Through these last 2 years, my brother and I have been in charge of our family company's "IT department". We can't dedicate all of our time to this, because we are in college and we also have some projects and stuff to do.

Our department's infrastructure right now, consists of ourselves and an outsourced IT service provider. This setup has not worked the way we wanted though. This company charges us around 650 USD / month and we don't feel the service they provide is worth the money.

For example, they send a guy one time per week to do maintnance on the PC's and they remotely "administer" our servers. However, I've always asking them reports on their remote work and they never do them.Also, I've been insisting in structuring clearly on paper (a wiki) the backup strategies and such, but still no results.

As you can tell, we are TIRED of these people. What we want to do now is remove this people and hire a technician and have him execute some procedures, such as backups, Active Directory administration, firewall administration, etc... What I want is some advice on how to structure our department's procedures and work.

Here is our current setup:

  • Around 20 PC's.
  • Around 20 IP phones.
  • 2 servers with virtual machines (Windows server).
  • 1 server with Asterisk (using Elastix).
  • 1 machine for the firewall (using Untangle).
  • 1 NAS plus some external HD for backups.
  • One subscription with iBackup.com for backing the MS SQL databases.
  • Google Apps for the email service.

What (information resources, software) do you recommend for:

  • Structuring a small IT department. What is the stuff we might me missing?
  • Administering the NAS and the backups (considering JungleDisk for offsite backups)
  • Checking the server status remotely
  • Common maintenance on the PC's
  • Antivirus software for the PC's and the servers.

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This company charges us around 650 USD / month and we don't feel the service they provide is worth the money.

$650/mo is peanuts. A full-time staffer will cost you 5 times that much minimum - 8x or more is more likely, especially when you consider benefits, equipment, payroll taxes, and office space in the mix. From the other direction, a typical consulting business is likely to charge more than $100 per hour. Could be more, could be less, depending on your location, but it's not cheap. Using $100/hr as a sample, you're looking at them spending less than 2 hours per week in total on your business. Even if they're giving you some kind of special rate because of the guaranteed business that's at most 3 or 4 hours per week.

At your size organization you are probably right in believing you don't need your own full-time person, and if you don't feel you're getting your $650 worth each month, that's fine. Just understand that other options are likely to cost more, not less. Probably a lot more.

So the first thing to do is sit down and figure out how much time you think your IT services need each week, in terms of attention, monitoring, maintenance, and planning. After that, figure out the best way to pay for it. It sounds to me like for $650 you're getting a pretty good deal right now from your existing provider. If you decide you need 12 hours/week and right now you're only paying for 4, you might find your current provider more than willing and able to give you the service you want after you start paying them enough to justify their spending that kind of time on it. You also sound like you really just want a clean break, and that's okay. In that case, my advise is simply not to burn your bridges when you make the change.

Finally, the one piece I think you're missing in your current infrastructure is a good ticketing system for help desk requests. I wouldn't go out and get anything at all until you know who you will be working with and who will be maintaining the system. They'll have software they already know well and may want to use or be better able to support.

  • +1 for needing a good ticketing system – Nic Apr 21 '11 at 23:51
  • This is one those answers I come back to and I'd sure love to know what eventually happened. – Joel Coel Oct 24 '14 at 15:28

First off, Joel is correct: For competent IT support you're looking at a higher cost. The bottom end of the IT pro market is saturated with self-taught people working from home. The price is good, but the attention to detail, professionalism and consistency isn't there, and there's the tendency to do things 'my way' rather than adhere to best-practices (or even be aware of what they might be). In other words, shoot for the cheapest and you will usually end up with the cowboys.

You should be able to find a local IT support company that'll offer you a fixed-term fixed-price environment support that's specific. For example, a 6-month contract for 25 man-hours of environment support per month, of which 10 hours is remote work doing x/y/z maintenance tasks, 5 hours producing a monthly report, an 10 hours on-site work as required. On-site work beyond this charged at x per hour.

Ideally you want a company offering their own helpdesk software (we use Beetil, it's great) and you'll just get logins to the system, not have to run it yourself.

Key things to look for from your support provider:

  • Web-based helpdesk solution that allows you to log in, generate a ticket, check progress etc
  • Active backup reporting and restore testing as part of the maintenance schedule (say, restoring from backup once every 6 months to verify that it's valid). This should be quite easy with your virtual host as you can just restore to a temporary VM without additional hardware costs.
  • Defined report deliverable with specific items on the list (e.g. server/ws patch status, AV status, hours reporting)

You have a number of problems but they're of a management nature rather than IT. What you have described is a disaster waiting to happen and if it does happen the business may well fold as a result. Backups you have no control over are not backups that can be relied upon and may as well not exist.

Do yourself and the business a favour. You and your brother need to stop pretending you're IT people and put the business IT infrastructure in the hands of someone who knows what they're doing.

Design a plan that will ensure the business needs are catered for. That includes a proper backup strategy and maintenance of the computers and systems. I'm going to go against the current fad and recommend you use physical backups only, not uploads into "the cloud". The backups must also be taken off-site.

Far too many businesses have folded after a disaster simply because they were unable o restore their data. Statistics show that even companies which do have good backups are in danger of folding within the first year after a major disaster.

The business is nowhere near large enough to need a full time IT person. I work for a somewhat larger company and if it wasn't for my programming projects I'd have nothing to do at least 90% of the time. Here is what I suggest you do.

  • Create a proper plan of what the It person/company is to do and what documentation is required.
  • Organise to have at least one person at the business premises, with another to act as a backup, to perform the physical part of the daily backup. i.e. Swap tapes, hard drives (yuk!), or whatever else is to be used.
  • Remove yourself from direct involvement but perhaps take a more monitoring role to ensure all the steps are followed.
  • Get rid of your current contractor and find someone who is prepared to do the work within the parameters you lay out.

The contractor should be able to do nearly everything remotely but should also be prepared to have a physical presence as and when required, which is not on some arbitrary schedule. There is nothing wrong or evil about working remotely. I'll even go so far as to say that someone who can't work that way id not the person you need.

If the contractor needs to spend more than a few of hours a week on your systems then either they're incompetent or someone else is doing something seriously wrong, so ensure the contractor is prepared to maintain a log of not just what they do but also the hours spent doing it.

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