Servers

Data centers don't run themselves

There seems to be a major disconnect between management and tech support people in some small businesses. For some reason, owners and managers don't always appreciate the need for ongoing maintenance and support. Is it just a small business mentality to think that servers and networks take care of themselves? Neglect in this area can be disastrous. It's a risk that some SMB's are managing poorly.

I picked up a new client yesterday. They are a small business with about eighty employees. They invested heavily in their network infrastructure about seven years ago. They have a half dozen servers dedicated to specific functions - domain server, e-mail server, file and print server, web server and some application servers. They have a huge data center UPS that can power the place for many hours. Impressive!

What wasn't so impressive and somewhat astonishing to me, was the mindset of management in the way they considered their IT support function. They had none. The stuff they put into place so many years ago was complex. Up until last year it was maintained by a professional IT Manager. When he moved on, the company managers thought that their complex tech environment would run itself. Amazing!

Ongoing support is necessary

My partner and I were called in because of an emergency situation. The reason the previous IT guy had moved on was because management would not spring for the bucks to upgrade the aging servers. He had been nursing them along for years, trying to keep enough disk space free so that nothing crashed. Of course, nightly backups create new log files, AV solutions download updates and employees create new documents.

How can the management of a company so divorce itself from their involvement in the IT function of the company that they naively think that they can do without professional support? When we got there we were supposed to fix a DHCP problem and conduct a server inventory. When the employees discovered there were techs on-site, we were inundated with numerous requests for help on a multitude of computer issues.

Lights-Out is greatly misunderstood

I am familiar with the "lights-out" concept of a data center. It is an admirable goal and one that can work if managed from afar via Remote Desktop and Terminal Server. Apparently the management of this company had a different concept that did not include growth. We found that the OS drives on three of the servers were down to less than 1% of free disk space. On one server, they had 5MB free on a four gig partition.

We immediately advised management about the problem and our suggested solutions - to expand the arrays on the servers by adding additional hot swap drives. The reply was, "Oh yeah. Our IT guy said we needed to do that last year. We asked for details but that was right when he quit." Their neglect almost cost them a failed domain server. We freed up enough disk space to keep them running until the drives arrive.

Tech support is a critical function

Yep, that's why you need techs. You see, we understand this stuff. We work with it every day. When we tell you that you need more disk storage, it could just save your business. Yeah, we may be geeks, but we really do have your best interests at heart. We want the network to run efficiently and trouble-free just like you. Sure, new technology can be expensive, but can you afford to be without your network for even one day?

When we're not spending your money buying new servers and switches, we tend to make ourselves useful by answering employee computer questions and maybe even helping them do their computer work more efficiently. And if you keep after us, we might even try to document all the technology settings that make your network go. It's not our favorite job, but a professional courtesy the next tech guy will appreciate.

8 comments
tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

I was amazed to discover how close a new client had come to losing three of their servers. Their neglect almost cost them some serious downtime. I wrote more in this blog post: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/techofalltrades/?p=144 Is it just me, or is this common in other small businesses - to not understand the ongoing need for tech support and infrastructure upgrades?

vindasel
vindasel

To cut a long story short, the humble HDD is one of the key elements in keeping the whole network running smoothly, but also one that is often neglected. File fragmentation can seriously affect performance on servers as well as workstations, so it's important that it be tackled properly. Good automatic defragmenters can handle this efficiently and effectively, with minimal manpower requirement. The latter point is especially important for small/medium sized companies that don't have the manpower or budget for an army of IT staff. Free of fragmentation, servers and PCs run smoothly, thereby keeping users satisfied, productivity high and possibly staving off premature/unnecessary hardware replacement costs.

RationalGuy
RationalGuy

1. Working 2. Not working Most small companies start up in a boot strap phase, where the people running the business simply bring their home computing habits (ie, performing little to no maintenance) with them to the office. They work within that framework until they *can't do something*, then they pay just enough money to get that something working again. Most new companies fail, and it's tough to blame people for not spending the money on IT. After all, every dollar you pay for IT, you can't spend on things that may be more directly linked to revenue, like sales or marketing. Ultimately, I think your post proves their point. The neglect *almost* cost them downtime. And while I've seen many such (from my perspective) "penny-wise, pound-foolish" decisions, it's hard to argue that their decisions in this case actually caused a problem.

Nonapeptide
Nonapeptide

[i]The neglect *almost* cost them downtime. And while I've seen many such (from my perspective) "penny-wise, pound-foolish" decisions, it's hard to argue that their decisions in this case actually caused a problem.[/i] When I was a child, I had an alarming tendency to get out of the family car when we had parked in a parking lot and gleefully scamper between autos and into the main lot aisle. This, of course, was done without looking. My mother, trying to control a spontaneous heart attack, hollered at me to stay put, hold her hand, and not run around in traffic. But hey! No-one hit me! All the drivers seemed to have good reflexes and their power steering was in good shape... most of the time. My neglect only *almost* cost me downtime. It's hard to argue that my actions in that case actually caused a problem. Sorry mom. Apparently you were wrong. It was okay for me to play in traffic. :) Yep. Their attitude towards IT didn't cause a catastrophic problem, but the odds were against them, that's for sure. My struggles with management leaders like this is not a technical one. I try to extract all tech-speak from my presentations and simply tell it to them straight. "This is the risks we face, here are the options. If we choose a lean option then know that these risks are higher. If this is clearly understood and acceptable, I'll start implementing." Their decision to neglect the systems was dangerous enough, but their misunderstanding of the potential for IT to help reach business goals is also sad. Depending on the industry that this business is in, who know the added edge that IT could offer their workflows? Add a good developer or two and a full time sysadmin and in a few years there could easily be a 7 figure increase in net gain, not to mention poising the company for future growth in heretofore unimagined directions. I think the battle here isn't as technical as it seems at first blush. It's not about gutsy techie stuff, but about business goals and risk management. If a company is serious about growing their business, taking such huge risks to their vital infrastructure seems needless. Would they scrimp on building materials that didn't meet the fire code, or not put in sprinkler systems? I hope not. However, in this area I think IT is its own worst enemy. How many developers and admins do you know who have good business sense, communications skills, and the technical savvy to gain the confidence and support of leadership? Yeah, I thought so. Oh well. It's getting dark here and I'm bored. I think I'll put a black shirt on and go play in the street. ;)

RationalGuy
RationalGuy

IT departments serve a business function. They exist to make businesses more profitable. Business is about the bottom line and that's how it should be. Being treated like a cog in a machine is problem workers from all areas of companies face -- not just IT. You should be able to figure out during the interview process what management's view of IT is. Even if you get into a place and find IT is seen purely as a commodity, just get another job somewhere else.

wayoutinva
wayoutinva

I once worked for a owner who thought the computer and/or network worked like a light switch. Turn it on and turn it off (i.e. why do you need to spend so much un-billable time on the network). To top it off, he was a prof. engineer of many years. It has gotten to the point in many business that IT talent is a dime a dozen..at least thats how they think when they try to hire somebody...Its about the bottom line...Sad

RationalGuy
RationalGuy

... is not necessarily risk aversion. Especially in a company's start up phase, it's often a smart weighing of risks and rewards. Unless a company's value proposition is directly tied a particular technology, many small businesses are better off getting by with commodity IT services (e-mail, file and print, anti-virus, etc.). Even a company in the tech field (for example a systems integration consultancy) need not invest too heavily in back office technology, unless for example, the company is offering remote lights-out management as a service. Then clearly they would need the infrastructure to support that because the technology is directly related to the value proposition. Now, the operative word I used in the first paragraph is "smart". My feeling is that the definition is of "smart" is a matter of philosophy. Professionally, I tend to err on the side of caution. I often say, "You don't buy car insurance because you get in an accident every day." A former boss of mine had a different take. He would add, "... and I wouldn't buy car insurance at all if I wasn't legally obligated to buy it." For him, the likelihood that he would be involved in a car accident was so low that he thought he would do better investing that money in something more profitable and simply dealing with an accident if it happened. Is tempting fate in this way smart? There are some business ventures (like certain kinds of investments) that are based on risk. In other words, if the reason you were wandering around the parking lot was to pick up bricks of gold bullion, I might tell you, "You take that end of the lot, I'll take this one. Be really careful to keep an eye out for the cars, and I'll meet you back here in five minutes."

tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

That's why they called us. So obviously they weren't ignoring it completely. They knew they didn't have the expertise to even know how close they were to a meltdown. I like your excellent reminder of the way the rest of the world sees tech. Because I work with this stuff everyday, I sometimes forget how others compartmentalize things that: 1. They don't understand, and 2. They don't care about They put it in a box and only open that box when they have to. This was demonstrated when one of the managers asked if we could help them fix another tech process while we were there. "You guys speak this geek stuff," he said. "I used to just email the IT Manager and he would take care of it." He had no idea that it involved HTML programming on the Intranet. Nor did he need to know in order to do his job. It's the job of the tech to know. Thanks for the comment.

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