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Is your IT In or Out

Alaska companies meet technical needs through in-house staff and IT consultants

Arctic IT Senior Account Executive of Network Infrastructure Mark Mathis illustrates on the white board at a training session.

Arctic IT Senior Account Executive of Network Infrastructure Mark Mathis illustrates on the white board at a training session.

© Chris Arend Photography

As Alaska companies strive to keep up with the ever-changing demands of information technology, many of them are taking a mixed approach to meeting their technical needs. They’re handling certain information technology functions in-house, bringing in technical consultants to enhance internal resources and outsourcing entire tasks to IT support companies.

Alaska Communications does all of the above. Information technology is vital to the operations of the Anchorage-based provider of high-speed wireless, mobile broadband, Internet, local, long-distance, and advanced broadband solutions. It prefers to keep key support systems related to billing, plant inventory, data warehouse, and overall architecture in-house. These systems are vital to the company’s ability to operate, serve customers, and remain competitive, according to Senior Vice President of Information Technology Aurora David.

However, Alaska Communications hires consultants to augment its fifty-member IT staff and outsources some of its production support maintenance. The company, which has a total of 850 employees, is currently using TekMate to manage its service (help) desk. “They are well manned in terms of resources available to support a 24/7/365 service,” David says. “By allowing TekMate to help us, it allows everyone to focus on what they know and do best.”

TekMate is Alaska’s largest privately-owned IT support company. Alaska Communications purchased 49 percent ownership of TekMate in 2010 to offer its customers managed IT solutions and services.

Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services is also using a varied IT strategy, according to Tony French, vice president of operations. The Anchorage company, which provides services to help companies meet their employees’ medical, safety, and training needs, has 275 employees. Two of its staffers provide part-time IT support for physical desktop troubleshooting. They also maintain several applications that are unique to the company’s industry, such as SYSTOC software for occupational medicine. Otherwise, most of its remote desk top support, server support, and network administration has been outsourced.

Beacon, coincidentally, partners with TekMate for remote desktop services. The outsourced solution provides access to a team of people who are familiar with the company’s network and systems. It also creates multiple layers of redundancy. “I’m paying a single amount to have multiple people who are trained,” French says. “I do not have to pay for an IT department’s continuing education.”

 

Arctic IT President Steve Dike, center, with Mathis (left) and Consulting Manager Meara Boling.

© Chris Arend Photography

 

IT Support Services

Alaska Communications and Beacon are among a significant segment of Alaska companies tapping IT support firms and technical consultants to enhance their in-house expertise and manpower. Local IT support companies offer a wide variety of services to satisfy their needs, including maintaining the operation of systems; networking computers, printers and scanners; desktop user support; managing server performance; network security management; and data backup. External technical consultants can provide advice, assessment, research, and recommendations on how to resolve a specific problem within a specific timeframe. These technical experts can fill any number of roles, including network, server, and database administrator, program developer, business analyst, project manager, and system architect.

In essence, IT consulting firms offer resources many Alaska companies may lack in house such as specialized skills, experience, and time, according to Nathaniel Gates, president of Cloud49. Internal IT people are typically generalists with a million and a half things to do, he says. “To draw on just the experience your internal team has is unreasonable,” he says. “Consultants provide time; they bring hours that are specialized and focus on finding a specific solution.”

For David, using external IT resources for certain technical needs is pragmatic. She says: “With a wide variety of technology platforms to support, it is challenging and may not be economical to maintain internal, highly-skilled resources in all these areas. The option of partnering with a service provider vendor that has commoditized this type of service becomes an ideal solution.”

Gates agrees. Backup and disaster recovery is a commoditized task that is essential to every business. “It makes the most sense to outsource that to a third party that provides it in mass for a much lower cost,” he says.

IT services generally fall into two categories: technical (hardware, computers, networking, etc.) and functional (the use of technology, strategy, etc.). Companies tend to be focused on the functional side of technology, keeping those services and resources internal. They’re more apt to outsource technical aspects, which are easier to farm out to a consultant.” Where we see the industry going, is that companies are willing to take a utility approach to technologies for the purpose of drastic cost savings,” Gates says.

Local IT experts say help desk and production support maintenance are among the most common IT services being outsourced by Alaska companies. The trend is driven, in part, by the availability of technology to assist customers by phone and the ability to remotely troubleshoot computers. In terms of individual technical consultants, software engineers or developers, project managers, and software testers are in high demand.

Other trends playing out in Alaska are more requests to support pre-deployed hardware, calls for network documentation, and increasing interest in leveraging cloud-based solutions. Nationwide, there’s also a shift from offshore to onshore outsourcing.

 

In-House Staff versus External Resources

The decision to outsource or utilize in-house staff depends on the size and type of organization involved as well as the services required, according to Mark Mathis, a senior account executive with Arctic Information Technology. Professional services businesses like accountants and attorneys employ pretty standard technology. They’re more interested in outsourcing IT management and support, so they can focus more on their core business.

Organizations with more specific technology needs, such as satellite mapping—or SYSTOC occupational medicine software, in Beacon’s case—typically keep specialized IT services in-house. That’s a logical approach, according to Mathis. “If there’s a very narrowly-defined need for a particular type of business, it may make sense to maintain staff to manage that particular technology,” Mathis says.

However, outsourcing offers a variety of advantages for Alaska businesses. One of the biggest benefits, Mathis says, is cost savings. In many cases, it’s more cost-effective to employ an organization with the people and tools available to manage the IT environment, rather than employ an IT person in-house. “Often, training falls off because in-house staff gets busy helping users,” he says. “When you have a team of people providing that service, they’re more apt to maintain their skill set.”

Mathis adds that consultants typically stay up-to-date with relevant training and certifications, which, in turn, can translate into high-quality technical support.

Gates says another important benefit of IT outsourcing is the ability to gain immediate access to specialized expertise. Unless there’s a very large organization, in-house IT people are forced to be generalists. And when a specific requirement arises, the IT staff may not have that particular expertise.

On the other hand, an outsourced service can give companies an instant resolution. “They can engage with outsourcers and do a knowledge transfer,” Gates explains. “Often the scope is: We need you to lend your expertise and bring us up to speed, so that we can handle this on our own.”

Sometimes, the goal of IT outsourcing isn’t to acquire a specific skill set. The company may require a developer to implement a new system, a network, or programming language.

Outsourcing has one significant disadvantage, according to Gates. “As you outsource, you do lose the functional expertise and business knowledge,” he says. “It’s important to keep within your organization [some] people who understand the business drivers and function of IT.”

This is especially true for a business that uses technology to differentiate itself from competitors, he adds.

Jim Kostka of General Communications Inc. feels the advantages of outsourcing IT services for a small business far outweigh any disadvantage. “For the traditional small businesses, you’re going to get depth, but you don’t have to worry about a career ladder, and the costs associated with maintaining a technical employee,” says Kostka, GCI’s senior director of operations of service delivery.

 

Available IT Resources

Alaska has a variety of IT support firms available to help businesses meet their technical needs. GCI, for example, offers on-site IT support to its business customers. This includes everything from providing bandwidth to delivering post-installation support for their network. Customers can purchase services on an hourly basis as needed or through an ongoing maintenance agreement. “We want the customer to rely on GCI for everything related to communication,” says Eric Ochadleus, a supervisor with GCI Commercial Technical Services.

GCI offers network monitoring and resolution services through its Commercial Network Control Center (CNCC). Customers can call in and report problems around the clock. The CNCC also addresses issues automatically. “A lot of the time, the customer may not know there was a problem until after we have notified them that we fixed it,” Ochadleus says. “As of last month [March], 83 percent of the issues that were called in were addressed and fixed by the CNCC.”

GCI also enables businesses to leverage cloud services, which can help them avoid upgrading servers, licensing fees, and maintaining hardware. The company’s new data center offers battery and generator backup to give customers a safe and worry-free place to store their information.

Arctic IT offers its customers a complete package of services called TotalCare. This flat-rate, managed solution minimizes potential financial risks, such as network outages and other issues, associated with the management of IT. The subscription service assumes the responsibility of managing the customers IT environment. A complete network that constantly monitors, maintains, and reports on key network assets, services, and functions, TotalCare also includes strategic planning and technical support during business as well as after-hours support.

In addition, Arctic IT offers thought leadership to its customers. “We come in and review where they are; understand, define, and articulate where they want to be; and provide the solution or path to get from point A to point B. We also have the ability to provide the resources to effect that change,” Mathis says.

He emphasizes that Arctic IT will be as specific or holistic as the customer wishes. That might involve working alone or with a team of other consultants. Whatever the case, Arctic IT has the expertise to cater to a broad range of needs, Mathis says. “Our consultants are very well trained and highly experienced,” he says. “Because of that, we’re able to achieve resolution more quickly than IT generalists. I have the ability to pull resources in that have specialized knowledge.”

Cloud49, which recently expanded to Austin, Texas, provides a wide variety of cloud-computing services for its clients. Its pay-as-you-go solutions are designed to help businesses run their IT environments more efficiently and cost effectively.

The solutions that Cloud49 develops for clients generally depend on the scope of their needs. “A lot of time, it will be strategy—how to improve our business and operations leveraging technology,” Gates says. “Sometimes the business just wants someone to come in and architect a solution, where their existing staffing needs to be augmented.”

Increasingly, Alaska companies want to “get into the cloud,” but don’t know how. Cloud49 can help by providing planning and implementation for cloud-based solutions. The company engages a network of partners to perform any IT work that clients require. It also offers a variety of technical resources and products.

Alaska Communications, through its subsidiary TekMate, offers a collection of ConstantlyON IT services customized to fit customers’ needs. Available at a flat, monthly rate, the company’s solutions include full help desk support, 24/7/365 network monitoring, and vendor and asset management.

David says ConstantlyON IT allows Alaska businesses to focus on what they do best—running their business—while letting IT experts focus on what they do best: IT. “Together with TekMate, we work to understand what drives a business and find IT solutions not just to meet their business needs, but to help grow their business and reduce costs,” she says.

Their efforts are having a positive impact on Beacon Occupational Health and Safety Services, according to French. He says: “IT is an ever evolving project. As technology changes, it’s important to have people who are trying to learn, engage, and help us leverage technology, so we can better our business practices. We feel like we’re a valued client, and they’re definitely a valued partner for us.”

Former Alaskan Tracy Barbour writes from Tennessee.

This article originally appeared in the Alaska Business Monthly June 2013 print edition.

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