Drab to Fab

Tech Makeover: Server Them Right

Like many growing businesses, The Innis Company, a career transition and management company in Dallas, doesn't have an on-site IT person. And its technology is acting up like a 2-year-old.

CEO and founder Karyl Innis decided to do something about it. If some of The Innis Company's technology woes sound all too familiar to you, it's probably because these problems are common for entrepreneurs everywhere. Before turning to our tech experts for answers, here's some background information about The Innis Company: The firm was founded in 1994 and has since expanded to include several lines of businesses and offices in Dallas, Houston and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Sixteen full-time employees and about 30 workstation computers fill out the lineup.

Besides the employees, The Innis Company's career transition clients have access to some of the business's computers. "Our business has gotten more complex," explains Innis. "That's what my problem is. All of a sudden the technology ends up looking like a patchwork quilt, and I don't want to have an on-site tech person."

Step one was identifying the company's biggest trouble spots. Innis settled on several main issues: Getting the servers in their Dallas and Houston offices to synchronize their ACT! contact management databases, and creating a technology management plan to use as a road map for the business.

Syncing Feeling

We went straight to the source for much-needed help with the ACT! synchronization issues. Innis and Paul Selby, senior ACT! product manager for Best Software, spent some time talking it over. Innis describes the problem at hand: "Our people in the Houston office, their info is never current. They're working off of old data." Innis is looking to stem the Houston workers' frustration and lost productivity. We won't go into all the nitty-gritty technical details of the discussion, but will instead look at some of the tips Selby provided.

ACT! users will be familiar with the compress and re-index function. It had been several months since The Innis Company last used it. According to Selby, "Compress and re-index is kind of like changing the oil in your car. The more often you do it, the less likely you are to have a problem with your ACT! database. I'd recommend a more regular compress and re-index of the database, once a week or so." Selby also suggested looking into ACT! for Web, which works over the Internet as a possible alternative to trying to get the two different servers to synchronize.

A final suggestion that The Innis Company found most interesting is to give VPNs a try. Essentially, this would allow them to skip the whole syncing step and have the Houston workers connect to the Dallas database through a secure Internet connection. "You might see some speed issues there that I will warn you about," says Selby.

Getting a Boost

Though The Innis Company is committed to making its current technology work, it has accepted that certain upgrades are inevitable. Chris Merrill of outsource IT services company Thrive Networks Inc. recommends upgrading their server software from the outdated and unsupported Windows NT Server to the newer Windows Server 2003. The reasons go beyond just availability of support and software patches to another possible solution to the ACT! difficulties.

"The benefit of moving to 2003 is that Microsoft has built in some remote access technologies. This is a technology that 80 percent of our customers are using," Merrill says. These terminal services would allow the Houston office workers, as well as remote workers, to connect to the master database in Dallas in a fast and secure manner. Syncing two databases would no longer be required. Any entrepreneur dealing with similar issues and still running NT should check into this.

Along the same lines, The Innis Company has added PCs as they've grown and ended up with different hardware and operating systems all on the same network. The biggest culprits are the Windows 98 machines that make it difficult to prevent inappropriate downloading. Merrill suggested replacing these older machines with newer systems. With an upgraded server and desktops, it would be easier to implement downloading controls at the server level to put a stop to Kazaa- and Napster-related incidents.

What's the Plan, Man?

For advice on creating a technology plan, we asked Rick Buddine, IT consultant and CIO of Buddine Information Technology Corp. "In terms of a general technology plan, the best thing you can do is to give yourself room to grow," says Buddine. "That means planning some flexibility. You have to do some shopping and [educate] yourself. There's no shortcut for understanding the technologies that are out there."

For help in making technology decisions, Buddine recommends checking into business forums, inquiring how other companies handled similar issues, and hiring an outside consultant who is not involved in sales. For purchasing, he suggests skipping the latest cutting-edge technology and going with proven hardware and software that's one generation back. That's a sentiment Thrive Networks also echoes.

With the advice from our experts, The Innis Company is poised to change from being reactive about technology to being proactive. Though they've had some unsatisfactory IT providers, they've just brought on board a new player, Matt Everhart of IT consulting firm Everhart Group (which has since been purchased by technology services company Ronald Walker Associates II Inc. of Colleyville, Texas), who will be working with them to implement some of the suggestions they received and build up documentation that will map out exactly what sort of networks and systems they are running. -Amanda C. Kooser

Update: Give 'Em Tech
Since speaking to our experts a few months ago, The Innis Company, a Dallas-based career transition and management company, has been busy getting its technology on track. CEO Karyl Innis went to work with Denise Shedrick, vice president of business development who's also in charge of the company's technology.

The first thing Innis and Shedrick did was formulate several strategies, including a new technology mission statement. "We are in charge of our own technology, not somebody else. We'll create a plan and hire outside help to implement our plan. We'll ask for their input, but we'll manage them to our plan," says Innis. That may sound basic, but it lets Innis and Shedrick take control of their technology rather than continuing with their old break-and-fix approach.

Concrete steps that The Innis Company has made include updating their server to Windows Server 2003 edition, looking into migrating a few machines at a time, and setting up separate servers and networks for their employees and clients. That last move is a huge boost for manageability and security. Shedrick says their hopes of using Windows 2003 terminal services to share their ACT! database didn't work out, so they instead have the Houston office connecting into Dallas via a VPN. It's slow, but it's a step in the right direction. They hope to get the terminal services up and running eventually.

"I do feel that we were able to make a whole lot of progress in a short period of time," says Innis. With a new computer upgrade plan in place and several IT contractors they can call on, the people behind The Innis Company are finally making their technology work for them.

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This article was originally published in the April 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Drab to Fab.

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