Starting from Scratch

The last few months of 1999 were tumultuous. Most relevant to ENT, the author blurb at the bottom of this column has changed again.

I’m an independent consultant again, working part time and trying to spend more time with my family. For a chronic workaholic, this is a challenge. My new company's name is InfraSupport Etc. Corp. Catchy, don’t you think? One of my customers came up with the name, and it was the only name I could find that wasn’t already registered to someone else. I’ll keep the title of chief technology officer. I think it sounds more impressive than president.

I’m relearning a lot of lessons on computer acquisition costs and total cost of ownership. For the first time in more than three years, I am personally writing the checks again and handling all the details. And like when I started independent consulting in 1994, I am my own guinea pig again.

The first cost was for wiring. I had a wiring company put a patch panel in my laundry room, add data wiring, and change all the phone wiring to Cat-5. All the wall jacks in the house are now labeled: They all have two Cat-5 RJ45 connections, and the wiring runs to the patch panel in my basement. For connecting to the house LAN, I hooked up to the new hub. For phones, I connected to the patches where we connected the phone wiring. Cost: about $2,000.

I needed a PC, so I bought a clone with 128 MB RAM, 14 GB HDD, HP 8200 CD writer, USR 56 Kb external modem, ViewSonic 17 inch monitor, and Windows 98 for about $1,600. In the month since I bought the new clone, the cost of memory dropped from $239 to $189, so I could have saved $50 by a waiting few weeks. Software, including ACT 2000, Office 2000 Premium Upgrade, Norton AntiVirus, Quickbooks Pro, and Winfax Pro cost me another $800.

When I generate some cash flow, I’d like to set up a DSL Internet connection. I’d also like to put up a Windows 2000 Server, a firewall, Exchange Server, and maybe a few other machines to stay sharp. This will probably set me back $8,000 more.

Beyond the initial materials cost, ongoing maintenance will be a drain. I’ll need to run backups, keep an equipment inventory, and troubleshoot problems to keep the network running smoothly. Every time Microsoft publishes another patch for a security problem, I’ll need to take time from work, download the fix, and install it on every PC in the house.

I can justify my purchases and the ongoing maintenance costs because it’s training for me. Most end users are not in the same position.

For example, one of my customers recently chose the Great Plains Accounting package to replace an antiquated system with Y2K problems. This particular flavor of Great Plains depends on the latest version of Btrieve, now called Pervasive. Unfortunately, several other legacy applications at this site depend on earlier versions of Btrieve. The new version of Pervasive broke them. We worked around the problems, but at a cost of several hours of my time, customer staff time, and significant delays in sending out invoices.

Even little things, such as adding printer memory so a customer can print calendars and minimally complex graphics, have a cost that is more than meets the eye. I recently spent half an hour showing a customer how to take the cover off an HP Laserjet 5P and install a memory SIMM. Add up a half hour of my time, a half hour of the customer’s time, and a half hour when the printer wasn’t available, then calculate a cost. And when the memory arrives, add the cost of the SIMM and another half an hour of staff time and lost productivity to install it.

Until now, I never looked closely at these numbers or gave them much thought. But now I think I understand all the seemingly outrageously high TCO numbers the analysts publish, and I’m shocked.

What to do about it? It seems to me the answer is simplify, standardize, organize, centralize, and document as much as possible. Simplify so fewer components are available to break. Standardize so every desktop is the same. Organize so you know where things are. Centralize to avoid installing the same software repeatedly. Finally, document so that six months from now, you can remember how you set things up today. Let’s make this a New Millennium resolution. Happy Y2K! --Greg Scott, Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE), is Chief Technology Officer of InfraSupport Etc. Corp. (Eagan, Minn.). Contact him at gregscott@scottconsulting.