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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.”

Do you know the health of your infrastructure?

13 December 2019

Do you know the health of your infrastructure?

An IT infrastructure is the central nervous system of a business. It allows the company to function, ensures that operations are smooth and seamless, and ensures that the productivity companies require, remain constant and available for successful trading.

“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.”

Your 3-minute guide to career success

Your 3-minute guide to career success

By Emile Biagio, CTO of Sintrex

Twenty years ago, “Brain Drain” articles were common and I remember thinking that I’ve chosen the right career. Forecasts at that stage predicted that in ten years, most companies would struggle to find or retain the right tech skills for their businesses.

Fast forward to today – we know that the struggle is real. We’ve literally built a business on providing skills where our clients struggle to retain them.

  • Click here to learn more about how Sintrex can help your business

However, I don’t want to reflect on how to attract skills or delve into the impact that organisations face as a result. I would rather share some of my experience. It’s a conversation that I’ve had with many of my staff and younglings that are eager to become MD’s, CTO’s or Managers in their first year of employment… We all have these employees: they are ambitious, but are unfortunately the ones that are aggressively targeting the position and not the knowledge or experience.

I’ve always said that if you work for an organisation, work for one of two things: work for money or work for your CV. If you can do both – jackpot!

Let me explain…

We are employed at a certain cost to company for a specific job function. Once employed there are many things that hopefully keep us engaged and make our work experience a positive one. There are also times when our work is difficult and challenging and other times when opportunities present themselves. These are the times that I say you should buckle up and react positive to the challenges and grab the opportunities with both hands!

Why?

Not only will you grow and learn, you will also show your colleagues that you have a “can do” attitude and are willing to go the extra mile and help save the day. And if your company’s leadership invests in their employees, they will recognise this and (hopefully) promote you or increase your salary to “retain your skills”!

…and if they don’t?

Well, this is where the CV part comes into play. Keep doing the positive things and grabbing the opportunities. If you don’t, you will remain somewhere on the scale between dead-weight and average. Any project, task or challenge that you can learn from or complete can be added to your CV. You’re investing in yourself and even if you do not currently get the recognition for your inputs, then at least you’re growing your skills and experience, which results in a solid, strong CV. That CV will help you step up to the next environment that might be more appreciative of your skills, experience and track record.

It’s a strategy that’s served me well over the last 30 years and also serves a motivator to keep recognising the good that employees do within our company.

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!

Ramaphosa says, “buy local” – marra why?

Ramaphosa says, “buy local” – marra why?

By Emile Biagio, CTO, Sintrex

In his state-of-the-nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa challenged South Africans to buy locally-made products, in order to boost the ailing local economy and create jobs.

That’s such a simple and logical statement – but how many South Africans truly understand the positive impact of buying local?

15 million South Africans are unemployed. So, how is it that businesses can’t find the “right” people?

Skills shortage

Some candidates are highly skilled and costly to employ. Some are not educated or not educated enough. Some have the wrong qualifications and others lack experience.

Businesses look for experienced, qualified candidates that suit their budgets. It is unfortunate and all too common that some fit the right educational requirements but lack real-life experience. Ask any graduate or employing manager.

It’s a frustrating reality for both parties involved.

Like most other IT companies globally, we as Sintrex also faced a “skills shortage problem”, despite there being no shortage of applications for vacant positions. Most local IT companies look for internationally certified skills because most sell international products like Cisco, Microsoft, IBM, etc.

International products are imported, freight/import duties are paid, mark-ups are added and products are sold (hopefully with local services) to the end client. Once all invoices are paid, guess where the lion’s share of product revenue ends up? Yup, with the international manufacturer! A small percentage is held by the distributor (importer) and a fraction held by the reseller (usually between 15% and 40%).

I’m not saying that this is taboo, that’s the nature of the game and it is how most local IT shops sustain their businesses. Many specialise and ensure that they are the market experts and “go to” companies for certain products and associated skills. Companies create jobs by importing products too.

But what if we could sell a local product as a local IT company? So that the lion’s share of the revenue would remain local? Yes! What would we do with that revenue? Well, someone has to create, support, sell, service and market the products – resulting in job creation! Just like President Ramaphosa said… But wait, now we have to go back into the loop of finding the right skills?! This stuff’s not easy, hey?

Luckily for us, we faced this problem a few years back already… Because we have local products, it was imperative that we develop a solution to employing the right skills for our business. Without a conscious decision to find a solution to this problem, we would have been unable to realise the growth that we were targeting. (Besides targeting the market share in our speciality).

How we solved our skills shortage problem

The solution was actually quite simple. We looked at our unemployed youth, many of whom have high school qualifications, or even a tertiary qualification – but no experience. We developed an internship programme that employs 90% of our interns after their full term.

We teach our interns the IT foundations that we require for our business and eventually make them experts on our products and services. They gain practical experience on production systems, interact with our clients and shadow our employees for on-the-job training.

So what!?

So more than half (53%) of our staff complement are Sintrex Intern graduates. Of these, 12% are Engineers, 10% are Developers, 4% are Solutions Specialists, 2% are QA Analysts, 2% are Managers and the rest are operators. (Feb 2019 Statistics)

Truthfully: we’re proud of the jobs that we’ve created, we’re proud of that fact that we have local products and services that can compete with international equivalents, we’re proud of having supporting clients – and most of all, we’re proud of our interns and the staff that mentor them!

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

Beauty vs. the Beast!

Mapping the future with information

As time moved on and more voyages were taken, the navigators steadily improved these maps, as new contributions and corrections were made. From the earliest maps, where the edge of the world was still a real concern, the quality of the information gradually improved until the maps became reliable enough for modern day use.  *Until satellites took all of the guess work out of it, that is!

Where the famous explorers of the ocean had maps, we have data.

So, if one were to consider oneself an explorer of information, data would be your map and very likely your company’s data. Looking from the right angle, you will find some striking similarities between the challenges that the naval explorers faced and what we have to accomplish with information that is sometimes not so reliable.

This just means we all have our own version of a map, just in the form of rows, columns and blobs.

Decisions need to be made based on data. Every industry has their own sort of data, from retail and food stores that have customer data, to Web Developers that have statistics gathered on their sites.

So, if you manage a store well or build cool websites, is it because you have good data knowledge?

It is possible to build a server for machine learning without too much of a learning curve.  Better yet, if you have a little more budget, you can rent a server that is ready to use for machine learning or AI space from several cloud-based providers. Almost sounds like we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to deriving value from machine learning and discovering trends in our data.
There is a snag though… You need to understand data science or have an expert in your company’s ranks to figure out what is actually going on.

Alternatively, you could make use of Business Intelligence to sort out the trending and analyses for you.
It is not as new and mysterious as AI and machine learning, but it does still come with a few of its own challenges.
Most BI tools need some level of skill and work very well if you have clean, quality data. But most data is just not clean. It’s an unfortunate truth we must live with and you can’t afford wasting time cleaning data when the month end report needs to be presented first thing tomorrow morning.

Beside these strategic concerns, you are still faced with the question of what you actually want to achieve using your data. Analyzing past trends is not going to do much for the company’s future.  It is easy to miss the point when you have your head stuck in reports analysing it to death.

Like the aforementioned explorers, you need to use the old map to guide you until you have reached its limit and then go beyond this… Making discoveries that could make all the difference to your company, creating new revenue streams or initiating cost savings! Data should be used to discover great new horizons based on what you have learned.

To utilize your data in this way, proper analysis and thus a great navigator is needed. This is where Sintrex comes in – we “navigate”, enabling you to make the right decisions based on your data!

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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