Drive Shack Inc., a virtual reality golf business, puts a new twist on a greenfield deployment.
Starting from scratch, the company sought an IT infrastructure capable of supporting a 60,000-square-foot facility in Orlando, Fla. The complex needed everything from gaming platforms to servers and security. The concept is to let golfers virtually play courses from around the world.
Ravi Nekkalapu, CIO and head of IT at Drive Shack, reached out to Trace3 Inc., an IT solutions provider based in Irvine, Calif. Nekkalapu had a previous relationship with Trace 3 when he was senior director, enterprise architecture and cloud strategy, at Wyndham Worldwide. In the new arrangement, Trace 3 was tasked with devising the technology underpinning Drive Shack’s flagship facility.
“Trace3’s approach was to review the customer’s overall goals, designs, and requirements for this new venture,” said Tim Benner, vice president of architecture and strategy at Trace3.
Cisco’s role in virtual reality golf
As a result of Trace3’s technology review and proof of concept initiatives, Cisco and the vendor’s StadiumVision (now Cisco Vision for Sports and Entertainment) was deemed the best fit. Cisco Vision for Sports and Entertainment centrally manages the distribution of video and digital content to high-definition or ultra-high-definition displays installed throughout a given venue.
Benner said the Cisco offering provided “the best of breed and bleeding-edge capabilities at the infrastructure level we were looking for.”
Cisco-provided infrastructure includes Unified Computing System servers for client compute, video servers and hardware, Catalyst switches, Cisco routers, Meraki MX and Cisco Firepower Threat Defense security appliances, and wireless technology from Meraki.
Having a single vendor responsible for those infrastructure elements provided a simplified “one-throat-to-choke” support mechanism, Benner said.
Other infrastructure elements
Cisco, however, contributed one of many pieces of the Drive Shack technology ecosystem. Other infrastructure components include golf ball dispensers, Android tablets, security cameras and systems, cameras that track ball and player movements, and StorMagic’s virtual storage-area network products.
Software for providing client compute, Benner said, is based on VMware for virtualization and Microsoft Windows Server and Windows 10 for delivering the gaming platform as well as infrastructure services for administration and authorization of the gaming platforms.
As for deployment, Cisco provided in-depth implementation of its StadiumVision infrastructure platform, while Trace3 implemented the other infrastructure components for virtual reality golf.
Benner said the key to this project — and realizing the Drive Shack vision — was the “concept of team ownership of every system, from infrastructure to gaming platforms and development.”
With its infrastructure in place, Drive Shack’s Orlando facility opened in April 2018. Other Drive Shack virtual reality golf centers are on the horizon. Trace3 is working on the next facilities scheduled to launch, including centers in Raleigh, N.C., Richmond, Va. and West Palm Beach, Fla.
To support the current and planned Drive Shack golf complexes, Trace3 manages a technology-testing lab in White Plains, N.Y. Benner said plans are in the works to open a larger lab, capable of mimicking “the full stage and platform” of a Drive Shack facility.
Hurricane Florence made landfall Friday morning in North Carolina, but data centers will continue to operate, including the Ensono data center in Kings Mountain.
Kings Mountain, in the Charlotte metro area, is well inland, but the region is still expected to see high winds, more than 10 inches of rain and the potential for tornadoes. Hurricane Florence was classed as a Category 1 hurricane as of Friday morning.
Power outages are the key threat to IT equipment, and already more than 400,000 homes and businesses are without electricity in the Carolinas. Jim Kozlowski, vice president of global data center operations at Ensono, said the company’s mission-critical data center’s electrical systems, cooling systems and backup diesel generators operate with many layers of redundancy. Ensono is a managed services and cloud services provider.
“The center is designed to operate continuously even without public utility power into the site,” he said. “The backup generators have fuel storage onsite and additional fuel deliveries on standby to provide continuous operation throughout the storm and any potential utility power loss.”
In the area of power generation, the Ensono data center in Kings Mountain has multiple backup diesel generators. The generators supporting the Ensono data center are designed and have been maintained to withstand the rain and wind associated with the storm.
Kozlowski said Ensono has tested all of the data center’s systems, noting the center’s maintenance is up-to-date to ensure backup systems are able to function as planned. The company has informed customers of the steps it has taken and continuously updates them based on weather service and utility company information.
IT services firms in areas prone to natural disasters develop emergency preparedness plans to help customers deal with the immediate crisis and its aftermath. In 2017, during a particularly busy hurricane season, SearchITChannel wrote about how one Florida MSP supported its customers through Hurricane Irma.
Accenture last week scooped up two companies to solidify the product innovation component of its Industry X.0 practice, which aims to help clients develop smart connected products and services.
The IT consulting firm acquired Mindtribe, a hardware engineering firm based in San Francisco. Mindtribe uses Agile techniques to create connected hardware that integrates with digital services. Accenture also entered into an agreement to purchase Pillar Technology, a Columbus, Ohio, smart embedded software company. Pillar Technology develops embedded software used in smart connected products such as autonomous vehicles, according to Accenture.
Smart connected products embed software, sensors, RFID tags, microprocessors and other smart elements. Those components, coupled with wireless and other connectivity options, let the products connect to the user, manufacturer or other products. The internet of things may serve as the communications backbone for smart connected products. Continued »
A global study of the SMB business segment suggests MSPs should be investing in cybersecurity expertise and services.
Published last week by IT management software firm Kaseya, the study polled more than 1,200 IT professionals at companies with 5,000 employees or less. Among the study’s findings was that one in three SMBs suffered a data breach in the last five years, with about one in 10 experiencing a breach in the last 12 months. Fifty-four percent of respondents cited strengthening IT security as a top priority for 2018 – a 14% increase compared with Kaseya’s 2017 survey of SMB IT operations.
“One of the areas that we see a huge amount of opportunity [for MSPs] is that the market is underserved in terms of security, awareness and protection. Security is multilayered. It’s everything from endpoint security to user security to even network monitoring, because breaches are becoming more and more common in the SMB world,” said Frank Tisellano, vice president of product management and design at Kaseya.
Fifty-eight percent of SMB business respondents said enhancing security will be the No. 1 IT priority for 2019, overshadowing other SMB technology objectives, according to the study. Thirty-one percent of respondents cited reducing IT costs as a top priority, while 28% pointed to regulatory compliance.
The Kaseya study also showed that of the SMBs that had a data breach in the past 12 months, 45% experienced two to four outages of five minutes or more. SMBs, however, are tackling outages with backup and disaster recovery strategies, Kaseya said. Ninety percent of SMB IT professionals said they back up their servers. Sixty-nine percent back up servers both locally and onsite. Additionally, about 40% of respondents said they use automated disaster recovery and have a formalized business continuity and disaster recovery plan. Respondents on average use four backup and recovery products.
Disaster recovery and security go hand in hand, Tisellano said, because they both focus on managing risks. He added that the SMB business segment is looking to invest more in these areas, especially as IT becomes increasingly more central to their businesses. “The risks that you are looking to mitigate with [security] tools and with backup is getting higher, and so businesses are willing, and frankly starting to be required, to keep their businesses safe in new and comprehensive ways,” he said.
Tisellano noted that Kaseya has been busily investing in its security and disaster recovery software capabilities. Recent examples include the vendor’s merger with Unitrends, a disaster recovery company, in May. “We are going to continue to make huge investments” in security and disaster recovery, he said.
If you attended the recent DattoCon 2018 event, it’s dollars to donuts you heard about near-term opportunities in the small and medium business (SMB) market.
Managed service providers (MSPs), however, also got a peek of what might transpire a bit further down the road. Ian McChord, vice president of product management at Datto Inc., outlined five potential directions for MSPs attending the data protection and MSP business management software vendor’s annual partner conference:
- Proactive management
Currently, customer pain — a server failure, for example — is typically what spurs an IT services provider into action. McChord suggested analytics and improved diagnostic data will shift the MSPs’ focus from reactive to proactive management. He said diagnostic capabilities, as part of an MSP’s toolset, are still in their infancy. But those features will have plenty of data to explore once they mature: McChord said remote monitoring and management tools already collect large amounts of data, but most of it remains untapped. Eventually, MSPs will be able to measure how many customer issues they manage proactively by determining the percentage of tickets generated through automated means versus end users.
- SaaS application management
McChord pointed to increasing use of SaaS among businesses as a form of shadow IT and a potential regulatory compliance issue. He pointed to the example of a hypothetical company that loads customer data into a newly purchased SaaS-based automated marketing tool, but lacks any sort of governance plan. “There is no backup strategy, no administration strategy and nobody is looking at who has access to customer data,” he said. For an MSP, the current situation will open future opportunities to provide SaaS application management, which he believes will be bundled into what some MSPs offer today as virtual CIO, or vCIO services. SaaS application management could also fall under the umbrella of a cloud governance service.
- User-centric backup
At DattoCon 2018, McChord said he expects to see a data protection paradigm shift as the current emphasis on backing up individual technology components gives way to “backup by user, not infrastructure.” The conventional thinking on protecting data on a laptop or other endpoint device ignores the reality that an employee’s data could just as easily exist in a SaaS application. The trend, McChord suggested, will be toward backing up a user’s data — wherever it lives.
- Home office IT
The growing ranks of employees who work full-time or part-time from home may also spark MSP opportunities. McChord called working from home the “Wild West of IT,” noting that companies’ work-from-home policies have little to do with IT policy. He said home-based employees may lack a standard set of IT tools and miss the mark when it comes to adequate home office security. MSPs have a chance to create a home-office package for businesses that don’t have the time to think about what a remote employee’s desk should look like, how it should be linked into the corporate network and how to provide security around it.
- Physical access control
Many MSPs attending DattoCon 2018 are likely to be already involved in providing customers some level of digital security. But physical security may not appear on the list of services. McChord believes digital and physical security should be linked in some way, noting that access to customers’ offices may be less secure than access to their mobile devices.
What’s life like in the Apple Authorized Service Provider program?
The example of ComputerCare, a computer repair and IT consulting firm with offices in Santa Clara, Calif. and Seattle, sheds some light on that topic. ComputerCare has been an Apple Authorized Service Provider, or AASP, since 2008. The company also provides warranty service and repair for Lenovo, Toshiba and HP products.
Company president Georgia Rittenberg said the scope of ComputerCare’s Apple repair business extends to all of the company’s products, including the iPhone. In 2017, Apple chose ComputerCare for a program that lets it manage iPhone repairs and calibration at the AASP’s location. Typically, such repairs would take place in an Apple Store. But customers can walk into ComputerCare’s office for an iPhone fix, rather than making an appointment with an Apple Store’s Genius Bar.
“We’ve had an additional influx of customers because of our ability to have faster turnaround time for iPhone repairs,” Rittenberg said.
Consumer and business services
The iPhone/iOS business has generated consumer walk-in traffic, but businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle are also looking to get iOS devices repaired.
“We have seen an increase in those corporate accounts providing mobile devices to employees as part of the onboarding process, so we have seen an increase in corporate business,” Rittenberg said.
For business clients, ComputerCare offers free pickup and delivery for Apple devices and the other hardware brands it services. That’s no small consideration in the Apple world.
“So, instead of the IT person having to take five laptops and make five different appointments at the Genius Bar, we send a driver to pick up the equipment,” she said.
In addition to supporting laptop repairs, the pickup service also makes life easier for businesses that need to repair iMac all-in-ones or Thunderbolt displays, which they would otherwise have to lug into an Apple Store.
“People really appreciate that,” Rittenberg said.
ComputerCare’s Apple repair service has carved a niche among midsize companies that haven’t hit the purchase threshold at which Apple will provide an onsite warranty solution. “There’s not a ton of options for those mid-level companies, she said, noting such business either take their equipment to an Apple Store for service or ship their gear to an Apple depot for repair.
Rittenberg estimated about half of the company’s Apple support customers fall in the mid-sized business category.
Apple Authorized Service Provider program levels
A look at the Apple Authorized Service Provider program structure places ComputerCare in a broader context. AASPs, in general, are companies that provide repair services to consumers and businesses. Companies with full AASP status are authorized to repair Apple gear for any customer. Limited Service Providers, however, are restricted with regard to the products they may service and customers they serve.
Apple Premium Service Providers, meanwhile, occupy the top tier of the AASP program. Companies must meet Apple’s requirements from both a technical and customer service standpoint to become a Premium Service Provider. To document their adherence to those requirements, program participants survey customers on subjects such as how well technicians carry out repairs, how quickly those repairs are made and the technicians’ ability to answer customer questions.
ComputerCare maintained Apple Premium Service Provider status for 2016 and 2017, narrowly missing out in 2018. Rittenberg said the company has “set some goals to work toward … to qualify for next year.”
Filling the gap
Apple, working with companies within the Apple Authorized Service Provider program, has been able to expand the availability of repair services to business and consumer customers. Rittenberg said Apple is making its customers aware that service providers are available as an alternative to a Genius Bar appointment.
“There are limited ways to get service on your device and sending [customers] every time to the Apple Store isn’t a solution,” Rittenberg said. “I really value the way Apple has partnered with their service providers. They really do view them as a partner and understand service providers are very important to the market and filling that gap.”
IBM is spurring partners to win more deals in the storage market, specifically around its software-defined storage and all-flash array products.
The company this week introduced a new set of sales performance incentive funds (SPIFs) for its storage systems and software portfolio. IBM said the incentives are the latest move in the transformation of its channel strategy and partner program. Earlier this year, IBM overhauled its incentives programs for hardware and software.
“As we all know in the competitive, demanding space around storage, as a lot of [IBM partners] and a lot of our clients continue to focus in on the cloud and the migration to the cloud, storage is a huge piece of that business model,” said John Teltsch, general manager of global business partners at IBM.
He described the new SPIFs as part of “the rolling thunder” of IBM’s “incremental incentive changes to our partner channel.”
The incentive program provides eligible partner sellers and system engineers with up to $100,000 in SPIFs that they can earn annually.
- New clients: Partner reps can earn 3% of the deal size, up to $30,000 per rep, per deal with a new client.
- All-flash arrays: Reps can earn 1% of the deal size, up to $10,000 per deal, split between reps.
- IBM storage hardware and Spectrum software: Up to $20,000 per deal based on deal size, split between reps.
- New deal registrations: For registering an opportunity of $100,000 or more, reps can receive $500, split between reps.
IBM added that the storage SPIFs are stackable, which lets partners bundle multiple incentives on each deal for greater financial payout.
According to Eric Herzog, chief marketing officer of worldwide storage channels at IBM, the global market for external storage systems and software, while about $40 billion in size, is relatively flat. However, he noted software-defined storage and all-flash arrays are growing market segments.
“Certain markets are shrinking: hard drive arrays, hybrid arrays, management software for devices,” Herzog said. “While we do offer those, our focus is on flash arrays and software-defined storage. Those are growth markets, and we’ve wrapped these incentives around those market engines.”
The SPIF program will run until the end of the calendar year and are open to all IBM business partners, regardless of their program tier levels, in North America, Western Europe and Latin America. IBM said it will roll out storage incentives in other geographies, adapted to countries’ local laws and customs, later this quarter.
MSP tools play a pivotal role in a managed service provider’s business.
A mix of off-the-shelf and home-grown tools help MSPs deliver services to their customers. Using automated tools to remotely monitor and manage clients’ IT assets is really the essence of what an MSP does. The MSP industry couldn’t exist without MSP tools.
And with the growth of the managed service customer base, the need for automation only intensifies. A recent Datto survey on MSP marketing and business issues showed more than 40% of the 2,300 MSPs polled have more than 100 clients, compared with only 27% reporting that customer volume in 2017. MSPs rely on software tools to support that number of customers capably and profitably.
But one can have too much of a good thing and that holds true for MSP tools. Virteva, an MSP based in Minneapolis, had been using four different tools to monitor its customers. That collection of monitoring products added complexity and expense and also made it difficult for Virteva to obtain a complete picture of its customers’ IT infrastructures.
Steve Griffiths, COO at Virteva, said the company decided to replace its mixture of monitoring wares with a single platform from LogicMonitor. That vendor’s monitoring technology is now part of an application stack that sits on top of ServiceNow, which Virteva adopted a few years ago to serve as the backbone of its operations.
“It was a nice consolidation play,” Griffiths said, referring to the shift from multiple MSP monitoring tools to a single source.
Consolidating MSP tools improves visibility
Griffiths said such consolidation moves streamline a company’s operations and usually reduces costs. But the greatest advantage of adopting LogicMonitor has been unified monitoring and the improved visibility that it provides.
“The big one is when you can see everything under one roof,” he said. “You get the benefit of connecting the dots across customers … and breaking down the silos of data.”
LogicMonitor’s ability to centralize monitoring paid off when a major hack emerged and Virteva needed to check for patches across its customers’ IT systems. Matt Kerfoot, infrastructure technician at Virteva, said the company created a custom DataSource for LogicMonitor that scanned clients’ systems and flagged those missing the patch. He said the scanning task took one hour using the DataSource, which is a LogicMonitor template that determines what data to collect and what values should trigger alerts.
“I really like the custom DataSources,” Kerfoot said. “We monitor so much stuff that doesn’t get monitored out of the box.”
The ability to sniff out potential problems before they affect customers is in line with Virteva’s overarching philosophy, Griffiths suggested. He said CIOs face the challenge of dealing with security threats and the day-to-day grind of addressing problems that crop up throughout the IT infrastructure. Virteva’s approach, he said, is to prevent trouble from ever happening in the first place.
“We believe that the old way of being an MSP is going the way of the dodo,” Griffiths said. “No longer can somebody … outsource, say service desk or infrastructure management, and just say, ‘You guys take it and you handle my mess for less money.’ ”
Griffiths said that way of doing business leads to labor arbitrage, which he termed a losing proposition. The alternative approach Griffiths endorses is proactive management and continuous improvement.
“That best support experience one can have is not to have one at all,” he said.
The task of applying AI, digital thread and augmented reality to here-and-now business challenges is much on the mind of Mike Sutcliff, group chief executive at Accenture Digital. Sutcliff discussed those technologies with SearchITChannel in a recent email interview. Here are some excerpts from that interview with Sutcliff, who spoke on AI and digital transformation at last month’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona:
What are the top three real-world issues companies are trying to solve by applying AI? Where is the opportunity for Accenture in those areas?
Mike Sutcliff: We [saw] a lot of interest from clients in discussing applied [AI] with us at Mobile Word Congress. The first thing the companies we talk to want to know is: How can AI help my business deliver more compelling customer experiences? This is where we have been seeing very good results. For example, by using machine learning to process huge amounts of customer data, we’re able to provide customers and business buyers with more enriching interactions and experiences. Applying AI to data can help connect an online customer with the right insurance product in real time or enable pharmaceutical sales representatives to approach healthcare providers with the right solution for their patients.
The second thing our clients typically are interested in is using AI to enhance the employee experience, drive productivity, increase engagement and empower their people to make better decisions.
Finally, they want to learn about how AI can influence business models. This is a longer-term undertaking that requires an examination of how existing operating models can be reconstituted around the customer using automation. Continued »
For Eric Hobbs, the key to the talent acquisition process is to recruit prospective employees early and often.
Hobbs is CEO at Technology Associates, a managed service provider (MSP) in Cary, North Carolina. Finding qualified candidates to fill MSP slots is a chore in virtually any part of the country, but Technology Associates has the added challenge of hiring in the Raleigh-Durham area, home to companies such as Red Hat, SAS and IBM.
The task of finding the right candidates for managed services provider jobs can take months, even under the best of circumstances, and, potentially, years. Hobbs noted Technology Associates, at one point, took two-and-a-half years to find and hire a virtual CIO.
The way to avoid seemingly interminable candidate searches is to make the talent acquisition process an ongoing, day in and day out regimen.
“You can’t wait until you need somebody to start looking,” Hobbs said, speaking this week at MSPWorld 2018. The conference, held March 5 through 6 in New Orleans, featured a discussion on cybersecurity.
Technology Associates has turned talent acquisition into a regular activity. “We post all of our positions every month, whether we are hiring or not,” Hobbs said, noting the company uses job boards on such sites as Glassdoor, Indeed and LinkedIn to do so.
The frequent posting gives Technology Associates a jump on the talent-finding and resume-review process, enabling the company to “build a bench” of qualified job candidates, Hobbs said.
Even top performers may unexpectedly leave a firm, so it’s important to maintain a bench for all positions. Posting every job also eliminates the guessing game in which employees assess a single job posting and try to determine which employee is on the cusp of dismissal — that could lead to a rather Hobbesian workplace.
The talent acquisition process doesn’t end with full bench, of course. The entire process from resume collection to the job offer needs to be defined and documented for the sake of consistency. The roles and responsibilities for each job must be clearly described. And once the managed services provider jobs are filled, a company must have an employee assessment and feedback process in place.
Hobbs has a couple of other talent acquisition tips for MSPs. He advises companies to use an automated applicant tracking system and not try to build their own. Technology Associates uses ApplicantStack, which costs $95 per month, he said.
In addition, MSPs posting openings should make sure jobs titles are actually what applicants are searching for. For example, Technology Associates didn’t get much of a response when posting an opening for an InSight engineer. InSight is the company’s service brand, but job seekers “didn’t know what it was,” Hobbs said. “They are not looking for your verbiage.”