5 Tips for Managing IT Across Multiple Offices
One location, for a growing business, is typically not enough. With enough personnel and capital, many businesses prefer to set up multiple offices to attract different regions of customers.
With separate offices how can your business install a network so all the locations can work, communicate, and share information easily, instantaneously, and effectively?
The technologies that allow this are rapidly changing. Even a few years ago, most consulting companies would recommend you install legacy infrastructure (servers, databases, etc.), capital expenditures that required large time and money investments. But in the past year or so, new advancements in communication technology—including improvements to virtual private networks, remote desktops, and the cloud—allow instantaneous information and file sharing with an extremely cheap price tag.
Here are some ways to make setting up your business's new IT network smart, safe, and cost-efficient.
1. Choose a Mode of Communication
To connect many distant employees at once, all office locations must be able to access the same network resources. Most times, a centralized location—a "mother ship," if you will—would house the core infrastructure needed to establish the network, such as the servers and databases. Branch offices, on the other hand, require no such infrastructure; the remote offices link to the mother ship via a specific type of connection.
Traditionally, companies used to install Wide Area Networks (WANs) to connect remote offices. WANs are used to connect LANs—Local Area Networks from disparate offices—together. However, installation and overhead of LANs and WANs is expensive.
"Prior to now, and in years gone by, implementing WANs required a lot of resources, but in the last several years with the advent of the cloud, it's gotten very cheap and very simple to implement," says David Eisner, President and CEO of Dataprise, an IT service provider based in Rockville, Maryland. "These days, what most offices are doing, as opposed to implementing dedicated WAN connectivity, businesses can rely and depend on Virtual Private Networks—VPNs—that run over the Internet."
VPNs, which provide secure connections between individual users and their organization's network over the Internet, have several upsides. They provide more secure site-to-site connections, they transfer information much faster than WANs, and most importantly to small and medium-sized businesses, VPNs are much less expensive, since you can use a single leased line to the Internet for each office, cutting down on broadband costs.
While VPNs are highly recommended and trusted, a new technology gaining traction with companies is the remote desktop. Remote desktops requires software or an operating system that allows applications to run remotely on a server, but to be displayed locally simultaneously. This network server hosts remote files and applications in a secure location, ensuring your data is never lost, even when something happens to the device you're working on.
"Remote desktops help you control where the data is located," says Tim Crawford, CIO and vice president of IT at All Covered, a national IT service provider based in Redwood City, California. "So now, you don't have data roaming out there in the world; we hear all the time where a laptop gets stolen, or someone's house gets broken into and a computer gets stolen. You want to control that data."
Companies need to set up a reliable and secure system for exchanging and saving data. After all, if can't protect your own data, why should your clients trust their data is safe with you?
Dig Deeper: What is a VPN?
2. Consider Cloud Computing
"Hands down, unless there is an exception, new companies absolutely should be starting with cloud-based services," Crawford says. "In a lot of small businesses starting up today, there's no reason to start with physical, legacy infrastructure. It's far too limiting, especially when [these new companies] are still trying to figure out what their projections will be for their business. How many servers do they buy? If they buy too few, then they're limited on their capacity as they grow. If they buy too many, now they've overcommitted their capital resources. With the cloud services, it gives them the flexibility they need to at least get started."
The cloud is handy as it is thrifty, as it can perform several functions that seriously simplify IT management for the company. The cloud offers 24/7 remote monitoring, anti-spam tools, e-mail archiving tools, remote data backup tools, desktop management technology, and workstation management tools, which are the maintenance programs that update antivirus definitions in the middle of the night.
Companies today can exclusively use the cloud for all sharing purposes, but be warned: The cloud is not perfect.
"There's some negative considerations of the cloud too, like data security, reliability, performance, and the question, 'Where does your data live?'" Eisner says. "But the benefit, from a speed perspective, that you could activate e-mail in a few days as opposed to waiting for servers and technology to be installed, and the ability to turn all IT off with the flick of a switch, all of that is a huge benefit."
While the cloud may not be completely ready for singular use, most IT consultants agree that utilizing some form of cloud-based tools is absolutely essential to every new company.
Dig Deeper: Assess Security of Cloud Computing Apps
3. Hire an On-site Person
Technical hiccups occur all the time, so companies need a dependable go-to solution for handling IT issues.
"We always recommend an on-site primary technical consultant," Eisner says. "That person would rotate among locations on site, be that primary face person that would do consulting, and advisory services, and being in the trenches, as it were."
Smaller companies with 25 to 150 employees spread across two to three locations might only need a single IT person; larger companies, on the other hand, usually have more demanding technical challenges, so it might be a good idea to assign a small number of individuals to different locations. However, only hire consultants from the same organization, and the fewer consultants per office, the better.
"You want the consistency across the offices," Crawford says. "If you hire individual consultants for each office, the problem is they don't work together because they're in different geographies. They're supposed to perform the same functions, but what they perform is different from how they perform it. [IT] is a highly customized industry, and while it may look simplistic on the outside, the reality is that there are many different ways you can deliver those services."
Even with the advent of the cloud, an on site presence is still a critical component to providing comprehensive technical support.
Dig Deeper: 3 Remote Tech Support Services
4. Have Remote Support Ready
Murphy's Law tells us that "Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong." This is especially true with technology.
Backup plans are a necessity with tech; you can never be too careful. Without the proper failsafes in place, your company could be at risk to lose unimaginable amounts of business and money. From catastrophic data losses to daily technical issues, it's likely that two or more branches will require IT assistance at once. When your primary IT person is unavailable, what do you do?
"We have, and organizations should consider, a help desk or remote support desk for escalation and immediate resolution of issues when the primary onsite person is not available," Eisner says. "The idea is that if the primary person is rotating among sites, or if the primary person is stuck at a particular issue, you have the users from whatever location contact the remote support desk," Eisner says.
IT service providers like All Covered offer help centers, such as a customer support center (CSC) and a network operations center (NOC). If there's a technical problem, the NOC will usually detect it, but if not, the clients can call the CSC just in case.
And remember, make sure you have systems in place so you know how to contact these support teams. Develop a plan in advance about how you plan on communicating with your support team, considering technologies like screen sharing or instant two-way chat boxes, or other messaging services.
Dig Deeper: Providing Remote Tech Support for Workers
5. Be Consistent
No matter how you choose to connect your remote offices, it's important that your decision is consistent and standard for all of your offices.
"You have to standardize," Crawford says. "You can't have unique implementations in each office. It's almost like a cookie cutter approach you want to take with each of your offices within a company: You want to make sure those offices are pretty standardized, in terms of configurations, and technology, and support that's used. That way, regardless of the office, regardless of the individual, they're getting a consistent product or service."
Even if you choose to mix legacy infrastructure with new, cloud computing, you need to design the same system for every office. A consistent system means business owners can spend less time trying to solve the nuances from office to office—especially when problems arise—and have more time to dedicate to the actual business. Business owners shouldn't need to muck around with the operational pieces; they need to focus on making money in sales, growing the business, and administrating.
Some may think standardization means no customization. This is a false assumption, says Crawford.
"The services are configured for their particular business needs; the point is, we need to deliver a standardized approach that's predictable for our customers," Crawford says. "The way you get things to work is through predictability, and the way to get predictability is through standardization."
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