How to choose an IT partner Featured

7:55am EDT July 31, 2006
Companies that are still using two networks to handle voice and data transmissions face the possibility of falling behind their competitors and eventually falling by the wayside, according to Pat Scheckel, vice president of Berbee Information Networks’ Cisco Practice.

“There are two big reasons to converge your networks,” says Scheckel. “One is to take advantage of new applications, and the other is return on investment.”

Experience in network conversions is only one of the qualities that your IT partner should possess. Smart Business talked with Scheckel about the ability to converge voice and data networks and other factors that go into choosing an IT partner.

What hot-button products and services do today’s customers inquire about?
A good IT provider will deal with a company’s entire network infrastructure: IP communications, IP contact center solutions, security, wireless, IP storage, networking and support. Within that infrastructure, converging voice and data networks is a hot-button item.

If you are setting up a new remote site, it will just need a single device to run both data and voice communications. It’s cheaper from a maintenance and support perspective. That’s where return on investment (ROI) comes in.

Besides ROI, what are the other advantages to integrated IP communications?
Say someone calls into a bank branch, and the employee is not available. With IP telephony, instead of dumping the caller into voicemail right away, that call can be rerouted wherever you want. You can have the call sent to a live person at another location or you can have the call ‘follow’ your employee to his or her cell phone, or home phone, or wherever. And the routing is completely transparent to the caller.

If the call ends up actually being delivered to voicemail, the message is available as traditional voicemail, or your employee can pick it up through e-mail as an attachment, or listen to it through a mobile phone or laptop computer, or even forward it to a coworker.

How big an issue is IT security when choosing a provider?
There have been some advances in the way security incidents — invasion of a system by a virus or worm — are correlated and managed. In the past it used to take a lot of forensic work to figure out what happened and to then mitigate the damage.

Today software talks to networks, servers and PCs and correlates all the events. It immediately lets your IT staff know what’s happening, and recommends changes that can prevent the attack from proliferating.

The idea of security integrated into fabric of network is one that businesses are taking advantage of. Why? Networks are so important — with all the business applications running on them - that downtime can cost a company a ton of money.

What are some other advantages being offered in the IT realm today?
If an operational support service is in place when issues arise, the IT provider can take control of the system via VPN, resolve the issue and provide the client with full documentation. Because the tools and processes have evolved substantially over the past five years, remote expert support is a big differentiator. You have to be of a certain size for it to work, so it’s the upper echelon of IT providers that have legitimate offerings.

However, one of the things we find is important is having local sales and engineering expertise. Technicians in vans are yesterday’s support paradigm, because the better IT providers have the people, process and tools to resolve issues more quickly from their headquarters than they could by rolling trucks.

When a company changes its IT provider — and thus its entire IT system — is downtime a factor?
Implementation downtime is minimized through very robust project management and change management. That means getting the system up and running, largely in parallel, then picking a maintenance window (usually Sunday morning), and typically performing a flash-cut — cutting everything at once — if the system is not too large. Of course, the system has to be fully tested before the cutover, and the cutover itself has to be as transparent to end-users as possible.

When selecting an IT provider, what should companies beware of?
Make sure that what you need is among their core competencies. Some providers, for instance, can try to be all things to all people. They might not have the competency, but they take the project on anyway. That ends up biting you in the long run, because the IT provider has not invested the time and expertise to get deep into the needed skills for your particular job. Beware of IT companies whose technicians are spread too thin.

PAT SCHECKEL is vice president of Berbee Information Networks’ Cisco Practice. Reach him at pat.scheckel@berbee.com.