and what it is that they need help with. Depending on what you are looking for, there are companies that will administer these sorts of labs for you. If you are testing on Microsoft infrastructure skills, we can administer this sort of lab.

What are some of the challenges of retaining IT people?

In general, IT people are motivated by advancement and the quest for knowledge. In organizations where there isn’t any room to move up nor is there anything new to learn, IT people will stagnate and usually move on.

Good IT people are always looking to explore and learn the latest and greatest technologies. Just as they have a sandbox at home, they want to work for an organization that invests in IT and gives them an opportunity to learn.

Good IT people are also looking to move up the food chain. While some IT folks are motivated heavily by pay, many are more motivated by an increase in title and responsibility.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Quenching the IT person’s quest for knowledge isn’t always the easiest thing to do. There are two ways to attack this. First of all, if you hire someone who is a master of all of the technologies that you are currently running, you’ll get someone who can hit the ground running, but you will also get someone who becomes bored quickly. On the other hand, if you hire someone with like experience and aptitude, but not exact experience in the technologies you are running, you will give someone an opportunity to learn. You will obviously have to weigh the business risk in doing this — and while they are learning you may want to supplement their skills with a consultant — but it can be well worth it in the long run. In short, I recommend slightly ‘under-hiring’ for the position.

The second way to attack this is to give your IT person some latitude when it comes to decision-making. If they want to implement a new technology that is reasonable from a cost standpoint, and delivers business value, I would err on the side of letting them do it. Even small concessions can give your IT person a sense of worth and something new to learn.

Last, in terms of advancement, don’t ‘over-title’ a person. Don’t call your lone IT person ‘IT director’ right away. Create a career path: network administrator,  senior network administrator, IT manager, IT director and so on. Even very large IT organizations should be using this model. Look for increases in responsibility along the way, along with small increases in pay. Thinking out a career path before you hire someone will go a long way in making sure that they hang around for a long time.

Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

Published in Los Angeles

Network reliability is vital for any business. With so many systems and departments being dependent on your company’s network, it’s vital that your systems are up 100 percent of the time.

As most of us already know, network outages can potentially cost a company thousands and, in some cases, millions of dollars. One way to prevent outages is by doing a proper network assessment and finding out where your network’s weaknesses are.

A company’s network architecture includes hardware, software, connectivity, communication protocols and the mode of transmission, such as wired or wireless. You need to assess your network architecture routinely to ensure that everything is current and in line with your ever-changing business model, says Mark Giles, wireless design engineer at PowerNet Global. If not, you’ll want to begin integrating changes to ensure your network is running efficiently. Conducting an assessment also allows you to see if your company’s security has been compromised, allowing you to fix any problems and prevent these breaches from happening in the future, he says.

“When you go through an assessment, you end up with good documentation and can find where your weak spots are,” says Giles. “A lot of companies have single points of failure, meaning there’s no redundancy if a portion of their network fails. A network assessment can help identify those single points of failure so that a plan can be put into place to fix these issues.”

Smart Business spoke with Giles about what you need to understand about a network architecture assessment and how to implement any changes.

What is involved in a network architecture assessment?

It starts with a site survey done by a network engineer or network consultant who will look at existing drawings and documentation of how the network is set up. Nine times out of 10, companies don’t have documentation or their documentation is outdated. This means the first step in the assessment will be to map out how the network is currently run.

Next, your network engineer or consultant will look at the current hardware and bandwidth utilization to see if your circuits are overloaded or your hardware is maxed out. Then they’ll review your routing to see if that’s being optimized and how your configuration is set up. This will help determine whether you need to upgrade or just optimize how traffic is flowing and configure your equipment accordingly.

Very often, it’s less likely that you need new hardware or circuits, and more likely that your current equipment needs to be configured more efficiently. This is where many companies fail to do a proper network assessment. They will pay top dollar for hardware but go cheap on the person configuring and maintaining the hardware. You could have the best hardware possible, but if the person configuring it has little to no experience, it will end up costing you more money in the long run.

What are some key items business leaders need to understand about their network architecture and implementing a plan?

A lot of it comes down to what your benefits will be and the costs associated with them to determine if it’s going to be worthwhile. If you’re going to be upgrading a piece of equipment, you need to understand why you are upgrading it and if the cost outweighs the benefit.

You’re also looking for service-impacting changes during the implementation portion while ensuring everything is designed well and that your implementation plan is solid. You should ask whether the network changes are going to be service or customer impacting. That’s the big one people want to know — who will be affected? Is there going to be an outage when you’re implementing or upgrading? How long is that outage going to be?

Who should be involved in the network architecture assessment and what are the costs?

Your network engineer or consultant should be the one doing the assessment and it should be conducted any time you’re coming into a new business environment or making changes. Then every six months to a year, depending on how rapidly your network is changing, you’ll want to go through it again. Check everything within your network and make sure the drawings and documentation are current. You’d be surprised how quickly things can change and become outdated.

The cost of an assessment depends on the size of your network and the accuracy of your documentation. It also depends on what you are looking to do. If you need new equipment, it might be more expensive than updating drawings. If you hire a consultant to run the assessment, the cost will typically range anywhere from $125 to $200 an hour.

How often should you implement changes to your network architecture and how should this be accomplished?

You should never stop making changes to your network; you should always try to improve it. According to CISCO’s model, you need to prepare your network, develop a plan to assess your company’s readiness to support any changes and create a detailed design to address any technical and business requirements. Then, implement any new technology, operate and maintain the most up-to-date network systems on a day-to-day basis, and optimize your network by making ongoing improvements to ensure that you have the most efficient network running.

Once you find you’re at the optimization stage, go back to step one. You need to go through this process continuously to make sure your network is up to date and running efficiently.

Mark Giles is the wireless design engineer with PowerNet Global. Reach him at (866) 764-7329.

Insights Technology is brought to you by PowerNet Global

Published in Cincinnati

You may not want to think about it, but it’s bound to happen sooner or later: turnover in your IT department.

“Not a day goes by where we don’t receive an emergency phone call from a frantic executive with a story that we hear time and time again, ‘My IT guy has just quit, and he has all of our passwords, and we can’t do anything without him,’” says Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group.

Many companies don’t plan for this sort of exit, though this type of exit will be inevitable for every company at some point or another. It is safe to say that no one stays with a company forever, and when IT people leave, it can be especially painful.

Smart Business spoke to Schuler about how to put the proper backups and protocol in place to keep operations running smoothly even after the departure of trusted IT personnel.

What protective measures can businesses take to be ready for the departure of a key IT person?

1) Insist that your IT folks provide you with administrator and all passwords that they are in possession of. There is nothing worse than an IT person leaving, and not being forthcoming with password information. If you make this a requirement early, and ask for any changes often, you shouldn’t have an issue getting the information that you need. There are pieces of software that you can buy to securely store your passwords that you can give two or more people access to. The key here is making sure that there isn’t one person who has the ‘keys to the kingdom.’

2) Your IT team should provide you with complete and comprehensive network and systems documentation. I could fill up this article with the list of everything that should be documented, but let’s leave it simple and say that everything related to IT that has a power cord should be documented. Also, it is not good enough to document it once and then walk away, but a routine and methodical process of having it updated, at least quarterly, is a critical step. IT changes quickly, so you always want to have up-to-date documentation.

For some companies, this will be hard to get. For many companies, they’ve asked this of their IT folks, and it hasn’t been produced. Why? Most of the time, the pushback from IT is, ‘I have other, more pressing issues that get brought to my attention every day, and documentation always gets put on the back burner.’ One tip we’ve used here is to ask the IT folks to come in on the weekend (and offer to pay them if they are hourly, which they likely are, or at least should be), in order to get documentation done, uninterrupted. It doesn’t take that long once they get into the groove. If IT still pushes back, hire a company to come in and do the documentation for you. You’ll get it done, and have the benefit of an audit of your IT person’s work.

Once this is done, and done well, if the IT person leaves, it is a lot easier to have someone jump into their shoes and take over quickly.

3) Do your best to ensure that your IT people are cross-trained to the fullest extent possible. If you put a serious cross-training program in place, it may save you in the long run. It also gives you the opportunity to feel like you are not tied to a ball and chain with any one IT person, and it makes them replaceable, if the need be.

4) Develop a ‘lock out’ procedure. In the event that an IT person leaves, or is asked to leave, it is important to have a lock out procedure documented, and a plan in place to execute it. As soon as or just before the person is out the door, you should disable their user account and wipe their cell phone, if it is company property. Also, many times it is wise to have the user community reset their passwords, as, in some organizations, the IT guy had access to those as well. An exit agreement drafted by your attorney that lets them know that they are to give back any confidential information is advisable as well.

5) Hire an outside firm to be your backup. One of the duties that we fill for many of our clients is the role of backup IT provider. Most of our clients have an in-house IT staff, and we work with their staff on issues that they don’t have the skill sets to tackle themselves, or in areas where there is simply more demand than supply. Many of our clients hire us to help out, with the secondary benefit of being able to rely on us should an IT person quit or be let go. We are able to fill in for that person with minimal interruption because we’ve become familiar with the environment. Sometimes the company realizes that just part-time consulting work is all that they need, and other times we continue to work full time until they’ve backfilled us with a new resource, who we then train. Having a backup IT provider can be a very smart move.

It’s not always well received when the backup IT provider is brought to the table, as internal IT usually feels threatened. That being said, in almost every case, we work alongside that person well, and they get to understand our value. In many cases, we become the reason that the IT person is able to go on vacation, as we become his or her trusted resource. We want to become the IT person’s trusted resource, as well as the executives’ trusted resource, should the employment relationship go awry.

In short, protecting your IT environment means making sure that you have control over it. Nobody ever got fired for being prepared.

Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.

Insights Technology is brought to you by Cal Net Technology Group

Published in Los Angeles
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