Technical staff can often be the worst at this – but how often has the comment: “who reads the manual?” been heard? That is a mistake. I have seen many instances where a need exists for a particular technology asset, either hardware, software or both. With the best of intentions, a solution is identified, and a few more dollars leak out of your A/P.

Have you looked to see if you already have something that will do the job? If the manuals for existing tools had been read – you might find that the capability to perform that task already exists.

This article on Managing Inventory for Profitability by Ellen DePasquale at Inc.com demonstrates that many accounting packages can already deal with inventory management. Ditto for Purchasing Managemement.

An Asset Management system I have used did a reasonable job of performing Help Desk management as well. And in a fairly extreme case, Captain D. Michael Abrashoff Author of; It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques From The Best Damn Ship In The Navy (see The Bookshelf) Describes a communications rating who actually read the manual and identified a key communication system that no one knew existed.

So you may already have something that will do the job.

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The Title of this is directly from the reference below, I will also admit; I don’t Like maintaining E-Mail servers.

It is true – E-mail is still a critical element for my organization, and many others. But I do not like the time required to keep these complex beasts running. And like a flighty thoroughbred – they have their eccentricities.

This Information Week (Canada) article called; Yes, it’s time to destroy your e-mail servers (I stole the title!) puts it quite succinctly.

Two more articles, one from Rob Preston at Informationweek.com he quotes;

…Capossela predicts that half of Exchange users will get their e-mail from the cloud within five years.

Another from microsoft-watch.com References the same interview – but says 5 years will be too late.

It is not always wine and roses though. We used to utilize hosted E-mail, but then returned it in-house for two reasons. One reason was that we have a fairly complex E-mail environment and utilize some of the extended collaboration features of Microsoft Exchange Server. We probably could have developed a work around for this one.

The second one was more difficult; and so far I have only seen one press mention of it. As this CIO Magazine article states;

To be sure, it’s still the early days of cloud computing. Concerns (exist) around security and application latency…

This last quote is what caused our problems and deserves a little more detailed look. The term “latency” can be defined as the time taken for a packet of data to be sent by an application, travel and be received by another application. Now this little term can more complex than it sounds.

As an analogy, if you are driving 40 miles, at 40 miles per hour, we can automatically assume that we know how long this journey will take. And assuming you were on an empty highway with the cruise control on – we could be right.

However, if that 40 miles is across town and includes stop signs, traffic lights, some toll roads, merging lanes and all of the slowdowns that we can have driving, we can no longer assume how long our journey will take. Network connections are like that cross-town journey. Every router, switch, firewall, traffic shaping device and other tools used on the network all act like those stop lights, and merge lanes, each one slightly slowing down that traffic journey.

If you have ever opened an E-mail on a Web mail service such as Hotmail or GMail and then tried to view that new 1 Mb baby picture you were sent – you see what a time consuming exercise that can be. Now imagine it with a 10 Mb Power Point deck or Adobe PDF document.

Then imagine that you emailed that 10 Mb power point presentation to all 10 members of a project team – and all 10 start to look at it roughly at the same time. 10 Mb x 10 people downloading it to their PC is 100 Mb of data that you are squishing through your internet connection. The time it takes to open that E-mail will degrade even farther.

That is what killed hosted email for us, like most businesses in the SMB space, we cannot afford an infinitely huge “pipe” to the Internet, and as we deal with large media and Adobe PDF files, many of which are E-mailed, We found that during peak periods, it had reached the point that opening an email with an attachement had to be done beore you went to lunch – you hoped it would be finished when you got back.

I mean figuratively of course. As stated in my post on Outsourcing;

complexity causes instability, instability causes breakage, and breakage causes downtime and costs money.

And my recent post about using IT Vision to ensure that you have planning in your IT environment to avoid the IT equivalent of urban sprawl

An acquaintance in the IT field pointed me to a particular SMB IT administrator job advertisement – Some of the requirements are fairly standard – but many of them compete in their own areas – and they all require extensive experience.

First point; with so many technologies in use, extensive experience in all of them?

forget it – the old adage of jack of all trades – master of none is more like it. and since many of the technologies are security related – that is not something I recommend.

Second point; the below list of skills could suit a larger organization that has grown through M&A, but in the SMB space, complexity causes instability, instability causes breakage, and breakage causes downtime and costs money.

So many of these products overlap and compete with each other that you can guess that there was no long term, strategic IT vision as this organization matured. Point solutions, or what someone thought was “cool” for the day was used. To be fair, I don’t personally know the company or the location – so they could be trying to rein in this sprawl in the future, but the cost in time and money doing it will be difficult.

This is not to say that there is anything wrong with any of these technologies and products, my point is that for an SMB – there are just too many of them. Many of the individual technologies below can be a full time job in themselves.

Look at this laundry list ‘o skills; (This is just a summary)

Certifications in Novell and MCSE

Minimum ITIL Foundation an asset

Extensive technical knowledge LAN, WAN, frame relay, xDSL, TCP/IP, ATM, T1, 802.11x, SLP, NCP
Extensive client/server and operating system experience with Microsoft and Novell and Suse Linux
Knowledge of Symantec END Point server and workstation anti-virus software, Check Point, Symantec Endpoint, Windows firewalls, Radius authentication services and intrusion detection systems
Knowledge of MS Server 2003 and Active Directory, MS Exchange Novell OES GroupWise and ZenWorks.
Extensive experience in developing and managing Windows Active Directory OU Structures and Group Policies.
Extensive experience with Novell eDirectory.
Extensive experience with Novell Zenworks for application deployment, patch management, and data collection.

Plus “knowledge” of H P OpenView and Cisco Works, Wireless technology, MS Exchange 2003, Citrix Metaframe, and the list goes on

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Application Auditing

May 27, 2008

Several weeks ago our Software Development Manager took the time to review all database’s and software applications for orphan user ID’s. He found some. These user ID’s were people no longer employed with us, in some cases customer accounts that had wanted to view some “pre-release” version of something years ago. All these accounts were very old and pre-dated both of us.

Still, this should never happen – processes should be in place to ensure that old accounts are removed immediately upon either change in a resources role, or upon their leaving the organization.

This eweek.com article by Brian Prince quotes;

The article also references the recent LendingTree data breach, where former employees gave away their login ID’s – these ID’s had never been canceled.

In this time of Software as a Service, (SaaS) this can be even more critical. If you leave old employees accounts active within a database or tool on your network, they still have to get access to the network to utilize the account – with Software as a service – they can do it anywhere in the world. An orphan login account in a hosted tool could enable a former employee to retrieve every sales account and phone number you have.

IT Vision Thing

May 23, 2008

As a SMB business manager, I am sure you have had to deal somewhat with vision.

Perhaps for an elevator pitch for VC capital,

Maybe for an IPO prospectus.

Maybe even just so that your customers know what you actually do.

Do you have an IT vision as well?

You should.

This vision should be a lesson in simplicity, it should have no jargon or technobabble. But it should be a clearly articulated road map for the future.

And yes, it should be revisited regularly. Now this vision will not be as complex or tough to build as the vision required for some change initiative, but it should exist and be articulated and communicated by senior IT staff as required.

Complexity Kills

As a post I did here states, complexity causes instability, instability causes breakage, and breakage causes downtime and costs money.

Simply put, this vision will articulate what technology platforms and tools your business is going to utilize. And it should be the road map that limits this complexity.

Unfortunately, in the SMB space, we often find IT complexity that is completely beyond the bounds of reason for our organization sizes.

By complexity, I mean technology sprawl. There is absolutely no reason for the average SMB to have more different kinds of technologies, tools and architectures than a company of IBM’s size has.

That may be exaggerating – but it happens all too often.

A year or so ago, I remember speaking to an IT Manager at an SMB sized organization that had several facilities and a good customer base spread along a couple of lines of business. This business was using three different database management systems, four or five different classes of server operating systems, and several different tools that actually performed the same function for different operating units.

Consider just the direct upfront licencing costs of all of this software and hardware, Now consider the expertise and time required in the care, feeding and maintenance of all of these. And we will avoid even considering that a customer of two business units will have separate customer records from different tools each unit uses.

This organization did not have an articulated IT vision. So one business unit manager wanted a particular tool that happens to run on MS WIndows Server and MS SQL Server, while another business manager wanted a similar tool that ran on Linux and Oracle Corporations Database Software. And a third enterprise tool ran on a Novell server etc etc.

Your technology road map vision may be partially dictated by customer or supplier linkages, or you may be lucky and can define it the way you prefer from the ground up. The important thing is to define it. Regardless of which architecture and platforms you choose, emphasizing that these are the corporate standards will reduce the costs associated with end less sprawl.

Will there be deviations? possibly. But my advice to you is to demand a good business case to support it.

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ITIL – The Journey

May 23, 2008

A May 12 article in Information Week by Michael Biddick brings up one nugget that is applicable to the small / mid market space. (technobabble alert – the above article is geared towards Enterprise IT Managers, if you are a general business manager in the SMB space, it will be a little,,,,,, dry!)

While ITIL is becoming the de facto standard for enterprises, we’ve seen too many organizations that just send their people through a class and expect the world to change.

It is worth repeating, ITIL is a journey – not a destination. It is people and processes. It requires commitment and management. There will not be a time when you can say “We are finished”.

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I have been in the technolgy business for quite a while. In this business – the ability to ensure that all your business data is backed up and recoverable should there be a failure of any kind is always top of mind.

I had an incident recently that had me thinking back at data recovery over the years (sort of mental doodling!)- and unfortunately some “non” recoverable data as well. One memory that has stuck with me; Many years ago I worked with a software development outfit that had a small business service tool that was still good old MS DOS based. Backing up the data was through a menu option and just needed a good old 3.5 inch floppy disk.

One thing that you must know – magnetic media does not last forever. No matter how often we communicated that, there were customers that backed up their data to the same floppy disk for years. And never knowing at what point that the little floppy had finally died. In one case, we looked at this old floppy disk that looked it had been run over by a truck. It had been carefully loaded into the floppy drive for who knows how many years. The time came that the data needed to be restored….. well it was dead.

Today you will be using a tape drive of some sort for your backups. A question though – do you know how old those tapes are? have you ever tried restoring data from them? If you can’t answer those two questions, a little investigation is in order. (I try to utilize tape tape media for only one year before it is retired)

I always recommend a 4 week tape rotation with weekly and monthly off site storage for businesses in the SMB space. (Although there are more and more online storage services coming around, I have not tried them – maybe a future post)

The final piece though – have you considered what type of tape hardware that you are actually backing up with ?

If you are like many, you probably have old Vinyl LP records hanging around, Maybe some 8-Track cassettes hiding somewhere, how about 8mm movies? Next question – Can you play them on anything still?

The hardware creating those backups does not last forever either – like 8 Track players, once your oldie dies all the tapes are useless. As an IT Manager I agree that it is a challenge to convince my boss of this. It is like insurance! – You hope you won’t need it; Until you do need it!

Like insurance, having a second piece of identical backup hardware can pay dividends if the “oldie” decides that life is to difficult and self destructs.

In short;

Your tape media has a life span – replace it
Your backups need to be tested by doing data restores periodically
Your backup hardware is not going to last forever either – plan for it!