Jason Lloyd

Sunday, 31 December 2006 19:00

Database technology

Often when people are asked to name a component of a successful IT project, such as a sales system, they will mention aspects that are in direct interaction with the user (Web pages, client applications, etc.). What is often forgotten is that the vast majority of projects are now datacentric. Data needs somewhere to reside where it can be successfully stored, queried and retrieved. As a result, choosing the right database platform to handle the data becomes critically important.

“Databases are often an afterthought when it comes to planning a business project,” says Arie Jones, a senior consultant for Perpetual Technologies Inc. “Today’s data-centric world demands that the handling of data be given as much forethought as any other area of a project. A properly chosen database should be the anchor of any successful IT project.”

Smart Business spoke with Jones about the importance of choosing the right database.

How should a business decide on which database is right?

Choosing a database for a particular IT task or project is a lesson in risk management and is one that does not necessarily follow the adage of ‘higher risk leads to higher reward.’ Many times, the amount of risk that your company is willing to assume is inversely related to the cost of the associated database application that will work for your project. So the more risk you are willing to assume, the lower the cost of the associated system.

More mature and proven relational database systems such as Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server will generally be more expensive than newer XML-based systems such as eXist, which are not as proven in their design.

What are the common types of databases on the market today?

Generally speaking, today’s market contains two major competing types of database platforms: Open Source and Proprietary. Open Source products are those that are based upon an Open Source Agreement in which the source code is distributed with the application and the user is generally able to alter and re-distribute it. Platforms such as MySQL, PostgreSQL and Firebird use this type of licensing which allows them to be cost-efficient and allows a business to spend less time worrying over licensing.

On the other hand, proprietary database platforms such as Microsoft’s SQL Server, Oracle’s 10g or IBM’s DB2 suite will be more expensive but will contain the most cutting-edge features that IT-centric businesses desire. These systems generally are tightly integrated with a full suite of tools and applications that increase productivity and give a better return on investment by lowering subsidiary operating expenses.

What factors should a company consider when choosing database technology?

Security: Security should be one of the foremost considerations in selecting a database suitable for your IT environment. Specifically, you need a database that conforms to the security protocols that your business has established to maintain data. Do you need your database security model to be integrated into a network security model or will it need to have the ability to accept client security certificates? Will the database need to enforce business security practices such as password complexity and expiration? All of these are valid questions that a business needs to ask and address before committing to a particular database platform.

Data format: Data is generally stored in either relational or XML based format. Relational databases have been around for years and their methodology and reliability are mature and dependable. XML databases offer greater flexibility for your data but are a less mature platform.

Maintenance: Databases often incur operational costs in terms of man hours and resources to maintain their environment. Some database platforms come with a number of integrated tools to provide the functionality to monitor and, in some cases, correct problem issues without the need for human intervention. These types of costs should be considered just as closely as the upfront costs of the system. Scalability: Data generally grows with the maturity of any system. Calculations are needed to estimate not only your initial number of users and the size of your data, but also estimates of your data two, five or 10 years down the road. Selecting a database platform that can scale out in terms of users and data to fit your future needs can save your business from performance problems.

Cost: Consider how much the database platform will cost in terms of licensing and setup costs in order to get the system going. Often licensing issues and their associated fees are one of the most complex areas when deciding on a particular platform as the licensing options often are as numerous as the types of platforms themselves.

ARIE JONES is a senior consultant for Perpetual Technologies Inc. Reach him at arie.jones@perptech.com.

Wednesday, 30 August 2006 12:06

Systems integration

Systems integration projects have been a key initiative in IT for years, and organizations still can’t seem to get it right with a high degree of success. We often read in the news about large IT projects that are dismal failures, and people wonder why millions of dollars were spent with nothing to show for it.

The process usually starts off as a great idea to build a new system to replace X, Y, and Z systems or to integrate these systems into one seamless system to meet a real business need. Key management becomes excited about the new system, a project is formed with proper support and funding, an implementation date is set, and then work begins on a project that “has a life of its own.” Then delays begin to occur, requirements are scaled back, and costs skyrocket. After a while, the project is so large that it can’t be canceled but it doesn’t do what was originally promised.

So why do these things happen? Where did the system integration and design fail? The original idea was good, it enjoyed endless funding and support, and it had teams of smart people working their lives away on it. There are so many resources, books and articles on “what to do to have a successful system integration project,” adding another one doesn’t make sense.

Smart Business spoke with Michael Wessler, the technical manager and a consultant with Perpetual Technology Inc., about some things to avoid, common pitfalls and warning signs with system integration.

What can a business do to mitigate the risk?
Start early, analyze well, and build a system and process architecture that makes sense with no-nonsense, proven technologies. Keep the focus on the goal of the project, not sustaining the project itself. The larger and more complex a project becomes, the more difficult this is.

Did you get the most impressive, well polished group of outside business consultants to define your new system requirements or did you use the inside people who actually know the system and its characteristics? Outside opinions and new ideas are critical, but make sure it is used in the right place.

Are you on the technology bleeding edge? If you are not working at NASA, then perhaps you should ask yourself why you are bleeding edge.

Two clichs are applicable here: ‘projects can take on a life of their own’ and people/projects ‘can lose sight of the forest for the trees.’ A large, long running project can lose focus of delivering a useful end product. When it becomes more important to follow the ‘rules’ then to do the job right and the next timeline or milestone is more important than the final objective, something has gone wrong. At this point management needs to say stop and refocus everyone on what’s really important.

How can a business ensure its program and system subcomponents are all compatible?
Until the system has been subjected to a real, end to end test, you can’t say for sure you have 100 percent compatibility. You have put a system through its paces to know what issues you will face. Today as larger vendors buy smaller vendors and repackage their code at a breakneck pace, no one can honestly say for sure that package X will perfectly interface with Y.

You can help yourself by using technologies you are already familiar with or can become familiar with. Be very wary of any system or product that promises to do everything for you ‘right out of the box’ or ‘with minimal configuration changes.’ On the other hand, don’t be afraid to be use new architectures and technologies in place of antiquated software, but be sure that what you are moving toward will actually work as promised.

Why is it important for projects to have established procedures?
Well planned, documented, and followed processes and controls are absolutely essential to a systems integration project; otherwise you will have chaos. Many projects attempt to meet various configuration management milestones which are important. These are dynamic over time and need to be adjusted when it makes sense.

What is the appropriate way to test a system?
Structured testing cycles and test events are key. Develop realistic and comprehensive test plans and implement them. Make sure these are factored into the timeline of the project and are not sacrificed to meet a deadline. How often do we see analysis and testing which are the most critical stages of any project get shortchanged because of times? This can be a fatal flaw. Don’t send a project on until to the next level of testing until it is ready.

MICHAEL WESSLER is the technical manager and a consultant with Perpetual Technology Inc. Reach him at (317) 510-2451.

Friday, 28 July 2006 20:00

Smooth sailing

 When Marriott employee Joe Collier III could not accommodate one of his biggest clients, he quit the franchise hotel chain and started Mainsail Management Group Inc., a property development and management company.

Mainsail entered the corporate housing industry in 1998 when it built the 360-unit Mainsail Suites and Conference Center in Tampa as an extended-stay training facility for PricewaterhouseCoopers’ international consultants.

“I started out sold out for 10 years with one client,” Collier says.

But when IBM bought out PricewaterhouseCoopers’ consulting practice two years into the agreement, it absorbed a lease on a facility it no longer needed. Collier renegotiated to give IBM some of its money back and opened Mainsail Suites to the public.

Today, Mainsail operates lodging facilities in several major metropolitan areas and has developed a resort in the British Virgin Islands.

Smart Business spoke with Collier about how he finds the best employees to ensure a positive customer experience.

As the company grows, how do you ensure customer service remains strong and consistent across properties?
We generate customer feedback forms. We get hard-copy and e-mails back and automatically our customers get something from us, so we get lots of data. We also leave room for people to write us and tell us how their experience was. We use that as a lesson for the staff.

Another thing we do is send the staff out to see other customer service, good or bad, and let them experience it first-hand so they can fix it and make it better at our place. We’ll stop at other hotels or get on a speaker phone and go through a shop call, when 10 people are sitting around and call up a reservation agent at another hotel or another product and listen how they perform, good or bad.

We’ll say, ‘See how bad that person sounded? How they did not ask the right questions?’ Sometimes bad examples are the best examples.

How do you attract and retain the right employees to ensure good customer service?
We try to put together sort of a culture package. When people come on board, instead of handing them an orientation package of nuts and bolts, we try to give them a sense of what the culture is going to be like.

People coming from big companies, a lot of them are attracted to what we’re offering from a culture standpoint. They meet the boss right away, they get a tour of the property and they get a sense of core values rather than just focusing on, ‘This is what you’re going to get paid per hour and these are your retirement benefits.’

We get a sense pretty quickly as to whether or not they’re going to fit in. We try to go with this ‘hire slowly, fire quickly’ thought process.

How do you find new employees?
We pay a bonus to employees that bring somebody on that we end up hiring. We get word-of-mouth referrals and we do a lot of networking. Then we hire people that we run into that are great.

Somebody who is really awesome that we run into in some service situation, we bring them in for an interview and steal them from other businesses. Not just other hotels, but folks you can tell have the right kind of hospitality spirit. That’s who we want with us.

How is running a company different from simply working for one?
The biggest difference is the financial guarantees that I personally have my neck out for. Those are clearly different when you own your own company.

When you work for a company, the worst they can do is fire you. When you own the company and you feel responsible for all these people feeding their families, not only do you have that responsibility out there, but you also have a financial responsibility for the mortgage. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world. This is a much funner way to go.

How do you handle that pressure?
If you have really good people, that makes it a lot easier because you have sharp people all around you and the chances of something falling through the cracks are much less.

You try to get out and meet with some of your peers. That’s why it’s good to belong to associations. You get a chance to hear some other guys from different backgrounds talk about their issues and how they have solved some of their problems in their companies. You’ve got insurance companies, guys from engineering backgrounds, real estate, big financial guys and people who own restaurant companies.

I wouldn’t say it’s lonely at the top — I don’t believe that — but you’re facing different issues.

HOW TO REACH: Mainsail Management Group Inc., (813) 243-2600

Thursday, 29 June 2006 20:00

On the upswing

Florida’s red-hot real estate market, which has sizzled for so long, could soon have a big impact on commercial lease rates and properties. Due to the residential boom, available commercial space is shrinking and rates are ready to begin climbing.

“The last 24 months have been as hot of a real estate market as I’ve ever seen,” says Russ Sampson, executive vice president and director of brokerage services for Colliers Arnold in Tampa. Sampson has been in Florida for the last 20 years. “It’s absolutely overheated.”

Sampson says studies show that over 1,000 people move into Florida every day. Within the next seven years, up to 9 million people are expected to join them. To create room for everyone, zones have been redrawn to make commercial land residential. The lasting effect means fewer commercial properties, which could soon send lease rates soaring.

Smart Business spoke with Sampson about the forecast for Florida’s real estate market and what companies can do to lock in lower lease rates.

How is the real estate market currently changing?
Investors and people living in the state of Florida have interest-only adjustable rate loans. Now, interest rates are starting to inch up, and they’re getting back to the point where they are a lot higher.

People jumped in at 3 percent, and now the interest rates are at 5 or 6 percent. All of a sudden, their cheap mortgage payment has doubled.

The bottom line is that there is going to be a correction and those adjustable rate mortgages will come back and put some people in a financial bind. That’s a trend I see coming down the pike.

How does this affect businesses?
From a commercial real estate perspective, costs have gone up substantially all across the board. Land doubled in value and sometimes went even higher.

For the first time ever, developers were getting changes in zoning to make commercial land residential. Consequently, you have a growing shortage in commercial property because it has all been switched over to residential.

The cost of construction has risen 20 percent to 40 percent over the last three years. In order to build a commercial project, a developer has to plug in all the costs and expect a reasonable return. Today the rate for an office building, which would give the developer a reasonable return, is more than $30 a square foot for new construction.

The dynamic here is that you have all-time low vacancy rates — in the single digits, which means there is very little space available in the existing product type. It should be fueling this incredible real estate boom, but the lease rates have yet to catch up with the rising costs of new construction. In order for new construction to occur, there will need to be significant pre-leasing activity.

We have strong demand, low vacancy rates and high construction costs. It’s an interesting time because the lease rates are going to go significantly higher. Recently, they have gone up by 20 percent in the last 12 months, and I fully expect them to go up another 10 to 20 percent in the next 12 months.

Because lease rates are going higher, existing commercial buildings are becoming substantially more valuable. When those rates rise and get up to the middle to higher $20-per-square-foot range, that’s when you’ll see new construction in office and industrial buildings.

What advice would you give a company in its current lease?
Even if you have a couple of years left on your lease, I’d encourage you to go back and renegotiate deals and extend the lease out as long as you can. Or if you need to move for whatever reason, do it now rather than later. Lock in the longest term you can at the lowest rates, because I believe lease rates are going up substantially over the next few years.

There are very few vacancies, and retailers are doing pretty darn well with all of these baby boomers moving into Florida. Sign longer-term leases and lock in the lower rates, because that’s not going to be the case three years from now.

RUSS SAMPSON is the executive vice president and director of brokerage services for Colliers Arnold. Reach him at (813) 221-2290 or rsampson@colliersarnold.com.

Thursday, 29 June 2006 20:00

All in the family

Michael Plummer learned all about marketing when he bought into a little pizza shop in Iowa nearly 35 years ago.

Today, he’s parlayed that experience into a company that helps businesses across the country flourish by catering to new families just moving in.

Plummer is the founder of Our Town Inc., which works with established local businesses to welcome new families to an area by providing them with $300 to $500 worth of coupons for free products and services.

“I don’t care how much you advertise,” Plummer says. “The most important part of a retail business is getting someone to come in and experience your service. If it’s good enough, they’re coming back.”

Plummer began franchising Our Town last year, and his 30 franchises produce $25 million in annual revenue. He plans to add 30 more franchises this year and is projecting more than 400 within the next six years.

Smart Business spoke with Plummer about how he keeps employees happy while building a prosperous business.

How do you attract and retain top-notch employees?
We believe everyone — from our lowest employee who does the most menial task, to our CEO — should be treated with respect. We respect our employees to such a degree, we provide benefits that truly are not normal.

We provide employees with $200 a month toward health insurance, which covers 90 percent of people’s full insurance. We pay more than scale. We allow our people to participate in our growth by many having compensation bonuses based on growth.

We have a gourmet chef, and we provide a free lunch every day and a hot meal on Fridays because we want them eating nutritious foods. We don’t want them eating fast food. It’s poor for performance and it’s poor for their health, so we provide nutritious meals and deli sandwiches.

We shut down for four days every year and take all of our employees on a cruise, where we pay 100 percent of the employees’ costs and we subsidize their partner so they only pay $150 for both of them to go on a cruise. And they’re compensated for that time; it doesn’t count against their vacation time.

Every Tuesday, a neuromuscular masseur comes in and he gives each person a 20-minute massage. It usually takes him about three weeks to work through everybody.

After one year of employment, our employees are allowed to contribute 3 percent to a 401(k), and we match it. We do as much as we can to let them know how important they are.

Every business should do that. The result is we rarely lose employees.

How do you ensure you get the best quality people when you’re adding them so quickly?
We do multiple interviews and we employ a simple profile test that takes about 20 minutes to fill out. It tells you, here is what this person is really good at and if you hire them, here is what you need to manage them with and here are ways to effectively get this person more into your system.

I’ve found it to be incredibly accurate. When we’ve hired people off that, the things it said they would need help with, they did need help with. And the way they suggested we treat them to compensate for that seemed to work.

It’s multiple interviews with people who see things differently. Usually it’s three people — obviously the manager they report to, and then two others who would look at things from another perspective.

For any business, a bad hire is the worst thing you could have. It creates more work and it puts stress on the relationships; the employee is not happy and certainly the employer is not happy. And then termination is just a miserable thing for everybody.

How do you maintain a cohesive company culture?
Through making sure we don’t forget where we came from and always being accessible to everyone. Our employees know there is no one too big to do anything. Somebody spilled something on the carpet out front, and I went to clean it.

Everyone here is equal, and that’s very important. We read surveys to them from the families who send them in because they don’t know. When you’re sending out 9 million packets, you think you’re a production facility. But that’s not what they are.

So we explain to them that they’re helping these families. The best way is to keep grounded. There is no one too pious or pompous to go out on the production floor and do the things that they do.

We’re all equal, and that goes a long way to making people feel they’re part of a tight-knit group. And we are. Our employees are happy to be here.

HOW TO REACH: Our Town Inc., www.ourtownamerica.com

Wednesday, 23 November 2005 05:11

Spending smart

Having the proper information technology (IT) infrastructure in place should be a priority for any business. But the selection of computers, servers and ancillary equipment can be overwhelming. The key is to invest in the technologies that bring stability and security to your environment, and get the most bang for your dollar by avoiding unnecessary expenditures.

Of course, a product or service that may be essential for one company might not be for another. “Every business has different needs,” explains Hormazd Dalal, the president of Castellan Solutions. “One company’s frivolous purchase could be another company’s need.”

Smart Business spoke with Dalal about distinguishing between the frivolous and the essential, what types of warranties should be purchased and the importance of network security.

Business owners face a wide array of choices when buying IT equipment. What advice would you give them about making efficient purchases?
For computers themselves, buy from one reputable manufacturer. Try and buy servers and work stations from the same manufacturer so that you build a relationship with that manufacturer, and across the board, you have the same hardware.

The concept is generally not the same when you are purchasing network infrastructure items like switches, firewalls, spam appliances, network storage, etc.... In those instances, one manufacturer may make a great firewall, but a horrible switch.

I would recommend finding a reputable IT solution provider to get advice before purchasing network infrastructure equipment. Getting the right mix of infrastructure equipment can be crucial to both stability and expandability, which is where your IT provider becomes an invaluable partner.

What types of warranties should be included?
On servers, which are normally mission-critical, always buy the best. Buy a four-hour response time. Typically, if you have a mail server go down in a 100-person company, that means 100 people can no longer communicate with each other or the outside world.

On the other hand, if a workstation breaks, then only one person is affected, not the entire company. So a lesser warranty is adequate, like a next-business-day response time. If you have an IT department or work with an IT support company, you generally don’t need to buy the software support warranties. These typically cover the operating system, which is configured and maintained in-house.

If you buy software that’s proprietary or custom-made, then you want to buy a support warranty. These contracts become invaluable in the event of a higher-level configuration issue providing support to your IT department.

How can a business owner distinguish between the frivolous and the essential when spending their IT budget?
Decision makers need to break down the employees’ habits, look at the work flow and determine what is really a need and what is just a want.

There may be somebody who says that they need to have the latest version of Microsoft Office. It turns out that this person just uses e-mail, and barely knows how to use any of the advanced word processing features. That would be a frivolous purchase.

Every business will face several needs, however. Security patches need to be delivered automatically to all computers. The best anti-virus and anti-spyware protection available is crucial. The most important need of all, however, is a proper backup solution with off-site storage capabilities that you utilize on a regular basis.

Technological advances drive the computer industry. How important is it to update products to keep up with competitors?
You should update your products to stay on the cutting edge of security patches, vulnerabilities, and in some cases, just so you can continue to get support. If you’re running an old piece of software that keeps crashing, then go ahead and spend the money to upgrade because it will bring you back productivity returns.

On the other hand, if your software is doing what it is supposed to, it meets your business needs and is doing so in a stable manner, then don’t spend the money just for the sake of upgrading.

Some companies are hesitant to improve their network security due to cost. In the long run, do you believe the savings associated with avoiding breaches outweigh the upfront costs?

Absolutely. The argument against this question is that people say, ‘My intellectual property is valuable to my company, but if someone steals it, it doesn’t really matter.’

What these business owners miss is that if a competitor wanted to get in and get your intellectual property, then basically you’re at war. Who wouldn’t want protection in a battle?

What they also fail to realize is that they need to be protecting themselves from the kiddie hackers, the people who aren’t interested in the data. They’re just interested in the challenge of breaking in and bringing a system down. They wouldn’t even know what to do with your data, but the harm that they could cause in nuisance value is what you need to protect yourself from.

Hormazd Dalal is president of Castellan Solutions. Reach him at (818) 789- 0088, ext. 202 or hormazd@castellan.net.

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