IT budget cuts? Take a lesson from thrifty SMBs

Small IT shops adopt some of the same trends as large enterprises, but with much caution and attention to priorities. And mistakes are felt acutely.

Large companies dealing with IT budget cuts can take a cue from small companies that are accustomed to lean tech spending.

While these small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) must keep up with the IT innovations that improve business, they must also pick and choose their opportunities for data center spending.

For example, installing a new storage-area network (SAN) may cost as much as a salary for a new administrator, or worse, knock the company out financially, said Trevor Pott, an IT consultant and network administrator in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Small IT shops understand the benefit of a new technology, but if it doesn't directly contribute to the bottom line, to enterprise security, to operational efficiency -- forget it.

"SM[B]s are typically businesses without the spare cash to spend on mistakes," Pott said.

Lesson one: Be conservative

The city of Mount Dora, Fla. is run by your typical small IT shop: four IT staffers to support 200 users and three Hewlett-Packard ProLiant servers that support Microsoft Hyper-V virtualization for 25 virtual servers.

If an SME needs to follow a trend, then the trend to follow is old, not new. That trend is skepticism. Let someone with more money than you walk through the minefields of the new.
Trevor PottIT consultant

Johnna Shamblin, IT manager, works within a limited budget, supporting critical city services such as fire and police. They virtualized servers to simplify server management and to gain other efficiencies.

"We have a smaller footprint, easier backup, and our cooling requirements are lower now than when we had all physical machines," Shamblin said.

This isn't the only data center trend Mount Dora adopted in recent years, but they are wary of jumping onto fads.

"SMBs care more about low-time, easy administration than about downtime, compared to large companies," said Wayne Kernochan, president of Infostructure Associates LLC, an affiliate of Valley View Ventures in Wellesley, Mass.

And while large shops customize new technologies as a matter of course, SMB shops typically expect platforms to work for them right out of the box.  Mount Dora's Shamblin identifies an easy user interface as key to product adoption in her shop.

"Vendors vary widely in how well they do ease [and] quickness of administration, not to mention ease of deployment," Kernochan said. For example, he noted that cloud vendors do relatively well in general, but not always; mobile platforms are often difficult to deploy and manage, as they target larger companies as customers.

SMBs also hang onto equipment longer, which large companies can do as well, as long as they choose the right equipment.

When it is time to upgrade, the cost of new technologies or hardware must be justified directly to the head of the SMB or to other non-technical managers.

"We can see benefits in cutting-edge technologies -- mobility from unified communications, for instance -- but must translate that into an argument for funds that management really understands and supports," Shamblin said.

Lesson two: Invest in efficiency, security

IT must be part of the strategic decision-making process within a company so they can plan their resource usage efficiently, Pott said.

Mount Dora chose to pursue mobile device management because user devices were opening up the network and presenting a risk. They purchased Fiberlink MaaS360, enabling the IT team to remotely wipe sensitive files from a lost cell phone, for instance, and set security policies.

Mount Dora was running out of space to store data and backups, so the team made vital investments, including doubling data storage with its Xiotec ISE2 SAN and expanding data protection with Quorum's onQ appliance-based backup. Appliances are easy to scale and manage, according to Shamblin.

Indeed, large companies would be surprised at how much they can do with minimal data center spending.

"I have 50-man shops that run just fine on an [high availability]-enabled Synology DS-1813+ using a couple SSDs [solid-state drives] per node for IOPS acceleration and a decent cloud backup set," Pott said. "I also have a 15-man company in my stable that has over 5000 render nodes, 2 Gb symmetrical fibre-optic connection, and pushes around 100 TB of data per month."

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