Until recently, I had no idea what a Thin Mint was. It’s kind of amazing that these delectable little cookies have escaped my grasp in the thirty-odd years I’ve been aware that cookies actually exist.

I have first cousins in Canada. Like all relatives that you like, but are too far away to easily visit, our primary form of communication is social media. Recently, my cousin posted a picture that referenced Thin Mints, which is what prompted me to inquire about what exactly this is. Her words, verbatim from Facebook, were simply this: “As in the Thin Mint Girl Guide Cookies. C’mon! You haven’t had them!?” My immediate, and rather American-centric response, was: “Girl Guide?”

Apparently Canada has their own version of the ever-ubiquitous American organization known as the Girl Scouts, called the Girl Guides, and their structure is a duplicate of the US version. They have virtually the same graduation structure in their hierarchy, wear almost identical uniforms and, of course, sell cookies. Walk into any supermarket in the USA at the beginning of the year and you’re sure to be accosted by girls selling boxes of sugary heaven. They’re essentially legal dealers and we embrace the sugar addiction because it’s for a good cause. Canada is apparently no different, though I have to imagine the process of selling cookies is probably politer (sorry Canada but some stereotypes really are true, eh?).

This revelation left me wondering, what else in my world adheres to the Girl Scout/Girl Guide premise where we have two organizations that are essentially the same in rules and behavior but not quite the same. The answer was crystal clear to me…EVERYTHING in the tech world!

If you’ve had competing quotes from IT vendors, or providers, you have seen a myriad of equipment brands that do the same job, though not always in the same effective, or ineffective way. HP vs. Dell, McAfee vs. Symantec, Cisco vs. Palo Alto Networks, and on and on. Each brand promises they’re the best and every IT geek has their preference for one reason or another (performance, interface, even complacency). So, how is a user or business supposed to know how to choose the right brands and products and does it really matter? Here’s some tips for evaluating technology.

Picking the Right Equipment

It absolutely matters!

Picking the right equipment for your network is critical. It can literally make or break performance, security, scalability and longevity. All too often, we walk into prospective customers’ IT setups where poor choices were made: Firewalls that will not handle traffic or threats effectively due to inadequate performance. Servers with almost no redundancy or scalability. Infrastructure equipment that is at or over capacity. And, finally, software choices that are poorly rated but used because the current IT provider knows it well and is afraid to change software packages (which means they’re being outclassed by other providers/competitors thus putting their clients at a disadvantage in their marketplace).

Keep these steps in mind when evaluating technology and planning for infrastructure to help you figure out what is right for you.

1. Begin with the End in Mind

So, full disclosure here…I ripped that subtitle off of Stephen Covey. It’s incredibly relevant, though. This step is so important in ensuring the overall health and longevity of a network. Consider, for a moment, that a corporate network or infrastructure is a symphony. There are many instruments working together and coordinating their distinct sounds to create a cohesive and harmonious sound. If you cannot understand how all of these pieces should fit together and complement each other, then the design of the network has no conductor and will fail to become harmonious.

When I’m designing a network, it’s not just understanding that certain equipment is needed to accomplish a task. I need to understand what the end result is for everyone involved and that is oftentimes a very disparate thing. The executives want performance and stability for their staff but do not want to spend heavily for it (buying a Ferrari for the price of a Ford). The IT staff wants to build a network that could run a NASA shuttle launch (buying the Ferrari and then getting another two just in case the first Ferrari needs help or backup). The end users don’t want to be impeded in using the network in any way. They don’t care about security or performance as long as everything runs in a timely manner (buying the Ford and then removing the seat belts).

The good news is that there is a middle ground. Planning for a network is not a zero-sum game. You can create a network that will please everyone while staying in budget. So maybe the executives have to pay for a Lexus but not a Ferrari. And maybe the IT staff settles for 2 or 3 Fords and the regular workers can’t remove their seat belts. The point is that it can be done, and done effectively.

2. Let Others Do the Work For You

Our entire society runs on the exchange of goods and ideas. When you get right to it, everyone in business, literally everyone, is selling everyone else one thing: time. If I’m selling you a computer network for your business, I’m selling you time in the sense that your company can now get more things done in a timely manner, thus saving you time in terms of removing inefficient process.

When my car mechanic is selling me an oil change, I’m paying good money to have someone else do this task for me so I can focus my time and energy on more relevant things in my life.

In essence, what websites like Amazon are selling you, aside from a convenient place to purchase things, is time in terms of doing the review work for you. Most people looking for networking will usually purchase it through a trusted vendor but there is no reason a website with crowdsourced reviews can’t be used to confirm if the products in question actually live up to their reputation.

For example, if a wireless access point has excellent features and marketing but has utterly horrible reviews, then its stated abilities may not be accurate. Granted, there can be rating inflation but this is easily overcome by reading the bad reviews of a product. You will usually find reviews from very explicit and competent people, especially with technical equipment, as to why a product doesn’t live up the standard.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Deep-Dive, With Help

Not all equipment is built the same, though they’re advertised to appear to be competitive and standardized. There are several factors that go into evaluating technology or finding the right equipment. We’ve discussed crowdsourcing for an overall evaluation of the equipment but there are many other factors to consider. When we’re talking about business class equipment, one of the major considerations should be looked at is the “Mean Time Between Failures” rate (MTBF). Understanding the difference between competing products’ MTBF rates can literally make or break the investment in the equipment. The higher rate, the longer the equipment will last.

Also, there can be many different products that advertise the same performance ratings, however, they may be built differently in terms of specifications. Take, for example, a piece of equipment every office has; a network switch. Today, there is no reason why any switch should be running under 1Gbps (1,000Mbps) and looking for a switch is rather easy.

Literally every single switch manufacturer sells a 1Gbps switch in sizes that are roughly 8, 16, 24 and 48 ports in size (some go slightly higher by counting non-ethernet ports like fiber, but I digress). The assumption is that when you’re plugging in a computer or device to a switch that is capable of sustaining a 1Gbps connection you will, in fact, get a full 1,000Mbps from the switch when talking to other computers and devices on the network.

Au contraire! Some switches will indeed supply 1Gbps of speed to each port but this speed is split between the upload and download speed. Therefore, on this particular switch, the fastest speed one can achieve is actually 500Mbps one way.

Yet, this switch isn’t advertised as half of 1Gbps. Competing switches can have 1Gbps up and 1Gbps down in terms of speed, giving you the full 1,000Mbps both ways. This switch could be advertised as a 2Gbps switch if advertising was apples-to-apples with the first switch, but no — both switches are advertised the same. Reading the fine print in this case, the total backplane speed (a 16-port switch should have a backplane of 32Gbps for the full speed; if it doesn’t it’s a waste of money), as well as the memory buffer which helps performance, goes a long way in ensuring excellent quality equipment.

The same goes for wireless equipment. Not all Wireless Access Points (WAP) are built the same. 802.11ac is the latest mainstream standard, as of this writing, and reading the specs on two different WAPs can pull up a staggering amount of different information. Many wireless access points advertise speeds that would be achievable if perfect conditions were met. So, if you’re in a lab environment with no other signals or interference running a WAP that is connecting to a computer using their brand of wireless network card with a 10-foot direct line of sight and transferring a massive file, you may actually see the performance claimed.

This is the equivalent of talking to a sales person from any software company in the market. Sure you can run their program on two Dixie cups and a piece of string but is that really sustainable for growth and expansion? Will it actually perform in a timely manner? This is a battle IT personnel fight all the time with management. Any good IT staff will be able to walk their management through the finer points of why one is better than the other.

4. Let Your Competitors Lead the Way

Unless you own 80% or more of your market vertical, and every company would love to be that “Hidden Champion,” you have competitors. Oftentimes, these competitors are larger or more successful. There is nothing wrong with intelligence gathering on what technologies they are employing to give them a competitive advantage. If others have done the pathfinding then why waste time reinventing the wheel they’ve discovered?

An excellent example of this is how Salesforce has taken the sales relationship market by storm and has shown explosive growth for years. If your company is CRM-heavy with a large sales staff and you’re not on Salesforce, you should be looking very hard at it. Their closest competitors like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft are not even close in terms of offering and growth, though they all make nice packages.

file sharing for banks

5. Remember, Not All Tech Support is Built the Same

This is probably one of the biggest issues we see with new clients and in choice of solutions when evaluating technology. Every business is unique with different workflows and needs, not to mention the most critical aspect: compliance standards. All too often, we see clients that need to adhere to one compliance or another and it’s basically pure luck that they haven’t been heavily fined or put out of business. I’m talking about SEC clients not properly keeping archival backups for seven years, HIPAA clients with open WiFi, PCI DSS customers with 10-year-old firewalls I could teach a 3rd-grade computer class to break into and on and on.

Business owners oftentimes make assumptions that if their IT staff can set up a computer or server they can do pretty much anything, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Recently, I wrote an article about how development teams should consist of a UI designer, database programmer and security expert to wrap the whole thing in proper security. That concept is the same for properly configured and defended networks. If your business requires SEC compliance then having IT personnel with SEC training is critical.

Current IT support should be interviewed to determine where the gaps in knowledge are and a plan created to either train the staff or hire personnel with the knowledge needed. In this vein, if the IT staff doesn’t have the requisite knowledge they cannot offer the requisite solution for the business.

6. Never Rest on Your Laurels

Furthermore, it’s beyond important to have IT staff that is versed in the technologies you’re using or are soon to deploy. For example, if the IT staff has spent a decade supporting unmanaged switches and a basic firewall, expecting them to suddenly be able to program the latest L3 managed switch for QoS and traffic priority as well as a UTM Firewall with Application Whitelisting is the equivalent of expecting a person with a driver’s license to be able to fly a space shuttle.

They may figure out how to do it on their own, but serious configuration, security and safety checkpoints will be missed. Technology continuously improves and changes. If the staff isn’t up to date not only is security at risk but also the infrastructure, as old equipment needs replacement with new.

A business has essentially two choices in this situation: they can either keep their staff perpetually trained or hire new staff that knows the newer equipment and can train others on it if need be.

7. Return the Thin Mints, If Necessary

No one likes admitting a mistake, especially one that costs a good deal of money, but sometimes it can be essential to the well-being of the business. Being saddled with a bad technology solution can cripple a business as they try in vain to make it work and adapt to their environment. Purchasing a Microsoft RDS/Terminal server for a workforce full of graphic designers will completely kill productivity and the leadership may actually end up with designers at their doorstep carrying torches and pitchforks. In a case like this, if the technology cannot be re-appropriated, it can often be returned if it’s timely enough.

Sometimes starting over is the best course, though one would hope that with the advice mentioned above, an IT expert in your particular field would have helped with these choices to mitigate the chance of something like this happening.

8. Rinse and Repeat Periodically

As I mentioned above, technology changes quickly and there are always new, though not always better, solutions coming out constantly. We are currently beating Moore’s Law and the pace is increasing and holding steady. The goal of any good network IT staff should be to build an infrastructure that allows for scalability, growth and, most importantly, adaptability to changing environments.

This requires review and sometimes course correction. Every six months or so, an assessment should be done of the network, its components and software in an effort to identify gaps or needs that may be arising. We constantly see growing companies that are excellent at growing their business in terms of sales and personnel but not their infrastructure. We walk into situations where a server that is configured to comfortably perform for 50 users is trying to handle the data requests for 250.

Situations like this end up being more expensive for the business because scaling up older and poorly maintained infrastructure can mean much more in terms of labor than simply starting over with the right equipment.

Make the Right Choice When Evaluating Technology

So, there you have it. Making the right choices in your IT purchasing and staff can make or break a company’s productivity and longevity for scaling up. We may not all have Girl Scouts at the moment but we can definitely make sure that if we’re saddled with the Girl Guides we can work with them towards a goal of success.

Good luck and enjoy the Thin Mints!

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About Nick Espinosa

Nick serves at BSSi2 as the CIO & Chief Security Fanatic and is an expert in security and network infrastructure. Nick has consulted with clients ranging from a few computers to the Fortune 100 level regarding encryption systems, infrastructure and multinational environments. When he isn’t working magic with computers or playing with his daughter, Nick relaxes by playing chess, riding motorcycles and increasing his knowledge of history. You can follow Nick on Twitter at @NickAEsp

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