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Centralizing and Pooling Resources

During my 20 years with Media General, I've witnessed amazing growth—and change—within our information technology (formerly information services) foundation.

Like many of you, I remember receiving our first file server and a huge box of disks containing our Netware server software. That server was placed on a shelf for all to see. I'm surprised we didn't rig up spotlights and put a velvet rope around it for viewing. People were excited. It was a huge step forward, but laughable compared to our computer rooms of today.

Over the years I have also witnessed the centralization of IT, followed shortly by decentralization. This cycle has repeated itself several times during my span of involvement and was often initially driven because of limitations (or new capabilities) of emerging products. We've been back on the centralization swing for years... but this cycle is lasting longer and very well may become the preferred process.

MOVING AHEAD

Today, the technology often allows us to determine the best fit, but other important factors are driving the final decision. The demand for us to share information has skyrocketed. Ten years ago, we struggled to share information between departments in the same building. Now, we collaborate instantly around the world.

In an enterprise environment, it seems to make sense that we centralize where appropriate. An increasing number of systems are specifically designed for this type of implementation because it offers numerous benefits. The obvious advantage is often less hardware and capital expense associated with the initial purchase and installation. This can be a significant factor.

But, there are other advantages that shouldn't be overlooked. The ability to administer and manage a system from a single or minimal number of locations can mean fewer resources are required. You also have to take into consideration the potential for energy and space savings, maintenance costs, miscellaneous hardware, etc.

In my opinion, one of the biggest benefits is the opportunity to implement and enforce standardization. Once a model is developed that provides the necessary solutions to all of your end-users, that model can become a building block resulting in common usage throughout your enterprise. Support is immediately simplified because you already know the exact structure of the system. Training can be replicated to all easily. It should also be easier to implement and maintain security.

Because standardization exists, you can immediately reap the benefits of being able to collaborate.

There are many benefits to centralization of a system. But, it's also a process that must involve everyone, from the end-user to upper management. If not approached properly, the idea that something is being taken away or that control is being lost begins to permeate.

A solid presentation is necessary to cover the concerns of those involved and convey the benefits they can expect. This process may relieve a local burden and free up additional resources. You need to prove that you have adequate and capable talent to provide support that is superior to the existing setup. It's important that everyone buys in.

Centralization of services or an application can be a great solution. Care must also be taken to ensure that it is also appropriate and that risk levels are acceptable. Service Level Agreements need to be clearly outlined so that all are aware of the expectations. Failure of a standalone system at a single location usually impacts only that facility. Failure of a centralized system can mean an outage for all sites. That can have a significant impact on business processes. The level of risk can be mitigated by ensuring adequate disaster recovery plans, but this must be taken into consideration early in the process.

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

Because of our line of work, we have to ensure that a location can "survive" in the event of an outage. There are systems that must remain local to ensure functionality in this case. During a hurricane for example, it's quite possible (likely!) that communications will be disrupted. A station is expected to stay on the air as a community service and resource. If certain systems are centralized, this can greatly impact the ability for a property to continue providing an essential service. So, throughout any process of centralization, extra care must be taken to ensure that you're not crippling the station's ability to function in a standalone environment.

Centralization may still be able to occur with proper planning that permits a site to operate by having necessary hardware and software capabilities to provide standalone redundancy, even for short durations. The effort of making this work may still be beneficial overall, as you may capitalize on benefits gained through resource pooling.

Many of us have experienced painful reductions in staffing during the past year, and it's already impacting many of us. In order to continue operating at peak efficiency, we need to continue looking for ways to free up existing personnel wherever possible. Centralization may be a reasonable solution. There will be some upfront costs, but often the financial return on investment can be obtained quickly.

With limited resources already at hand, it may be necessary to review your priorities and focus on those projects that can provide immediate reward, reduce demand on existing personnel, and provide a long-term solution.

Stepping back at this time and taking a fresh look at your environment may offer you opportunities that haven't been seriously considered in the past. Opportunities do exist. Count on IT!

Michael J. Sutton is director of IT at Media General Broadcast Group in Richmond, Va. He can be reached atmsutton@mgbg.com.