Jan
14

Can You Spare An Extra Server?

Can You Spare An Extra Server?

January 14
By

It wasn’t that long ago when discussion around “hot spares” was centered primarily on hard drives. Your decision to go with one RAID configuration over another also included a discussion on how many spare drives would be kept onsite. As long as we’re still storing data on mechanical drives, even the most reliable and redundant RAID setups won’t do away with the question: “How many spares should I have?”

I recently spoke with the owner of a mid-sized financial services firm in New York, whose company was in the middle of moving to a new location. Years ago he’d worked with an MSP to build out his network, storage, and computing needs, but his contact had moved on, and this owner was on his own until he could find a good recommendation for similar work at his new office. We discussed upgrading his workstations and a number of laptops. The owner mentioned his continued frustration with unscheduled down times when equipment would fail. As you might imagine, being able to process trades in a timely fashion is absolutely critical to his business, and even a short network outage could result in the loss of tens of thousands of dollars.

Having a few spare drives to throw in the backup server is probably routine at most companies. The same goes for workstations and laptops. Having a few spares on hand can keep employees productive when issues arise with hardware. But my discussion with the owner of the financial services company made me think about how MSPs can best help customers reduce downtown and hassle. There’s more to this than merely having having a few spare drives and PCs on hand. Does it make sense to have spare routers on hand? What about access points, printers, and other devices employees rely on to do their jobs? This week we’ll look at how MSPs and VARs can help clients minimize downtime by keeping spares on hand or providing short-term equipment rental as part of their service offering.

Backup Workstations and Servers

Having a few extra systems on hand never hurts. I’m reminded of a dentist whose practice was brought to its knees when the receptionist’s computer that ran the appointment program died. I worked with him to configure a replacement that could handle his appointment software. Today, that same software runs from the cloud, but he still needs a computer on which to run it. Helping your customers understand what programs run locally and which run from the cloud can be helpful because those running locally could take a while to configure. This probably sounds simplistic to you, but it’s probably not to business owners focused on other aspects of their business.

Larger companies probably don’t have a problem working spares into their IT budget. But for smaller companies, an MSP can provide short-term workstation rentals to get them back on track. If you have a single employee taking orders or making appointments, it’s critical the system on which they are working can be replaced with minimal downtown. One innovative MSP provides spare servers for its clients who don’t have the money to purchase a hot spare. They call their service a “life-boat server” and it allows the customer to quickly spin up a VM of a downed server. As an MSP, maybe you provide this service as part of your standard contract and use it to differentiate your offering. Or it could be an add-on service, much like a rider on an insurance policy. The key here is get your clients up and running as quickly as possible, with the least amount of stress.

ShadowProtect-Server
ShadowProtect Server can spin up server images in a VM

MSPs can provide value by helping their customers understand the process for bringing a failed workstation or server back to life. You may be able to keep an identical workstation on premise that can be thrust into service within minutes. This works well for computers that aren’t too complex to configure and don’t change a lot. I know a number of day traders who keep a spare laptop on standby in case their workstation goes down. If the software running on the workstation changes often or requires a lengthy configuration process, it might make sense to look at a software solution such as ShadowProtect Desktop or Server from StorageCraft. These products can take a full system backup, and then allow you to spin up that system in a VM. You’ll still need the hardware to run the VM, but you won’t spend hours configuring the workstation or server. StorageCraft also offers products that allow you to run a VM from their cloud.

Backup Networking Gear

You may not give a lot of thought to your networking infrastructure until its down. Even small shops can have incredibly complex networking gear keeping their business online. A lot of small companies outsource the wiring of their offices to third parties who may or may not be available when you need them. Having an MSP on board who understands your networking needs can in invaluable when something goes wrong. In terms of keeping spare routers, switches, APs, and such on hand, it really comes down to how your network is setup and what your threshold for downtime is. The operating systems that run these devices, such as Cisco IOS, tend to be incredibly well tested and stable to the point that many customers forget about them until there’s an issue.

Router
Networking gear is generally quite stable, but can cause headaches when down. 

I can’t stress this enough, but it’s incredibly helpful for your clients to have a resource like you available to help you work through networking issues. Networking gear does break, but it’s far more likely something else changed upstream from you that will require a professional to repair. You may want to have some spare networking gear on hand that’s easy to deploy such as spare APs. You may want to keep an edge switch on hand as well. It doesn’t hurt to check that SLA on your core switch as a 4-hour turnaround isn’t out of the ordinary. Can your business afford an outage up to 4 hours? Core switches can be tricky to configure and they are pricey so you’ll probably want a professional taking care of them.

Urge clients to work with you on taking an inventory of your network and all devices required to keep your business running. From this, it’s easy to decide whether your clients will want spares on hand or can simply rent them from you. Again, getting the device is the easy part, but making sure it’s configured correctly for your network can be very time consuming.

Printers/Fax/Misc

We’ve been hearing about the paperless office for a few year now, but if you walk into any business, you’ll probably find a commercial copy machine working overtime. Companies still print on paper and many still send and receive faxes. We can all relate to the employee in Office Space who has so much trouble with his printer that he eventually takes it out back and beats the daylights of it with a baseball bat. Does it make sense to invest in a backup printer? Maybe you could get by for a while with a consumer printer until the main model can be repaired. This is another area where MSPs can provide short-term rental options, and work with local companies to repair or replace the out-of-commission device.

Getting your office setup with all the required computers, networking, and printing devices can be a large initial investment. But having employees sit around watching House of Cards while the printer is down is even more expensive. Large companies have IT staff that probably keep a few spares on hand. At Microsoft it took less than two hours to replace an employee laptop. But small companies might not have the resources to invest in workstation or servers and this is where MSPs can provide a valuable service.

The company benefits by having a professional in the MSP to guide them through the problem, and the MSP can expand his business and service offerings by helping companies minimize downtime. It’s not a matter if hardware will break; it’s when. And when it does, you’ll be thankful you planned ahead.