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Budget this - plan that! Making sense of your technology plan

In an effort to demystify the technology planning process, this tip explains the key elements and considerations for your plan, and how it differs from your IT budget.

It's that time again when your IT budgets are taking form. Added to this already mundane, but necessary task, is a new buzzword in the industry. Okay, well it's not brand new, but it is getting a lot more exposure than ever before. The buzzword of the day is "Technology Planning." This entire process involves predicting anything and everything that has to do with your company's technology. In an effort to demystify this process, it is important to understand the key elements and considerations for a technology plan, and how it differs from an IT budget.

First of all, an IT budget typically covers a 12-month period of time. A technology plan requires the savvy IT person to plan for 5-10 years. To some, it requires intense psychic abilities with precognition, intuition, and any other means of foresight and fortune telling. But you don't have to go to a palm reader for your information.

Let's examine the basic categories of an IT budget. Typical budgets include:

Hardware expenditures
Software expenditures
Custom programming
Web development and/or hosting

If IT also includes telecommunications, it may include:

Telecommunication fees
Telephone switch maintenance
Telephone replacement
Switch programming

A technology plan encompasses predicting these expenditures -- plus new expenditures -- for the next five to ten years. As IT is typically a service department, this involves not only internal expenditures, but also knowing the needs of each and every department, telecommuter, customer and user to which you provide support. Now, before you jump from the proverbial bridge, there are ways to provide more than a SWAG (Sophisticated Wild Assed Guess) to each category and point.

Let's discuss some theories that have proven themselves through the years:

  • Moore's Law states that computing power doubles every 18 months. (Moore was one of the founders of Intel.)
  • Parkinson's Law of Data states that data expands to fill available storage. Storage doubles about every 18 months. Some analysts predict that by the end of the century, there will be one Terabyte of information on each and every one of us.
  • Gate's law states that the speed of software halves every 18 months (although the same can't be said for the size of the programs - see Parkinson's law above).

    Now, all things considered, you will have double the processing power and double the drive space every 18 months. That is certainly an upgrade plan. If you are in an industry like finance or healthcare that requires live redundancy, or in an industry where downtime makes redundancy high on your hit parade, you can apply those figures accordingly. Effectively, your server expenditures will be twice that of a non-redundant configuration.

    Circulate a questionnaire to your end users. Have them keep a diary for 30 days logging any and all aggravations involving their systems, reports, etc. Include questions about the level of support that they receive from the IT staff. This will provide you with key information. The first piece of information is you'll want to pay attention to is where your IT staff will benefit from training. Look for areas where calls were escalated and/or referred out to vendors. Cross training of IT staff is important to any successful IT department. The second, and probably most important, is a knowing the longevity of your users' systems. Frequent trouble tickets and problems involving software and interoperability problems will help determine if your users are outgrowing their applications and hardware. Will they need to be replaced short term or within the period of the plan? The reason for a 30 day diary is to allow you to gain useful information throughout a month cycle of their work. Otherwise, you are likely to get knee-jerk reactions on whatever problem they had last.

    Who needs to fill these questionnaires out? Obviously you won't want to hear what everybody has to say, but you will want to target key players in each department and discipline. If you have a remote workforce, you will want to include some of them as well. You should include users with varied skill levels as well.

    Next, you will want to review your help desk logs. This is a great means for setting up training and identifying software and hardware problems. One company that I am aware of commissioned a study based on their help desk logs and found out that the PC manufacturer that they were using (I am not naming names, blonde or not!) had a 100% failure rate within three years. Their technology plan included replacing their PC's within the five years - no surprise there! Their plan started with power users and users in critical departments and moved on from there.

    Today, security patches, programs and operating system updates can take an inordinate amount of time to roll out. A careful technology planner will weigh the costs of manually rolling these out against a software distribution tool to handle the updates. This should include operating systems, virus protection, and all applications. Multiply the number of hours spent on upgrades by the number of machines and the cost of your technician per hour. Be sure to weight the cost of your technician to include overhead; a factor of 1.4-1.5 is generally sufficient. Compare that to the price of software that will automate this task. If the software is less, you will probably want to include it into your budget. Today's distribution packages also contain other nifty features like maintaining critical configuration files, etc. Be sure to check out all of the features available.

    For More Information
    Carrie recently addresses these member questions that you might find useful:
    How can we create the best possible IT strategic plan?

    What is the long-term direction within technology?


    We have covered storage, processing and software -- but what about electronics and network hardware? This can be a make it or break it decision in your technology plan. Referring to the laws mentioned above and realizing what is going on in the standards boards today, 10 GBps operations are already available for some technologies and the twisted pair version of the standard has moved from study group to task force -- meaning that that standard is underway to being developed. How soon will you need 10G? That depends on your company and what you are moving around on your network. You may want to consider 10G for your backbones, data centers and bandwidth intensive applications such as GIS, CAD/CAE, graphics, etc.

    You will also want to review your infrastructure for new technologies. For instance, for one GBps operations, the standards recommend is that your cabling be retested for the extended parameters required. Sure you can plug it in and see if it works, but reactive failures are expensive. Check your switch and router ports to determine where errors occur. An error could be related to a PC at the other end, the cable channel in between or the port on the switch. Pay particular attention to errors and discards. Also look for port speeds to be sure you are getting what you expect.

    Most importantly, you need to realize the average lifecycle of every component on your network. Cabling and physical layer components are 7-10 years, application software are generally five years (although some would argue that is changing rapidly to 1-2 years, as it probably is for operating systems and client applications too), and hardware such as switches and routers are generally 2-3 years. Upgrade protection is available on many systems, but the costs of implementation still needs to be considered. If you have a pretty good idea that any component of your network will be replaced, you may want to remove the upgrade protection costs for the final year. With all of the new options available today, re-evaluation should occur prior to the last year of each life cycle for each component to determine if the technology will be replaced.

    "One area where many technology plans fail is in the staffing section."
    --Carrie Higbie

    Finally, and most importantly if you plan to take a vacation anytime during the technology plan, you will want to evaluate your staffing. Include things such as attrition, proper raises and additional staffing needs. One area where many technology plans fail is in the staffing section. Gartner estimates that companies underestimate labor by as much as 50%. OOPS! Also, you need to realize that as members of your staff receive additional certifications, their net worth to your company increases at a level greater than the average raise compensates for. For instance, if you hire someone straight out of college, and they have three years of experience with an annual raise of 3-5%, but they now have three certifications -- they may actually be worth 2-3 times more what you are paying them. Remember, the cost of retraining is expensive but the cost of replacing them may be even more expensive if you require the same certifications from a new hire. If a member of your staff takes the fast boat to your competition, their knowledge takes the same trip – talk about precious cargo!

    With all of the above considerations, it is possible to build the proper plan. The costs of downtime will be your justification for this plan, and it's easily determined. Don't add cool toys just because you want them. Each component should be defensible and justifiable for sound business reasons. And remember, one final note – plan for sanity. Give yourself time in your plan to be proactive, evaluate the changes, test the changes and move forward. If you try to do everything at once, you will have to add a line item for pharmaceuticals – and that will be hard to justify!

    Carrie Higbie, Network Applications Market Manager, The Siemon Company
    Carrie has been involved in the computing and networking industries for nearly 20 years. She has been involved in sales, executive management, and consulting on a wide variety of platforms and topologies. She has held Director and VP positions with fortune 500 companies and consulting firms. Carrie has taught classes for Novell, Microsoft, and Cisco certifications as well as CAD/CAE, networking and programming on a collegiate level. She has worked with manufacturing firms, medical institutions, casinos, healthcare providers, cable and wireless providers and a wide variety of other industries in both networking design/implementation, project management and software development for privately held consulting firms and most recently Network and Software Solutions.

    Carrie currently works with The Siemon Company as the Network Applications Market Manager where her responsibilities include providing liaison services to electronic manufacturers to assure that there is harmony between the active electronics and existing and future cabling infrastructures. She participates with the IEEE, TIA and various consortiums for standards acceptance and works to further educate the end user community on the importance of a quality infrastructure. Carrie is one of the few that chose to work with applications and networks providing her with a full end-to-end understanding of business critical resources through all 7 layers of the OSI model. Carrie currently holds an RCDD/LAN Specialist from BICSI, MCNE from Novell and several other certifications.

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