General

Category: General

Don’t sit back and watch things break, drive changes for improvement!

17 February 2020

Don’t sit back and watch things break, drive changes for improvement!

Monitoring systems that statistically indicate that things are bad, implies that certain actions must be taken to rectify. “But you’re telling me what my users are already telling me” is NOT the desired response.

Yes, monitoring systems will measure your users’ experience and provide you with factual proof that the user experience may be terrible, which you may require.

More importantly, however, it will also tell you why the experience is bad. This is why you need to understand the information – so that you can assist with actions to rectify.

There is no silver bullet, and nothing beats elbow grease to get systems running optimally.

So, for monitoring to add true value, you should:

  • understand the statistics and measures that you’re looking at and
  • be prepared for a service improvement project or focus group to action a few things to resolve.

The first bullet point above should be fairly easy – your monitoring provider can teach you all about the metrics and measures.

On the second point, however, you should be willing to do a little research and interact with more departments and/or service providers.

Example: you measure (monitor): network performance, application response and transaction speeds to the back-end database and find that users experience slow responses because of the database. You would then need to start investigating all aspects around the database.

This may not be an area that you’re familiar with or responsible for, but it’s an area that you need to stick your nose into because, in this scenario, it’s the area that needs tweaking to improve user experience of an application.

A monitoring tool does not fix things for you, despite development and progress in AI and machine learning – we’re not there yet.

Keeping to the above example/scenario, you could start by finding out who maintains the database, who looks after the hardware or VM that hosts the DB.

Then ask those people about maintenance, performance, size, speed, optimization options, etc… Ask “silly” questions and Google a lot. Each of these interactions should spawn a few actions that could improve the performance of the database.

After each action, re-check the measured user experience until you start noticing performance improvements.

In this way, you are not a passive consumer of data which ultimately adds no value – you are an active force of change, that helps improve performance! Remember to document your learning in a knowledge base… and keep measuring!

“We all know how important it is to ensure that business-critical applications are constantly up and running, but this is dependent on the effectiveness of the underlying infrastructure. It has never been more important for companies to understand how critical business services, the IT infrastructure, and applications work together, because a failure in one area can have a negative domino effect on others,” says Sintrex’s CTO Emile Biagio.

He adds that having an infrastructure that works does not necessarily mean that it’s healthy or available, monitoring is therefore a vital aspect in obtaining the insight needed to ensure optimal functionality. “The failure of one switch might not seem like a big deal, but can become mission-critical in one area of the business. The underlying infrastructure might be working, but if glitches occur, users will encounter challenges and complain about their IT ‘not working properly’.”

Maintaining a stable and functional infrastructure rests on an end-to-end monitoring approach. “An overview of your entire estate”, Biagio points out.

All of the elements that make up the business system need to be looked at from the perspective of the infrastructure, the applications, and the end user experience.

Only with this holistic approach can companies gain insight over their availability, health and ability to trade.

“The business is connected through a network – whether a local area network (LAN), a wide area network (WAN), or both. If there is a problem with a connection at any point on any of these networks, the users often associate the challenges they encounter with the applications they are trying to access rather than the network. Similarly, many workers these days are mobile, and can encounter problems accessing the organisation from external locations. Monitoring the IT infrastructure must therefore start with evaluating the connectivity enabled by the network.”

Connectivity is a key foundation upon which any infrastructure is dependent on, but workload and applications availability fuels any business’s productivity on a daily basis, therefor these areas must be monitored to ensure business continuity.

“The right monitoring approach can provide a comprehensive overview of the health of the infrastructure. This can be achieved with different levels of insight, so business can have an overview without having to know the specifics of the technical aspects, while IT can gains deep understanding and useful fast effective problem resolution time,” Biagio says.

“Proactive awareness of what is going on across the infrastructure allows for improved user experience as well as pre-emptive fault resolution. Not only is understanding the health of the infrastructure vital to the smooth operation of any business, it reduces costs in the long run, mitigates risks and effective planning.”

Wispeco and Sintrex hold hands to improve productivity

Wispeco and Sintrex hold hands to improve productivity

Wispeco Aluminium is the largest aluminium extrusion company in South Africa.

The company recently suffered issues after implementing SYSPRO ERP for its branches across the country.   The company’s IT team tried to work out the issues themselves, but after failing to do so despite trying various things, Wispeco contacted Sintrex for assistance.  Wispeco had assumed that the issues were pertaining to the company’s network, despite not having accurate statistics to confirm this.

Sintrex executed a complete audit and investigation into the network, server, and server environment of Wispeco’s network.  “The question is always ‘who audits the auditors’ and I needed somebody that could give me an independent and thorough assessment of my network,” said Pieter Heyns, Head of IT at Wispeco. 

According to Heyns, Sintrex was able to pinpoint exactly what Wispeco’s problems were. “They gave us very good feedback and an action plan we could use,” said Heyns.

Sintrex was able to determine that Wispeco’s issues were not with their network, which was found to be stable after extensive testing.  Instead, the latency issues were situated within the server.  Sintrex also managed to uncover that Wispeco was not being allocated the bandwidth it was paying for at one of its sites. 

“From the account management side, through to the technical teams, Sintrex is a very professional organisation with very capable people,” said Heyns.  “You need facts to make decisions, and Sintrex was able to provide us with these facts.  ”Heyns said that he would definitely recommend Sintrex.   “The way the Cape Town and Joburg offices work together, their strong focus on project management, the fact that they give you regular updates, and they way they push for results were all very positive to me.”

Watch the full case study below.

When businesses face lag and latency issues, many automatically assume that the issue lies with their network. In truth, there are various possibilities in such scenarios, which makes it important to use a knowledgeable third-party to determine the root of your issues. Sintrex is a leading South African infrastructure management company that offers end-to-end IT solutions and services. They have proven that they are capable of assessing and diagnosing issues in a business’s IT systems, as is proven in the below case study. Sintrex is committed to offering the best IT solutions, and strives to offer superior service and results to its customers.

#data #information #4thindustrialrevolution

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

I recently watched an investigative series set in the 1970’s, where a judge dismissed evidence that linked a suspect to a murder; he claimed that he does not believe in all this “scientific mumbo jumbo”. My my, how far we have progressed. Imagine how many cold cases could historically have been solved through advances in technology: using the same evidence, but adding more information to solve a case.

Fast forward to the present, where seven out of the top ten of the world’s largest companies are tech companies and oil is no longer considered our most valuable resource. Yup, not oil, but data!

Data? Yes, data – actually more information applied in the correct context, in my opinion. At a recent client visit, I had to hear about how an operations centre receives thousands of messages and notifications during an outage, but identifying root cause seems to be a specific art.

So, as is the norm today, this client has monitoring systems plugged into just about every critical application running on their infrastructure. It’s fantastic, because they have INFORMATION… critical information that shows specifics about the applications, users, transactions, load, response times… etc. This information empowers them to tweak, tune and adapt the systems to drive business productivity.

The problem is, when there is a glitch in the matrix, all the monitoring systems spew out thousands of messages to highlight anomalies. This is what we build, more and more systems that collect information. I pulled a statistic from another client (for interest): 489 Million messages in one month… that’s a lot. It’s about twenty hundred five and seventy messages a day (sorry Mr. Zuma, still funny).

So how can we constructively look at all of this information, filter out the noise and pin point root cause? Yes, machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies are definitely making significant strides in helping, but there are also some basic fundamentals that still make it all a lot easier. Maybe not from the 1970’s, but at least from the 1990’s:

  • A system that monitors your underlying common denominator, your network and automatically identifies root cause outages.
  • The ability to classify anomaly impact. E.g. Minor, Major, Critical.
  • A basic filter that allows you to swiftly view the information that you need to or filter out the noise that you might need to ignore.

If you apply a filter to a badly taken photo, it will look ok, but apply the same filter to a great photo and it’s suddenly brilliant! Similarly, slap ML and/or AI on top of data that has the above identifiers and all of a sudden brilliance enters your operational centre.

“Information is power, but only if people are able to access, understand and apply it.” ~ Unknown

Fools and their tools

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

Buy local, South Africans! You are creating sustainable careers for our youth!

If I had one buck for every time we get lured into a “software features” discussion with a potential client, I’d own an overstocked game farm!

Or what about the infamous feature shoot out or comparison spread sheet that shows the gaps between products? How many propeller heads have motivated 50% more spend for 20% more features? Hopefully, it was justified.

If you have ripped and replaced monitoring software in the past 3 years, or if you’ve invested in yet another tool to fill another gap that you thought was covered in the tools that you already have, then you’re doing something wrong.

Read carefully, you’re doing something wrong! Don’t go to market and find other tools… because it might just be the fool behind the tool – and not the tool.

Consider a process audit first. Look at what you should be doing, irrespective of the tool’s ability to facilitate the process.

If your process audit compliance is low because of a tool, then look for an alternative, but use your requirement framework to find the right fit.

If you make up a comparative list, I’d bet that of all the tasks and processes that you should be doing, less than 50% can be blamed on a tool that does not support it.

Here are a few considerations if you want to buy a tool – I know it’s probably only a fraction of what’s required, but it’s a good place to start:

  • Who’s going to install the tool?
  • Who updates the managed devices loaded for monitoring?
  • How often is it updated?
  • How must it be structured? (Location, SLA, Business Unit or technology based?)
  • Who sets the standards for devices to be monitoring compliant?
  • Who makes sure that the hardware and software resources are sufficient for the tool?
  • Who looks after the hardware?
  • Is there a database used for storage? Who is maintaining the DB?
  • Are the backups in place? Do you need a DR solution?
  • Who provides access to the system?
  • Who sets up the dashboards?
  • If there are integration requirements, who owns that and maintains it?
  • Who must be trained to use the tool? Who does the training?
  • Who disseminates information? If it’s ‘automated’, who sets it up?
  • Who must get what information?
  • What actions must be taken regarding specific information?
  • Who must watch screens and what do they do based on what they see?
  • Who must receive automated escalations? What must they do about it?

And if you don’t want to buy another tool, consider outsourcing it all and ask questions like these:

  • Will you (Service Provider) look after all ‘Tool’ required hardware, software, licenses, capacity, backups, administration, DR and…
  • Can I have a geographical view of all my outages?
  • Can I see all non-performing assets and stressed assets?
  • Can I evaluate capacity issues for all devices?
  • Can all my assets be tracked geographically?
  • Can I have all my assets collated in one area for data mining?
  • Can I mark all my SLAs monthly?
  • Can I see and measure user experience and application performance?
  • Can I check my IT provider compliance to standards and best practices?
  • Can I provide difference business units a view or report for their portion of the infrastructure?
  • Can I have an on-site Operations Centre or the option to reduce costs and host it off site?

Make sense? Cause now you’re moving away from looking at the tool. You’re making it someone else’s problem and ensuring that you get the required output to run your business and improve service delivery!

Beauty vs. the Beast!

This thought pattern is bananas!

This thought pattern is bananas!

Most of us like bananas, right? We’re privileged to have access to bananas in areas where they do not grow naturally. We even have the luxury of choosing how many we want to buy and we can hand-pick them from hundreds on display!

But why do you buy bananas? Do you just buy for the sake of having a fruit snack? Are you making a fruit salad or perhaps banana bread? Do you buy them because they’re on sale and look REALLY good? And because they’re on sale, “let’s buy more and decide what to do with them after the purchase!” (Sounds like my wife…)

Have you noticed that if you purposely buy bananas for a specific reason, then you become very selective in your purchasing decision? Generally we would shop for ripe and maybe organic bananas to make really nice banana bread. Anything other than ripe really will not do.

Making the ideal banana bread requires a good recipe, some additional ingredients and some know-how. We could opt to purchase a pre-made banana bread, but we know that some people REALLY know how to make an excellent banana bread, so much so that you might ask them to make it for you!

So what?

So, what if I told you that the banana is your product and the banana bread is your required output? This would mean the additional ingredients, recipe and baker make up the services provided to get to the required output.

I use this metaphor to illustrate to many organisations that when they start looking at service companies to provide services, they should find someone that can provide them with the required output!

Most organisations – especially in IT – will use tech experts to review service companies and (as I’ve heard before) ask to “lift their skirts” and reveal components that make up the service offering…. i.e. “lift your skirts and show us your bananas, baker!” Mmmm, this metaphor just took a turn down the wrong path…

Let’s refocus! Don’t fall into the trap of evaluating products (bananas) when you know what you want as a service! Contract for the required output and let the service provider control the rest!

 

Application Monitoring – still haven’t found what you’re looking for?

In the IT Monitoring space, it has become a requirement to have eyes on everything in your infrastructure and everyone has become used to the single pane of glass, API integration with drill-through capability and full stack service monitoring.

As a result, many specialist companies are punting complete visibility of your entire infrastructure and positioning their tools as the panacea to keeping an eye on it all, the entire time.

Looking at the features and capabilities of the more prevalent vendors out there, it appears to be realistic enough, but can one specialist tool really manage all of this in one go?

Is it possible? Yes!

Does is ever work?  Hardly…!

Here’s why…

Supposing you have the Rolls Royce of application monitoring tools, as soon as you start investigating last hop network latency on a per transaction basis to troubleshoot your customer portal’s performance issues – or something just as intricate, but relevant to your IT service – in most cases you will find a mundanely basic network error is actually affecting normal service delivery.

Most of the marquee application monitoring tools that you come across can see any level of detail into the most critical IT services.

Embarrassingly, but most often upon implementation, these tools end up pointing out bad housekeeping, like misconfigured DHCP or how network flows are being directed to discontinued IP addresses.

Despite the grand visions that we have for our IT environments, the ground level is not as stable as we expect or want it to be and will always be something that requires our attention.

One way of looking at it is the TCP/IP model of networking communications. Application monitoring tools are used to look at, troubleshoot and alert on the upper layer, as the name suggests, where transaction details can be decrypted for DPI – Deep Packet Inspection.

Following this the Transport, Internet and Physical Layers are the supporting communication layers and essentially constitute physical and virtualized network equipment, VLANs, Quality of Service Bands and their configurations – everything that the business applications need to serve the end users with information.

If this TCP/IP model is viewed as a tower of building blocks, which it does represent in many ways, it stands to reason that the foundational layers need to be in place and under control before the upper layers can be used to any effect.

These are areas and functions that need to be maintained.

Don’t take my word for it though, refer to any operational lifecycle or governance framework. Somewhere between the planning, design and operation of any service in IT, maintenance is required.
ITIL labels it as “Transition”, COBIT says “Review Effectiveness” and the Sintrex in-house methodology chose to call it “Verify”, but it still speaks to evaluating existing structures for effectiveness and performing maintenance where necessary.

But “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it”, so unless something goes wrong and gets rectified, how would one maintain the lower layers of this tower?

There should be emphasis on the lowest level of the model continuously, but your focus can only move to the upper layers, provided that the current layers in focus mature into established processes of maintenance and upkeep.

This should ring true for anyone involved in networks, as the first port of call when assigning blame is invariably, the network. More trust in the network and higher visibility into the lower layers translates into less time you need to spend hunting basic errors.

And when an end user claims the ERP system is not working, IT support should first and foremost confirm that the physical network servicing the system is up and running.

If you can say with confidence that the basics are in place and the network is doing what it should, it enables you to build up from this foundation to view all the intricacies that depend on the network.

This is the level of confidence you should have in your network, before you should be able to put your trust in Application monitoring.

Finding method in the madness

In 2018, IT spend in South Africa totaled a whopping R276.6 billion (Gartner, Inc). The core challenge remains determining how to derive value from all this investment…

People, Process and Technology:
This is the foundation of any established IT management domain. It may come with proprietary terminology and be straight from a governance framework playbook, or it could be a customized set of rules based on requirements for your own environment. Whether you are the owner, an outsourced service provider, consultant or even vendor, you will need to fulfill your role within the boundaries of this framework.

In the building, maintenance and management of any IT environment, direct costs are incurred from the People and the Technology. These two terms represent most expenditures from infrastructure to cloud and software subscriptions, to permanent employees, consultants and service providers.
Unpacking all of this, you end up with all of the building blocks that show up on the company’s financial ledgers against IT. All of these building blocks put together are what IT has to ensure delivery of a service that enables business.

To best deliver a service that satisfies requirements, there are questions that need answering like:

Which team looks after WAN CE links?
What dashboard(s) do you grant to service provider XYZ?
Which processes should I keep internal and which should I entrust to an outsourced provider?
What SLA’s need to be negotiated and imposed on each team involved in service delivery?

… to name but a few. As a whole, questions related to this will very likely range far beyond these and dig much more into particular details.

It is indeed a daunting challenge.

With due respect to all vendors and service providers, there is seldom a clear winner when it comes to a particular software toolset and the same can be said about service providers. A few obvious choices come to mind but most purchases, that are seen as strategically important, go through a like-for-like comparison, exhaustive and often extended proofs of concept as well as carefully negotiated contracts terms.

In and of its nature, this purchasing of software or signing of service agreements is something that experience can teach you. The rules of the game do not change all that often and investing in technology can – in most cases – be measured and justified by a prior success internally or reference sites where the same purchase has proven to be successful. “Company A” might thrive on open source software and specialists capable of running systems smoothly, in which case you could follow the same mix of skills and solution sets. Or “Company B” is able to show ROI on high end proprietary solutions that come with marquee price-tags, in which case a value proposition can be built.

Despite having to service your own unique environment, there is most certainly a recipe for buying toolsets and selecting service providers or employees to meet your own requirements.

Why then, do some succeed and others fails with certain technology toolsets?
OR at the same token, why do some partnerships with a service provider work, while others do not?

If you have followed along to this point, it should be obvious that the third part of the introductory management framework has been left well alone. It is the part that cannot be purchased, but instead that each management team needs to build, grow and evolve to suit the needs of their own business:

Process!

This is the “secret sauce” unique to each environment that can ensure success.
Without it, any mix of “end-to-end” solution sets won’t work, nor will any amount of product specialists run an IT environment successfully. The process is what defines who gets the correct information at the right time and what to do with this information.

There should be a set procedure for every eventuality in an IT infrastructure. If an event occurs that impacts the ERP system, what remedial steps need to be taken and who needs to be informed?
What is the time frame and standard response to resolve an incident? Which steps in this procedure is repeated and thus suitable to automate?

Unfortunately, process is often overlooked. Not to the extent there is no process, but rather that the process is not adapted to changes within the environment. The trick is to acknowledge that this is a “live” document and to ensure that these adaptations are made to keep in line with today’s environment.

A technology specialist might leave the organization and someone inexperienced is appointed as custodian of a system they cannot properly use. There might be changes in your company’s e-mail or internal communications and the automated messages are just not being delivered anymore. Any part of the IT infrastructure that changes will have an impact on the tools used and the people running them and vice versa.

Provided that the process is documented and available to the various stakeholders and responsible parties, the impact of the changes mentioned above can be minimized. It enables one person to hand over to his or her successor and could be used to outline minimum requirements for replacement software. The process lays the platform for growth and sustainability in how IT delivers value to business. You cannot get this off the shelf, but if it is not maintained, your process can be the most costly component of your IT management framework. We can therefore safely say that effective and efficient processes are paramount to deriving value from your investment in IT!

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Upwards and onwards – Sintrex internship graduates looking back

One core aspect of the Sintrex culture is empowering employees.

The Sintrex Internship Programme not only upskills IT graduates but it also gives them insight into a professional IT environment, where they can learn and explore what it means to be an IT engineer.

After another successful intern cycle, we decided to explore what Sintrex staff (formerly interns)  had learned.

Employees learned the importance of hard work, prioritisation, time management, teamwork, perseverance, persistence and how to face new challenges.

“While I have learned many things in the year I interned for Sintrex, the main lesson has been that by trial-and-error we learn and grow – anything can be done, if we are determined enough to get it right and learn from our mistakes.

These lessons extended beyond mere work, as interns reported becoming more patient, understanding, organised and more balanced in work and life.

“As an introvert, I have developed social skills and became more social with everyone I’m working with, and the new people I meet.

“Prior experience does not determine who or what you are.

“It is all about your ability to adapt to the new situation that has been presented to you within the structure of the business, and sometimes the hardest lesson that one needs to learn is not to be a slave to conformity but to re-invent oneself to the task and opportunities that have been given to you.

Getting a head start in the IT industry

The Sintrex internship programme was launched in 2016 with the goal of creating a talent pipeline of potential employees, either for Sintrex or other ICT companies in Africa.

The interns report that Sintrex’s programme “just felt right” to them:

“I applied for the internship because it was a great opportunity to learn and grow in an IT environment; this is a one in a million opportunity, and I would not say no to a career-changing move.

They said that the programme is well-constructed and executed, and offered a professional working environment, as well as opportunity for career growth.

Some were informed about the opportunity from friends who worked at Sintrex and had experienced the advantages of the internship first-hand.

“I was happy; I decided to apply for the internship, as my friend suggested, because I’m doing the work that I always wanted to do, while learning every day and loving the work I do even more.

Of the best experiences of the internship, many of the interns commented on the great company culture, saying that it is great to “work with such an awesome diverse group of people”, and to “enjoy a braai with colleagues that you can call friends.”

“You get to socialise on a casual level with everyone in the company, even the CEO… Not many companies offer that.

Working at Sintrex

The social structure of the company allows for better teamwork, the interns reported.

“It is easier to understand one another on a professional level, if you have a personal understanding of how everyone in your team works.”

While work is fast-paced, it is also fun and offers an environment to learn and grow, with many senior staff happy to provide guidance.

“Every single environment you work in within Sintrex, will always have the best personalities to learn from, and there is a type of family bond that you start to grow with the colleagues around you.

“Sintrex is a very professional company and will always treat one another with respect and dignity.

All new staff are looking forward to their careers at Sintrex, saying that they expect to grow, both in their careers and in their personal lives.

“I look forward to a career where I can continue to study, with the freedom to explore my options of what interests me most in IT.

Interested in a Sintrex internship?

For those interested in a Sintrex internship, the graduates affirm that “if you are interested, you cannot go wrong – if this is your passion and interest, Sintrex is the perfect place to start your career and learn the ropes in a corporate and professional environment.”

The interns were impressed by how much Sintrex dedicates to them, saying, “They truly invest in one’s career.”

“Do not even second-guess your decision to apply for the internship at Sintrex, as it will give you more than you ever expected.

“To become part of the Sintrex team is rewarding with the social events and all-round atmosphere within the company.

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It geeks hate operational monotony: why you should adjust your sails

“I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” Jimmy Dean

25 years ago…
Change in IT happened so often that the only constant was upgrading technology: from XT to AT workstations, from thick Ethernet cabling to thin Ethernet, from Token Ring topologies to Bus topologies and from binding IPX to TCP/IP protocols on NICs.  Techs were techs – having a variety of technical skills; from writing little DOS menus to re-cabling a building with your own RG-58 cabling tools, while explaining the difference between a floppy and a stiffy to a new user. The IT team was “The IT Team” – no specialists. Some just knew a little more than others. Everything seems to be project driven and operational issues were small issues that had to be resolved along the way as part of the ‘project’.

As time progressed…
Some technologies became adopted standards as implemented by most organisations, like star topology reticulation and TCP/IP. Techs started to specialise and businesses started looking for specific skills in the market to address certain technology needs.  Desktop support engineers faced the irate users while network engineers fiddled with routing protocols that could halt a company’s business operations with a small typo on a subnet mask.

The bigger the company infrastructures grew, the more controls and processes were implemented.  And the one thing that Techs hate is exactly that: the monotony of “more of the same”. Techs want change – new toys, upgrades, new features, and exciting bells and whistles. Businesses, on the other hand, want stability, productivity, uptime, less change, no outages, ease of use, etc.

Today…
Understandably, even when things go wrong, Techs would rather be working on new projects and new technology than trying to figure out what is now causing the storm in the cloud. With the evolution of systems and applications, Techs have been saved! Today, there are systems available that can pinpoint issues in any IT environment for a quick resolution, but here’s the curveball…. These systems too, need to be maintained. Which brings us back to the modern expectation of specialisation (internal resources are very rarely specialised in external systems) and operational monotony (which, as we stressed, Techies through the ages simply “love”!)

The solution…
It is quite simple. As quoted above – you need to accept the reality and adjust your sails! A third, independent party like Sintrex specialises in a variety of tools and systems and for us, it is not monotonous, but exciting! Our services come with a variety of additional benefits. It is important to remember, despite systems that “pin point issues in any IT environment for quick resolution”- if you cannot see it or have not loaded it for monitoring, then you cannot monitor it! And without monitoring, there can be no quick resolution, only frustrated Techs and increased pressure from business.

Come chat to us at the MyBroadband Conference on 26 October. We would love to explain how we can assist in adjusting your sails, to set you on the course for success!

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