Hiring Out for IT Support
YOUR TECHNOLOGY ENVIRONMENT HAS OUTGROWN YOUR STAFF'S ABILITY TO MAINTAIN IT. WHAT'S A DISTRICT TO DO? TRY THAT TRUSTED 21ST-CENTURY SOLUTION: OUTSOURCE IT.
THE E-MAIL SYSTEM at Monte Cassino School in Tulsa, OK, is more than just e-mail. It’s the cornerstone of an evolving, collaborative online community the preK-8 Catholic school relies on to involveparents in their children’s education.
“It’s our primary means of communication between teachers and parents,” says Nancy Stutsman, Monte Cassino’s director of technology,“and we view that interaction as a vital component of each student’sacademic success. We use e-mail to keep parents informedabout school announcements, scheduling changes, student progress,and behavioral concerns. It’s really another educational tool.”
When the system was hit six years ago by a major virus attack, the school turned to Cupertino, CA-based IT security vendor Symantec for its well-known anti-virus solutions. But because the e-mail addresses of the school’s 130 teachers were widely circulated and frequently posted on the internet, it wasn’t long after the virus was cleaned up that spam began choking the system. At one point, 40 percent of the 1,000 inbound e-mail messages the school received on average each week were spam.
To fend off this type of assault, the school expanded its relationship with Symantec to include a hosted e-mail security solution. A hosted solution is a software package that resides on the vendor’s server and is managed by that vendor. “The customers don’t have to install any hardware or software in-house,” explains Symantec Product Manager Chuck Egress. “They direct their e-mail traffic through Symantec servers via changes to MX records and DNS. And the mail is filtered for spam and viruses on our machines before it reaches their networks.”
Monte Cassino is just one example of the growing number of schools that have decided to outsource various combinations of their infrastructure/application management to cope with increasingly challenging IT environments.
ASPs and MSPs
Third-party IT systems management companies come in two basic flavors: managed service providers (MSPs), which focus on an organization’s software infrastructure; and application service providers (ASPs), which address the application layer.
MSPs manage infrastructure software owned by their customers— things like operating systems, security solutions, storage applications, and networking software. They administer these systems remotely on a continuous basis, providing regular upgrades and maintenance behind the scenes.
Examples of MSPs are Totality (recently purchased by Verizon Business), NaviSite, Opsware, AimNet Solutions (recently acquired by Cognizant Technology Solutions), and SevenSpace (recently acquired by Sun Microsystems). Note the acquisition of so many MSPs by larger systems companies, suggesting a growing popularity of the services MSPs provide.
Rich Kaestner, Consortium for School Networking
What is your focus? Is it to educate kids or to support a network of computers? Your job at a school is to educate kids, so get somebody whose job it is to support computers to support our computers.
While MSPs focus on the hardware and software systems that support an organization’s applications, ASPs address the application layer itself—or rather, they did. Although that moniker is still in scattered use, ASP has become something of a four-letter word in the industry, says Jeff Kaplan, founder of ThinkStrategies.
“[That’s] because of the demise of so many of the pioneers in this space during the dot-com era,” Kaplan explains.“Those first service providers were basically reselling the traditionalon-premises applications in a hosted fashion. It wasjust plain old client-server. They simply offloaded the burdenof having to deploy and manage the application and its underlyinginfrastructure.”
ASPs are quickly being replaced by software as a service (SaaS), which is often marketed as on-demand software. The new generation of SaaS providers, led with headline-grabbing flair by Salesforce.com, is going beyond client-server. Companies such as CollabNet, Ariba, Progress Software, and Apptix are offering net-native applications designed to take advantage of the web—in fact, to provide additional functionality because of the web.
“They do provide the ASP-type service that offloads or eliminates the need for additional infrastructure and management support skills to administer the applications themselves,” Kaplan says. “But SaaS is a whole new ballgame.”
Many industry heavyweights, among them Oracle, Sun Microsystems, Google, and Microsoft, are jumping on the SaaS bandwagon.
Why Turn to External Services?
The advantages of outsourcing IT systems management services are clear, says Bill Rust, research director at Gartner, where he covers K-12 education. One of the chief benefits is that third-party providers tend to have the cuttingedge expertise to support elaborate, sophisticated IT environmentsthat most districts cannot maintain.
“A lot of districts simply don’t have the qualified staff to provide the services efficiently,” says Rust, who prior to signing on with Gartner spent 30 years in the Baltimore County Public Schools, where he was director of technology. “They’ve hired classroom teachers who retain their tenure and salary, but find themselves doing technical work. Or they’ve inherited staff that were basically typewriter-repair people. Neither is really qualified to do this kind of work. By including support as part of their contracts with hardware vendors, they’re better able to get the support they need delivered on time and cost-effectively.”
Outsourcing can also help to even out a funding and expenditure stream, says Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent and CIO at Fairfax County Public Schools (VA). “Sometimes it’s easier to get funding for a per-device support contract,” she says. “Budgets are always tight, and in some districts, if you try to hire anyone but a teacher—forget it.”
The value of hosted applications is equally clear. Essentially renting components and subscribing to services from an ASP eliminates the need to make large investments in software licenses, server and network hardware, and the dedicated support personnel needed for on-premises support and maintenance.
TCO in the Classroom
Clear as these advantages are, it can be difficult to quantify outsourcing and external systems management from a mission standpoint. “You’re going to be hard-pressed to say,‘We’re going to outsource our tech support and now all ourkids are going to do better on tests,’” says Gartner’s Rust.“The key here is to take a holistic view of what the technologydoes, and to focus on what we used to call the ‘opportunityto learn.’ This is where you can see if the juice is worththe squeeze.”
Bill Rust, Gartner
The IT environment in K-12 education is often more complex than it is in many corporate environments, because of the variety of software packages used by students, the number of users per computer, and the high degree of dependence on multimedia.
Three years ago, Gartner was hired by the Consortium for School Networking to solve this very problem: how to determine the cost effectiveness of technology programs and purchases. The project was part of CoSN’s Taking Total Cost of Ownership to the Classroom initiative, which was launched in 1999 to help school leaders understand all the costs associated with managing their computer networks. In 2003, the consortium released the CoSNGartner K-12 TCO Tool.
Available free online to registered members, the web-based mechanism is specifically designed to help K-12 schools measure the cost and effectiveness of their technology initiatives. CoSN has published on the website several case studies of districts that have implemented the TCO tool.
“There’s a fundamental question that gets asked during this process,” says Rich Kaestner, director of CoSN’s TCO project. “What is your focus? Is it to educate kids or to support a network of computers? Well, your job as a school is to educate kids, so get somebody whose job it is to support computers to support our computers.”
According to Kaestner, the CoSN-Gartner TCO Tool has been used by more than 1,500 school districts to date. TCO considerations figure prominently in the ongoing technology planning and maintenance at Fairfax County. This suburban Washington, DC, district maintains one of the largest and most sophisticated educational technology systems in the country. It’s the largest district in Virginia and 12th-largest in the nation, composed of 235 facilities, 189,000 students, 30,000 employees, 92,000 workstations, and 7,500 wireless access points, with an annual budget of close to $2 billion.“We support more computers than many Fortune 500 companies,”says CIO Maribeth Luftglass.
Measuring total costs versus total benefits is a critical component of Fairfax’s budgeting decisions. “[We] encourage analysis and comparison of TCO with the benefits of ownership in our technology purchases,” Luftglass says. “This gives us a balanced perspective and basis for prioritization in tight budget situations.”
Fairfax handles much of its tech support and infrastructure/ application management internally. The district operates its own help desk, utilizes pools of support personnel in each school, and maintains a network operations center that is staffed 24/7. But its overall strategy combines this homegrown support and services with selective outsourcing. Its local area network, for example, is supported in-house, while the widearea network is supported by Verizon.
Interestingly, Fairfax once outsourced its help desk, but found that managing that service in-house was not only less expensive, it also allowed for the development of a staff with educational backgrounds and experience working in schools, who proved to provide far more efficient service.
Fairfax has invested heavily in its internal support structure, which has resulted in extremely low turnover, says Luftglass, who also credits the work environment the company provides.“We can’t offer what the big corporations can offer, but we’re competitive,” she says. “We offer a lot of benefits, includingno travel outside Fairfax County. We can’t offer stock options,but those types of benefits are losing their allure in the businessworld. We’ve also done a good job of providing trainingand a clear career path within our organization.
“Much of the available funding [for technology in the schools] is earmarked for hardware, software, and training,” Luftglass says, stressing the role of training. “But support is key to the success of that technology, and yet it still tends to be neglected or underemphasized.”
Fairfax turns to external resources primarily for tasks that call for levels of expertise that are difficult or impractical to possess in-house. “We tend to outsource in terms of human capital to cover short-term needs,” Luftglass explains, “if we need, say, a security audit or an administrator with high-end database expertise—people you are unlikely to find in-house and can’t really afford to hire full time.”
The district also turns to external providers for some of its own software development projects, such as its Educational Decision Support Library, for which it received a patent in July. And support for its managed Blackboard learning application is provided by the vendor.
Its sheer size makes Fairfax County inherently receptive to a more enterprise- like model of IT services and support. (It’s actually the largest employer in Virginia.) Yet even smaller districts are struggling with the maintenance of their progressively more complex technology resources. That complexity, coupled with tight budgets, is driving new interest in these kinds of software and support delivery models across a range of schools.
“The complexity of our IT environment was—and is— growing at an amazing rate,” says Monte Cassino’s Stutsman, whose two-person information technology department is charged with supporting 400 PCs, a WiFi-enabled network, and a bustling website frequented by 3,000 administrators, faculty, students, parents, and alumni. “The truth is, we just can’t do everything.”
“Sometimes people don’t understand that the IT environment in K-12 education is often more complex than it is in many corporate environments,” explains Gartner’s Rust,“because of the variety of software packages used by students,the number of users per computer, and the high degree ofdependence on multimedia. You just don’t see that in officesettings.”
Now is a particularly good time for schools to take a first or second look at the potential benefits of outsourcing some of their IT systems management tasks, says ThinkStrategies’ Kaplan. “Any school administrator should seriously consider both service alternatives [MSPs and ASPs], because they have matured to the point where they can be leveraged and taken advantage of with far less risk than back in the dot-com era,” he advises. “And they really can’t afford not to, given the budget constraints and escalating pressures to leverage technology to a greater extent in the learning process.”
CoSN’s Kaestner says a successful relationship with an outside service provider must be built on a foundation of selfknowledge— meaning that before a school district can articulate its needs to a provider, it must first determine what they are. The bedrock of the district-provider relationship is the servicelevel agreement. “The SLA is the greatest tool you have,” he says. “It gets everyone on the same page, forces the school to get clear about the support it needs, and gives the provider a specific set of expectations to live up to. And you need someone at the school district level to manage that relationship, to make sure that the outsourcer is living up to the agreement.”
It’s also vital to investigate thoroughly the viability of the service provider in relation to the service model you’re seeking. This is especially true of MSPs, which, as noted before, are attracting a lot of attention from a range of companies.“There are a number of players jumping into the managed servicesmarket who are traditional value-added resellers whohaven’t yet worked out the kinks,” warns Kaplan. “There’s abig difference in terms of the operationalstructure, the service delivery systems,and even the staff skill sets of atraditional VAR or IT service company,which tends to be project oriented andreactive. A good MSP recognizes that itsresponsibility is ongoing and proactive; it’s there to mitigaterisk, as opposed to simply reacting to problems.”
In Fairfax, district officials have mitigated this particular risk with extensive use of the request for proposal (RFP). “We always do a lot of industry research on products, services, and organizations,” says Luftglass. “And we have a very structured RFP process, during which we make the vendors come in and prove themselves in our technology assessment lab. We also do a lot of reference checking.”
But even the RFP has to be handled thoughtfully. “Our surveys show that school administrators tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take to work with the outsourcer to get it right,” says Peter Kastner, research vice president for enterprise technology of Aberdeen Group, a Boston-based research firm. “Why? Because they tend to ask for the wrong things in the RFP.”
Kastner recommends holding off on long-term agreements until a solid relationship has been established. “There’s probably no reason to go for a multiyear contract on your first goround,” he says. “It’s better to get some experience with the provider before putting out for a long-term contract.”
Finally, Luftglass advises, always have a Plan B. “Companies merge, prices change, vendors get into trouble,” she says.“Anything can happen. So you can’t let yourself get locked into any kind of technology. You have to be sure that you havethe wherewithal to move if you have to.”
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John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.