One of the most important strategies of effective branch-office management is simply knowing what you\u2019re managing. It sounds pretty basic, but many IT executives haven\u2019t identified and categorized their branch-office inventories.As I outlined last week, Nemertes has identified the branch-office market as a four-tier structure - including headquarters it\u2019s a five-tier structure:Tier OneNumber of users: 500 or moreBandwidth: High (typically OC-3 and greater, sometimes T-3), very large concentration of employees, access to all applicationsTypical types of sites: Headquarters, data centerTier TwoNumber of users: 301 to 1,000Bandwidth: High (T-3 and greater), large percentages of employees, access to all applicationsTypical types of sites: R&D facilities, large contact centers, largest regional officesTier ThreeNumber of users: 51 to 300\u00a0Bandwidth: Relatively high (multiple T-1 to T-3), significant concentration of employees or important executive's individual office, access to all applicationsTypical types of sites: Mid-size branch offices, distribution facilities, midsize contact centers, CEO or executive home officeTier FourUsers: 2 to 50Bandwidth: Lower (T-1, or cable modem\/DSL), small concentration of employees, access to most applicationsTypical types of sites: Small branch offices, retail sites, manufacturing facilitiesTier FiveUsers: 1Bandwidth: Lower (56Kbps to -T-1 or cable modem\/DSL); individual offices, access to some applicationsTypical types of sites: Telecommuters, mobile workersLet\u2019s look at some of these tiers and the challenges organizations face when they\u2019re trying to manage them, starting with Tiers Four and Five.Tier Five sites often are the most difficult to manage. First, there are a lot of them. The average company has 1,100 telecommuters \u2014 a number that, depending on company size, ranges from 1 to 25,000, according to Nemertes\u2019 latest Convergence benchmark. Each telecommuter is another location, so it increases the actual number of sites network and IT staffs must manage often by orders of magnitude!Couple that with the fact that telecommuters and mobile workers typically are alone. They don\u2019t have a tech-savvy colleague who can step into the office or hotel room and fine-tune an application, troubleshoot a cable modem or BlackBerry, or figure out why the wireless link isn\u2019t working.And then there are the telecommuters who may be tech-savvy, or think they are. They connect their work computers to a home-area network, which often includes wireless access. However, this could open the work computer \u2014 and the applications connected to it \u2014 to security breaches.Small branch offices have some similar characteristics. Like home offices, we\u2019re seeing an increase in the number of small branch offices leveraging the low cost of DSL or cable modem services. And often, they\u2019re sales or retail locations where there are no tech-savvy employees who can troubleshoot minor problems.Central IT and network staffs spend about 25% of their time, on average, managing these branch offices. And many are getting frustrated at the amount of time they\u2019re spending troubleshooting network issues and application-performance problems.There are a few strategies that can help. Some companies opt to outsource branch-office management and troubleshooting in one of three ways:* Basic coverage: This covers installation, product patches and upgrades. All problem-resolution, training, troubleshooting and application tuning stays in-house.* Partial outsourcing: This covers installation, product patches, upgrades and Level 1 support. When a problem reaches Level 2 or higher, the company resolves it internally with more advanced engineers.* Full outsourcing: This covers installation, product patches, upgrades, all problem resolution and troubleshooting. Application tuning and network-optimization typically stay in-house, unless the entire network (not just branch offices) are outsourced.Specialty companies that provide these types of services include GoRemote, Megapath and Netifice. Some of the major carriers, such as AT&T, MCI and Verizon, provide some of these offerings, as do some of the traditional outsourcing vendors, depending on the size of the rollout (Hint: If there are three or four zeros in the number of branch offices, you might be able to get the attention of IBM Global Services or EDS.)Other organizations prefer to keep all branch-office management in house \u2014 and usually they do that by deploying probes and management tools that give them data, trending and actual vision into the branch-office locations.There are no shortage of vendors that can help provide this network insight, starting with the traditional networking vendors such as Cisco, Juniper, Nortel, Enterasys and Extreme. Specialty vendors that focus on branch offices include Centrisoft, which provides a view from the actual users\u2019 desktops; Fluke\/Visual Networks (Fluke announced plans last week to purchase Visual Networks); and Micromuse.Determining whether you want to fully outsource, partially outsource or not outsource is an important decision to make once you\u2019ve completed your branch-office location inventory and know how many sites and individuals you need to manage. In future issues, we\u2019ll discuss how to conduct this cost-analysis \u2014 along with some research findings as to what option makes the most sense for your type of organization.Next week, we\u2019ll look at the challenges and best-practices for Tier Two and Tier Three locations.