What would you do?

Faced with tough workplace challenges, three IT pros show their decision-making brawn.

To say IT is a constant challenge is an understatement. Even the most scheduled of tasks can be a test of leadership. What sets good IT executives apart from great ones is how they identify and, ultimately, solve problems.

Rusty BrunsBruns: Overhauling an organization's technology infrastructure is a lot easier if you know who thinks they own what. Meetings or committees are a necessary evil. Users, managers, department heads must be pulled in to provide feedback on what they feel is the largest hurdle and what needs to be tackled first. Because this is a large organization, several committees will need to be formed. You don't have to agree with everyone, but to lead the group in the necessary direction. A sense of ownership by the organization in charge leads to a more productive transition, broad-based support and pushes disagreements more to the departmental level than against an IT leader and staff.

Once the political front has been addressed, it is then time to go to work. The mainframe is just a box that is running some form of ERP software. An ERP conversion is an 18-month to three-year project and while important, it is far more important to replace the mainframe with a server. Blade servers work very well, reduce space and power use, and allow for multiple servers to be used in one box. Because there are thousands of servers, it is a prudent purchase that provides for future expandability. Bringing the processing power/speed and reliability of a new server will have an immediate positive impact on productivity and boost morale as a major change has occurred. This process change can be operational within a few months. Emulation software can connect the new hardware technology to the old ERP software system.

Second, I would consolidate the servers and operating systems, again using blade technology. This allows for a large-scale, consolidated production server environment. The company would be able to use, depending on the age of the existing servers, approximately 80% to 90% fewer machines and make better use of underutilized processing power. With this in place, I would implement a storage-area network to take advantage of the benefits of centralizing storage. Where possible, I would standardize all desktops to one Windows-based operating system. This would ease the support burden for the help desk and support staff as well as the user. I would move the workgroup LANs into a centrally managed directory service-enabled network to reduce management costs and ease maintenance of user and computer accounts. It also would allow the standardization of user names and e-mail addresses.

Finally, I would upgrade the network. High-speed switches and routers on the WAN provide as much speed as possible to the infrastructure that was replaced or upgraded in steps one and two. One must ensure that the bandwidth is increased to take full advantage of the improvements. Without this final step, you're putting a garden hose on a fire hydrant.


Next: What Man, Randall and Johnson would do >

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Man: I would interview management to gain a perspective on its perceived needs from an IT point of view. I would then perform a technology review to get a feel for the current operating environment. I'd use this information to prioritize what could bring immediate relief and develop a technology road map for future changes.

First, I would address the network infrastructure. I'd upgrade the frame-relay links and the old networking gear, and simultaneously move toward VoIP for the phone solution. Next, I would tackle the number of workgroup LANs. I would look at consolidating and standardizing the servers into centralized locations and would take advantage of blade technology and virtualization. The last problem to address would be the mainframe, by perhaps building a migration strategy away from it.

Randall: I would address areas where we could quickly demonstrate improvements in usability and functionality. I'd find areas that would have a significant positive impact on the user base, by increasing productivity, and that would create an environment where users view IT as an advocate.

For example, I'd replace the voice PBX with VoIP, because it's a proven technology that has high acceptance from the user community. A VoIP solution could easily be [designed] to roll out across the enterprise as the infrastructure and resources become available. Highly visible, it would help create user trust and acceptance of IT-based changes.

Simultaneously, I'd update network infrastructure to provide the backbone for VoIP. This could be accomplished without [affecting] legacy applications. This new switched network environment could then be used as the starting point to consolidate workgroup LANs. By rolling this together with the VoIP implementation, it does not come across as an expensive tech project that has no immediate impact for the user community.

Finally, I'd replace the dial-up and frame-relay setup with newer, faster telecom options, such as MPLS or integrated circuits. Either would provide increased reliability, redundancy and improved speeds, as well as recoverability, increased security and accessibility for users across the enterprise. This likely could be accomplished at a cost savings, demonstrating that IT can contribute to the bottom line while improving the quality of the operations.

Johnson: You really want to understand the critical issues here. If you have a mismatch between the head of strategy who is tying the vision to the corporate goal and the IT manager, you're going to make the wrong decision. You may have an unlimited budget, but you won't know what to do first unless you truly understand the goal. I agree that you should talk to management. And your priority should be to start out with infrastructure. You cannot roll out VoIP across an aging infrastructure and make it work. Instead, start by upgrading to MPLS.

Go slow on VoIP as vendors are ramping up the maturity curve on how they offer it to you, and your options will increase throughout 2006 and 2007. If you rush in today, you'll miss out on enhancements coming down the pike.

Focus on the mainframe and move to a service-oriented architecture. Mainframe and client let you leapfrog to the next generation without a middle tier of aging applications. Open source and Web services are accelerating so quickly you can do something in two weeks that used to take you two years with minimum of impact on users.


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CHALLENGE 2

Your managed service provider has declared that it is beginning a bankruptcy proceeding that could last 18 months. You have one year left on a five-year contract. Overall, you've been happy with the service but had been exploring other providers as a way of moving beyond your current break/fix and monitoring scenario and into more advanced services such as preventive maintenance and managed security. The provider offers to do these tasks at cut-rate prices - half as expensive as your other bidders. Would you stay or would you go?

Bruns: This is a question of trust. Who have you been working with at the affected vendor, and will this person stay as the time draws closer to bankruptcy or once the company is out of bankruptcy? With proceedings starting and cash flow significantly decreased, will the vendor be able to meet my organization's needs? Eighteen months is an eternity in the technology arena. This would be the time to get the legal department involved in revoking the old contract and writing a new contract. I would attempt to take advantage of the lower costs while exploring other options in case the company is not able to recover from the bankruptcy proceedings. I also would position my company to quickly move my data to another provider in case the current company folds. Or, I'd take the service in-house, at least on a temporary basis, until a new contract can be negotiated.

Man: I would move our environment to a stable provider, as I'd want to know that our service would not be interrupted, because of the vendor's financial uncertainty. I base this on experience. A few years ago, I worked for a company that used a colocation firm for its production environment. The firm filed for bankruptcy and told us we had 60 days to find another provider. Finding another provider in town took 10 days. Shortly thereafter, we received another notification saying we only had 30 days to move our production equipment. We developed a plan, purchased new hardware, and moved all of our equipment over a three-day weekend - operating in disaster mode because of the circumstances.


Next: What Randall and Johnson would do >

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Randall: I'd evaluate a number of factors. Having a base of four years of satisfactory service would be a prime factor. I'd also consider communication from our vendor partner. I'd strive to ensure that the decision for the next level of service for our managed services was based on the quality, reliability and availability of the services, not just an opportunity to obtain cut-rate pricing.

I'd request an open dialogue with our partner to understand the nature of the bankruptcy proceeding. Many times, the business environment can change more rapidly than the business can adapt. The ability for the vendor partner to continue to have positive cash flow during the bankruptcy proceeding would be a prime consideration in our decision. Based on the quality of our relationship and our perception of its ability to emerge from bankruptcy, I'd start to move forward in evaluating the solutions that would best meet our needs for preventive maintenance and security.

I'd complete our due diligence, then evaluate the offerings of the competitors to determine what the best solution for our environment would be, taking into account service levels, customer referrals, real-world testing, technical expertise, pricing value and compatibility with our existing solutions. The technology solution that provides the best fit is seldom the least or most expensive, so cut-rate pricing typically is an indicator of compensation for a deficiency.

I'd also review the contracts for bankruptcy clauses that would allow for an early out, or explore creative solutions that may be able to provide us with additional protection if the bankruptcy eventually leads to the partner's failure. These types of solutions may provide adequate protection to offset the additional risk incurred, while taking advantage of the availability to the pricing opportunity.

Johnson: Everyone brings up excellent points. However, any time you enter into a contract with a vendor, you should have a merger/acquisition/divestiture clause to protect you from vendor changes such as bankruptcy. This doesn't mean you won't stick with the bankruptcy vendor, but it allows you to trigger the RFP process. Financial viability is a critical success factor. You have to consider some things: Has the board expressed a high level of commitment? Do you trust that they'll come out of this? You want to compare and contrast this information with other vendors that might be in better shape. Remember this best practice: The best technology is no good if it goes away.


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Next article: Strategic planning >

CHALLENGE 3

Your CEO is knee-deep in plans to acquire a competitor, and he's made it clear he's ready to go through with the deal at virtually any cost. You've been tasked with analyzing the target firm's IT network and security operations, and find them a mess. You even suspect that the company has recently suffered a security breach and that confidential customer data may have been exposed. To your knowledge, the company has neither disclosed the breach as part of the acquisition discussions nor revealed it to customers or the authorities. What do you do?

Bruns: Don't expect assistance or honesty from the target company. Instead, I would inform the CEO and board members of the potential breach and involve legal counsel to ensure that my CEO and those involved understand the litigation potential caused by the breach.

Additionally, I would provide quantifiable, indisputable data in writing supporting the claim of the breach. I would keep a few copies of the report for myself. At times, as we continually see in the news, CEOs and other executives may not always listen to the logical option.

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