Lessons from 2009: Advice for IT and Vendors

Products released this year show vendors and IT how to alleviate common pain points. ESJ's editorial director highlights four areas to focus on in the coming year -- which may provide a strong return on your investment.

As 2009 comes to a close, it's a good time to stop and assess our industry. As editorial director for ESJ, I attend hundreds of meetings each year with vendors and users to learn what's new and what's troubling IT. I've summarized here the strongest common themes that emerged from those conversations. What follows is an overview of what I've learned about what vendors and IT shops alike must work on in 2010.

It's also useful to watch the consumer market, because what appeals to home users often drives the demand for similar features in enterprise IT applications or support of consumer hardware. Drill-down, for example, started in personal financial programs, but it wasn't long before that click-to-see-the-details technology was part of enterprise applications, from reports to dashboards. Likewise, it was the widespread adoption of personal cell phones that drove executives to demand support of these mobile devices by IT (and sometimes driven IT crazy as a result).

One theme stands out above the rest: how to get IT out from under the crushing backlog of requests so it can get to the most important (from an ROI perspective) projects.

A Self-Service IT Example: Storage

At some point, employees in small and midsize businesses (SMBs) are going to need more storage space. For pure ease of use, cloud storage can't be beat, but managers I talked to hesitate to put any sensitive (or potentially sensitive) information on a public site no matter the assurances from the service provider. Network attached storage (NAS) may be a better idea, balancing security, price, and flexibility without requiring a significant investment from IT (for installation or ongoing support).

Over the last several months I've been working with a NetDISK (model 351UNE) from IOCELL Networks (www.iocellnetworks.com). The company has the right idea when it comes to flexibility for small and midsize business workgroups that need additional disk space up and running quickly. The drive can connect via USB or eSATA ports to a computer to expand storage for that system alone. To share files, you simply connect the NetDISK to your network. After plugging the Ethernet cable into the drive and into my router, I didn't have to hassle with configuring IP addresses. The easy set up asks you for the devices address, and in less than a couple of minutes you've associated the drive with the PC, Windows assigns a drive letter, and it's ready for use. It's a great approach for small workgroups that don't have the technical savvy (or patience) that other NAS solutions require.

The solution does have some limitations (everything easy always does) for enterprise use. The good news is that the drive can be seen by all systems on which you've installed the setup program. By specifically authorizing my desktop system to use the NetDISK drive, data isn't accessible to others outside your network (NetDisk calls this their "Hack Proof" feature). The bad news: all systems on which you've made this "connection" can see all data on the drive. Another caveat: SMBs often don't think of data backup and recovery when they add new drives, so this additional step will still have to be managed to protect data. On the other hand, if you need additional storage to serve as backup to your desktops and laptops, the NetDISK is a good choice as the backup medium.

For IT, the point is that ,while not completely do-it-yourself because you'll have to adjust backup procedures yourself, simple, easy-to-set-up, and low-cost additional storage, products such as the NetDISK are helping IT make simple work of increasing storage. For vendors, it's time to look at what you can do to make your products integrate with any enterprise's current environment but not tax IT resources already stretched thin.

High Demands on IT Knowledge

The need for self-service applications is also growing, but the big impediment is that set-up is still time-consuming, tedious, or too complicated.

For the last 12 months I've had a Western Digital HD TV player attached to my television. I receive lots of video files, but I'd prefer to watch most of them on my TV, not my laptop, and I don't want to connect my laptop to an S-video port and connect the audio via different ports and cables -- it's all too clumsy. Instead, I copy the file to a thumb drive, insert the drive into the paperback-book-sized WD player, and the file's ready to view using a simple, remote-controlled user interface.

What's impressive is that I don't need to know a thing about the file format; the HD TV player can handle AVI, MPEG, MKV, MOV, and a host of others. I don't have to know anything about compression (it handles Xvid AVI files, for example) or subtitles. You can find the player for less than $100. It has another feature that IT's always looking for when acquiring new hardware -- it's "future proof" (for at least a couple of years). The HD TV supports full 1080p high-def so it'll be ready to take advantage of high-resolution images on the day I finally buy a high-definition television. In the meantime, I can use it in my current (and admittedly aging) environment -- using a composite video cable to view video on my "old-fashioned" cathode-ray TV (or POTS -- plain old television set).

It's literally plug and play -- everything works exactly as expected. Upgrading the device driver is no more complicated than downloading a file from the WD site to the thumb drive and navigating to the settings menu on the device itself. Nothing could be easier.

Of course, the device is designed for the consumer, not the enterprise, but as I said at the outset, such products foretell the challenges and demands IT will face soon. IT should expect that users are going to start demanding that IT supply hardware (and software) that doesn't require users to know much of anything. IT will demand the same of its vendors -- products for the data center should be this easy to set up and use. IT professionals have been complaining to me all year that installation and ongoing support takes too much time. IT staff, expected to wear multiple hats and be "specialists" in multiple fields, say there are too many demands made in getting hardware and software up and running.

There has been a little progress, if some of the demonstrations I've seen this year are any indication. A few applications (particularly those for business intelligence) are better at installing a default set of reports or dashboards designed for a specific industry or to meet industry standards (think: compliance). However, that seems to be the exception. Considerable IT resources and expertise are still needed to get most products up and running -- such as getting SQL files into usable (analyzable) form. Vendors can do better.

It's Time to Save Time with IT Automation

There are always a million things to do for end users, but like the cobbler whose children are barefoot, IT doesn't often take the time to focus attention on its own needs. In a time when "doing more with less" is the mantra, simple IT tools can pay huge dividends. After all, isn't it about time to give up the manual drudgery of repeatedly pulling files off the Internet or consolidating data or running regression tests? Think of the extra time you can use to chop away at your user request backlog.

Over the years I've seen many automation tools. Tethys Solutions supplied a copy of Automation Anywhere (www.automationanywhere.com) and I've been impressed with what it can do. Although designed for the enterprise, it's helped streamline my own repetitive desktop chores in a variety of applications. Novices (or experts who want to build fancy scripts quickly) can record keystrokes/mouse moves to build a script. For some tasks, techies will prefer the task editor, which gives them powerful control over each command. IT pros may also find that starting with a predefined template saves time.

There are plenty of other areas ripe for automation. A majority of respondents to an IT automation survey released in October said IT process automation was a definite cost-saving measure "capable of reducing the amount of time staff spends on routine, manual tasks." The survey of 318 Oracle Applications User Group members commissioned by automation specialist UC4 (www.uc4.com) revealed that 75 percent of respondents reported "difficulties monitoring and managing processes than span more than one application. As a result, 57 percent of respondents report that these struggles have resulted in delays for the business either in time-to-market or [in the ability] to integrate applications and processes." Automation tools can put an end to these challenges.

For IT, it's time to start taking your own medicine and choose an automation tool to eliminate repetitive, time-consuming chores. For vendors, some have taken the hint to simplify, simplify, simplify. For instance, network device autodiscovery is just one example of simplifying repetitive tasks -- automatically trolling the network for new devices that may be out of compliance. There are still plenty of processes to automate, and the time savings alone should justify putting an automation project at the top of your 2010 to do list.

Low-Cost/No-Cost Benefits IT and Vendors Alike

There's no question that enterprises are looking for the best value for their software budget. Open source is often promoted as an approach that's budget friendly (though often they ignore the need for "commercial" support).

Splunk (www.splunk.com) has a smart idea to attract enterprise customers in these budget-strapped times. The company offers a sophisticated but easy-to-use tool that lets you search and analyze the data generated by your IT infrastructure from a single location (a Web browser). You can drill down on security problems or troubleshoot application outages with just a few clicks. This may be an oversimplification, but I think of Splunk as Google for IT data such as log files, system metrics, and configurations.

The simple idea that sets Splunk apart is their marketing approach that serves both them and their potential customers well. It takes the "try-before-you-buy" approach a step further by providing the full application for a 60-day trial. The only limit is that users can index no more than 500 MB of data. If the customer doesn't upgrade to an Enterprise license, some of the higher-end features (such as those designed for a multi-user enterprise) are removed, but there are no nag screens every five minutes (in fact, there are no nag screens at all), and data doesn't disappear.

After those 60 days, the vast majority of the features remain, and even the index limit makes it a useful "freeware" tool for many day-to-day jobs. Splunk has attracted users who put the product to work on small or special one-time projects. When users like what they see, they spread the word inside and outside their organization.

Such viral marketing is not only smart but cost effective, and by providing a still-useful-though-not-full-featured product beyond a 60-day trial period, the company is building future customers who have shown loyalty to a company that helped them solve a problem. Splunk representatives I spoke with explained that users find that the "Free" version is sometimes all users need, and that's fine with them -- as long as it gets people to use their product.

It's always rewarding to find powerful tools that let you run proof-of-concept experiments for more than 30 days. If the product isn't right for one project, it may be suitable for another -- or even a side project you're working on in your spare time. For IT and vendors alike, Splunk's distribution model is a win-win idea, something that is worth our attention.

Final Thoughts

It's tough being an IT professional these days. It's a delicate balancing act under strenuous conditions, with fewer staff but more work to do. Vendors get it -- I've seen dozens of new or upgraded products this year that show me that some vendors understand the need to make things easier, faster, and simpler.

Here's to a happy, healthy, and hassle-free 2010.

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