While hardware and software support has become a key IT issue, vendors' statutory warranties rarely provide the level of expertise and speed of response that network managers need. Many have learned the hard way that leaving their support to a vendor is inadequate. This situation has led to a demand for a new kind of specialist IT outsourcing company - network support consultants. In some cases, traditional product vendors are trying to fill the gap John Cotter, manager of services marketing at Nortel Networks, said that Nortel's implementation agency is increasingly being asked to take ownership of networks, from design to implementation and rollout through to long-term maintenance and support. "This is the ultimate service level agreement (SLA)," said Cotter. "It revolves around the requirements of each enterprise for network availability. "The advantage of explicitly defined SLAs is that they leave little or no room for ambiguity, and our performance can easily be measured," he said. Delivering the goods Vendors, said Cotter, are aware of the responsibility of taking this type of SLA because the success of the customers' business depends on their availability and their ability to deliver as promised. Tony Cooper, manager of Computacenter's enterprise networking division, said however that current systems of support are flawed. "It is a reactive model that focuses on fixing faults. What we need is an approach that reduces the occurrences and structures the network to keep running when faults occur," he said. Cooper said the current support and maintenance model ties customers to expensive SLAs with minimum fix-time clauses. These are justified by monthly figures that show how many times the engineers turn out and how much work they do. "Few customers view this as sustainable for the long-term stability of their network," he said. Computacenter's approach, Cooper said, is to look at the network as a function of the enterprise and identify the best practice in networking design and technologies to 100 per cent uptime. "If you start from that base you change the paradigm. Instead of asking the customer to spend money on a service contract, you develop a highly resilient and fault-tolerant network, without a single point of failure, that can be maintained either in-house or by using an external provider." Cooper believes that as technologies move forward, the stand-by engineer will become outdated. "Increasing commoditisation among lower-end networking products such as hubs and switches will enable network managers to store additional products on site and have them replaced at short notice by their own in-house staff," he said. In hardware terms, this will reduce the role of the network service provider to that of logistical part replacement. "However, service providers could add value in areas like remote management and support," said Cooper. "The tools are already there, but there is a reluctance, especially in the financial sector, to allow third parties to look after what is rightly seen as a business-critical and security-sensitive core service." The importance of trust The answer is either to have the high-level skills in-house on constant stand-by, which is absurdly expensive, or to have trusted relationships with third parties that understand the business and can act as an external extension of the internal network support department. "Solution providers can no longer provide kit and then move on," said Neil Meddick, head of Computacenter's networking division. "The key is to have third parties that understand what UK corporates want. That comes from working with them in the long term, helping them to develop their networks and identify how to improve performance in conjunction with improving the business processes," he said. Once companies have a resilient network as a base, said Meddick, they can look at the total costs of ownership in terms of managing the entire IT enterprise rather than the network in isolation or individual desktop applications. Support is becoming more complex as technology broadens. Network managers have to deal with emerging voice technologies, and telecoms managers have to deal with converged data networks. Mark Randall, managing director of ATL Networks, said: "The situation is going to get worse before it gets better, due to the convergence of networking, the internet and voice and data communications. "Rather than a convergence, it feels more like a huge collision. These technologies are careering into each other and causing havoc for the network managers and vendors," he said. John Harkin, director of customer services at 3Com, believes that vendors and support providers must monitor their customers and adapt their support packages to the changing needs and technologies of users. "We spend a lot of time asking customers, 'How was it for you?' in both direct and indirect surveys, and we have a lively user group that gives us constant interaction," he said. Most 3Com customers are happy with the support service they receive but say there are opportunities to improve and enhance the operation. "This may mean changing service products, tailoring support for customer requirements, inventing new support services or just changing the support process to make the existing one better," said Harkin. Feeling the heat But the vendors are not under the most pressure to deliver support. It is the solution providers and systems integrators that are at the front line, falling back on telephone hotline support from the vendors where necessary. Randall said: "We expect the products to be interoperable so that no vendor washes its hands of a problem of interoperability and conformity - it is the solution provider that is working with the customer." "It is possible to have stable, secure, reliable networks that carry data, internet and voice," said Randall, "but it is a matter of choosing the right integrator rather than the right products, and there is no point in beating up the vendors when a network fails." A good integrator can support the customer, not only by ensuring that the networking structure is completely robust, but by guiding them through the minefield of constantly redefined standards and technologies, said Randall. "Networking support is a constantly moving target. The front line should not be left to the vendors, and if any user enterprises rely solely on the vendors, they cannot be surprised when they get a fragmented service which they find hard to manage." David Redden, general manager of Internetworking Management Systems (IMS), a company which provides products, consultancy and support, said that the best approach is to do whatever it takes. He explained: "If our customers have trusted us with a mission-critical installation, and we are contracted to support it, then we will go as far as necessary to provide our expertise whenever it is needed." Is everyone in agreement? Redden said that this approach is what differentiates IMS from the competition and accounts for customer relationships that have endured more than 15 years. "Part of support is to get managing directors and financial directors, who are more concerned with the business case, to agree with the required level of support requested by the networking managers, who are more concerned with achieving 100% uptime," said Redden. Quality counts The emerging obsession among users is network quality of service (QoS), particularly where there is convergence of voice and data. Nigel Pitcher, director of marketing at Fibernet, said that choosing a provider that can deliver consistent QoS would reduce support costs. "Supporting a fundamentally weak and vulnerable network is harder than supporting a network based on a robust infrastructure, such as the TANet system," said Pitcher. TANet is a nationwide, hardwired fibre-optic infrastructure that has more than 40 points of presence across the UK, with access speeds of up to 2.5 Gigabits per second. Because it is a closed, controlled network, reliability is greater and support is easier. "The lack of consistent QoS for voice calls has caused many people to shy away from converged networks, yet there is a solution which can deliver the required robustness and resilience," said Pitcher. Trevor Howell of integrator Telemark said that most enterprises are willing to pay for the level of support necessary for 100 per cent uptime. "However, many expect support to be bundled with the product and solution, which is unrealistic," he said. Howell explained that in the US, UK, Sweden and Japan, expectation of free high-level support is widespread. "Products do have a support warranty, but that is a million miles away from the levels of support that are necessary to keep an enterprise-wide network up and running," he said. Meanwhile, large companies with extensive network investments are shunning the black and white clauses of SLAs and their rigid penalty clauses. Instead, they are opting for a close relationship with a service provider or systems integrator, which reduces the risk of problems. In the event that there are problems, they are dealt with promptly. Any problem should happen only once, according to Howell, because resolving a fault should also reveal why it happened and, as a result, prevent a repeat. The effectiveness of support depends almost entirely on the organisation having a positive ongoing relationship with the network supplier, and it is up to the supplier to proactively nurture that relationship. Once this is in place, then quality support service will follow on naturally. THE COST OF SUPPORT Depending on the level of support required, the cost will be between five per cent and 22 per cent of the list price of the software. One rule of thumb is to quote support at 12 per cent of capital expenditure. But in some cases, support pricing is no longer related to the purchase price and flat rates are more commonly applied, particularly for on-site services. Consulting, network design and project management is usually calculated on a day rate, while long-term support is charged at a monthly or annual rate that decreases as the size of the project grows. Support charges vary, depending on what is included. If the customer enterprise is totally dependent on the network, then the cost of support can be directly related to the cost of down time. In most cases it is easily proved that lack of network availability or poor network performance will cost the company significantly more in lost productivity or lost sales than the cost of an appropriate level of support. Weigh up the time and business loss involved each time there is a fault. One thing is sure: getting network support on the cheap can be a false economy in the long term. CUSTOMERS WANT REAL SERVICE, NOT JUST SERVICE WITH A SMILE Computacenter asked a group of potential customers their views on network support in the UK in 1999. Here is what the respondents said: - Network managers want a service provider that understands their business-critical needs. - Network managers rate being kept informed, first-time fixes of problems and prompt on-site engineer response as high priorities. - Many respondents are not happy with their service providers. - Only 22 per cent rank network management services as more important than support. - Only 4.5 per cent rank network management services as extremely important. - Almost 50 per cent say that remote diagnosis is important; 13 per cent say it is extremely important. - A third want their support agency to remotely deliver software upgrades and patches, but only nine per cent rank their support agency's ability to deliver remote upgrades and patches as extremely important.
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