Monday, February 16, 2009

Stretching That Almighty Dollar

or "Why is everyone else's dollar more almighty than mine?"

In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, 'The future ain't what it used to be'.

I think, as a species, we're programmed to look at the past with wonder, and the future with hope, but during times of extreme economic toil, it's hard to imagine that flying cars and moon bases are around the corner. Right now, we're suffering through a pretty bumpy spot, and it will get better, but at the moment, resources are scarce and confidence is low. Despite the scare resources, demand hasn't dropped. Anything but, really.

Since we're expected to do more with less, we've got to change our tactics a bit. You need three new machines, but can only get one. Or none. It's time to renew software contracts, but there's no budget. AntiVirus isn't optional on desktop machines, but yours hasn't had an update since Thanksgiving. What do you do?

At times of economic turmoil, the inclination toward software piracy goes up (particularly for small businesses which don't have the resources and visibility of larger companies), so let me please urge you to not follow that route. We are blessed, in a way, to exist in a time where so much quality software can be had for free through legal means. It wasn't always this case, so take advantage of it.

Lets go over some ways that you can spend less (and sometimes no) money and still achieve your goals. Since we're in survival mode, we're going to have to compromise in a few spots. You might say "Free antiviruses won't work as well", but if you can't afford the commercial solutions, free may be all that is left.

We'll break it down by categories: Hardware, Software, and Bandwidth. There are other, non-IT ways to cut down expenses, but we'll limit ourselves since this is an IT-themed blog. I've also included licenses in the software category due to the disturbing trend of companies charging a recurring fee to continue to use the software that you already paid for. It doesn't seem right to me in many cases, but we've got to confront reality as it is, not as we wish it were.

I do have to warn you. Sometimes, you will need to spend money. Hopefully not a lot, but if your tape drive breaks and you can't fix it, and you only have one, buying a tape drive is cheaper than not doing backups. Almost every time. This means that you're going to have to talk to the person who holds the purse strings. When you do, make sure that they understand that the value of the data is the deciding factor, not just the tape drive. Ask them what would happen to the business if the data were to be unrecoverable. That is the risk. Be assertive; it's not just the company, it's your reputation, as well.

Now, when you are required to buy hardware, you don't have to buy retail. In fact, if you're strapped for cash, it's a really bad idea. Refurbished hardware, Ebay, Craigslist, these are possible sources of hardware. If you can't find it from those places and you have to pay retail, at the very least, shop around. Froogle, Pricewatch, maybe even Slickdeals (If you like slickdeals, I just heard about from my friend AJ. You might like it as well).

So find the cheapest source of hardware available, but at the same time, do your best to ensure that you aren't getting ripped off. Check feedback, reviews, and the like. You don't want to be responsible for losing what little money you got from the company.

  • Hardware

  • Nothing is more scary than running critical services on a piece of hardware for which you don't have spare parts. I've done it, I know. If you've got a few machines that are in use, and they're identical, having only one matching spare isn't ideal, but it's better than nothing. Supposing that you have one absolutely critical server.
    Obviously, it would be best to have an identical machine to act as backup, but that's not always possible, so we've got to make do. Identify what it is about this machine that is unique. Is it storage? The number of network cards? Maybe another type of card, such as in a phone server, or maybe the tape drive. Identify that part, and locate the cheapest working spare you can for it. Use the above sources. Ask around.

    If it's a piece of networking equipment, you may be in luck. There are many, many dealers of refurbished network hardware, and the prices are a fraction of retail. An example: if you needed an endpoint for a T1, Cisco would try to sell you a 2801 (or above) for around $1000. Or you could go to routermall and pick up a 2610 and a T1 WIC for around $260, and that's not even the best price out there. Call the dealers and explain your situation. They want your business, and they will negotiate.

  • Software

  • The software that you will be acquiring has a lot to do with the software that you already have. Interoperability is key, so hopefully you have been using suites which utilize open standards. That certainly increases the likelihood of cheap/free software working with it. There are limits, of course. It's going to be another couple years before Samba can function as a stable active directory controller, so for now, if you've got an AD infrastructure, you'll need to stick with that. If you need to implement centralized authentication from scratch, though, there are more options.

    Categorizing all of the available free/open source/cheap software is beyond the scope of this article, but do not be afraid to get your feet wet. Try new software. Test it first, of course, but see what is out there. Here are some resources to help:

    Before you shell out hundreds of dollars for software, go through these sites and see what is available.

    There are certain commercial software suites out there which require you to pay an annual fee for the ability to continue to use their software. AntiVirus products are the most visible, and you could argue in their favor in this case. A lot of work goes into producing antivirus updates. They provide a valuable service. But there are free solutions out there. Given a choice between paying several hundred dollars (or thousands, depending on your infrastructure) that you don't have, or installing a freely available equivalent, I would choose the free software every time. It might not be your preferred solution, but it's better than not having an AntiVirus suite. The same goes for other software that charges annual fees and has freely available alternatives. Again, check the resources above to see what is available.

  • Bandwidth

  • Bandwidth is sort of a sticky situation. You sign contracts on dedicated circuits (T1s and above), and the short (ie the more flexible for you), the more expensive per month. One possible solution is to not go with dedicated circuits. DSL and cable are both faster (download, anyway) than T1, even at the lowest bandwidth selection. The benefit of a T1 is that the bandwidth is dedicated to you, and you get the service level agreements (along with decent quality support in the event of outages).

    If you do decide to use consumer broadband rather than dedicated circuits, make sure that you are allowed to run whatever services over the network that you need to. Some people host their own web or FTP servers, and some providers block those services. Make sure you're not going to have a loss of availability by moving to another provider.

    One thing I have never tried, but I don't see why it wouldn't work, would be to share the cost of the bandwidth with your neighbors. Yes, it's the very same technique used by college kids everywhere to steal cable, but without looking at the contracts, I don't see why a T1 wouldn't allow this. Please drop some feedback if you've done this, or know someone who has, and how it worked out. I'm curious about the legalities. If you do do this, make sure to use firewalls between your network and your neighbor's.

Hopefully this entry either helped you see places where you could save money, or inspired you to look for your own. If you've got any techniques or hints on ways to save money for others, please put them in the comments. I know that a lot of people are going through tough times and can use the help.

Good luck, and thank you.