Monthly Archives: June 2010

How Service Providers Should Be Helping

I came across a great read the other day on a topic I thought might be of interest to our readers.  The post provided a summary of the address to Ingram Micro’s partner conference in Dallas by their CIO, Mario Leone.

My interpretation of Mario’s message was that VARs (and by extension service providers like MikeTango) need to be taking a business focus when supporting their clients; it’s no longer acceptable to simply provide technology solutions without this “business context”. While his message was likely directed at larger organizations that have a dedicated CIO and IT department, the message is just as applicable to VARs supporting any business.

A few relevant topics he addressed that are near-and-dear to our hearts:

It is a myth that IT is a black hole. This cannot and should not be.  While business leaders may not understand the ins-and-outs of specific technologies, they should be able to (and want to!) understand the impact of these technologies on their business.  IT is an enabler – it allows organizations to be more effective and more productive in delivering services.  Technology doesn’t come for free, but it can be managed, and it needs to be understood.

Organizations believe they spend too much money and time on IT. While this is often the rap against IT, when we dig deeper this is typically not the case, and certainly doesn’t ever need to be true.  IT is an investment, and should be seen in this light.  When we consider what technology encompasses today, including voice, data, business processing, etc., it is integral to virtually every aspect of an organization.  Seen in this way, IT dollars tend to be the most effective money spent within an organization.

A VAR should help organizations sort out all the noise around new and changing technologies, and help deliver solutions that are relevant and focused. This topic is crucial, and one we think differentiates great providers from the rest.  Every month it seems that technology is changing and new tricks are coming on  the market.  To really add value, a vital responsibility of a service provider is to provide a clear, business-focused message around what technologies are appropriate, how best to leverage them, and to filter out all the other noise.

This last topic has come into play for us twice in the past two weeks.  In both cases, we were in the middle of helping a client  implement a solution that fits their business well and meets all of their criteria, including keeping costs under control.  In both cases, someone on the client’s staff “heard about an alternative / newer / cheaper” approach, and in both cases, the alternative approach would have been a disaster.  Along with everything else we do, our role calls on us to provide our clients’ leadership the context and confidence that the chosen approach is the right one.

A good summary of Mario’s address is available at http://www.thevarguy.com/2010/06/09/ingram-micro-cio-how-vars-should-pitch-to-cios/.

Enjoy!

Paul

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More Affordable Business Systems for NGOs and Not For Profit Organizations

I’ve helped many NGOs and nonprofit organizations over the years with the burdensome task of finding a software solution that serves their business. Within this vertical, the needs are pretty straightforward: serve, collect and communicate with a constituency of clients, members, volunteers and donators.

So what’s needed is a system that handles CRM and billing with basic workflow. Not rocket science right? Unfortunately – and perhaps surprisingly – there has been no really good solution available. The big enterprise players are simply too expensive and not interested in this smaller market so you’re left with having to choose between a handful of small “commercial off the shelf” (“COTS”) vendors with proprietary solutions that only they can customize for you – that is, unless you can stomach the custom development approach. Initially, the COTS vendor story often seems appealing: why custom build when a COTS vendor has a solution that meets a significant portion of your requirements and a team of experts that can build the remaining functionality for you? Sounds like this approach will keep the costs under control, the risks low, and the delivery schedule tight doesn’t it?! I’ve heard too many horror stories to nod in agreement with that last statement!

So, where does my disagreement come from? Why doesn’t this approach work? The answer is simple, though not always obvious. Virtually all of these solutions are built over many many years of hacking feature after feature in order to meet every client’s last requirement. That’s the unfortunate reality of the vendors in your vertical. Building a feature rich software application from the ground up is expensive; very expensive. There’s simply not enough investment available to build a solid, properly tested application. From your perspective, your ongoing costs are going to be exorbitant… and will never really diminish. From an industry point of view, these types of technology investments are no longer viable for most specialized market verticals.

Fear not, there’s now an alternative… one of the “big player” has listened!

Microsoft has announced in April of this year that it is now offering special nonprofit and NGO pricing for their Dynamics CRM suite. Not only is the price right, but they’ve also included basic modules designed specifically for this vertical. Here’s the link to the press release:

Why is my work computer so expensive!?

I can understand why it can sometimes be confusing to get a quote for a business computer (be it laptop or desktop) because the pricing never seems to line up with what the big box stores are advertising. A new laptop? Future shop is selling them for $500, so why does a “Business Class” version cost $2000? There is no one single factor that contributes to the large price difference but rather a collection of small differences that all add up when put together.

One of the first things to take into consideration is the manufacturer and hardware specs. of the computer in question. As I’m sure you’re aware, a fully loaded MAC laptop won’t perform the same as a lower end Acer or HP laptop. All the different vendors have their strengths and weaknesses and there isn’t necessarily a wrong choice, a lot of it comes down to personal experience and preference.

In terms of cost, they can all vary widely depending on the model and specifications but I’d put them in this order from most to least expensive as a whole:

1- Apple
2- Dell
3- IBM
4- Toshiba
5- HP / Compaq
6- Acer

There are other vendors but I’d consider these the major players that you’d see most frequently. To get back to the point of comparing the big box pricing to business class pricing, you can’t necessarily compare a Dell to an Acer directly. One of the main reasons for this leads me to my next point to consider: the warranty.

When your computer works fine, all is well, but when it breaks for whatever reason it can completely paralyze your productivity. The manufacturer warranty adds to the point of sale price on all computers they just don’t itemize exactly what you’re paying for it. When you buy a computer from a big box store the majority of the time you are getting a 1 year warranty that involves you packing up your computer and shipping it out to a remote service center when it breaks. (Yes, I did say WHEN it breaks, not IF, it’s only a matter of time.) Typically you’ll get your laptop back anywhere from one to four weeks later. Not to mention you still have to call support, open a case, go through troubleshooting over the phone, etc. before they’ll even let you ship your computer to them. The bottom line is that you can be without a computer for that long at home (I’m not saying it would be fun, but it could be done.). Work is a different story, you can’t just take away someone’s computer for a few weeks because the video card died, with the amount of money you’d waste in lost productivity you could probably buy two brand new computers.

For this reason, we decided to partner with Dell as a vendor for all business class computers. While Dell’s warranty does inflate the price of their systems substantially (usually by $300-$500) they cover the system for three years instead of one and you don’t need to ship out your computer for repair. You still need to go through the red tape (call support, open case, troubleshoot, etc.) but once they determine that something needs to be replaced Dell will come to you, and usually the very next day. A Dell technician will show up at your office and swap out any required parts right there in front of you.

So while it hurts to pay the price up front, you’ll thank yourself for paying it the very first time it breaks. 24 hours of downtime (usually less) instead of a few weeks.

Another reason why big box store computers tend to be less expensive is because of software. Ever notice that when you buy a new computer that it comes pre-loaded with a lot of garbage trial software? 30 days of anti-virus, 30 days of MS office, 30 days of the latest “game zone” membership, etc. All of which will want your credit card info once the timer runs out. All of these software vendors pay the computer manufactuerers a premium to ensure that their trial gets loaded on every system they sell. When someone like Acer agrees to have say 15-20 pieces of promotional software the back end cut they get for it can really add up. This in turn allows them to reduce their point of sale price to undercut their competition. All of this extra software can negatively impact the performance of your brand new system.

When was the last time you noticed a game zone trial on a brand new work computer? Even Dell isn’t immune to this behavior, thats why most manufacturers will have their different product lines. IE: Dell has Inspiron, Vostro, Latitude, Optiplex, Precision, etc. Toshiba has Satellite, Portege, Tecra, Qosmio, etc. Each product line has its own attributes such as low price point, high performance, home use, business use and the like. The Dell Inspiron line would be more for home and personal use while the Dell Optiplex line is for business users. This Optiplex line would be slightly more expensive beacuse they don’t include all of the above mentioned promotional software out of the box.

Also while on the subject of software, the version of Microsoft Windows and Office can also affect the price of a system. All of the big box stores sell the “Home” versions of Windows, which does not work in a business environment. (There are a few reasons for this but I think that would be a blog post on its own.) When you buy a “Business Class” computer you need to purchase the “Professional” version of Windows for it to work with the office network. And of course Microsoft makes the Pro versions more expensive than the Home counterparts.

In regards to MS Office, 90% of the big box computers will come with either MS Works, a watered down version of MS Office, or an MS Office Trial (or both as sad as that is). The license for Microsoft Office 2007 Professional alone costs more than the $500 laptop you can pick up at Best Buy. Most home users will either pirate Office (say it isn’t so!) or buy the student / teacher edition which is about one third the cost of a new Office 2007 Pro license. Most quotes that we provide to customers will include the cost for the MS Office licensing, which can easilly add $500-$600 to the final figure. (Can’t get much work done without Outlook, Word and Excel right?)

Hmm, I feel as though I’ve been rambling for a while now, time to sum things up:

My original goal was to try and shed some light as to why there is such a large gap in the cost of big box store computers vs business class computers.

1- The make / model of the computer matters. A Dell Latitude laptop doesn’t stack up eye to eye with an Acer Aspire laptop.
2- The Warranty: 1 year vs. 3 years, you shipping the unit out vs. the technician coming to you.
3- Pre-loaded trial and promotional software reduces the cost (and performance) of a new computer.
4- Windows Home edition is less expensive than Windows Professional edition.
5- Fully licensed MS Office is a costly necessity.

While there are definitely other factors that contribute to the cost difference I feel that these are some of the larger ones. And besides, this blog post is long winded as is, if I try to go on any longer I’m sure I’ll lose the few readers that made it this far in 🙂

-Al Lefebvre

Laptops and Backups – It Doesn’t Have to be Hard

An acquaintance recently had her laptop stolen from her car.  While being a victim of theft is traumatic at the best of times, losing her laptop caused extraordinary grief for her because it turns out the machine wasn’t being properly backed up.  What a nightmare for her – she knew she had work-related files that only she had copies of on her hard disk, and everything she was working on was lost!

This heartache doesn’t have to be.  The problem is that many ‘road warriors’ (or, as with most of our clients, ‘work from home in the evenings’ warriors) don’t want to store everything on the corporate file store, don’t have a reasonable organization of their files on their laptop, or – even more typically – never remember to run the “backup script” their IT guy put on their desktop months ago.

Doing laptop backups manually is yesterday’s solution.  Today, it’s relatively easy to set up an automatic, reliable means for backing up everything of relevance to your corporate file store.  If security or other factors leave you wanting to avoid the corporate storage, backing up to a private external hard drive sitting in your office is just as easy and reliable. 

Don’t let this crisis happen to you.  And don’t let one of your employees have this happen either.  Be certain every machine is backed up automatically; never leave it up to an employee to make sure it happens, because almost none of them will.  We always recommend that part of our regular backup and recovery process include ensuring that every employee’s laptop is also being included. 

 The bottom line – while being the victim of theft is always an awful feeling, you should never have to find yourself in the position of not having a proper backup as a result of it. 

 Paul

How do I know if SharePoint is the right solution for my SMB?

It seems I keep having the same conversation with prospect after prospect – and sometimes existing clients too. Just what is SharePoint and should my organization consider using it? Often, these conversations are prompted by talking with other executives or reading success stories of organizations claiming to be using SharePoint for content management, document management, web portals, corporate intranets, collaboration, and the list goes on and on. So how does that fit with your organization’s needs and just how expensive will it be to implement? Let’s look at a specific (and likely common) scenario:
I was recently talking with a prospect who admitted that although they have a sophisticated system to manage their membership and billing, their internal business information is scattered and near impossible to track. It feels like they keep duplicating work because they can’t keep track of who’s done what and where they saved it when they last did it. This is all too common. Small to medium size organizations are in a real tough spot when it comes to managing their information. You can’t afford buying the enterprise grade systems so you have to settle for often poorly conceived and under supported systems built by second grade vendors – who ironically usually overcharge for their services. These systems are not capable of addressing the full spectrum of your information management requirements so naturally you focus your priorities on the parts of the business that drive revenue. The well usually runs dry before you ever make it to your business information.

So can SharePoint help?
Let’s start by defining the SharePoint paradigm. SharePoint is built on the paradigm that everything can be distilled down to a list of items that share common properties. These items can be almost anything: documents, images, calendar entries, tasks, contacts, or something totally custom. You’re probably thinking: “But don’t Outlook and my shared network drive already handle all of these things?” Sure they do; but how easily can you share this information? How easily can you group, organize and report against it? How successful are you at searching and finding it?

SharePoint can really help small to medium size organizations be more efficient, improve their processes, and better collaborate. The overall cost, risk and time to implement can be controlled by taking an incremental project approach.

At the end of the day, this could be the highest-value low-cost systems implementation you’ve ever done!

Dany