This is my third and final post in this series. I’ve covered SAN and server virtualization and now I’d like to share my thoughts on the challenges of SMB IT shops vs enterprise IT.
To start, I should probably give some context on the size of an SMB IT shop. Since we are talking about infrastructure, I am really referring to IT departments that have less than a handful of administrators assigned to infrastructure, with the most common IT shop allocating only one or two resources to infrastructure. Since the makeup of businesses varies so much in terms of numbers of IT users vs. external services, etc, all of the lines do get a little blurred. It is not a perfect science but here’s hoping my points will be clear enough.
Small and medium businesses, sometimes referred to as small and midmarket, have some very unique challenges compared to larger enterprise customers. One of those challenges is being a jack of all trades, master of none. Now, there are some very talented and dedicated administrators out there who can master many aspects of IT over time but often the day to day tasks of keeping the IT ship afloat make it impossible for administrators to gain expertise in any particular area. There just isn’t the budget nor training time to have enough expertise on staff. Without a large team of persons who bring together many types of expertise, administrators must make use of technology solutions that help them do more with less.
Complexity is the enemy of the small IT department during all phases of the solution lifecycle including implementation, management, and maintenance. Complex solutions that combine a number of different vendors and products can be more easily managed in the enterprise but become a burden on smaller IT shops that must stretch their limited knowledge and headcount. Projects then turn into long nights and weekends and administrators are still expected to manage normal business hour tasks. Some administrators use scripting to automate much of their IT management and end up with a highly customized environment that becomes hard to migrate away from when business needs evolve.
Then there is the issue of brain drain. Smaller IT shops cannot easily absorb the loss of key administrators who may be the only ones intimately familiar with how all of the systems interconnect and operate. When those administrators leave for whatever reason, suddenly at times, they leave a huge gap in knowledge that cannot easily be filled. This is much less of a problem in the enterprise where an individual administrator is one of a team and has many others who can fill in that gap. The loss of a key administrator in the SMB can be devastating to the IT operations going forward.
To combat brain drain in the SMB, those IT shops benefit from fewer vendors and products to simplify the IT environment, requiring less specialized training and with the ability of a new administrator quickly coming up to speed on the technology in use. High levels of automation built in to the vendor solution for common IT tasks and simple, unified management tools help the transition from one administrator to the next.
For SMB, budgets can vary wildly from shoestring on up. The idea of doing more with less is much more on the minds of SMB administrators. SMBs are not as resilient to unexpected costs associated with IT disasters and other types of unexpected downtime. Support is one of the first lines of insurance for SMBs and dealing with multiple vendors and support run-around can be paralyzing at those critical moments, especially for SMBs who could not budget for the higher levels of support. Having resilient, reliable infrastructure with responsive, premium support can make a huge difference in protecting SMBs from various types of failure and disaster that could be critical to business success.
Ok, enough about the SMB, time to discuss the big guys.
Both SMB and enterprise organizations have processes, although the level of reliance on process in much higher in the enterprise. An SMB organization can typically adapt process easily and quickly to match technology, where an enterprise organization can be much more fixed in process and technology must be changed to match the process. The enterprise therefore employs a large number of administrators, developers, consultants, and other experts to create complex systems to support their business processes.
The enterprise can withstand more complexity because they are able to have more experts on staff who can focus management efforts on single silos of infrastructure such as storage, servers, virtualization, security, etc. With multiple administrators assigned to each silo, there is guaranteed management coverage to deal with any unexpected problems. Effectively, the IT department (or departments) in the enterprise have a high combined level of expertise and manpower, or have the budget to bring in outside consultants and service providers to fill these gaps as a standard practice.
Unlike with SMB, simplicity is not necessarily a benefit to the enterprise since they need the flexibility to adapt to business process. Infrastructure can therefore be a patchwork of systems serving different needs from high performance computing, data warehousing, data distribution, disaster recovery, etc. Solutions for these enterprise operations must be extensible and adaptable to the user process to meet the compliance and business needs of these organizations.
Enterprise organizations are usually big enough that they can tolerate different types of failures better than SMB, although as we have seen in recent news, even companies like Delta Airlines are not immune to near catastrophic failures. Still, disk failures or server failures that could bring an SMB to a standstill might barely cause a ripple in a large enterprise given the size of their operations.
The SMB benefits from infrastructure simplicity because it helps eliminate a number of challenges and unplanned costs. For the enterprise, the focus is more on flexibility, adaptability, and extensibility where business processes reign supreme. IT challenges can be more acute in the SMB simply because the budgets and resources are more limited in both headcount and expertise. Complex infrastructure designed for the enterprise is not always going to translate into effective or viable solutions for SMB. Solution providers need to be aware that the SMB may need more than just a scaled down version of an enterprise solution.