One of the most common questions we get around IT coverage for smaller businesses is 'what will it cost?' Signing up for IT is a bit like dropping the car off at a repair shop – scary. It feels scary because you don't know what things should cost, and the costs are often a bit of a mysteryÂ… you are not allowed to see inside of what makes up the expense, and, like leaving that car for repairs, it can be tough to know if you really need the work done and what it should cost.

The good news is that excellent value and service can be achieved at very reasonable prices using IT outsourcing. The important part of understanding and assessing the value of any given IT offering is in knowing what you are getting.

First of all, you should expect a relationship with your IT service provider. Much like your personal doctor relies on his long term knowledge of you to help diagnose what you need and what is happening with your body, a dedicated IT resource will use long term knowledge of your systems, investments, users and business plans to make good decisions on your behalf. Having a primary or 'named' consultant (as well as backup for when they are not available) will save you money and time. Think about it: Who will most rapidly and accurately correct an issue with your systems – someone who works with you and them on a consistent basis, or someone who was simply selected from a pool of available people? In general, the correct answer is the former, not the latter. The concept of a primary and secondary consultant is a fundamental building block of our offering, and part of how we ensure we are up to speed and able to correctly assess and remediate issues on site. It saves you money. It keeps you productive.

Secondly, you must understand that IT is not only a reactive service (coming along when things are broken) but is more intelligently designed as a proactive service coupled with the ability to react quickly at need. Automated tools are nice, and are part of our offerings, but can't replace having a skilled IT professional coming onsite on a pre-scheduled basis to assess your systems, your user needs, and your business requirements. Fixing things quickly when broken is nice, but let's face it, the goal is to avoid that downtime all together if possible. We handle that through our scheduled onsite time, where our consultant completes a routine checklist of required items that need to be managed in a proactive manner. The size and complexity of your business will determine the required frequency of visits (every other month, monthly, weekly, etc). We believe that these onsite visits are the most important aspect of your IT investment when it comes to field based IT offerings.

To give an example of a basic company and what you may expect to spend (just a typical small business example), let's use a hypothetical company of 25 employees and a Small Business Server, you would pay for monitoring and a server check for that server, a once per month 4 hour on site, plus expected user support and reactive maintenance time (things happen, like automatic patches not working correctly, power outages, or simply users wanting support on an application) of another 4-8 hours. That would give you a very comprehensive IT service to maintain up time and maximize productivity very much comparable to having a dedicated in house IT staff. The cost of doing that in house is a full or part time employee. A full time employee fully loaded is going to cost upwards of $80,000, and a part timer, if you can find one, would be in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.

Our service for this would run between $1,300 to $1,900 per month, and with a monthly minimum of just $720 for the proactive service and monitoring. Why don't we simply lock it all together and fix the price? We can, and have a remote based offering that does that, but frankly, for most of our clients, we want you to pay for what you need, and some months you will only spend the minimum for the proactive service, so why pay the higher rate every month, instead of paying for what you need and having 100% visibility over your spend and the ability to prioritize your spend for reactive or extra services? The range for this service on average is going to be from around $16,000 to around $20,000. Not only is this a savings over hiring internally, but frankly, you get a breadth of knowledge that can only come from a base of over 40 qualified IT professionals all working together to solve issues for you efficiently. No management headaches, the ability to flex up or down as needed, etc.

That 25 person company most likely is spending in the range of $1.5 million in total payroll outside of IT. Providing full support of that expenditure with a $20,000 IT maintenance and support expenditure means that you are spending about 1.3% of your payroll on IT in this fairly normal scenario.

So, is that too much to spend? What do you spend on legal each year? How about HR? What about coffee and snacks? The fact is, IT is not free, and not maybe not cheap, but it is valuable, not certainly not unreasonable relative to the value and importance to your business.

Our goal is to offer IT services that provide value and support our mission of ensuring you are happy, productive and supported by your IT vendor. Most businesses today are completely reliant on their IT infrastructure to process business in any real way. Entrusting that to a break fix mentality, cheap hardware, or hoping for good luck makes about as much sense as never putting oil in your car or providing basic maintenance and hoping it never catches up with you.

Our goal is to provide honest and open assessments of your needs and the costs. Giving you a fixed price with 4 pages of excluded items in small print is not our way of doing business. We are happy to provide you pricing to meet your budgetary requirements, using time and materials, or fixed pricing for smaller businesses with simple infrastructure, but we won't try to hide how the price is set, nor close a deal with lots of hidden costs.

Nor do we believe in contracts. The best (and only way for us) to maintain clients is through excellent service, not a piece of paper saying we are married for a year or two.

So make sure to ask hard questions. Be clear what you are signing up for and what you will get (and not get) and ultimately never sign up with an IT vendor that leaves you feeling unsure about costs or service levels. There is variability in IT work based on the simple fact that 'things happen' with technology. If you want a fixed price contract, make sure it does not simply exclude those items (many of them do), as that is not really reflecting what your costs will be, but really just setting a minimum, but doing it in a way that may make you feel more protected than you are.

Do your homework. Better yet, do your homework and then call us and let us show you how we handle things. I think you'll like our approach. We take a lot of pride in our open business model, and take our role as IT advisor and service provider very seriously.

Happy Computing!
 -Richard Brunke

Is the Cloud Open for Business?

Last week saw both Google and Microsoft suffer outages on their cloud services that impacted millions of users.

Google was down for only an hour, but during this time millions of users of Google Docs could not access their documents.

Microsoft had it worse, with an issue that caused about 3 hours of downtime for their Office 365 users (and Hotmail and other services).

Now, the point of this is not to hammer on these services or get into the technical description of what happened, but to again point out the important point that IF you can not have your documents unavailable at any time, for an hour, or more, then you need to understand that as of now, these services are prone to some downtime, as history has shown, and you need to plan for this, or evaluate your cloud strategy in light of this.

I continue to believe that cloud based service delivery will be part of all of our business (and personal) futures, but not as a replacement for on premise computing, but as an adjunct to it, to enhance productivity and increase access to key data. The idea of putting everything in the cloud sounds cool, but there are simply too many things outside of our control, and let's face it, many of us would have real issues if we could not access a key document when we need it. For some, this could cause serious damage to their ability to function as a business (imagine needing a legal brief before a case and not being able to access it, or not being able to get at a big proposal the morning the final pitch is due).

As always, plan thoroughly and adopt new technologies carefully. One should fully understand the capabilities and risks of any given system before they put their business at its mercy, and cloud document storage and applications are showing that they are still in their infancy in terms of stability.

The pricing can be compelling, as can reduction of onsite hardware costs, but the question is: What is the cost of downtime relative to all of this?

Again, plan thoroughly and move slowly on cloud initiatives. Work with your IT department and ensure you are asking all the right questions.

That way you can ensure you will continue to practice Happy Computing.
 -Richard Brunke

I read an interesting article the other day regarding IT recruiting and retention. The key fact I saw right up front that was in May, the unemployment rate for IT professionals was at 3.8% against the national overall average of 9.1% and the IT labor market was HEATING up from there through the summer. That number includes all levels of IT experience including college grads. It went on to talk about the real key skills required for IT current IT projects and initiatives are typically held by employees with 5-10 years experience, who are, therefore, even more in demand.

And the net/net of all of this is a talent war in the IT hiring space.

And making it all worse, employees are seeking to move to places where they can see more new technology and take part in more exciting projects, driving turnover, and driving wage rates up. For the average corporate IT group, this is a real challenge.

I don't like to advertise too much on the blog, but we are seeing the same thing, but we have an advantage. Our employees get to see that broad range of technology, doing new things on a nearly daily basis across a broad range of clients. When your core business IS IT, you have an edge in recruiting over the corporate IT space where IT is an expense center, and where specialization is the norm. These types of market behaviors only make local outsourcing more valuable. Why chase increasing labor costs when you don't even know if the skill set you are hiring is the one you will need in a years time? Why deal with the turn over and management headaches?

The fact is, for the majority of small to mid sized businesses, outsourcing is not only sensible, but likely the only way you will find and retain the level of talent you desire. The best and brightest (which is what you want around when your server is down, or you are deploying a new solution) are not going to stay motivated and excited in a limited environment. Although YOU may find them valuable enough to pay the high salary to have them around when you need them, they are going to be increasingly driven to find ways to increase their skills and be challenged, and a single small business environment may not provide that challenge.

The more volatile the labor market, the more changing the technology space, the more valuable having a flexible approach to obtaining and retaining IT talent is.

After all, it is all about maintaining consistent quality and service to ensure you can experience Happy Computing.
 -Richard Brunke

CIO.com had an interesting article today regarding how IT is viewed in the corporate environment by the CFO, whom IT typically falls under. Not surprisingly (to me), the picture is not too rosyÂ…

Here is a direct quote from the article:
"According to the 2011 Gartner/FEI study, only about a quarter of the CFOs had confidence that their own IT organization "has the organizational and technical flexibility to respond to changing business priorities," or "is able to deliver against the enterprise/business unit strategy."

"Only 25% see the CIO as a key player in determining the business strategy," said Gartner analyst John Van Decker.

In addition, less than a quarter of the CFOs felt the IT department "delivers the technology innovation needed by the business," or that it "has the right mix of skilled people to meet business needs." And in the final act of disdain, only 18% of the CFOs said they thought "our IT service levels meet or exceed business expectations."

Now, let's take this down a notch into the world of small business. Business owners and decision makers often don't trust IT, and the above quote would summarize what I have heard time and again from smaller businesses too. The problem is that internal IT groups tend to fall into certain traps over and over again.

The first trap is the technology trap. IT leaders come up through IT departments. They LOVE technology. Unfortunately, they often forget that IT is NOT ABOUT TECHNOLOGY any more than home building is about hammers. IT is about meeting business needs with a technology tool set. The tools are NOT front and center, the business opportunity is. Here is a hint – as a business person, I don't care about the spec. I don't care about how cool it is. I don't care about how many virtual machines it can run. Sorry. I don't. What I do care about is how any particular solution can be directly tied to ensuring that my business remains productive. That my technology supports my business plans. That my IT investment is relevant to supporting my business needs. I want happy, productive and supported employees. I want a business that runs smoothly.

The second trap is empire building. How many times have I heard 'I need to hire another staff member because we don't have such and such key skills in house'? Frankly, I don't want to chase every changing skill requirements with full time employees. Nor do I revel in the knowledge that my IT staff is 150% utilized 3 times per year, but 30% utilized the rest. Most businesses would NEVER hire an in house lawyer for contracts, and another for HR law, and another for intellectual property law. That would be insane, right? While we know we may need each of those skills, and need them badly at some point, we don't hire them to sit around until we need them, we find a firm with the breadth of experience we need and have them on retainer. Pay for what you need when you need it. So, why do we think differently about IT?

It is not a hopeless battle, however. In reality, CIOs (or any IT manager) simply need to step back and remember that they are business support, not technology support. They need to understand that the fundamental job of IT is to provide the most efficient solution to business problems available. Not the coolest. Not the most cutting edge. The most efficient. Value can only be determined in IT by understanding the needs of the business and aligning the cost of the solution and the nature of the solution with the overall culture and direction of the business. Get better at that. Put the focus on that. Talk in terms of the outcomes of projects, not the technology involved in them. Talk in terms of return on investment, and be honest about it. Remember that IT is a service organization, and that no one outside of IT likely cares deeply about the technology. I know, it hurts. They care about the outcomes though, and if you focus on that, you will build value, and you will build trust.

Lacking trust between IT and business decision makers is a terrible thing for everyone. I certainly keep this front and center when working with my team and setting a corporate culture. We talk endlessly about our mission of creating happy, productive and supported customers. It was strange at first, to run an IT services company and NOT talk about technology, not talk about us and our capabilities, but to talk about the ultimate desired outcomes our customers have in simple terms. It is transformational in fact. Because, we understand that at the end of the day, the one thing we can agree on is that we all want to experienceÂ…

Happy Computing!
 -Richard Brunke

Lots of news today on Microsoft Office 365, their new cloud offering, which released today. For those of you tracking this, this was previously known by the awkward name of BPOS (Business Productivity Online Software). Basically, it is Exchange, SharePoint, Office Communications Online and Live Meeting (the last two used to be called Lync and combines instant messaging and web conferencing) and the Office suite.

Clearly this offering is set to go head to head with Google Apps. The Microsoft offering is more expensive, but there are some BIG advantages. Chief among those is the fact that most of us are familiar with them. We know how to navigate and use Microsoft Applications. Can you learn a new interface? Sure you can, but at the end of the day, all pro this and anti that aside, I use my computer to be productive, and I'll pay a bit more to be productive. I know how to use Microsoft software, so I prefer it, and am productive using it. If I save $100 a hour, but waste hours in productivity because I have questions, or don't know how to do something, or can't get support as easily, I'm not making a good decision.

Aside from this there is another real advantage – the Microsoft suite, unlike Google, does not need an online connection to work. The applications have offline modes and will sync when you are back online. In the real world, that is sort of a big deal.

All of this aside, the real question you should ask yourself is – do I need this? Is this compelling? The answer is 'it depends'. There are scenarios for small business, or some types of large enterprise, where this may make tremendous sense. There are also questions around data storage and its configuration that MUST be considered before you implement. There are still lagging legal questions around data protection and ownership in the cloud, concerns on uptime (remember the Amazon issue???) as well as the simple inability to have cloud apps cleanly integrate to non cloud apps (need that Line of Business application to talk to exchange?).

I've been saying it for two yearsÂ… cloud computing is coming, but it will not be the panacea promised, nor is it really going to be about cost savings in my opinion. It is about fit. It is about productivity and business needs and capital usage. It is a complex question that deserves some discussion. Talk to your IT manager, or contact us and talk to a consultant. Whatever you do, look before you leap.

Be it in the cloud or on your PC, always practice Happy Computing!
 -Richard Brunke

We serve a lot of architects at ISOutsource. One thing that always amazes me is the desktops that they have to buy to be able to create and render their drawings on. Those things are like top of the line gaming machines, and they cost a fortune (as much as 4 to 5 times what you may be able to buy a mid level desktop for).

One of my consultants recently implemented VMware View for a few clients and WOW did we ever get a great response. I normally don’t like to advertise for any particular solution, but this solution is a new twist on the old thin client concept, enabling businesses to use older, or less expensive machines coupled with cloud based infrastructure to complete heavy lifting computing tasks, and to do so QUICKER than they were on their top of the line machines!

What really struck me about this was the simple concept of how having the right IT partner advising you can be critical. This solution will enable many of our clients to save thousands of dollars per desktop and improve productivity. That is simply huge. The ROI on the consultation and the roll out is HUGE. It is the ability to have a large team with many pockets of knowledge that helps us make sure we see this stuff coming, and make it available to our clients. In fact, we are having a seminar on this internally in the next week so that the information can be available to every one of our consultants who is interested. That is what we mean on our site when we talk about smart, fast and vast. Smart people, fast response, and vast knowledge.

I’m not even going to attempt to describe the solution here. Take a look at the VMware site and look over this, or better yet, contact us and ask us to come talk to you about this solution (or any other solution of course) and how it may help you save money and improve productivity.

Cheaper and faster computing = happy computing!
-Richard Brunke

I just read an article about IT departments and how they must evolve and change (Forester: IT Departments Face Decade of Fundamental Change) and wanted to call someone at Forester afterwards and say 'Duh'. It's funny, but in the world of IT Services and Consulting, we have long taken the stance that IT must take on a role as a broker of information, services and strategy, and that the business itself must take the front seat, not the technology.

Forester correctly noted that 'a number of IT roles will become more managerial, more of a broker role' and 'its moving from building to consulting'. You see, IT has long understood their role in implementations, but has, in traditional corporate atmospheres often taken this to the point of the implementation and the technology itself becoming the central theme, and the driving force. There is a bit of 'because you need it, and I can control it, I will tell you how to use it' that can occur.

Of course all of the implementations and the maintenance still have to happen, but, what we understand in the world of consulting, which perhaps internal IT is just coming to terms with, is that the complexity of decisions and the criticality of having IT systems that enhance your business and its productivity (happy, productive and supported sound familiar?) IS the core role of IT, and that is a very consultative science, very service oriented. Technical capabilities are table stakes, sure, but the win is in technical leadership combined with business savvy to enable business momentum and operational effectiveness. Users need to not just be told 'yes' or 'no' but be educated as to the costs and benefits of the many choices today (cloud computing as an example) so that they can make good decisions. Then you HAVE to be able to execute those decisions flawlessly.

At the end of the day, that is something that I think the outsourcing guys get, and have understood for a long time. Frankly, the fact that the message is going mainstream to corporate IT is a good thing. As the need to be more consultative and more broad in skills and flexible in execution becomes mainstream, 'ride along' outsourcing becomes a very viable option for larger corporate entities to fill in their technology needs (strategic and tactical). After all, outsourcing is not about 'replacing' but about finding the right solution to provide flexible, cost effective, and sustainable services. The concept that internal IT managers may have to develop strong relations WITH outsourcers to provide this to their organizations is a win/win.

As much as I love the messageÂ… I have to still think 'duh'. The concept of IT as a service organization and information and service broker rather than power center. Who'd have thought it.

Here's hoping the future holds plenty of Happy Computing!
 -Richard Brunke

I have been on a 3 month experiment to see if I can really change the way I stay productive. As ISOutsource moved into a full on laptop refresh cycle, I decided to forgo my laptop and work with a combination desktop and tablet (in my case, an iPad). The combination is less expensive than the fairly high end laptops we use for our business, and the real key was for me to determine if it was more EFFECTIVE. After all, at the end of the day, the goal is productivity, not pinching pennies.

Well, it started out with me very excited by the cool form factor of the iPad, and perfectly content with a basic desktop pc (they are cheap to maintain, run forever, and you get far more bang for your buck than you would a laptop). However, as time went on, I found that the iPad traveled with me a lot more than a laptop would (and that is in comparison to a fairly small netbook I was using). In fact, I carried it virtually everywhere, including vacations.

I also found that the ability to turn it on and be checking email in seconds was huge for me. When email is coming in all the time, and phones are handy for reading, but not always responding in detail, being able to turn on and get to work right away without any boot sequence, software load times, etc, was a huge plus. In fact, so much a huge plus that I found myself a lot more plugged in to work. Not only a good thing from a productivity standpoint, but I enjoy the device so much that I don't mind carrying it around, and the fact that my music is there, and various fun apps are on it makes it even more compelling to have with me all the time.

I can open and edit all kinds of attachments with inexpensive apps, and frankly can do everything I would do on a laptop, albeit in slightly different ways.

At the end of 3 months, I can say that tablet computing is a productivity boost, and fun to boot. I am more connected, but don't feel enslaved (the same way I do when hauling around a laptop). The device is cool and fun to use. As a matter of fact, I am in the process of making sure that all of my senior staff members have similar devices. It is clear to me now that even if you still want your laptop, the tablet has a distinct use and value proposition and fits into a productivity niche that is unique to its form factor. I heartily recommend finding users who use laptops to stay in touch and read email and open docs to move to a tablet. Some folks, like those that are coding, creating large and complex documents, etc, will still need the power and functionality of a laptop. I'd argue that even in that case, you may find incremental productivity and satisfaction in having both devices available.

Sometimes when a new technologies and/or device comes out, the cynics of the world (like me) label them as toys and perhaps lose out on the potential value to themselves and their business. This is, I believe, the right time to reconsider the value of tablet computers in your business.

As always Happy (and mobile) Computing!

 -Richard Brunke

You may have read recently that Amazon experienced various levels of service outages in their cloud offering that lasted a full 24 hours. Many sites, including some for large organizations, experienced serious performance issues. Many businesses that rely on various cloud offerings residing on the Amazon infrastructure were rendered unable to transact their business properly for a full business day.

I'm not really interested in why this happened, or what happened. I have long been nervous that too many are jumping too quickly to cloud offerings without understanding the limitations, challenges, and realities. The simple fact is, this issue pointed out that there are risks that are very real to business who have moved to cloud. This particular outage also showed that many cloud customers failed to have proper disaster recovery plans in place, mostly because they were led to believe (or just did believe) that cloud computing was exceptionally robust and that they should not and would not have significant failures.

Another lesson learned is about terms of service and up time guarantees. The fact is, despite the large outage, Amazon did not break its service level agreement! It is critical to really understand what the SLA is and what it is actually promising you, and what your responsibilities are under the agreement. In many cases, the SLA covers specific requirements, such as the ability to connect to the platform 99.9% of the time, but does not cover the actual functionality of the solution itself. That was basically the issue with Amazon, so though folks could not run their business applications, Amazon was not in breach of their SLA's. I bet a lot of folks were angry about that, but at the same time, we HAVE to understand what these SLA's are and they are not. After all, it is your business at stake here!

On the whole, I still think cloud computing is coming our way, and is something that should be part of all strategic IT discussions. BUTÂ… more importantly I firmly believe that CONTROL is an important part of IT and that it is critical to understand that YOU the owner of a business are going to pay the price for large failures of infrastructure, not a cloud provider, so you must ensure that you have the ability to control your environment and ensure that you can control the process of recovering your environment should something go wrong. If you are deploying in the cloud, make sure you have images of those servers you can spin up virtually locally. Always have redundancy in your plans. Amazon is one of the most credible companies in the world for this type of service, and yet, even they can experience crippling downtime.

At the end of the day, PLAN carefully any cloud deployment and ensure that you have answers to the following questions:

1. If my cloud provider goes down, can I continue to run my business?

2. How long will it take me to recover my data and applications in the worst case scenario?

3. What is the provider's actual service level agreement and what recourse do I have if any if they break it?

Many have gone with cloud computing to save money. I wonder if a number of companies, after a day of downtime, are still feeling like they have saved money? I wonder if any businesses were irreparably harmed? I wonder how many may rethink their cloud strategy at this point?

Go slow. Plan carefully. Be prepared.

That way you can make sure you continue to experience Happy Computing!

 -Richard Brunke

I was recently asked about my blog tagline 'happy computing' by a friend who wondered what it meant.

After a moment of that cow looking at a new gate look, I answered, 'which word don't you understand?'

You see, most people are not used to associating the word happy with the word computing. It is sort of like carefree and driving. While in theory they sound good together, they just don't seem to be allowed to coexist. Happy computing is about the ability of a user to actually take for granted the productivity enhancements that computing offers without having to worry about how it all works, why it all works, and what to do if something is not doing what you expect it to.

At the end of the day, we just want things to work, and want easy solutions if for some reason they don't seem to work the way we want. We don't want to feel insulted or stupid when we ask for help, and we don't want to be expected to 'get' all this stuff. The average user experiences computing through a keyboard, mouse, and screen. All the actual things going on are a mystery, and best left that way for most of us.

If I can sit back and experience the advantages of technology, and not worry about the headaches (OK, I get it, things go wrong and sometimes for no apparent reason with technology systems), then I am experiencing happy computing. It is not about everything being perfect, it is about knowing that everything is going to be OK and that I, and my employees, are going to have the best possible experience when working with out mission critical computing. That summarizes happy computing for me.

I find that focusing on these higher level goals, rather than low level symptomatic ones is very empowering for my business, and our customers. After all, do you really get excited about long lists of capabilities and technical performance promises that really may not align with what you really want? Do you even believe them, or know how to hold someone accountable to them? We all know what happy is, and I know that when I look at feedback from my customers, I can measure if I am delivering happy computing.

After all, don't we all simply want to feel supported by our services providers, so we can be productive? Both receiving and giving that level of service certainly makes me happy!

As a matter of fact, the simple idea of helping to provide users with the experience of happy computing is THE central theme of how we are building our business. I can think of no better compliment than hearing 'I am happy with my support from ISOutsource'.

Happy Computing!

 -Richard Brunke