Working in IT can be an exciting profession. Finding ways to implement the latest technology innovations to make an enterprise more successful is a challenge — and meeting this challenge can yield many rewards.
But there’s also a flipside. Some of the chores that come with implementing and maintaining a modern technology infrastructure are time-consuming and mind-numbing tasks that don’t relate directly to an organization’s mission. These routine duties include everything from configuring new hardware for end users to implementing server racks in data centers.
The drain of these mundane activities goes beyond the negative effect they can have on the morale of highly trained and ambitious technology workers. It also represents a waste of resources that could be better used for strategic initiatives, such as providing the IT foundation for new business ventures or keeping the organization a step ahead of competitors.
In recent years, the challenge has become more difficult as senior IT managers grapple with tight budgets and the inability to hire additional staff. And even when money is available, it’s hard to find adequate numbers of skilled IT workers.
For example, 69 percent of executives perceive a shortage in the quantity and quality of tech talent available to them, with one- quarter of the leaders calling the shortage “significant,” according to the National Survey of Technology, Policy and Strategic Issues, a recent report by the Technology Councils of North America and CompTIA, an industry trade group. Nevertheless, new desktops, notebooks, servers, networking devices and storage systems still must be prepared for production environments.
Fortunately, IT departments have a way to assure that basic tasks are completed efficiently and professionally while committing IT resources to areas where they’ll have the biggest impact. The right solution partner can provide configuration services that essentially become an extension of the internal customer’s IT staff and in the process enable technical people to focus their efforts on more critical projects.
What services can deliver the fastest returns and set the stage for a strategic partner relationship? Experts say the answer varies with each organization, so the first step is to identify the routine tasks that demand the most time and resources from the internal IT staff.
Next, discuss with service providers how their expertise, engineering and configuration services might free up time for the organization’s IT staff. Activities to focus on include software provisioning. “IT staff often spend hours either imaging brand new systems that come from vendors or applying software packages,” says Beau Perna, senior manager for configuration services at CDW. “A service partner should be able to do those tasks very quickly and efficiently.”
The best service providers offer several types of services. With traditional imaging services, the partner is responsible for maintaining images approved by IT managers. So when an organization needs security patch updates, for example, the partner can quickly make the change and publish a new image.
In addition, leading service providers also utilize tools such as Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, which allow the customer to maintain their images remotely via a virtual private network (VPN). Then the service provider can deploy the updated images directly to the hardware. “This reduces the amount of oversight by a service provider for software provisioning and imaging. It also gives the customer full control over maintenance of their images, which reduces the time it takes to put changes into production,” Perna says.
With rack configuration services, a provider can perform all the hardware and software configuration associated with servers, as well as set up a client’s networking equipment, including routers and switches. In some cases, the partner can implement custom cabling and label each cable according to the customer’s specifications.
“It gets down to detailed customer preferences, such as a certain color code, labeling convention or a certain length for each cable,” Perna explains. “We can work with customers to help design what the rack should look like based on industry best practices or by taking their predefined specifications and following them to a ‘T.’ ”
Mobility services are also becoming vital for many organizations. Solution providers with the right expertise can take charge of activating mobile devices before they’re rolled out to a client’s employees. This becomes especially important when an enterprise purchases several hundred phones for a new rollout. “Service providers can also perform software provisioning to link individual devices to a client’s mobile device management solution,” Perna says.
The alternative is for the organization’s IT workers to complete application provisioning and activation tasks for hundreds of devices. By partnering with a solution provider that can complete those tasks before the phones or tablets reach users, the organization more quickly puts the equipment into service to reap the productivity benefits of anywhere, anytime communication.
Some solution providers offer a host of new options, such as custom laser etching, which engraves an organization’s mobile devices with a corporate logo, marketing tagline or toll-free contact number. Schools may put an image of their team mascot on the equipment. No matter what the customer chooses, the etching provides a clear way to identify property while also underscoring the organization’s key message and identity.
The benefits of outsourcing these duties can be significant. “IT groups are spending countless hours on routine activities, which translates to high expenses,” says Perna. “Outsourcing these activities directly reduces the cost of ownership for hardware and software.”
“More IT managers are saying, ‘We haven’t outsourced many of these routine areas in the past, but it makes sense for us to do it now,’ ” says Robert Faletra, chief executive officer of The Channel Company, publisher of CRN and a provider of sales and marketing solutions for the technology industry.
“Every IT organization has a limited budget these days. So when managers commit resources, they want it to be in strategic ways that directly help the business side of the enterprise,” he says. “Why do all the mundane things? You’re better off doing things that can actually advance the business.”
Before an enterprise can reap the full rewards of outsourced services, it must find a partner with the right mix of expertise and resources. To do that, IT managers should first identify the biggest productivity drains their departments face. Focusing on these concerns will help to identify potential partners with the right skill sets. “IT managers can engage service providers and say, ‘Here are our pain points. Here’s what’s causing us issues within our network. Help us design a solution,’ ” Perna says.
Next, the organization should rate each candidate’s long-term capabilities. “Look for a provider that you can continue to grow with as you add new services,” Faletra says. “The ultimate goal is to determine how an organization’s IT roadmap meshes with what a potential partner offers. Look at their business model and if they’re really just focused on selling hardware at a volume and not interested in a longer-term relationship. That’s probably a red flag. It’s better to partner with a well-rounded provider, a company that can grow with you and add services as you feel they are necessary.”
Any potential partner should understand each client’s business challenges and goals. “The most important factor is having someone who can come to you with ideas about how to be more efficient, cut costs, get time to market faster,” Faletra adds. “At the end of the day, the real job isn’t just about providing IT services; it’s about helping a client go where it wants to go in a way that’s faster and more efficient.”
Industry observers say the growth potential for service providers is bright, especially as organizations move to wider adoption of cloud solutions. “A growing number of companies are moving away from maintaining a lot of hardware onsite in favor of the cloud. But in order to fully utilize cloud solutions, enterprises will still need an assortment of hardware,” Perna says.
“As a result, we anticipate configuration and other types of services to continue to be valuable for these companies. They allow them to reduce the cost of ownership and improve scalability, which, after all, is what cloud is all about.”