Information Technology as a Service

I was talking with an owner of an IT support company a month ago. I asked him what he meant by "good service."

"Oh,' he said, "We provide great service for our clients. Whenever they call, we have someone there within 30 minutes."

"OK, but how long does it take you to fix the problem?" I responded.

Well, that answer wasn't so clear. Sometimes the technician could fix it within an hour. Sometimes they had to come back for parts. Sometimes they needed to hand it off to someone with more experience or expertise. The short answer was that he had no idea how long it took his company to provide a return to service, or even what the average or worst case scenario meant.

"Don't your customers care how long it takes to get their service back?" I asked.

Dodging that question, he responded, "No, our customers think it is great that we are there within 30 minutes."

I shared this story with a small business owner last week. She exclaimed, "Yeah, I know exactly what you mean!" She went on to tell me that her in-house servers are connected to a battery backup and that twice in the past two years, the battery died and she didn't know. She only found out about the problem when she went into the utility room for some other reason and heard the alarm beeping. Thankfully, the power never went out and the battery backup was never called into service.

"So why don't you get the battery serviced every 4-6 months then?" I questioned.

"Oh, we're a small business and can't afford things like that!" was her reply.

This view that IT is an expense--or worse--a necessary evil is all too common. It's a case of, "I guess we'll have to fix it if it breaks." Few businesses would show such disregard for other services, "Oh, well, the power is off again. I guess we'll have to stop the production line and go for coffee until it comes back up."

What would it look like if businesses saw IT as a service instead of an expense?

Well, first IT would need to be reliable. How reliable? That would depend on how valuable it was to the business. It is possible to have IT services so reliable that they would almost never go down: 5-9s, or 99.999% reliability--an industry benchmark--means 5 minutes of downtime a year. Such reliability comes at a price. But most businesses don't need this level or reliability and almost none need this reliability all the time.

Secondly, IT service needs to be measurable. People aren't going to pay for something that they can't measure. IT as a service means being able to explain what the business is getting for the price they are paying.

Finally, IT services need to be managed. Not just on a best effort basis, but seriously managed. Outages and incidents need to be analyzed. Change needs to be discussed, debated, and its implications addressed before any new innovation or update is put into an environment.

Fortunately, these changes are very affordable. In fact, the cost of providing IT as a service can actually be less--much less--that viewing IT as an expense.Looking at the equation this way, the cost of providing a battery backup service is much less than the cost of paying for a battery expense:

  1. This business has paid $500 or more for a service that it unreliable and won't protect her systems if it dies. She could have easily avoided this expense in the first place for all the good it is doing her.
  2. This business runs the risk of losing critical and valuable business data if the system crashes due to a power failure. What is the financial cost of the lost business, lost productivity from employees,  time to recover the data, and loss of brand and business reputation?
  3. Now compare this with the cost of putting a calendar event on her e-mail system and regularly swapping out the battery for a reconditioned one--or better yet, buying a second battery to connect in parallel.

Which is more economical?

Or the customers who seem "happy" with having someone on site in 30 minutes (I seriously doubt the manager's claim that his customers are that happy). Wouldn't it be better if the environment could be monitored remotely and a technician come by with the correct hardware, skills and knowledge to repair a problem before a service interruption ever happened? Breakages are always more expensive than preventative maintenance--that's why we change the oil in our cars. Even if the customer paid the same amount for a service agreement that they currently pay for "break fix" they would be financially better off since they would not have the expense, interruption and loss of productivity that comes from a service outage.