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Renovating IT's Highways

Like traffic in our cities and towns, organizations have become increasingly overwhelmed with rapidly expanding data and application volumes. Conservative estimates indicate data storage requirements double every 18 months due to a wide variety of circumstances: electronic communication, customer growth, mergers and acquisitions, data privacy laws, and expanding regulatory compliance.

Simply adding capacity to manage information is no longer sufficient. Organizations need new options for transporting, storing and processing data to handle growing business demands. Solutions like virtualization, de-duplication, WAN acceleration and unified communications are the building blocks of next generation networks and data centers. Gridlock, once reserved for our highways, is now at the forefront of information technology.

As the future of IT networking grows more complex and interdependent, it will require a new generation of IT skill sets. According to Forrester, we can expect to see investments in unified communications grow from $1.2 billion in 2008 to $14.5 billion, at a compound annual growth rate of 35.9 percent through 2015.1 Large investments are also targeted for network transformations, data center optimizations and server virtualization, to name a few. According to Gartner, more than 80 percent of organizations say they are undertaking or have undertaken major projects in these areas.2

Gridlock, once reserved for our highways, is now at the forefront of information technology.

The Human Capital Requirement

Naturally, many IT leaders are excited about the possibilities that can result from undertakings like data center optimizations and unified communications. When we evaluate projects we tend to focus on products from leading hardware and software companies. However, products are rarely the root cause of IT projects troubled by missed deadlines and cost over runs. As one of the world’s top five mobile phone providers discovered recently, it is crucial that IT leaders give a great deal of attention to the human capital required for success. Five months after initiating a large scale data center consolidation and virtualization initiative, the top two issues this mobile provider discussed during its leadership status meeting were: “No project managers available to launch data center project,” and “need resources [personnel] to address transformational requirements.” The project was negatively impacted until the company filled these skill gaps with the right people. Before doing so, the project suffered missed timelines and prematurely depleted budgets.

Record high unemployment rates lead many to believe that talent is readily available. However, Gartner and Forrester agree that the expertise necessary to complete network and data center related projects remains in short supply relative to the incredibly high demand. Consequently, IT leaders must challenge false paradigms and realistically plan for upcoming staffing requirements to mitigate significant project risks.

The expertise necessary to complete network and data center related projects remains in short supply relative to the incredibly high demand.

Tackling the Transformation

A project plan for unified communications or data center optimization often requires thousands of man-hours and a myriad of skill sets to complete. The two most commonly observed approaches to undertaking these transformations are leveraging internal resources and engaging OEMs or system integrators. Let’s examine the associated benefits and risks of each approach.

Internal Staff Delivers Project

Benefits: Reallocating current staff to project work allows an organization to gain valuable experience from building the future environment they will support in steady state. This experience then solves or eliminates knowledge transfer issues associated with the use of outside firms and leads to predictable support models.

Using internal staff for project work also helps bolster employee satisfaction and retention. These projects provide unique opportunities for on-the-job training as well as team evaluation. In addition, they offer employees experience with new technologies – a significant driver of employee satisfaction. According to our last annual consultant survey, 92 percent of consultants rated technology as important, to very important when asked to indicate the importance of technology in their consideration of a new job opportunity. Finally, in-house project management allows an organization to maintain project management allows an organization to maintain project control and is typically a more cost effective solution compared with bringing in a team of consultants with previous implementation experience.

Risks: While there are benefits to leveraging internal staff to deliver projects, doing so is not risk free. As previously stated, the skill sets required to optimize data centers and transform networks are in short supply. Moreover, these new technical environments are infinitely more complex and intertwined. Traditional silo-based teams will encounter challenges in problem isolation, capacity planning and configuration management.3 But, the problems don’t stop there. They are likely to spill into security and storage issues as well. An honest assessment of your current team’s skills, your culture and your structure is critical to determining if you are able to deliver network and data center related projects on time and within budgetary constraints.

Another risk organizations often encounter is the void created by pulling infrastructure and operations staff from their daily duties to support new projects. In today’s economic climate, infrastructure and operations budgets are heavily scrutinized; these teams are constantly evaluated for operational efficiencies. With a mission to provide critical support to the business, little if any excess capacity exists as most IT staff members are already overworked. As a result, transitioning these valuable resources to a high-intensity project without coverage can jeopardize the legacy environment and the business.

Recommendations: To successfully leverage internal staff for transformational projects, IT departments can mitigate risks by taking the following measures:

  • Conduct an honest assessment and gap analysis of your team’s skills, culture, and structure to determine if it is capable of realistically completing the project within the prescribed timeline and budget.
  • Address any skill gaps by acquiring new and necessary skill sets via a staff augmentation, contract-to-hire or direct placement model. This approach allows you to meet knowledge and skill requirements through a flexible solution. Often problems associated with skill gaps don’t become apparent until the project is deeply in trouble.
  • Backfill the support of the legacy environment. Without this critical coverage, project resources are forced to stop what they are doing and address support issues within the legacy environment.
  • Address spikes in project hours by hiring specialized contractors for a finite period of time. Once these “burstable” project tasks are complete, assess continued staffing requirements as needed.
  • Purchase appropriate training services to ensure that internal team members have the needed skills and are cross-trained on the technologies necessary to support the new, more complex environments.

An honest assessment of your current team’s skills, your culture, and your structure is critical.

Engaging an OEM or Systems Integrator

OEMs and systems integrators can play a pivotal role in sharing expertise through the implementation of new network and data center technologies. In addition to providing the hardware, they will likely be involved in the architectural design and planning phase of your initiative. However, as these initiatives move from planning to deployment, and finally to the steady-state, IT organizations find that assembling the right team is the most critical factor to achieving success. As with the wireless provider described earlier, these projects don’t get off the ground without the right people in place.

OEM and systems integrators offer one potential avenue to mitigate likely skill gaps. If you are looking for strategic support to design new network architecture, bundle services with equipment purchases, or are concerned with product warranty schedules, these partners are likely the right choice. But organizations need to carefully evaluate the cost / benefit of utilizing a consulting or “resident engineering” service. Are these services “nice to have” rather than “need to have?” What value accompanies the consulting engagement? Often, rather than a full-blown consulting service, organizations simply need access to new skills or short-term resources to serve as an extension of their existing team.

Benefits: Utilizing an OEM or systems integrator to gain access to the required talent to perform network and data center related projects can be a logical and valid avenue for some organizations. The benefits of this approach may include access to vendor-specific expertise and consistency as these providers are typically involved from design to steady-state. OEM and systems integrator services can be wrapped into a managed service or SOW with specific deliverables and service level agreements allowing for specific and measurable outcomes to be realized. Additionally, utilizing OEM or certified channel partner resources could eliminate any potential concerns around equipment warranties.

Risks: While there are benefits to utilizing an OEM or systems integrator to mitigate skills gaps, there are also a number of risks and / or concerns that should be carefully considered before embarking down this path.

An OEM or systems integrator will likely provide subject matter experts to drive front-end architectural design. However, IT managers should be concerned with retaining this same level of expertise throughout the life of the engagement. Highly sought-after design resources could be swapped out over the course of the engagement—a transition that could elongate productivity curves for new consultants as they become familiar with the client’s technical and cultural environments.

Often, rather than a full-blown consulting service, organizations simply need access to new skills or short-term resources to serve as an extension of their existing team.

Additionally, utilizing consulting or “resident engineering” services will cost considerably more than other avenues of acquiring necessary talent. The OEM’s or systems integrator’s SMEs primary responsibilities are to design new solutions and win new engagements – not to provide support throughout an implementation. For this reason, OEMs and systems integrators will charge a premium to organizations seeking to leverage their SMEs during the full length of an engagement or in a FTE capacity.

Furthermore, most OEMs and systems integrators do not maintain a considerable field service staff at the implementer level. It is not uncommon for a significant portion of their staff to be subcontracted.

Careful consideration should also be given to how an effective knowledge transfer from the OEM or systems integrator to the organization’s permanent staff will be accomplished. These providers typically do not allow their clients to hire their SME resources. As a result, retention of project knowledge could be an issue.

Recommendations: While there are many benefits to utilizing an OEM or systems integrator to address your networking or data center needs, we recommend you consider the following before you make an outsourcing decision:

  • Assess the level of service required for your implementation. If what you require is a talent-based solution, turn to an organization thats core competency is recruiting quality IT personnel.
  • Evaluate the strength of firm’s bench of resident engineers. If the firm will be subcontracting a portion of the engagement, recommend that it consider one of your trusted IT staff augmentation providers. These providers have knowledge of your IT environment and culture.
  • Understand a firm’s methods and processes for qualifying engagement personnel. You will have no time to deal with issues related to poor hiring decisions.
  • Qualify your options for retaining technical expertise post-implementation. Will you be able to hire any of the consultants? What are the terms and cost implications for doing so?

Food for Thought

Organizations that recognize their need for outside technical expertise can fall victim to paying a premium for networking and data center services. When they can’t find the necessary skill sets in their existing organizations or through their internal HR, they often assume that their only option is to leverage an OEM or systems integrator. They are often unaware that a qualified IT talent acquisition firm has access to a greater pool of quality resources and possesses superior candidate screening capabilities relative to an OEM or systems integrator. Of course an OEM or systems integrator could likely find the necessary resources. But, frequently they do so by sub-vending to a staffing provider and then remarketing the contractors as part of a “resident engineering program” or some proxy term.


This is a momentous period within the IT infrastructure evolution. With the convergence of technologies and the innovation of new means to transfer and store data, IT leaders are rightfully excited over newfound technical power and the potential business upsides. However, when planning for the future, IT leaders must ensure they remember a fundamental truth that’s accompanied IT through its rich, albeit, recent history: it is people, not the technology, who make or break every IT endeavor.

1 “Market Overview: Sizing Unified Communications," Forrester Research, February 5, 2009

2 “Is it Time for You to Progress Beyond Data Center and Server Consolidation?”, Gartner, June 16, 2009

3 “The Virtual Organization: Roles and Structure in Support of Server Virtualization”, Gartner, August 6, 2008