Network Support: A Time to Outsource

Making a decision on the design, installation andmaintenance of a computer network is one of the most difficult tasksfacing today's educational institutions' technology support staff.With the whirlwind of changes taking place in technology, it is notfeasible for educators to be experts in all of the areas oftechnology required to keep a school's technology installationscurrent.

Sometimes the first step towards solving adifficult problem is to start by conceding that you don't know thesolution. We propose that the support of your Local Area Network(LAN) is an area in which it is prudent to seek help. This articleassumes that your technology support staff is typical: overworked,understaffed and seeking ways to make your job more efficient. Withcareful planning and clear communication, outsourcing your networksolutions can increase the efficiency of purchasing, installing andmaintaining your technology systems.

The purpose of this article is to discuss theissues one should consider in outsourcing network installation andsupport. The article will walk you through the basics of identifyingprospective network providers, conducting interviews and the finalselection process. You will also learn some of the terminology usedin this area and the importance of establishing a solid workingrelationship with your selected company. 

Selecting a Network Service Provider

In any community there are dozens of computersupport companies that specialize in network installation andsupport. Some refer to themselves as Value Added Resellers (VAR's),while others call themselves Solution Providers or SystemIntegrators. Picking the right support group can be a daunting task.It is important to recognize that there is more to the process thanfinding the lowest bid. You want to find a company that desires tobecome a partner with you to solve problems rather than one that justtries to sell you boxes. The selection process should be carefullyconsidered. Hopefully, this will be a long-term, successful andmutually beneficial relationship. Since every piece of equipmentgenerally comes with a one-year warranty, every purchase establishesat least a one-year relationship.

Before choosing a service provider, ask forreferences on several potential companies and check them thoroughly.Establish how long they have been in business. Many of thesecompanies come and go quickly, so you should look for one that hasbeen around for at least five years. You should not consideremploying a friend, a parent of one of your students, or anyone withwhom it would be awkward to terminate the relationship. This willalso prevent what may appear to be a conflict of interest. As withany relationship, there may be disagreements and problems; be patientand resist being taken in by false claims. Remember, you are thecustomer and they want your business: you are in the driver's seat atthis point. 

Network Certification

Network support is the heart of any technologyinstallation and you will want a company that is certified by eitherNovell or Microsoft, depending on which network operating system youselect. It is wise to select a company certified in both platforms.That way, you can be sure that they will sell you the network thatyou need rather than the one they happen to represent. A visit toNovell's (Novell, 1998) or Microsoft's (Microsoft, 1998) Web pageprovides a list of authorized agents in your area. A techniciancertified by Novell is called a Certified NetWare Engineer (CNE),while Microsoft's certification is Microsoft Certified SystemsEngineer (M.C.S.E.). A Novell Platinum Authorized Partner is thehighest Novell certification and Microsoft Certified SolutionProviders (MCSP's) are independent companies that team with Microsoftto solve business challenges for organizations of all sizes. Be surethat any company you consider is certified and that it has severalcertified engineers on staff.

The Interview

Once you have identified several firms that arecertified in one or both platforms, invite each for an interview.Remember that you are looking for a partner, so try to learn how theyconduct their business. D'es someone answer the phone or are yougreeted by an annoying voicemail system that forces you through aseries of menus where you eventually leave a message (or getdisconnected)? Were they pleasant and eager to assist you? Were youable to speak directly to the president/CEO? How eager were they tocome visit you? When you have identified several likely candidates,the serious negotiations begin.

When you conduct the interviews, make it clearthat you are interested in a partnership and that you recognize thata business relationship is a two-way street. They have the skills andexpertise you want to make your installation world class or at leastto function properly. Remember that they want your business and,perhaps more importantly, your reference. There is somethingparticularly appealing and wholesome about listing an educationalinstitution as a client. Ask them to make a complete study of youroperation at no cost, and ask them to make their proposed solutionsin writing. You will learn a great deal by considering theirrecommendations. Try to determine if they are simply recommendingproducts they happen to sell or if they are sincerely trying tounderstand how your institution functions. Are they sensitive to alimited school budget or are they suggesting a Fortune 500 solution?Make them part of the solution rather than simply a group coming oncampus to install products. If the school installation succeeds, theytoo can list a success story. 

One-stop Shopping: Avoid FingerPointing

Smaller companies may need to subcontract servicesthat they cannot provide. Your goal should be to have just onetelephone number to call to solve all your problems. If the cable isinstalled by one company, workstations configured by another, and theserver installed by yet another, you will likely experience fingerpointing. One group may accuse the other of faulty work (possiblylegitimately, possibly not), and you will be stuck with anon-functioning system and no easy way to resolve the differences.Since the goal of outsourcing is to avoid headaches, not cause them,this is definitely a situation to avoid.

The best solution is to select a company thateither builds workstations at their shop or is an authorized agentfor a major manufacture. Make sure that the company itself willinstall the cables and configure your routers, switches and servers.That way if (when) something fails, you will be able to call them andsay, "You recommended (or built) this system, you installed it, youconfigured it &emdash; please fix it." Even if the price of a productis slightly higher, you will have the satisfaction of knowing thatthe company is responsible for making everything work together. It isa team effort that yields success. 

Workstations

Computers (also referred to as workstations whenon a network) can be purchased by mail order, from the local computerstore or from your vendor. We have found that custom-made systemswork best. Mail order often requires reliance on telephone support oron sending a machine back when it is faulty; this is a time-consumingprocess. Anyone who has spent countless hours on the telephonetalking to a company's tech support staff can attest to howaggravating it can be. Most computer companies have several levels ofexpertise to filter out the "didn't plug it in" problems from themore serious problems. You may have to prove to several levels thatyour problem is valid before reaching a capable assistant. Afterconvincing the proper person of the validity of your complaint, thecompany may then subcontract the repair to yet anothergroup.

Purchasing workstations from a local computerstore requires a courier or expending valuable hours transportingsystems in the back of your car. Since the purpose of using anoutside source is to make your life efficient, you want one call toyour support company to solve all your problems. You may also wish toavoid name-brand systems so that you can save money by not buyingfeatures you don't need. If the name-brand workstation breaks, yournetwork provider may have to call the manufacturer, leading todelays. When a company builds a machine for your institution, theyknow what parts are in the system and can readily repair it. Byworking with your provider, one call then puts you in touch with themanufacturer, the installer and the maintenanceteam. 

Other Questions

When interviewing, ask about the hourly ratecharged: $75 to $150 per hour is the norm. While you're at it, askfor a discount as an educational institution. Also ask what normalresponse time you should expect. For a server that's down, expect a4-8 hour response. You may set up a priority system where onenon-essential machine in a lab of thirty may be down for a couple ofdays, yet a mission-critical system like your server must be repairedwithin a day's time. The company will likely appreciate knowingwhether a problem is critical or not so they can send their people toa crisis call and can effectively manage their staff. Therelationship is just that &emdash; a two-way street. If you try towork with them, they'll try to work with you. You will want them tojump when you have a crisis and thus should try to be patient if yourproblem is not critical.

In addition, you should ask the prospectiveproviders how many employees they have on staff and the kinds ofskills they possess. A company with only one certified engineer onstaff will be hard-pressed to serve you if three clients have servercrashes. Avoid one-person shops. If he or she is working with anotherclient, you will have to wait. When the owner g'es skiing inColorado, you'll be completely out of luck. Although eager to pleasewhen it is starting up, a small shop may be less readily available asit takes on more clients. Select a large group with sufficientemployees to handle your needs.

Final Determination

After you have completed the interviews with theperspective companies, have them each bid on one or more identicalitems. Then, if possible, order one item from each company that showspromise. Filling an order can be handled in many different ways, souse this opportunity to learn more about how the companies conducttheir business. Are you to pick up the system from their shop or willthey deliver it? Will they just drop it off or will they take it outof the box? Will they set it on a desk and quickly leave, or willthey ensure that it functions and connects to your network? Do youwant them to configure and install software? Make absolutely surethat you know exactly what is included in the purchase price. A largecompany will likely have employees of varying skills and the deliverycrew may not be skilled at configuring the systems. It is reasonablefor the company to send their least skilled labor required for thejob, but problems can be minimized if you are clear regarding yourexpectations. 

Parts Aren't Parts

When you receive several bids on workstations, youmay be astounded to see the range in prices for what may seem likethe same item. The more expensive vendors will likely explain thatthey have superior parts compared to the lower priced bids. Since fewof us have the time or expertise to evaluate the quality of eachcomponent, your best bet is to deal with a reputable vendor. Partslike video boards, memory chips, and hard disks can vary greatly inquality, so unless you take the time to become familiar with all ofthe specifications, you are at your vendor's mercy (McKenzie,1998).

It has been our experience that part failureusually occurs in the first year of use. Any system you buy shouldcome with a one-year, on-site warranty, and thus the company shouldhave any faulty parts replaced within the first year at no charge. Aslong as the service is good and the company stands behind itswarranty, the reliability of components is not an important issue.Remember that even though reliability is not an issue, thespecifications of the various components of your system can have agreat impact on performance. 

Network Security

To use the network to its full potential, eachteacher and student should have his or her own network account. Thisprovides users with personal space to save their work. This space issecure from others and should be backed up daily. Since it is notcost effective to pay your support company $100 an hour to set uphundreds of account names, have them train someone at your school todo this. Setting up accounts on an installed network is not aparticularly difficult task and, with a bit of training, you shouldbe able to handle it in-house (Hazari, 1995).

The design of users' rights and security shouldmirror the policies and structures of your school. Teachers shouldhave full access to all students' work in order to review theiressays, for example, just as a teacher generally has access toevaluate a student's notebook. Teachers should be able to put sampledata files into each student's workspace. Students should not haveaccess to other students' work and certainly should not have accessto teachers' work.

There are also times that you might want certaindocuments, like a well-crafted essay, to be available to all users.This can be accomplished by creating a public network folder that isavailable to all users. Another folder can be made public to onlyteachers and can be used to allow teachers to share tests or otherinformation that is not for students' eyes.

The network should be configured so that any usermay log into any workstation and find his or her work. For maximumefficiency, the default data location for every application should bechanged from the normal default (the local hard drive) to the user'shome directory. That way, when a user logs in and opens anapplication, his or her files will immediately be displayed. Usingthe local hard drive as the default will also cause problems becausethe files do not follow the users as they move from machine tomachine. Files on a local machine are not secure from mischief from afuture user. If the user's files are on the hard disk, they have toreturn to the same workstation, which may or may not be available(Hess, 1996).

Some people advise forcing students to save theirwork on floppy disks; we find that saving files to apassword-protected home directory protects the students' work better.The use of floppy disks defeats the purpose of a network and d'es nottake advantage of its strengths. Using floppy disks often leads toheadaches as the disks are easily lost or damaged. 

Workstation Security

Many third-party products are available to ensurethat workstation desktops are not altered. However, we have foundthat the use of the policy editor in Windows provides ample desktopsecurity. If allowed, students will likely be tempted to changecolors or screensavers, or to add or delete programs if allowed to doso. Make it clear to your support company what rights you want thestudents to have and what they are not to have. Discuss who will beresponsible for re-installing software that has been maliciouslydeleted. A particularly useful option is the requirement that thestudent be logged into the network with a log-in name and passwordprior to computer access.

Our experience indicates that it is essential forthe machines to function properly if you are to build userconfidence. This confidence is needed before any school can encouragethe adoption of technology into the curriculum. No amount ofcheerleading will overcome a visit to the computer center that yieldsrandom configurations and missing applications. Although a restrictedmachine will frustrate teachers and students who want to installtheir favorite games and software, the restrictions will ensure thatthe essential sanctioned applications perform as expected.

Training the Support Company

An educational institution differs in many waysfrom a typical company. It is rare that a secretary willintentionally delete program icons, yet the natural curiosityinherent to students makes this likely in a school environment.Support personnel from your service provider must time their visitsso as not to interfere with scheduled classes.

Deliveries after 4:00 p.m. will often find adarkened, locked building. Summer break or other vacations are thebest time to do major installations. Outsiders must understand thatproper language and actions must be used around children. Though apolite, friendly approach to working around children must be applied,it might be best also to admonish the outside help not to be overlyfriendly with the students.

A New Paradigm

As we teach our support company about how a schooloperates, we must also try to understand the business paradigm.Educators are generally collegial and altruistic in their dealings.We are, after all, interested in working together to educatechildren. The purpose of a company is not to make your children learnbetter but to make a profit. This is not a bad thing, but iscertainly different from your school's goals of aiding children tobecome productive, responsible adults. The technician helping youprobably has five other calls that his boss wants him to respond toas quickly as possible, so show proper respect for his or hertime.

Just as schools often hold a student's gradesuntil library books are returned, it is a good business practice tohold back at least 10% of the bill until you are completely satisfiedthat the work has been completed to your specifications. This lastpayment will likely represent the company's profit and its delay willbe quite effective in motivating the completion of installations.Educators must adapt to a new role as businessmen to effectivelymanage the computer support company.

Hourly vs. Fixed Rates

It is difficult to estimate how long some largeprojects like connecting the network to the Internet will take. Yoursupport company may want to charge you per hour for as many hours asit takes to complete the task. The technician may run into a glitchand have to redo part of an installation, thus spending several extrahours on the project. He may need to call another support group orthe product support line to complete the installation. It can beextremely frustrating to watch a technician on hold while the clockis running.

You may ask the support group to agree to amaximum number of hours to solve the problems. This decision is agamble since the project may be completed in half the projected time,yet you may well be asked to pay the agreed-upon amount. The otheroption is to purchase a block of service hours and spend them asneeded. Either way you elect to contract for the job, billing is agamble. For peace of mind, it may work best for the company to committo a maximum number of hours per project.

Conclusion

A support company is necessary to design, installand maintain a sophisticated networked system. When carefullydeveloped, a positive relationship that is mutually beneficial toboth the school and the business can be established with a localcompany. For most educators who adopt a business role of employing asupport group, the paradigm shift can be unsettling. Be firm aboutyour expectations but patient with glitches. Remember, you aredeveloping a long-term relationship with ample benefits for bothparties.

The selection of a service provider to install andmaintain your computer network is probably the most significantdecision you will make in ensuring the integration of technology atyour school. Do your homework and get it right: it is a decision thatyou will both live with and be judged by.

 

References:

  1. Hess, Philip, (1996), "Tips & Tricks for K-12 Educational LANs," (Tutorial), T.H.E. Journal, April, pp. 84-87.
  2. McKenzie, Jamie, (1998), "Networking Schools: Managing Quandaries, Dilemmas and Conundrums," From Now On, The Educational Technology Journal, April.
  3. Hazari, Sunil, (1995), "Multi-Protocol LAN Design & Implementation: A Case Study," T.H.E. Journal, April.
  4. Novell: (800) NETWARE, www.novell.com
  5. Microsoft: (800) 426 9400, www.microsoft.com
  6. From Now On, The Educational Technology Journal: www.fromnowon.org

Robert S. Kenyon is a graduate student in theEducational Technology program at Florida Atlantic University in BocaRaton, Florida. Robert served for 5 years as Director of Technologyand Network Administrator for Saint Andrew's School in Boca Raton,Florida. He is a Novell Certified NetWare Engineer. Mr. Kenyon ispresently employed with St. Mark's School of Texas as their Webmasterand A.P. Computer Science instructor. E-mail:KenyonR@mindspring.com

 

Ralph Cafolla, Ed.D, is an Associate Professor inthe Department of Educational Technology and Research in the Collegeof Education at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Cafolla has authoredtwo books and numerous papers on the instructional uses oftechnology. E-mail: Cafolla@fau.campus.mci.net

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1998 issue of THE Journal.

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