Tuesday 29 November 2011

SME IT Consulting: the End of an Era

Am I part of the last generation of small-to-medium enterprise (SME) IT consultant? Will this consulting, as I know it, be over in a few years? I think it will be, and probably sooner than that. I think that cloud computing heralds the end of the on-site visit from the IT consultant.

We have two types of clients. The first consists of larger firms where IT managers hire us to either provide holiday cover for in-house IT support staff or to provide specific technical consulting in areas where their staff may be lacking knowledge or too busy to handle. The second type of client is the smaller firm where we are also the IT manager and we cover the broad range of IT for the customer.

It’s this second type of consulting I think will go away and it’s this second type of client I will be discussing for the remainder of this article.

As it is today, we build a new network which consists of servers and their applications, the in-house phone system, workstations and their applications, smart phones, shared file access, remote access, Internet access and Internet protection. We then provide on-going and ad-hoc support; drop in for monthly maintenance checks; we may move the office from time to time; and are called in to discuss, plan and implement the occasional new project.

All of our clients run Microsoft Windows servers, Windows workstations, Microsoft Office, Microsoft Exchange (e mail) server, and the occasional Microsoft SQL (database) server. There are occasional extra server based business applications, once in a while a custom-built application, and Bloomberg shows up fairly regularly. The all-in-one or few servers provide workstation management, network services, file and print sharing. iPads are springing up everywhere.

But consider the following:

  • We already provide remote screen-sharing support where we can see the user’s Desktop and show them how to do something, moving their mouse cursor for them. We can provide useful and painless remote support rather than having to be on-site.
  • We have already moved all of our clients to hosted pay-as-you-go (cloud) Exchange. We no longer support any Exchange servers directly. We continue to manage the resources via web front-ends to the Exchange resources (shared calendars, resource mailboxes, forwarding, etc.), but we never actually touch an Exchange server anymore and we haven’t built one in years.
  • We will shortly have all of our clients backing up off-site on-line over the Internet - no more on-site tape drives, tapes, and backup software.
  • We already have one client that is using a Voice-over-IP hosted phone system - no more in-house telephony systems.
  • Cloud computing already offers Microsoft Communicator or Lync services, SharePoint, SQL, and entire server platforms, virtual or bare-metal.
  • We’re considering moving the entire Windows Desktop for two of our smaller clients into hosted Windows/Citrix sessions. The price has come down and the users would actually have their own company “network” environment hosted (shared and personal network drives, just like now).

It’s hard to argue the benefits of most of these cloud services, especially when it comes to pricing. So far, hosted Exchange has proved an absolute no-brainer in terms of its cost savings. Other benefits include built-in remote-access capability and usually Tier 3 data centre redundancy, which means there are already multiple Internet links to the resources which are backed up continuously to other sites. It means that it would take a metropolitan-wide disaster for you to lose access to your data. We can’t build that level of high-availability resiliency in-house for small to medium size enterprises. (Well, we can, but the proportionate cost would be enormous.)

Given the trends already historical and present; given the resources already available in the cloud; given the almost non-existent implementation costs to the client; and given the other technical advantages described above - how is it possible that most SMEs will not move to the cloud?

The only IT resources left at the client office will be the workstations with operating systems or possibly even thin-client devices, telephone hand-sets, a local network, a firewall, and an Internet connection that is larger than it used to be. The networking and firewall equipment is already the type of kit that is configured off-site and delivered to the client where someone merely plugs it in and turns it on. Given the simplicity of the workstations or thin-client devices used for remote Desktop configurations, they will also be able to be configured remotely and delivered.

So where does that leave the friendly consultant who drops in every week or so? Working an eight hour shift at a hosting centre! All of the skills used before are now needed by the hosting centre: software knowledge; determining client needs; providing support to end-users; configuring e-mail, file sharing, and phone system requirements; and providing end-user support by phone or screen-sharing sessions.

It no longer makes sense to renew all the expensive server hardware for a small network. Given that the standard hardware extended warranty period is three years, that is my prediction when most services will be moved to the cloud for small business.

Once this three year period (at the outside) has passed, a new office IT setup might perhaps consist of an on-site visit by a salesman. However, after that, items will merely be delivered pre-configured: firewalls, network switches, and cheap PCs or thin-client devices. Maybe a junior techie/delivery person in jeans will arrive and connect it all together. From then on, it’s telephone or messenger conversations and remote support and configuration.

It’s the end of an era. It started when we moved from giant mainframe computers to distributed workstations about 20 years ago and the end is in sight. I’m convinced of this. While we will still have our technical consulting to IT managers for a while, I’m looking at options to try and prepare for this change to the small business side of things. I suggest that other IT consultants in similar areas do the same.

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