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Find the right data center support for any IT organization

Most of the IT budget goes to maintaining the data center hardware and software. Consider outsourcing for better support.

Each server, storage device and networking switch -- along with the facilities infrastructure -- needs someone to manage, patch, upgrade and fix it, and do the myriad of other jobs that support an efficient and effective IT platform. Who should do all of this?

An IT platform completely operated by an in-house staff needs around 70% of the IT budget to take care of this list, which doesn't leave much capital for innovation, expansion or new tool sets.

Never outsource data center support solely for cost savings: Corners get cut, problems arise and the actual business cost will prove horrendous. Outsource because the in-house IT staff cannot do the tasks effectively, existing IT failures are holding the business back or for another strategic reason. When these problems drive outsourcing, it results in a far more effective IT platform that meets the business's needs, and is generally more cost effective as well.

Each approach to data center maintenance and support, from fully in-house to eliminating it entirely, has risks and rewards.

Do IT all in-house

Supporting the data center requires basic skills to install, manage, patch, upgrade and maintain IT equipment and software. If the infrastructure is running well, then you are paying for unused skills. Your IT budget will continue to allocate a large portion for tasks that don't add value to the business.

Outsource break-fix

Rather than having engineers on staff to wait for something to go wrong in the data center, use an external specialist for fixes. Modern IT equipment is typically reliable and organizations generally replace a whole server or switch when a failure occurs, rather than finding and fixing a component.

Break-fix support can be on an on-going monthly contract, for a predictable expenditure. To avoid unnecessary spending, data centers can contract for services as-needed on a time and materials basis. However, the lowest-cost support option means next-day appointments, or even longer waits for service. If you want break-fix technicians to arrive the same day, the cost adds up.

In this scenario, the IT organization still covers patching and upgrades on data center equipment.

Outsource IT maintenance

IT organizations can outsource patching and upgrades of IT hardware along with break-fix support. Traditionally, technicians from your outsourcing provider were on-site in this role. Increasingly, however, with more capabilities for remote hardware monitoring and management in a lights-out environment, engineers only come to the data center as needed.

Find an IT maintenance contract that strikes a balance for the budget. Low-cost providers may focus on extending the IT equipment's life beyond its capability to adequately support the business. Alternatively, if you give a company too much leeway, they will upgrade equipment far too often and charge for the hardware and implementation costs.

Beware of finger pointing when you outsource hardware, but control the applications and software running on it. If application performance decreases, the internal IT team may decide it's a hardware issue. The outsourcing company can throw additional hardware resources at the problem -- and charge for it -- or say that the performance degradation is the application's fault. Without sophisticated management and troubleshooting, time and effort are wasted, leaving the business without effective support.

Outsource your IT department

Why stop at the hardware? Large outsourcing companies prefer to control the whole environment, and it might make sense for your IT organization to let them.

To make this strategy work , the internal IT team becomes a broker between the business and the outsourcer.

The more you outsource, the more careful you have to be. If an outsourcing provider keeps the infrastructure and architecture stale -- no updates and no new equipment where it's not absolutely necessary -- more of your payment converts to profit. Continuous hardware and software refreshes are a direct cost to the outsourcer, but also require them to keep their employees' skills current. Keeping IT architectures on an older version of software means less training and less expensive skill sets for the outsourcing staff.

When the business needs hardware or software change, the strategic internal IT group must negotiate with the outsourcer on suitable pricing and a timeframe for the updates. Consider the IT group as business change managers who oversee the technical staff at the outsourcing provider.

Abdicate responsibility completely

There is one way to avoid data center management problems: Don't use one at all. Software as a service (SaaS) provides necessary business functions and applications without supporting hardware maintenance, patches and upgrades.

If you move to services-based IT, focus on the service-level agreement to ensure that the software's functionality and the user experience meet the business's needs.

About the author:
Clive Longbottom is the co-founder and service director of IT research and analysis firm Quocirca, based in the U.K. Longbottom has more than 15 years of experience in the field. With a background in chemical engineering, he's worked on automation, control of hazardous substances, document management and knowledge management projects.

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