The primary goal of almost any company is to successfully grow – and it is no exaggeration to say that in the vast majority of cases a business must face and overcome a number of challenges to do so. One notable challenge facing companies seeking to expand their business is likely to be managing the growth of their IT infrastructure. Doing so is essential because in today’s information intensive marketplace, overseeing IT assets is often a mission critical task: one that helps support a wide variety of business operations including sales, manufacturing, service, logistics and more.
When adding IT capacity to support your company’s growth, devising a plan is essential. Technology of this type involves a variety of interconnected systems, making it crucial that you take a strategic approach to managing expansion and modification of such systems rather than simply reacting to issues as they occur. The 5 tips for managing growth listed below provide a comprehensive set of measures for organising and structuring your IT infrastructure to support your company’s growth.
1. Using the right team/people to implement the changes
The complexity of IT has increased substantially in just the past decade. Where business applications were once supported mainly by wired landline telephones and on-premise computer systems, the landscape now includes scenarios where some companies communicate strictly via wireless telephony and use computer resources stored primarily in the cloud. Others use a mix of approaches, including both cloud and on-premise storage of data, as well as, both wireless and wired telecommunications capacity.
As a result of this complexity, scaling up IT infrastructure to support your company’s growth requires extensive experience in the field as well as access to the technology appropriate for a particular installation. The team or group you select to help take your company’s IT platform to the next level needs to have the skill to do so without impeding the functioning of your business in the process. They need to be able to both implement and communicate the details of a plan that enables your company to smoothly transition to new or upgraded systems without extended downtime or service interruptions.
When seeking out a team or company to help implement IT changes, look for the following:
- A track record of successful implementations
- The ability to provide a wide variety of technical solutions to ensure the system selected is best suited to the intended application
- Personnel with expertise in both technical and support issues
- Excellent communication abilities
The team that you select to implement the changes, whether it consists of employees, outside consultants, or some mix of the two, should have a balanced set of skills. This includes both technical knowledge as well as the ability to train others in using the applicable technology. The team should also include individuals with the ability to prepare an overall strategic plan for designing and deploying IT assets to enhance a firm’s capacity for growth.
Using a consulting firm to implement your IT growth plans allows you to maintain your company’s focus on its core competencies rather than expending the significant time and effort needed to train employees to master the skills involved. Such an approach can pay dividends in a business climate in which technological change is a constant and staying on top of the latest developments in the field is a full time job.
Whatever the ultimate composition of your implementation team, make sure that each member has a clearly defined role and leadership duties are assigned for each discrete task and for the project as a whole. Just as with a well-managed football club; teamwork is the key to achieving success when it comes to complex IT integrations and installations.
2. Software: Open Source vs. Licensed
Growing firms need software solutions able to help facilitate that growth. Applications that provided sufficient functionality for a small company may no longer suffice as a company’s growth accelerates. As a result, selecting software that has the scalability to grow along with your firm, or provides an easy migration path or interface to other solutions to accommodate that growth, can pay dividends over the long haul.
In addition to scalability, a number of other considerations apply when it comes to selecting software for your firm, including expense, usability and ease of customisation.
One key question a growing business must answer when selecting software is whether to choose an open source or licensed solution.
Software is characterised as open source when the developers of the software publish the source code for public scrutiny and allow outside developers and programmers to modify the code or develop add-ons for it. The increasing availability of robust open source solutions comparable to many popular licensed business software programs means that in many cases you can confidently run your business operations on open source software. The main determinants for choosing between open source and licensed software revolve around overall functionality, support and expense.
A closer look at these factors follows below:
While open source software often contains up-to-date and robust functionality, the predictability of upgrades and addition of new features may be less transparent than with licensed software. This is due to the difference in business models, with licensed software solutions typically able to rely on more or less dependable cash flows and plan accordingly for product updates and development. Open source software, as it is typically funded by less predictable cash flows from advertisements, rather than subscription revenue is therefore dependent to some degree on design contributions by outside developers. For this reason, it may not be able to offer as robust an upgrade cycle or set of features as licensed software.
However, it should be stressed that as open source software grows in popularity, the scenario outlined above does not always apply. By revealing source code, open source products can in some cases offer a richer set of functions than licensed software. This results from the development opportunities unleashed by giving a broad range of programmers access to the code, enabling the development of a wide degree of functionality.
When combined with development teams committed to keeping the product updated and competitive with licensed software competitors over time such software can, in certain situations, prove to be an excellent choice. Given the significant cost advantages that can be associated with using software of this type, if cost is an issue, open source software definitely merits consideration.
As detailed below in the Expense section, keep in mind your long-term organisational objectives when considering software features. A product that offers robust initial functionality but little clarity as to future feature set upgrades may be less desirable than a solution that offers a more targeted set of features with the ability to upgrade seamlessly over time as your firm’s needs change.
While open source software in many cases offers support in the form of message boards and extensive online user manuals and documentation, it often lacks the dedicated support typically provided by companies that develop licensed software programs. However, with many firms relying on their own IT departments or IT consulting firms for software support, the lack of dedicated support associated with open source software is not necessarily a reason to avoid the use of such solutions.
The ability of a company’s IT department or technology consultants to support a particular software solution should be investigated prior to any purchase. The added cost of retaining such personnel, either in-house or outsourced, adds to the expense of such solutions, but open source software may still offer a cost advantage even after accounting for such costs. When investigating an open source solution, be sure to check with your technology staff or consultants to ascertain the expenses associated with supporting any particular solution.
Licensed software fees can amount to a significant expense for a business. While using open source software solutions avoids incurring licensing expenses, there may be fees involved with hiring IT personnel or consulting firms to help install a solution and to provide ongoing support. In addition, the lowered expenses associated with open source software can be misleading if the solution is found to be unsatisfactory at some point, entailing an expensive migration to another solution.
When evaluating expected expense levels with licensed or open source software, consider the issue from all angles, including license fee expense (or lack thereof), support costs and potential expenses associated with upgrades or migration. One key factor to consider is the need for customisation of a software solution. If your firm does not anticipate needing much in the way of customised functionality or significant product support, the cost savings of an open source solution are likely to be significant when compared to purchasing a licensed solution with similar functionality.
If a fair amount of customization is required, an open source solution could still be appropriate, especially if the solution features a variety of add-ons from outside developers: however, a licensed software package may either provide an easier path to customisation, if such alterations are supported by the software developer, or it may offer more robust functionality, thereby reducing the need to make changes to the software. In either case, there are likely to be expenses involved, so both options should be carefully considered before deciding upon a solution.
Selecting between licensed and open source software
Generally speaking, the most popular open source software solutions tend to be for applications with a broad potential user base – the various open source email services available these days are one such example. Another example is the open source Drupal content management system, which appeals to a worldwide community of website users looking to publish, organise and manage content.
Applications that are designed for specialised uses tend to be more suitable for licensed software, given the need for a steady source of income to make up for the fact that the potential user base is not as large.
Pros and cons of licensed and open source software include:
- Steady income stream often allows for a more predictable progression of system upgrades and feature set development
- Support typically provided by the software developer
- Enables niche application solutions
- Higher licensing fees than open source solutions
- Feature set development in some cases may lag that of crowdsourced open source software
- The software developer may not support customisation options
Open Source software
- Can offer significant cost savings
- Crowdsourced development opportunities can promote a robust feature set
- Openness of code increases customisation opportunities
- Less predictable upgrade and functionality improvement cycles
- Potential for additional expense if upgrading to another solution becomes necessary
- Lack of developer provided support
- Lack of niche application solutions
3. Hardware vs. the Cloud
As a company grows, it often finds that its demand for data storage grows proportionately. At some point, the question becomes whether storing that data on-site is still the most efficient approach to take. In addition, the trend towards software solutions being packaged as Software-as-a Service (SaaS) means that much of the data an organisation needs to access is often already on the cloud. As a result, both from the standpoint of efficacy and expense, any growing company is well advised to consider whether moving to the cloud makes sense for its business.
While each company’s circumstances are different with regards to the cloud vs. hardware debate, the potential benefits derived from moving to the cloud can in many cases be substantial. They include:
- Cost savings: The potential for significant reduction in expense from a technology and a personnel standpoint.
- Software solutions: The ability to utilise a variety of business software solutions on a SaaS, pay-as-you-go basis.
- Efficiency: Greater employee efficiency due to the cloud’s ability to allow them to work from any location with an Internet connection at anytime.
- Scalability: Cloud-based software and storage services can be increased or decreased in scope much more easily than is the case with hardware systems your company controls or owns.
- Enhanced company focus: By outsourcing IT-related functions your company can focus on its core competencies rather than devoting staff time and effort to IT management issues.
- Security: Rather than having to secure your own hardware systems and all related equipment this function is outsourced to your cloud provider.
- Collaboration: Cloud services such as Google Docs, Dropbox and other remote sharing services make it easier for your employees and partner organisations to collaborate over the web.
Customisation and the Cloud
In addition to a straightforward cost benefit analysis of the expense of storing your own data vs. using the cloud for this purpose, there are two other key questions to ask when considering such a move:
- How much IT customisation does your company require?
- What type of budget is available to provide this customisation?
The necessity for greater levels of customisation typically reduces the efficiency of locating operating software in the cloud, although the development of services such as IaaS and PaaS (as detailed below) provides a means of addressing this issue in some cases. The power of the cloud is most evident in off the shelf software solutions that provide robust functionality over the Internet. If your company doesn’t require highly customised features, using such solutions can drastically reduce IT costs when compared to supporting the development of custom solutions.
If development expense is a significant issue, achieving high levels of IT customisation may not be feasible. In such cases, a hybrid approach may be worth considering: outsourcing to the cloud a portion of a firm’s operating systems to focus precious development assets strictly on essential operations.
Another option is to use a cloud-based service allowing for greater control and development of your software assets. This can be provided via Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) offerings:
Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS): This service allows a cloud provider to offer computer resources along with storage and networking capability to a customer on-demand. Customers can decide how to provision the service themselves using web-based interfaces.
Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS): Under this service, users can operate and develop applications without needing to build and maintain the systems generally needed to design and deploy an app. PaaS services can be provided via the public cloud or on a company’s internal server network or a data center managed by the company’s IT department.
An alternative is to use virtualisation to accomplish a similar objective. Virtualisation involves using your company’s hardware assets to enable multiple “virtual” users of a particular computer or server. This allows you to establish what might be called an internal cloud, or intranet, with employees and other authorised users able to access your firm’s servers remotely.
Cloud vs. Hardware considerations
The popularity of SaaS solutions has been accompanied by the development of massive server farms allowing for industrial scale data storage at a reasonable cost. While the cost of storing data on the cloud may still exceed the cost of storing data on your own hardware on a strict cost per gigabyte basis in some cases, this situation may change when other aspects are considered. These include the cost, time and effort of backing up data as well as maintenance and service costs. In addition, providing employees and customers with remote access to your data adds another layer of expense to using your own hardware if you go the virtualisation route as opposed to moving to the cloud.
When comparing maintaining your own hardware versus using the cloud to store and access your data and applications, a variety of factors should be considered, including:
- The cost of maintaining your own hardware: This includes maintenance and support costs as well as the cost of achieving redundancy (backups and remote data storage).
- Personnel costs: Employee costs associated with maintaining your own hardware including staffing and training expenses.
- Remote access costs: The cost of providing remote access to your hardware.
- Anticipated equipment purchase costs: The cost of purchasing more hardware capacity as your company grows.
- Cloud storage and access costs: Both current and anticipated to accommodate growth.
- Migration expense and effort: The total expense accounting for internal and external personnel costs involved in moving data to the cloud.
- Connection risks: The risk of being cut off from access to your data during an Internet outage. This risk can be mitigated by providing for access to alternative means of connecting to the web in the event of an outage.
- Security risks: Risks that can be attributed to owning and maintaining your own hardware, as well as risks involved in storing your data on the web.
- Bandwidth capacity: The risk of exceeding your bandwidth capacity at any given time.
Making the most of mobile
Companies in growth mode can bolster their ability to convert increased sales into greater profits by improving their productivity. The development of mobile technology makes it possible for firms to operate more efficiently than in the days when work was primarily performed at an office location. Your sales staff can now access real-time product data in the field to keep them up-to-date on all the latest company and product developments. Making the most of mobile involves enabling your employees to use mobile devices to increase the productivity of the company’s operations.
There are a variety of ways to do so, including:
- Linking: Link your CRM (customer relationship manager) system or other relevant software systems to employee mobile devices to enable remote access to all pertinent client data.
- Subsidise: Provide employees with mobile devices.
- Use an external or internal cloud: Utilise cloud-based or virtualisation solutions to make it easier for employees to access data remotely.
In addition to enabling remote access to company applications, the tremendous increase in the popularity of devices such as smart phones and tablets has led to a dramatic upsurge in business conducted over mobile devices. From purchasing products on ecommerce stores to researching companies and consuming entertainment, consumers spend a tremendous amount of time on their mobile devices. To stoke its growth, your business should do everything possible to appeal to this massive market.
- Design your website so that it is easy for consumers on mobile devices to access in the following ways:
- Use responsive web design, which optimises your website so that it looks good to any visitor by adapting itself to the type of device they use to visit the site.
- Design a separate website for mobile users. The site will be indexed in your website pages for use by mobile visitors. This is the more expensive option, but can be justified in certain cases, for instance in the case of an ecommerce store with an extensive online catalogue.
- Add a click-to-call box so that mobile device users can immediately be connected with your company to learn more about its products or services.
- Add social media integration. Use buttons to enable visitors to engage with your firm via social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.
Designing your mobile site
Generally speaking, most small and medium sized businesses will want to farm out the process of designing or optimising their website for mobile use. A number of web hosting firms offer relatively inexpensive options that include mobile optimisation. If you are looking for more elaborate functionality you may want to hire a contractor or specialist firm to perform the necessary programming.
Putting it all together into a stable, inexpensive, easy to maintain system
A malfunctioning or inefficient IT system can pose a significant hurdle to a company’s growth. Designing a system that can withstand increased utilisation and data storage needs as your business grows is essential to maximising your firm’s growth potential.
Each element of your IT infrastructure has a part to play in the overall functioning of the system. A well-designed IT platform is one that provides robust functionality by integrating the different features that make up the system in a seamless fashion. To achieve this, in addition to acquiring quality assets for each aspect of your IT platform, it is equally important to ensure that the various pieces that make up the system as a whole work well together.
A robust IT system should accomplish the following:
- Increase productivity: Enable the completion of more tasks in the same or less time at a reduced cost.
- Increase capacity: Handle and efficiently process huge amounts of information.
- Rapidly transmit information: Move information rapidly throughout an organisation.
The system’s success relies on more than simply the technology used to implement it. It also depends upon the business practices and people that utilise it. Successful IT implementation relies upon a mix of the following factors:
To maximise its utility, the following principles should be kept in mind when creating and operating your IT infrastructure:
Manage complexity: The addition of new equipment or system capabilities can affect other elements of a system in unanticipated ways. Be cautious when adding new functionality to your system: test new equipment offline if possible to limit any potential negative consequences.
Stress usability: A system with extensive functionality that is not user-friendly leads to suboptimal performance. Equal attention should be given to your system’s usability to ensure that employees can understand and use the features it offers.
Identify system priorities: Feature creep? can lead to an IT platform that is overly expensive and less functional than a streamlined system designed to meet an organisation’s priorities. Identifying exactly what functions your system should perform is crucial to getting the most out of it without exceeding your budget.
Perform risk management: Establishing and operating IT assets involves a variety of risks, including technical failure and budgetary overruns. To mitigate these risks, practice risk management in all phases of IT system implementation by using system backups, running offline tests, and testing new functionality in a discrete environment rather than in enterprise wide deployments.
Aim for a seamless solution: Rather than operating with a variety of disconnected applications design your system to operate as a cohesive whole, even if equipment from different suppliers is in use. This will help promote the adoption and usage of the system among your employees as well as improving efficiency. For maximum efficacy, aim for a uniform “look and feel” across all system functions.
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