The State of the IT Industry
Two things I am certain of; nothing ever stays the same, and the older I get, the faster time goes by. Both of these are evident as we begin 2013. The IT industry for small and mid-sized businesses is facing multi-vectored transformations. We continue to battle the lingering effects of the 2009 recession with pent up lifecycle upgrades, mobile computing is everywhere, cloud hype abounds, the confluence of business and consumer computing, a complete refresh of everything Microsoft, and oh yeah, throw in uncertainty about all rules relating to the government. Making business technology decisions has become challenging. Being slow, thoughtful, and disciplined are more important than ever when making IT decisions. As I write this, the fiscal cliff has been avoided, but the debt ceiling and sequestration debates are in our near future. Uncertainty seems to be the new name of the game and it too will factor in to business IT decision making.
One of the areas we continue to see dramatic improvements in is automation and management software. Whether these are being delivered traditionally on premise or in some flavor of the cloud, these systems are increasing businesses ability to do more with less and improve quality.
The cloud still means many things . There has been great progress over the past year in the maturity of these technologies and environments. Hurricane Sandy was a painful lesson of the importance of premise infrastructure and reliance on power and communications. One of the advantages of cloud computing is reducing reliance on local premise infrastructure. While any decisions to move any parts of one's organization to cloud services needs to be carefully considered and analyzed, we find that cloud options are a part of most strategic technology conversations.
Internet connectivity and communications are continually increasing their importance to businesses. The good news is that better, faster, and cheaper Internet connections are becoming available. The bad news is that your location determines what is eligible and it is not always fair. Another important factor is that a large portion of Internet consumption in the office is still personal and not business related. This not only has resource utilization concerns, but it has productivity and security concerns as well. If you don't have IT use policies in your policy manual, please make this the year to do so. And speaking of security concerns, IT security is as challenging as ever. We have seen more security breaches over the last year than at any other time in recent memory. We have had a number of online banking breeches this year and are working on a solution to isolate banking activities from the network. It is more important than ever to be thoughtful on what users use business IT resources for. Finally, any changes to Internet connections need to be carefully planned in advance. Lack of Internet connection changes is a frequent cause of disruption.
Switching gears, Microsoft is has completely reworked most of their core programs. Windows, Windows Server, Office, Exchange Server, SQL Server, and SharePoint have all undergone significant upgrades. Never have so many products been upgraded simultaneously. This is going to make any current lifecycle upgrade decisions challenging as the new versions will take most of the year to fully settle in and Windows XP and Office 2003 computers are under increasing upgrade pressure. With 50% of computers still running Windows XP and Office 2003, there will be enormous pressure to upgrade a huge number of computers in a very short timeframe. We expect the majority of these systems to be upgraded beginning in mid-2013 and continue through 2015. A compounding factor will be the need for training. As we cross into these new versions, there are significant learning curves. It has been a long time since users needed training in Windows or Office, but they will with these upgrades. Fortunately, there are many options for individual web based training. Trainers for custom and on-site group training will be in short supply. Lastly, it is important that IT decision makers are aware that these new technologies exist. It is also important that they give careful thought and consideration before allowing them to be incorporated into their environments. There are many variables to be considered and these conversations are best had in advance.
Along these lines, consumer IT is increasingly influencing business IT environments and decision making. This means that personal computing activities and home environments are infiltrating the business computer system. Often, it is the tail wagging the dog and disrupts normal IT lifecycles and security models. Great care and thought needs to paid to IT decisions relating to how these technologies fit together. One of the trends we have noticed over the last few years with the popularity of Apple computers for home and personal computers is a natural separation of personal (Apple) and business (Windows) computing. This natural sandbox effect has helped a little, the new Microsoft Windows 8 devices may reverse this positive trend. As stated above, careful thought and consideration needs to occur before allowing them to be incorporated into their environments.
Thoughtful, disciplined, resourceful, and safe - these are the traits that lead to reliable and predictable IT.
The State of PCNS
Looking back to 2012, here is what we are proud of and gives us confidence…
Overall, we are happy with our progress in 2012, it was a solid year. Talent acquisition continues to be a barrier to growth. We constantly are on the lookout for people to add to our team. While unemployment is still an issue in our country, finding members for our team has been greatly challenging over the years. We are very fortunate for the team we have and have added number of new members in 2012. Most of our success in this area has been hiring team members while they are still in school as interns. We have been building a training program around this concept and have been extremely successful over the last 7+ years. While this approach does not scale well and takes patience, we feel this has been a major contributor to the quality and success of our team. Because of this we are very selective and turn away the vast majority of inquiries for our services. We try very hard to make sure those Clients we bring on are a mutually good fit. This is true with both new Client additions as well as new members to our team .
The Help Desk
We continue to tweak our help desk model . Help desks are not new, they have been around in corporate America and for product manufacturers for many years. They are relatively new for small business IT support companies, we were one of the first when we started ours in 1999. The help desk we need to run is significantly different from their cousins above and the standards and best practices have been slow to develop. We have been working closely over the past 5 years with the Help Desk Institute as they slowly develop best practices for our industry and we regularly collaborate with others in our field to share information and best practices. The result is a constant tweaking; keeping what works well, getting rid of what doesn't, and constantly trying new things. Last year we made dramatic improvements with our incident management processes and metrics.
Another area of progress is project management. We have been investing in improving the planning and communications around our projects and made significant strides and improvements.
In 2012 we made enormous progress in back office process improvements. While these are typically behind the scenes, we are streamlining the way we work and improving speed and efficiency in the back office. These improvements are in procurement, inventory management, metrics, reporting, and accounting automation.
The Data Center
The data center underwent a capacity expansion early in the year as well as a hosted Exchange upgrade, and resiliency improvements. These improvements have helped to ensure reliability and predictability of this environment. We are closing in on 1,000 users in our data center and over 1 terabyte of email data. We have another major capacity and expansion project in the planning stage for the beginning of 2013.
We also upgraded and expanded some of our core support tools. We have converted more than one third of our Clients to KMS 3,our new wiki based and privately developed knowledge management / documentation system. We implemented a backup remote support tool, our reliance on our ability to do remote support this tool justified this investment. We have become so dependent on our support tools we are constantly looking for redundancies and overlap. Another area of great progress is we have developed and deployed a new backup system specifically geared to virtualized servers. This system, based on Veeam Backup and Replication software, not only improves our backup capabilities, but dramatically reduces the time to recover from a failure or disaster. We have plans to take the disaster recovery off-site and further reduce recovery time, this option won't be for everyone because of the associated costs, but it will fit for certain Clients. Finally, we have invested in having a custom program written to automate our Client backup system monitoring progress. This has long been a manual, tedious, and time consuming process. Its critical nature has justified the efforts, but this year we designed a system, contracted a programmer, and have the system up and running. This system, BMS - Backup Monitoring System, has the potential to produce better, faster, and more accurate information while saving hundreds of man hours per year. This was our first attempt at custom software development and we have learned a lot about it.
Late in 2012 we expanded our office space. In March it will be three years in our new space, this past fall we acquired an additional 3500 square feet of office space in our building to allow for the expansion of our technical work areas. We extended our leases both on our office and ROC (Recycling Operations Center) for another three years. As time goes on and technologies change we continue to do more of our support and project preparation remotely (in our office) requiring more space. This centralization of resources improves efficiencies and helps keep support and projects costs low. We anticipate a spike in recycling activity as the Windows XP refresh cycle spikes later this year and next. While we are passionate and committed to recycling and believe it may be a viable side business one day, it is still very much a hobby.
PCNS – Looking into 2013
As we optimistically look towards 2013, here is what excites us…
As we discussed in the industry update, there any many converging changes affecting the way we do business and the skills we need. Training and development are at the forefront and improving our formal and informal programs. We are committed to expanding our existing education programs and implementing new ones to make sure we have the right skills and resources as we continue to grow and the industry continues to evolve.
Our industry has always required us to be early adopters of technology. This year with the volume of new product versions form Microsoft and perpetual improved in Internet and virtualization technologies, we plan to dramatically increase the time and capital investments in our systems and data center. We are also in the final stages of planning for a cloud-based disaster recovery solution that will give our Clients an option in the event of a long term environment disruption or disaster (think Sandy). Lastly, we are in the testing phase of a SPAM system replacement. Postini, our longtime partner for email security (and was purchased by Google a few years ago), is undergoing some major changes and will no longer serve our needs. We are in the evaluation phase of selecting a replacement and plan to migrate all our users throughout the year.
Technical Process Development
The PSOM (Pre-Scheduled On-site Maintenance) was conceived in the late 1990's as a vehicle to perform 4 routine functions; heavy maintenance, maintain our standards, address pent up non-urgent physical support issues, and address Clients to do lists. As our maintenance windows for disruption continue to shrink and remote access connectivity and our support automation tools continues to improve, we are planning a major overhaul to this concept that will improve our maintenance and reduce maintenance related end user disruption. Along these lines we also have plans to improve our routine auditing and system monitoring. Historically our processes in this area have been human brute force oriented. As our tools improve we are leveraging new processes to reduce the time and improve the quality of our auditing and monitoring. Even though we plan to improve the efficiency and automation of our processes, we will still need smart, friendly humans to drive these systems and more of it will need to be done after normal business hours. This year we expect to continue to expand our staffed office hours.
Back Office Process Development
ConnectWise, our main database for managing our business is rolling out a major upgrade this winter. Especially exciting are new modules that tie our entire procurement lifecycle together - quoting, to PO's, to procurement, to inventory, to project management, to invoicing, to warranty management. Also added are workflow rules and closed loop emailing in project management. Major upgrades are also coming to the Client portal. Lastly, this upgrade will also allow us to move this system to our data center, our last major LoB, Line of Business application in our office. Our metrics and data tracking goals for the year include better help desk statistics (better incident category breakdowns), dashboard refinements (react faster to current trends), and performance trend reporting.
As we move from one year to the next, we reflect on our progress, are passionately engaged in the present, and excited about the future. We firmly believe that our best accomplishments are ahead of us and look forward to sharing them with you. Thank you for your confidence and allowing us to be a part of your team.
Thank you and together, let’s make 2013 great.