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Knowing what’s out yonder

Dec 13, 20055 mins
ComputersSmall and Medium Business

* How to identify and categorize your branch offices

One of the most important strategies of effective branch-office management is simply knowing what you’re managing. It sounds pretty basic, but many IT executives haven’t 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’s a five-tier structure:

Tier One

Number of users: 500 or more

Bandwidth: High (typically OC-3 and greater, sometimes T-3), very large concentration of employees, access to all applications

Typical types of sites: Headquarters, data center

Tier Two

Number of users: 301 to 1,000

Bandwidth: High (T-3 and greater), large percentages of employees, access to all applications

Typical types of sites: R&D facilities, large contact centers, largest regional offices

Tier Three

Number of users: 51 to 300 

Bandwidth: Relatively high (multiple T-1 to T-3), significant concentration of employees or important executive’s individual office, access to all applications

Typical types of sites: Mid-size branch offices, distribution facilities, midsize contact centers, CEO or executive home office

Tier Four

Users: 2 to 50

Bandwidth: Lower (T-1, or cable modem/DSL), small concentration of employees, access to most applications

Typical types of sites: Small branch offices, retail sites, manufacturing facilities

Tier Five

Users: 1

Bandwidth: Lower (56Kbps to -T-1 or cable modem/DSL); individual offices, access to some applications

Typical types of sites: Telecommuters, mobile workers

Let’s look at some of these tiers and the challenges organizations face when they’re 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 — a number that, depending on company size, ranges from 1 to 25,000, according to Nemertes’ 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’t 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’t 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 — and the applications connected to it — to security breaches.

Small branch offices have some similar characteristics. Like home offices, we’re seeing an increase in the number of small branch offices leveraging the low cost of DSL or cable modem services. And often, they’re 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’re 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 — 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’ 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’ve completed your branch-office location inventory and know how many sites and individuals you need to manage. In future issues, we’ll discuss how to conduct this cost-analysis — along with some research findings as to what option makes the most sense for your type of organization.

Next week, we’ll look at the challenges and best-practices for Tier Two and Tier Three locations.