This article is also available as a PDF download.

Every technology infrastructure is likely to have at least one system
that’s provided by a business solutions vendor that doesn’t have an IT focus. Automated
serialization, specialized engineering solutions, precision calibration
machines, specialty applications–the list goes on and on. Of course, this
solution is on a computer, maybe on your network, and it helps your business
execute its tasks. But the technician who provided the solution isn’t an IT
person, which can make your job a little tricky. Asking the following questions
will help ensure that you can (with minimal effort) address your needs and
concerns about the technology being implemented.

#1: How do you back this thing up?

Ask this one first. If the solution runs on a computer, you need an
answer to this question. Make the representative train you on the backup
procedure AND the restore procedure. It goes without saying that you must have
a strong backup and restore procedure, but when someone else implements the
solution, you may not have much say in how (or if) IT standards are applied to
the solution.

Also push for a cold secondary system, if that works in the plan for the
solution being implemented. Having a parallel environment (though possibly with
stale data) is a plus in this situation, because there’s a test environment and
a complete spare parts inventory, which will extend the life of the solution.

#2: What are my support channels?

Get phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Web site links. Label the
system to clearly identify the chain of support. For example, you might apply a
label that says, “Call Jim in Engineering first, then XYZ vendor support at

Be sure to document all subscriber numbers, customer numbers, or
relevant identifiers for your account and organization. Also nail down the terms
of the support–a one-year warranty, unlimited support forever, etc. Most
important, get a clear definition of what the deliverables are for the support
you’ll be receiving. Is there an onsite technician or telephone-only support?
Are there response-time guarantees?

#3: Who owns this equipment?

When solutions are delivered, Engineering, Manufacturing, Distribution
Warehousing, or other groups may not coordinate with IT to clarify important
issues of ownership. For instance, your organization may be purchasing a laser
plasma cutter, but it has a computer to input the calibration codes–and
Engineering doesn’t coordinate this entrant device with IT.

Clearly identifying who owns the equipment does the following:

  • Establishes the support sequence of events
  • Answers any questions about what happens to the
    equipment should it be decommissioned
  • Sets the priority on whose needs are to be met

#4: Who owns this solution?

Within your organization, determine who is the owner of this solution
and the backup individual(s). Ensure that these individuals can support the
system for the most part on the first level. Make a concerted effort to define
IT’s role in the solution (if any).

#5: What communication does this system need?

Does this system need TCP/IP network connectivity, a modem, special
serial connections? If so, outline what the system talks to and how it provides
its results. If possible, implement an “island” network that’s not
uplinked to any other segment on your network. This will reduce the risk of
viral infection.

If there’s a special connection–such as the feed to that laser plasma
cutter–make sure there’s a label on each end describing its role. Also make
sure that the operators and functional area administrators are aware of this

#6: Are any spare parts provided?

With specialty solutions, there’s usually a piece of equipment that
allows the system to communicate to noncomputing
devices when Ethernet isn’t used. Identify the custom components that are
required for the system to operate and then determine the requisite inventory
of spare parts and how to get more if they’re needed.

#7: What are my options for compliance?

If this system sits on your network to communicate with another system
for performance data, automated interaction with other systems, or other
communication reasons, you should be concerned about service pack, hotfix, and
antivirus compliance. Many vendors of specialty systems provide these services
as an option. One service, called Managed Care Light, is a screening service
available to custom solutions. Updates are screened and then local IT is
empowered to deploy the available, relevant, and approved updates for special

#8: Who is our account/sales representative?

A vendor contact is important to your IT department because it can help you
manage direction. For the next version of this solution, or when it’s time to
upgrade, you can consider working with this individual to explore alternative
options, should they be available. For example, you don’t like the PC in the
warehouse that talks to the laser plasma cutter over TCP/IP–why not host it as
a virtual machine? The account/sales rep can get you in touch with the right
people to explore this possibility.

#9: Can the vendor restore the system in its entirety?

It’s important to ensure that the vendor can totally restore this system
in the event of fire, flood, theft, etc. Consider using imaging tools like
Symantec Ghost or LiveState to make sure that you have a full restoration of
the system.

#10: What is the decommission date/modernization/replacement timeframe?

This may seem insignificant at system inception, but how long will it be
here? How long does this equipment last? These are important questions, and
they should not go unanswered. For example, the laser plasma cutter is on a
desktop-class computer. A good estimate is to put the life at three years. If
this is a mission-critical solution, two and a half years would be more
realistic. (And you might want to ask follow-up questions about why it’s on desktop-class
equipment.) Know what the modernization paths are, if today were the decision
point, so that capital funding can be made available if necessary and so that
this system won’t slip into the forgotten realm.