Getting Started on Your IT Infrastructure

This article is aimed at non-technical NGO managers and administrators that may suddenly find themselves having to take charge of setting up and looking after the information technology infrastructure of their organisations.

Most NGOs in South Africa aren't large enough to justify having a dedicated technical support staff member - and even those that do, may need a non-technical manager to take an oversight role in procurement and planning.

We've tried to do two things in the article; firstly some tips on how to manage your technology needs both on a strategic and practical level. Secondly we've provided some additional material that outlines some of the typical technologies and ways of using them that are most appropriate for South African NGOs - a very basic ‘IT cheat sheet'. If nothing else, this should make discussions with your IT staff member - or your IT consultant - a little more understandable.

Of course South African NGOs are hardly homogenous - there's a vast difference between a well-resourced organisation with a 100 staff members spread over 4 different locations, and a start-up organisation with the proverbial single staffer and a fax machine. We're looking somewhere between these two extremes - from organisations just starting to see the need for better ways for sharing information than walking over to a colleague with a flash drive, to organisations with an existing infrastructure who have a sense they should be getting a bit more value from their systems.

What is Technology Planning?

Technology planning is the process of determining how your organization can best use technology to further your mission. The process of technology planning involves assessing your existing resources, defining your needs, and exploring solutions. A successful planning process will draw on management support and the leadership of a technology team made up of a range of staff members to provide input. It will help you budget for technology and make cost-effective purchases (Source: TechSoup.org)

Sounds like hard work. Ideally you should generate a plan that answers the following questions:

  • What is the organisation's primary mission?
  • What IT resources and facilities are required to support this mission?
  • What technical support will be required to keep them in working order?
  • What plans will there be for upgrading and further development of the facilities?
  • What plans will there be for capacity building and professional development of staff in the use of computers and other ICTs?

In reality much of this will be answered on an ad hoc and ongoing basis. Probably the two most important issues lie around adequately budgeting for your IT infrastructure, and in getting help with setting it up and maintaining it. Once you have that kind of assistance, it a lot easier to think through the details of your IT requirements.

How Much?
For many organisations, ‘budgeting' is the sole driver of the technology planning process - whatever (usually limited) money is available, is used to buy equipment on an ad hoc basis. This may be acceptable for very small organisations, but is highly problematic for medium sized organisations and bigger. The initial purchase may end up being a relatively minor part of the total cost of owning the equipment over its useful (and, in many organisations, not so useful) lifespan. Its also often much cheaper to buy in bulk - purchasing all your Office software licences in one go, rather than as you buy new PCs, is a much cheaper method - albeit one that requires you to think about likely staff expansions and so on.

In order to develop a plan it is necessary to simultaneously consider the costs of setting up an IT infrastructure for the organisation and the ongoing costs of maintaining that infrastructure. Yearly and monthly budgets are useful for keeping track of IT expenditure. These budgets can be divided into the following categories:

Capital expenditure

This includes:

  • Hardware
  • Software
  • Hardware replacement and repairs

Operating Cost
This includes:

  • Service contracts i.e. e-mail services, website hosting, network and computer maintenance
  • Licence renewals (particularly for accounting and anti-virus software)
  • Consumable items (printer cartridges, CDs, floppy disks, etc)

Get Some Help...
If you can't afford a dedicated IT support staff member (and often even if you can), then you are probably going to need expert help, both in setting up and maintaining your IT infrastructure. You can go one of two ways ; request help on an ad hoc basis, either when you need something specific done, (or more likely, when something breaks); or you can contract an IT service provider to maintain your system with a service contract.

The latter choice has a number of benefits; if a company has a service contract with you it is in their interest to set up a sustainably functional and reliable system. They are able to proactively prevent problems rather than reactively solving them.

Service Contracts
Before selecting an IT service provider check references from similar organisations and look out for examples of similar work.

Service contracts provide an easy means of projecting and budgeting maintenance costs. These service providers come with a superior level of ICT knowledge as they work in a computer environment on a daily basis. A good service provider should be able to assist with older computers and software whilst advising clients on newer technologies appropriate to the organisation.

It is therefore, very important to choose a maintenance and support contract provider that you can trust and who has proven to be knowledgeable in his/her area of IT support.

The service provider should:

  • Have regular meetings with a staff member designated to be responsible for the organisation's IT infrastructure, even if they are not an expert;
  • Build the capacity of the IT staff member;
  • Develop the network so that time spent at the site can be reduced.
  • Be in a position to offer independent advice and referrals for services they do not provide

What Should They Provide?

A set response time
Response time can typically be set between 2 hours to 2 days, depending on how critical the problem is. Typically, for example, server problems have a quicker response time than workstation problems. The quicker the response time, the higher the cost is likely to be.

Remember that response times are not the same as repairing time. Find out if the service provider can indicate average repair time figures. Repair time, though, does depend on whether or not the service provider has the parts on hand; most service providers don't always keep stock but buy from third parties. Therefore it is important to find out what your service provider can fix internally and what will be sent to a third party. It is also important to have a contingent plan in place when equipment is sent out to be fixed - if you have a service contract with a service provider they should bne able to assist with 'loan stock' while your equipment is being repaired.

On site visits (and remote help)
Your contract will typically specify a number of times for a technician to visit your premises to do general maintenance work, respond to problems and check that all systems (such as backups) are working well. How many visits depend on the size of the organisation and the level of service required (as well as if there is any internal assistance for users).

They should also provide a telephone and email support service. With improved connectivity many problems can also be fixed remotely - ask the provider to set up processes to facilitate this.

Selecting a Service Provider
Invite different service providers to submit service quotations. A minimum of three providers should give you an opportunity to select the best. They will need a full understanding of your requirements and the level of service you want them to provide. Make sure the contract allows for skills' transfer so the service provider can empower people within your organisation. (Use these questions on the SANGOTeCH website to help IT service providers gain an understanding of your requirements)

Doing it for Yourselves
In some cases, taking internal responsibility for simple repairs and troubleshooting can reduce the cost of service contracts. As the organisation grows it may be a good idea to consider whether they should consider keeping a fulltime internal IT person - or at least designate someone to take on some of the basic skills.

This way there is:

  • Always someone in the office all the time, therefore turn around time for troubleshooting is much faster
  • A dedicated person who will take responsibility for backups, purchases, planning etc.
  • Someone to assist and train staff
  • Someone to liaise with the service provider
  • Someone to reduce dependency on the service provider, and thus reduce costs

Policy-Making...
It is a good idea for organisations to develop IT policies that establish guidelines for their employees use of computing facilities such printers, e-mail, and Internet access. An orientation manual that describes how to use the network, email systems and filing system can also significantly improve productivity. Standardised templates - and the policies that require staff to use them - can make sharing and using information much easier.

Cheating...
You don't need to become an IT expert to manage the infrastructure in your organisation; in most cases you just need to use common sense - and to know when to call in help. But it doesn't hurt to have some understanding of what's needed, whats useful and what the possibilities are. Have a look at the SANGOTeCH IT for NGOs Cheat Sheet.

- Matthew de Gale, SANGONeT and Frans Pitjeng, SAIDE.

tags:  Redes, Servidores