A phone system that drops calls. A network that frequently crashes, halting production and forcing your employees to log on again. A ransomware attack that brings your company to a standstill while backups are found.
When issues like these are affecting your IT systems, it’s natural to focus on the immediate crisis and fix it. But wouldn’t it be better to avoid the problem in the first place? To build comprehensive, robust IT systems and increase your company’s productivity, you need to start by looking at the big picture.
A good IT system begins with a clear strategy and the right hardware and software. For example, with the right backup system and disaster recovery plan, your team can recover and be productive again quickly after a disaster. A robust firewall can protect your company from intrusion. And the right storage infrastructure can boost performance and give your business room to grow.
It will help you to plan your next IT Upgrade and ensure success for your manufacturing business.
How can you build IT systems that meet your company’s needs — all while keeping the budget reasonable?
A quick fix to your system’s problems, using the least expensive equipment available, may seem tempting. And if your company has in-house IT staff members, why not have them do the work instead of spending more money on outsiders?
Unfortunately, the fastest, least expensive options are likely to cost more in the long run and may not produce the results you want. Low-end networking equipment, for example, may not be up to the demands of your business. If you buy equipment that fails within a year or two, or that your network soon outgrows, the cost of replacing it will mount.
As for using in-house staff, complex IT projects often call for professionals with specialized expertise such as network or database design. The people with these skills may not be a good fit for the day-to-day IT work that keeps a manufacturing company running — their expertise may be narrow, they are unlikely to be interested in helping with standard help desk issues, and they will almost certainly command high salaries. It makes more sense to hire people with this type of experience only when you need them, such as by engaging an outside firm.
Even so, it can be a challenge to find the right people for the job. If you hire a contractor to remodel your home or a lawyer to represent you in court, you can check with a state licensing board to be sure the person meets the standards of their profession. But in IT, there are no licenses. This means you will have to vet your providers carefully. To get started, it helps to know what factors contribute to successful IT projects.
An IT system is a big investment – one that can pay off in productivity if done right. The building blocks of a successful IT system are the right people, the right equipment, and the right strategy. When deciding how to proceed with installing or upgrading a system, consider these seven key factors that are essential to the success of an IT system
You need to hire a team with deep experience, technical skills, and knowledge of your industry. It can be challenging for a nontechnical person — the CFO or owner, for example — to determine whether a company they’re interviewing has the skills and experience they need to design a robust, industrial-grade IT system.
Do the company’s employees have certifications in the products they support? This can be a good indicator that the company’s employees are well trained.
Has the company tested the products it recommends so it knows they work well together?
Do the company’s proposals specifically address your business needs? The goal should be to make your business run better, not to install complex technology for technology’s sake.
You know your work processes and how employees use technology. But, of course, your area of expertise isn’t in matching up your business needs with the IOPS and latency of your storage system. Translating your needs into specific system requirements can be challenging.
You need to bring on board senior IT professionals who see the big picture. They may need to understand virtualization technologies, for example, or be able to determine if your storage system is properly designed.
How can you differentiate among the various businesses that provide these services? First, find out if they can provide an overall solution or just one piece. You want to hire a company that looks at your whole system rather than focusing on just one part and ignoring how changes in one area may affect others.
When discussing long-term strategy, make sure the team you hire is including a plan for ongoing monitoring when necessary. It’s not enough, for example, to set up a firewall and leave it alone. The monitoring may be provided by your in-house staff, by the group you have hired to put the network together, or by another outside firm.
The goal is to have a streamlined network: one whose components are well organized and labeled to make it easier to support. This also means looking at every component of the network, even those that don’t seem exciting: It won’t help to have state-of-the-art networking equipment if the cabling connecting everything is substandard, for example.
The stakeholders in the IT decision-making process should include those who have to support the system. One key: Don’t just consider the up-front capital expense. Instead, look at the total cost of ownership.
For example, if one brand of switches is less expensive but fails frequently, resulting in lost productivity and repair costs, and another brand costs more up front but leads to fewer outages, the “more expensive” one may end up costing the business less. Likewise, a network that is fast when it works but then fails has, when it’s down, a speed of zero – so it’s important to include failures in calculations about which to buy.
Other considerations: How often you will need to replace components, how long the system will be down and what that will cost your business, how much staff time will be required to maintain the system, and how easy it is to manage. Will your backup and recovery infrastructure, for example, allow you to easily recover old versions of files? What is the mean time between failures for the hardware you are considering? Finally, has the equipment you are looking at installing has been tested so you know it works well together? An outside vendor may be able to help answer these and other questions.
A non-IT person selecting IT products is generally focused on whether they have heard of the brand and how much the product costs. These are the wrong metrics, though, and they can result in a hodge-podge of systems that do not work well together and are more difficult to support.
The lure of a low price is a particular hazard. Even when the system requirements have been clearly laid out, it’s tempting to save money by buying equipment that is designed for something less. This is unlikely to deliver the features or performance that users are expecting, though. And any single bottleneck will affect the overall performance of the system.
The bottom line: You don’t need to build the most expensive, fanciest network but rather should focus on longevity, reliability and dependability.
You should choose products that exceed your requirements – the question is by how much. You certainly don’t want to end up with a needlessly complex and expensive system, which will probably frustrate both your users and your support staff in addition to costing more than it needed to. However, if you buy the bare minimum that you require, it is very likely that you will soon find yourself with a system that’s being pushed to its limits.
Expert advice can help you sort through what equipment will serve you best for each type of system. For storage, for example, it’s wise to set up a system with three times the amount you currently need. If you’re looking at processing speeds for networking equipment, it may depend on what specific demands your network has: A web server doesn’t have high processing requirements, but a database server does – and those requirements often grow over time.
The goal is to buy equipment that is sophisticated enough to allow your company to grow, but without breaking the bank.
Your IT strategy should look not just at how you want your system to work, but at what should happen when it doesn’t.
For example, to preserve your company’s operations in case of disaster, you need a solid backup strategy. That way, even in case of a ransomware attack, you can recover file backups.
When setting up a backup system, consider what your expectations are in case of a disaster. If your order management system goes down and you have to restore from a backup, do you want to be able to roll back to the data from a week before the crash? One day before? One hour?
This decision is a tricky balance of cost versus recovery time. Every hour before your system is restored is an hour when your production lines are either shut down or running based on handwritten records and orders, which is a recipe for chaos. Even in a best-case scenario, it can take hours – and more often days or even a week - to discover an attack, shut down the systems, and restore from the backup to get the business running again. Your backup strategy – connected to the storage strategy, which determines where your data will be housed – will determine both how much you pay for the system and how quickly you can recover when things go wrong.
Once your IT system is set up, what happens next?
To make sure that all the systems you have in place are ready for a ransomware attack, someone should check them regularly – for example, by restoring one sample file each quarter to be sure the right material is being backed up. It can happen, for example, that a backup system keeps working even after the crucial files have been transferred to a new server – one that is not being backed up. If no one is in charge of checking, this oversight can go undetected until an emergency causes the team to try to restore lost files from backups.
There are a number of other questions to ask about ongoing maintenance as well: If you have support subscriptions, are they current? Who monitors your firewall? Can you handle this ongoing maintenance in-house, or should you consider hiring an outside vendor?
It will help you to plan your next IT Upgrade and ensure success for your manufacturing business.
Building IT systems using the right people, the right equipment and the right strategy will help make your business more productive and resilient. A managed IT service provider with deep experience and knowledge of your industry can help you devise the right strategy for your business and choose equipment that will meet your business needs and budget.
At CNS Partners, we have more than 20 years of experience working with mid sized manufacturing organizations. We know your specific IT challenges, from network design to backup systems.
To learn more about the ways we have helped other companies build successful IT systems, download CNS Partners Expert Guide to High-Performing and Robust IT Systems today.