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Connectivity by Rawn Shah

Building a reliable NT server, Part 3

How outsourcing can fill the gaps in your IT department

March  1999
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In Part 3 of his series on building serviceable and reliable Windows NT server systems, Rawn covers outsourced or ancillary services provided by PC vendors. Ancillary support services can go a long way toward helping you build up your IT department's support services and expertise. The result is a more reliable overall system and a definite problem-resolution framework for your network. (2,300 Words)

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Last month we helped you find the right hardware and service options for your NT server. Once you've got the equipment and service plan in place, it's time to think about what services you might want to outsource. In systems and network administration, there are five primary categories of ancillary services:

  1. Training and certification
  2. System and network planning
  3. Custom tools and software development
  4. System and network management
  5. Help desks and call centers

Some top vendors, such as IBM and Dell, provide these services themselves, while others either refer users to their consulting partners or outsource services from a consulting group. Among business computing consulting companies, top organizations like Ernst & Young, Arthur Anderson, Deloitte & Touche, EDS, and Computer Sciences Corp. offer the full range of these services. A great many smaller companies also provide them, focusing on a particular area, industry, or organization size.

Training and certification
Training and certification is big business when it comes to NT systems. The Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD) programs are actively offered by a large number of small- and medium-sized companies. The programs, created by Microsoft, define full sets of classes you must be accredited with to gain various levels of certification. The programs consist of 90-minute exams at an average price of $50 to $100 per exam. That's just the price of the exam itself. If you want to receive training, that could run $100 to $1,000 per exam according to the skill and reputation of the instructor.


Total number of courses

Microsoft Certified Professional(MCP)


Any one of the MS Certification exams
MCP + Internet


TCP/IP implementation; Windows server OS implementation; and either Internet information server implementation or index server implementation
MCP + site building


Two of following: Implementing Web sites; implementing e-commerce solutions with Site Server; or implementing solutions with Visual InterDev
Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA)


SQL Server administration; implementing SQL Server; two courses implementing NT Server; one specialization course
Microsoft Certified Solution Developer (MCSD)


Two programming-language courses; analyzing/defining solution architectures; one elective on programming for various MS packages
Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE)


Two courses Windows server OS; one Windows client OS implementation; basic networking

Two electives from: SNA Server; Systems Management Server; SQL Server; TCP/IP; Exchange; Internet information server; Proxy Server; supporting Internet Explorer
MCSE + Internet


Basic networking; implementing TCP/IP; a client OS implementation course; two server OS implementation courses; one Internet information server course; one supporting Internet Explorer course; two electives for specialization
Microsoft Certified Trainer


Practically all the courses in the area you want to be a trainer for

The value of MCSE certification is debatable. There are many paper MCSEs out there; those who may have passed the exams but have little practical experience with the products they tested for. Although the tests are sometimes complex, the problems aren't always difficult to solve. Nevertheless, many companies today are favoring such focused training -- some even prefer certification over a college degree.

Aside from systems management certification, some vendors also provide hardware administration certification. For example, the Dell Certified Systems Engineer program focuses on troubleshooting and performing maintenance on Dell products. IBM, HP, Compaq, Gateway, and Micron have similar programs.


System and network planning and implementation
System and network planning and implementation services help you design and implement a network and its nodes. These are usually temporary or short-term services provided when initially creating a new network or reimplementing the current one. Once the project is complete, your own IT staff should be able to manage and operate the nodes and the network. You should still have a clause for a support contract, but whether you'll continue to need these services depends completely upon your staff's skills, projected growth, and budget.

A network server needs to be carefully evaluated before being placed on the network. In the evaluation, the following steps are essential:

All this planning usually surrounds the sort of application you plan to run on the server. This may involve extensive knowledge of how a particular application works and performs at various loads and is best left to someone with experience in the matter. In many cases, even those with experience will admit that how you use an application will affect the performance of the system -- meaning educated guesses are often the best you can hope for. On the other hand, an educated guess may spare you the experience of discovering a few weeks after the server purchase that your machine is too small for your needs.

Planning for cross-platform integration services is a separate issue. These kinds of services require multidisciplinary training in Windows, NetWare, Unix, and other operating systems. It's best to work with consultants who have acknowledged experience in all the platforms you support, rather than dealing with two or more separate groups of consultants, each supporting one platform. This simply avoids business politics.

Finally, you may need to hire a consultant to perform a network or security audit. Unless your IT department has a separate audit group, you should hire an outside consultant for these services. They'll take some of the bite out of internal bureaucracy and lend a more official tone to the audit. An audit will determine the configuration of each asset on your network, information which is then used to enhance each asset's value, performance, security, etc.

PC vendors typically provide planning services based on the size of the customer and for computers and OSs under their product umbrella only. Depending upon the size of the task and the skill-set of your IT group, you may wish to hire a separate consulting group to perform multiproduct or multiplatform planning. Your consultant should be chosen on the basis of prior experience on similar configurations; history of on-time project completion; analysis of your project requirements (the consultant should question the requirements); ability to work with your staff; ability to provide detailed reports on the configuration and problem areas; and finally, apparent dedication to the task. You should also ensure that the personnel involved in the planning and potential installation are certified (e.g., an MCSD, a Certified Novell Engineer, a Certified Sun Network Administrator, etc.) to do so.

System and network management
If your IT staff is lacking in a particular skill or knowledge in an area of systems or network administration, you should consider outsourcing this service. Unlike the planning and implementation services, this kind of outsourcing can be temporary, semipermanent, or permanent depending upon your need and the difficulty involved in meeting it in-house. For example, your IT staff, while completely adept in Windows and Unix systems, may be stumped when it comes to the new AS/400 box. Outsourcing management of the AS/400 to a consultant could be a better option than trying to retrain your already overtaxed staff.

Another situation you may need to handle is management and troubleshooting in remote offices. Although it is possible to monitor devices and fix software problems remotely, you almost always need someone onsite to help out with physical troubleshooting, and with PCs this may be needed more often than you expect. It may be cheaper to hire local expertise at these remote locations, especially if the size of the remote network renders full-time personnel unnecessary.

Windows administration isn't particularly difficult for the most part. A reasonably intelligent network administrator will be able to pick up on the administration tasks for Windows machines in a few months. What you can't learn yourself, it's cheaper to get certification or training for. What you may need, however, are administrators for particular tools such as an SQL Server DBA, or a Microsoft Exchange specialist.

PC vendors typically don't provide this kind of service, so you'll have to go to a consultant. What PC vendors will provide are services for onsite troubleshooting of their particular hardware product or associated operating system (along with telephone support, of course). If the problem isn't a configuration or product-failure issue, you'll have to deal with it yourself or go to a consultant. Some top PC server vendors who do provide such services include Compaq, HP, Unisys, and IBM.

Custom tools and software development
In the operation of a network, you may require software tools to be developed for your particular environment and needs. This kind of job is the business of software consultancy groups. The actual circumstances where you will need custom development strongly vary with your applications and needs. In general, if the problem can be solved with a small script, you should see if your staff can handle it in-house; if, on the other hand, there are multiple software levels and components that need to be interfaced, a proper application written in a full programming language like C++, Java, etc. will perform much more efficiently.

Unfortunately if you live with a multiplatform network, this might be needed more often. In spite of all the standards out there, many implementation, particularly in the Windows family have proprietary "extensions" of these standards. Microsoft's "embrace and extend" methodology can cause lots of little problems that need to be resolved when integrating applications of similar kind (e.g., e-mail, databases, etc.) on different OS platforms.

Your administrators should have some skill in scripting, but full API programming should be left to professional developers. Unless you have some of those available to your department for general assignment, this will likely have to be outsourced to another company.

This is definitely outside the realm of most PC vendors except for those, like IBM and HP, that have large consultancy services.

Help desk and call center management
Help desks and call centers provide the first line of support service to internal users and external customers, respectively. Their primary purpose is to answer commonly encountered problems and direct more detailed uncommon issues to a second or third level of support. In most cases, they handle common user problems like "I can't login to Server X," "My screen won't turn on," and "I can't seem to dial in to the remote access server." Problems of such nature may have simple solutions or may require the attention of several people to resolve.

Although PC vendors don't support complete help desk services, they can take calls directly from your user (rather than being routed through your IT department) for problems related to their products and the operating systems they support. This saves time and reduces anxiety on the part of your IT staff. As the cartoon Dilbert often depicts, there's nothing more exasperating than receiving calls for problems with simple or obvious solutions. With an outsourced help desk or call center, you may have a happier staff with fewer stress issues. Outsourcing services will cost you, but usually less than the cost of having your staff handle the problem.

Windows users come across many such problems on the desktop side on a regular basis. More rarely, a problem on the server will affect the user. For these kind of services you have to go to a consultant.

Service contracts
Unlike Internet and network service providers, who provide service performance guarantees down to the hardware via service-level agreements, the PC hardware industry doesn't provide any guarantee of server performance levels. Vendors will warranty their hardware and help you set up your system, but software applications can be configured in so many different ways that service guarantees are very hard to institute. Outsourced application services -- where you don't maintain any server hardware of your own but use a Web or proprietary interface to an outsourced network -- can provide uptime guarantees, if not much else.

With the types of prepurchase, postpurchase, and ancillary services available, you should be able to deal primarily with installation, management, and administration issues. Performance and reliability tuning is still partly a science and partly an art form, which means it can't be effectively reproduced on a mass scale to provide similar service-level agreements. However, this should help you go a long way toward implementing a reasonably reliable server and creating a problem-resolution system. Next month we'll take a direct look at the steps needed to prepare your NT server before adding users and applications or putting it on the network.

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About the author
Rawn Shah is an independent consultant based in Tucson, AZ. He has written for years on the topic of Unix-to-PC connectivity and has watched many of today's existing systems come into being. He has worked as a system and network administrator in heterogeneous computing environments since 1990.

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