CDW plays technology deus ex machina

Moral: don't dig yourself into a newsworthy tech hole.

Online IT products and services reseller CDW ran a contest last fall called Project Upgrade, sponsored by HP and Microsoft. Small businesses with 50 or fewer employees entered the contest to win $50,000 worth of hardware and software, along with help setting it all up. My advice? Don't fall into such a deep technology hole you need a benevolent force to float down from above to rescue you.

Over 200 small businesses entered the contest, which surprised me. I figured it would attract 2,000 entries, although when the process started last summer the economy was in better shape. CDW judged entrants based on their overall business case, how technology improvements would help, how unique their problems were so they could serve as a good example to others, whether a technology upgrade would really fix their business problems, and if CDW could make that difference for them. Seems like a fair set of criteria to me.

CDW has videos of two of their three winners up now at Project Upgrade. The first one, Little Mittens child care in Wisconsin, had 15 security cameras installed to help monitor their 160 or so active “clients,” but only five of them worked. One of three installed surveillance cameras actually surveilled.

I know things get behind, money gets tight, and there's not enough hours in many of our days, but I wonder if the insurance company that provided liability coverage for Little Mittens knew the video system was effectively blind? Is it cost effective to ignore broken cameras that could lead to a lawsuit? People get understandably protective about their children, as well they should. When your insurance company finds out you bought a policy based on 15 cameras but only five actually work, they could realistically say you caused your own problem, therefore they have no obligation to cover you. Oops.

The contest winner I spoke to, Mark Nelson of Spring Hill Music Group, sounds like the prototypical IT tech enabler in a tough environment. When he started at Spring Hill just over a year ago, he worked 75 hours per week for several months. Ouch. Nelson seems like a nice guy, but 75 hours per week is insanity. I hope he was getting overtime, but I don't think he was.

If he was getting overtime management might have realized it would be less expensive to upgrade their ratty old desktops and servers rather than stuff money in Nelson's bank account. No doubt the work overload explains why Nelson is the fourth onsite IT person in the last five or six years.

Budget? “I don't have a real budget, I just argue to get new pieces of equipment,” said Nelson. While familiar to every IT person, that makes it hard to get anything done in a sensible fashion. Other problems? Of the 20 or so users that stream music to and from the Web as part of the business, none of the desktops had any type of antivirus or antispyware installed. Would you like your employees running around multiple social networks and music sites, as Spring Hill employees do for marketing, without any desktop security?

Ignoring technology must be in Spring Hill's DNA, because CDW replaced 23 desktops, most of which were seven- to nine- years-old. Pentium 4 systems can do some good work still, but they can't handle streaming media well. Surfing the Web with no anti-virus certainly explains part of the reason Nelson sent his entry to the CDW contest about 10:30 p.m. one night.

CDW dropped in 19 new HP desktops with LCD monitors, two servers, a new firewall, and bunches of Microsoft software like Office 2007 and Server and SQL licenses. I found it kind of cute the machines came with Vista, but were all “upgraded” to XP upon installation.

What can you do to gradually upgrade your network if it sounds like Spring Hill's?

First of all, buy the right tools for the jobs at hand. Trying to stream, manage, and manipulate music with a nine-year-old standard desktop is like trying to carry two tons in a half ton pickup. You may be able to do it, but you won't do it fast.

Older systems can do plenty of work, as long as it's the right kind of work. I'm writing this on an eight-year-old Compaq D510 with a Pentium 4 running at 2.00GHz, and it's plenty snappy. But I'm running Ubuntu 8.04 and OpenOffice 2.4, not Microsoft Vista and Office 2007, and I don't use this to edit audio or video.

When you have an employee who needs to edit audio or video, get them a computer powerful enough to do that job. Then pass the older system down to someone doing less strenuous work.

If you want a modern office productivity suite, try OpenOffice for free rather than buying 18 copies of Office 2007 Standard and two copies of Professional like Nelson got for Spring Hill. If you want support, check out Sun's StarOffice, which is based on OpenOffice but has some little extras, including support, for about $50 per user.

Skipping little details like antivirus and a decent firewall means your company will, like Spring Hill, have days when no one can use the network. Go to PCWorld's download section and look for free or inexpensive security tools, but don't go without. That's guaranteed downtime, with extra frustration piled on top.

Kudos to CDW for upgrading people, and kudos to Mark Nelson for keeping Spring Hill running. But I say hiss to the management of the three winning companies for ignoring their technology so long they became charity projects. As any IT person will tell you, 75-hour work weeks scream bad management decisions, not bad technology staff.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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