All Systems Go
One of the surprises of the pandemic’s early days was how quickly companies of all kinds were able to move their workers to remote, home-based setups. Much of the credit for that goes to the IT teams who helped them achieve that transition quickly. It’s just one way IT firms help clients navigate changes in technology, defend against constantly evolving cyberthreats, and make regular assessments of what a business needs to be efficient and effective.
It can start with a cyber breach. Or questions from an insurance company. Or a business simply realizing it needs a hand with its technology.
“Different clients call for different assessments,” said Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT in West Springfield. “They might say, ‘we don’t know where we are with our technology,’ or maybe they have an outsourced IT department, but they’re having an ongoing issue, which triggers a call. ‘What are we doing right, what are we doing wrong?’ They want a second set of eyes on something.”
What they often find, he added, is “they don’t know what they don’t know,” and the conversation turns to this: what is the desired IT outcome?
“Every client is obviously unique,” Mollison said. “We want to work with them and understand how their business operates. We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals. So normally, when we work with a new business, we assess what they have currently and discuss what kind of issues they may be having or sticking points — maybe they’re not able to conduct business as fast as they would like, or their technology doesn’t work for them.”
“We’re just an extension of their business. Our solutions need to be in line with their technology and business goals.”
Or, these days, they have questions about maintaining and securing remote-work connections. Whatever the case, the high-tech side of the business world isn’t getting less complicated, highlighting the role that IT firms play for their clients.
“The goal for us is to act like your internal IT department,” said Jeremiah Beaudry, president of Bloo Solutions in Chicopee, and that means learning the ins and outs of a client’s business and how it uses hardware and software, so Bloo can make holistic recommendations about its technology needs.
“Every business is different, and their needs are different. They all serve their clients differently,” Beaudry added. “Not every solution is right for every business, so one-size-fits-all packages don’t really work. We also want to know what tools you’re using now: are there redundancies that overlap, or are there other tools that are more unified and give you a more collaborative, one-pane-of-glass solution?”
Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Easthampton, recently published a blog post citing a report that worldwide IT spending is projected to total $4.5 trillion in 2022, an increase of 5.5% from 2021.
“This is a monumental amount of growth which can likely be attributed to employers embracing work-from-home or hybrid-work environments, security concerns over cybersecurity breaches, and the world’s desire to utilize cloud technology,” he wrote. “For small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), this means that they will have more access to enterprise-level technology solutions, which will empower them to drive productivity and increase their bottom line, if they position themselves properly.”
Serve and Protect
It all starts with the basics, Beaudry said, with security topping the list.
“What data do you have now? How are you securing data to keep it out of bad actors’ hands, while making it easy for employees to access it? Balancing access with security is the hardest part.”
For example, people may dislike retyping a password every time they wake their computer up from screen-saver mode, but there’s a reason for that vigilance. And because passwords need to be complex — and people generally use a lot of them — he stresses the use of a password vault. “We’re getting people to adopt them instead of leaving Post-It notes all over their desk, which is a pretty huge fail.”
Bloo is putting more emphasis on end-user access in general, he went on — teaching people how to spot phishing attempts and e-mails from bad actors, and knowing what files are safe to open and download, and which aren’t. “That was important before the pandemic, but once people started working remotely, it added on variables to the mix.”
Mollison said a lot of IT security-tightening measures are being driven by the insurance industry.
“They’ve clamped down on organizations, requiring you to fill out a lengthy statement of your current security. That’s a big thing that’s happening, so there’s been a lot of discussion around that. A lot of times, folks come to us — they get that questionnaire and don’t even know how to answer it. They have an internal IT person, but it’s not their day job, just a hat they wear. So a lot of times, they come to us to make sure their business insurance is going to cover them. Actually, I’ve heard from a few firms that are paying an additional premium because they don’t have basic security pieces in place.”
Besides security and maintaining the network, Northeast also works with clients on replacement cycles for hardware and technology updates. “When Windows 7 went away in January 2020, all our clients knew about it well in advance, and had years to prepare for it and make changes. Those are the types of things we’re continuously doing to put clients in the best position in regard to technology and compliance.”
All of this has become increasingly difficult for businesses to handle in house, he added. “There are so many pitfalls, so much change. It takes a team of experts who understand the technology, the security levels, who understand all the concepts and how they relate to a particular organization.”
Some services deal with the human side of IT and cybersecurity, Mollison noted.
“We’ve done training sessions with clients to go over common phishing techniques and what to look for to distinguish whether an e-mail is credible or not. Obviously, we promote spam filters and other security measures, but we’ll still do a phishing campaign and training videos, making sure our end users are keeping up with what they may see in the real world. Even spam-filtering technologies are not foolproof — things still get through.”
Small businesses shouldn’t assume they’re not targets, Hogan wrote — quite the contrary, actually. “For most small businesses, their IT defense strategy is to simply hope they aren’t a target; however, as larger enterprises increase their spending and become tougher to break into, unprepared SMBs will unfortunately become an ideal target.”
“All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”
Mollison said Northeast doesn’t conduct free assessments with potential clients because he wants companies to be committed to the process.
“We want to develop a relationship with an organization and be their outsourced IT department and provide these types of services and help them grow, and that starts with being invested in participating in their assessment,” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve seen a lot of boilerplate, free assessments from other IT firms, and there’s not much to it, and they don’t do much for the clients.”
From a Distance
The shift to remote work over the past two years kept IT firms busy, but the ease of transition varied, Beaudry said.
“Working remotely is so different for each business; some clients just use Microsoft Word and Office docs, and working remotely is a pretty easy-to-accomplish task, versus some companies, which have a line of business applications and complex software, and you have to set up secure, virtual private networks to allow employees to access them.”
Businesses that weren’t already set up to work remotely found challenges early on, but they soon adapted — as the still-ongoing work-from-home revolution has made obvious.
“Most of our clients already had the technological components to work remotely, so it wasn’t a big issue,” Mollison said. “Numerous insurance agencies were remote within 48 hours. It really wasn’t a big deal for most companies — it usually boiled down to licensing and multiple security steps and VPNs.”
Whether at a business site or remotely, Beaudry said Bloo handles a wide range of IT issues for clients, including supporting the servers, hardware, and software applications; creating file shares; managing the servers; and maintaining security measures and patches.
“It’s a constant process; you have to be vigilant with those things,” he said. “We’re also dealing with end-user issues — ‘oh, my app won’t run,’ or ‘this program is giving me an error.’ It’s a lot of stuff to deal with, and now that this all stuff going remote, it’s evolving — instead of monitoring hardware, we’re having to monitor the dashboards for multiple cloud servers and take a look at 100 or 200 alerts a month; do these alerts all need action? Is it just an informational alert, or is there a pattern of things happening constantly?
“We’re a managed service provider,” he went on, “which means we are proactively doing all these things just as if you had an internal IT department. If the user is constantly pushing the limits of performance of that machine, we can see that on our dashboard.”
Speaking of which, Beaudry makes sure hardware assessments happen on a regular basis, “but we do a good job monitoring these things proactively, so we can avoid too many surprises,” he said, thereby avoiding unexpected downtime and loss of productivity. “Those surprises are what cost you the most money.”
And the bottom line matters, Hogan said, which is why companies of all kinds are investing in IT to boost efficiency and protect their assets.
“IT spending has increased so dramatically because the pandemic forced decision makers to make their organizations more flexible. They’re starting to understand the increased potential that they have to become more efficient with the latest in technology,” he wrote. “All of this increased IT spending is reflective of a world that is accelerating its migration into a fully digital world, when we thought things were already moving in that direction as fast as they could.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]