Rent a nerd

Written by Jim McElgunn

It didn’t take a disaster to pursuade Virox Technologies Inc. to hire outside IT help. Martin Harry, chief information officer at the Oakville, Ont.-based disinfectants manufacturer, had personally kept its computer network running for four years, a chore made easier because most of Virox’s staff are computer-literate. But the do-it-yourself approach was getting harder as the network grew. When it reached a dozen workstations, says Harry, “it became too overwhelming for me to deal with myself.”

He knew he needed to do more than just update software patches, antivirus protection and the like. But Harry no longer had time to keep pace with new opportunities to leverage IT amid the other demands of his job. That’s when the light bulb went on: what was the true cost to the company of running its own network?

As much as anything, it’s this opportunity cost — the time spent messing around with the network instead of on your real job — that pursuades companies to outsource their IT. But freeing up time is far from the only advantage. A contractor can maintain your network consistently, share learning from other clients, provide expertise in specialties such as website management, offer advice on upgrades and install them with few hassles (well, as few as anything that involves computers can have). Many companies opt to hire an IT manager so they’ll have someone in-house to fix problems right away . But outsourcing is an appealing option if you have fewer than 30 workstations, and often well beyond that. Today’s highly reliable computer networks and high-speed Internet connections allow contractors to meet your needs while seldom having to set foot in your office., an outsourcer based in Ottawa, uses remote diagnostic tools to monitor infrastructure such as servers, switches and firewalls to fix problems before they become critical. When problems do occur — such as a virus or a forgotten password — computer users can use e-mail,’s website or the phone to reach its help desk, which guarantees you’ll connect to a live person during business hours. Its president, Paul Emond, says the vast majority of problems can be fixed remotely, so it only rarely has to dispatch a technician.

And the price is right. Emond says an office with 10 desktops and one server would pay $200 per month per desktop for all-inclusive support from his firm. That gets you unlimited calls to the help desk, access to techies in any IT specialty and on-site visits for tasks such as moves, adds or changes. Rates drop to $180 for each of 50 desktops and $120 for each of 250 desktops.

Harry says Virox, which now has 15 workstations, hired AdvizeIT Consulting Services Inc. of Toronto at a monthly rate of about $1,200. That gets it four hours of on-site service every two weeks (AdvizeIT doesn’t operate a help desk), and Virox can bank unused time for later use.

Reliable IT support for a modest price — where do I sign up? Sadly, it’s not that simple. Unless you’re careful to find the right partner and manage that relationship properly, you may wind up spending more and getting less than you need. More important, you may miss out on opportunities a good IT outsourcing partnership can offer to grow and better manage your business.

Stephen Mill, regional manager at IT recruiter Robert Half Technology in Toronto, says you can develop a short list of outsourcers by a referral from your business adviser, or an association of IT pros such as the Canadian Information Processing Society. Or you could ask your phone company about any IT management it bundles with other services.

When Virox was compiling a short list, its auditor recommended AdvizeIT. Harry says he felt the company was a good fit because its people talked in plain English about how they could help Virox’s business, and were willing to come in outside standard business hours to avoid disrupting work flow. And it was the only one shortlisted that banked unused hours — which Virox drew on in May when it moved its network as part of an office relocation.

Not every company takes as much care as Virox did to find the right partner. Emond says many people consider IT outsourcing a commodity business, but he insists that service isn’t the same from provider to provider. For instance, a lowballed hourly rate may prove a lousy deal if the outsourcer takes longer than it should to complete the work.

Surprising numbers of companies don’t even bother to visit an outsourcer’s facilities, says Emond, or find out how many full-time technicians it has on staff. (He says some firms try to look more capable than they are by including contractors and part-timers in their staff counts.) Emond urges companies to insist on higher service levels than are in the standard agreements, which are often skewed in the outsourcer’s favour: “Your tech contractor should commit to specific response times, and face penalties if they are missed.”

If that all sounds like a lot of work, consider the payoff. For Virox, this includes peace of mind. One of the first things AdvizeIT did when Virox hired it 18 months ago was implement a disaster recovery program. Before that, Harry had personally backed up files, but only selected ones. AdvizeIT now backs up all the data and stores it safely off-site.

If problems arise between AdvizeIT’s every-other-week visits, Virox files a report at AdvizeIT’s website, indicating whether it’s low, medium or high priority, says Harry. “In the past year and a half, we may have filed only six or seven of those,” including low-priority ones. And “if we go online to tell them we have a high-priority problem, somebody will be on the phone within a few minutes.” This has built confidence in the network’s integrity, “and far more time to focus on things we should be focussing on.”

Thanks to its solid relationship with AdvizeIT, says Harry, Virox is considering an IT project that would cut costs and fuel growth, one it couldn’t even consider if it were still managing its own tech. At press time, he was about to ask Virox’s board to spend $30,000 to $50,000 to convert to a thin-client network in which a server, not individual terminals, would do the processing. This project would include switching to Microsoft Office XP from the outdated Office 97 suite Virox uses now.

Harry says a thin-client network would save serious money because the computer towers cost $300 per terminal, far less than the $1,000 per in a conventional network. It would be more secure, because terminals wouldn’t have CD or DVD drives through which people could copy and remove files. And, crucially, it would offer superior software planning tools. These would permit Virox to make better use of programs for database marketing, customer relationship management and other functions to spot and exploit new opportunities. If the project is greenlighted, Virox’s relationship with AdvizeIT will evolve beyond the convenience of having someone else worry about its network into a partnership to use IT to help grow the company.

Doing IT right

  1. Before you hire an IT outsourcer, ask to see performance reports from existing customers on which problems arose, how they were resolved and how quickly
  2. Gather feedback from your staff to help you compile a detailed list of your computer needs, from day-to-day maintenance to ways to cut costs and boost revenue
  3. Commit to a multi-year relationship so your outsourcer will invest the time to understand your business and propose solutions — even unsolicited ones
  4. Designate an employee who will monitor your supplier’s performance and act as the point person to clarify issues, or in case something goes wrong
  5. Make it clear that you expect well-informed advice on which technologies will give you the best return on investment
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