IT in the Ad Biz

March 20, 2008  1:59 PM

Streaming and the NCAA Tournament Coverage

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

What better day to discuss the issue of streaming audio/video than today? With the NCAA Tournament upon us, and CBS offering up every game at no cost, there will undoubtedly be more than a few of our users who decide to spend the afternoon keeping track of their bracket selections.

We’ve tried blocking this type of traffic in the past, but any such efforts on our part have not lasted long. The reality of our business is such that we need to ability to view or listen to streaming video/audio in order to do our jobs. We have Public Relations and Public Affairs people whose jobs require them to monitor local and national media for breaking stories. We have Creative and Account Service people who routinely use YouTube for viewing the latest commercials created for both our own clients and our competitors. As a result, any efforts to block this traffic have been short-lived.

We’ve tried monitoring tools, using both software and/or hardware to attempt to keep tabs on streaming in order to cut down on the non-productive uses (today’s basketball games would be a great example). The problem with monitoring is that it can get expensive. We’ve got 5 different external pipes we’d have to monitor, so any appliance-based solution would require 5 pieces of hardware to monitor all the access points. Furthermore, it requires somebody to watch things, and none of us really have the time to sit at our desks and monitor real-time streaming. When we have done this sort of thing, generally the only time we check is when we’re hearing complaints about things being slow. Today might be an exception, but at the moment we’ve basically given up.

I’ve always resisted the urge to have IT personnel act as “cops” when it comes to these types of productivity issues. We do have a policy against non-business use which covers this type of thing, but as far as actively monitoring, I’d much rather have my guys spending their time fixing things and finding ways to increase productivity than acting as a high-priced police force. If we can find some ways to monitor things without breaking the bank, great but otherwise we’ve got better things to do. Personally, I feel very strongly that it’s the job of management to keep tabs on their own personnel, and I think it’s a bit of a cop out for folks to expect IT to do that job for them. If an Account Executive is wasting their time watching basketball games or viewing non-work related videos on YouTube, I would expect that to be reflected in their job performance. IT might be called in to verify that type of activity is occurring, and I’m perfectly ok with that. I just don’t believe that we should be the ones bringing productivity issues to the attention of managers. It should work the other way around.

How does your company handle these types of issues? Do you monitor? Are you doing anything special with regards to blocking the NCAA tournament coverage?

March 20, 2008  12:27 AM

Unifying Communications

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

One of the things our company prides ourselves on is our collaborative nature, so the concept of unified communications is especially attractive to us. It’s one of those buzz words you can’t escape lately, and it’s coinciding with our own need to integrate another office into our infrastructure, and it’s driving us to take a fresh look at how we communicate internally.

We took our first run at Unified Communications when we installed our current phone system. Unfortunately, we had barely gotten the effort off the ground when we encountered issues with new versions of Outlook and Internet Explorer. The unified messaging and unified communications apps were breaking down on us before we could even get users trained, and our vendor was telling us the solution was to delay upgrading our Microsoft apps. Since the drive to Internet Explorer 7 was largely driven by desire for increased security, we decided to give up on our initial attempt at unified communications. Furthermore, the unified messaging and unified communications apps themselves added another layer on top of what we were already using, and learning yet another app was not high on anyone’s list.

When I first heard about Microsoft’s entry into unified communications, the idea of using our existing apps and e-mail server for delivering these services had a great deal of appeal to me. We’ve been exploring this option for the past 6 months, and so far we like what we’ve heard. When we added a new office location recently, the final piece of the puzzle may have fallen into place. In the past, integrating a new office into our infrastructure meant that we pulled their phone system out and installed a new system which was compatible with our own. It was expensive and disruptive. The promise of being able to integrate different phone systems into a common telecommunications software back-end offers some huge advantages to an expanding company. Whether the reality lives up to the promise remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to be worth a look.

Stay tuned because we’re just getting started on this path, and I’m sure it will make for some interesting stories in the coming months.

March 18, 2008  12:39 AM

The iPhone – an Enterprise device?

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

Now that Apple has announced the long-awaited SDK for the iPhone, I thought it would be a good time to discuss mobile devices. We’ve had a policy restricting employees from purchasing their PDAs/Phones and tying them into our network, but over the past 5 years we’ve still managed to reach the point where we’re currently supporting 3 different platforms/devices (Palm, Blackberry, and Windows) .

We certainly didn’t wake up one day and decide that it would be a good idea to support three different mobile platforms. In fact, from what I’ve seen and heard, we arrived at this point like many others have done. A senior manager or CEO shows up on our doorstep with a new device and says “make this work” I envy those of you who are able to successfully fend off all of these requests, and I would note that we do manage to deny more requests than we approve.

I’ll actually take responsibility for introducing the 3rd platform, which was Windows Mobile. I was never particularly fond of adding Blackberry or Goodlink servers to my environment, so when Microsoft added push capability to the Exchange servers I already owned, I jumped in with both feet. Don’t get me wrong, the Blackberry and Goodlink servers are both good products, but given the opportunity I’m more than willing to eliminate the middleman. I also find the provisioning process to be much simpler on the Windows platform. We’re currently in the process of phasing out a Goodlink server which supports the Palm devices, so soon we’ll only be supporting two platforms.

Which brings me to the iPhone, and I’m certain that our phasing out of the Palm platform and Goodlink will coincide with our phasing in of the iPhone as an Enterprise platform. In my mind, the recent announcement of ActiveSync support for the iPhone seals the deal in terms of our supporting this platform. We’ve already got several senior managers using the iPhone, and they’re actually content to access e-mail via Outlook Web Access. Once we can deliver push e-mail directly from Exchange, I can’t see any reason not to use this device as an option for mobile e-mail, particularly in our business. I’m thrilled that it’s going to work directly with Exchange. We’re signed up for the beta, and I look forward to testing this as a mobile option for our organization.

March 10, 2008  12:19 PM

Office (and File) Moves – Part 2

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

Perhaps the single biggest issue we encountered during our office move last weekend had more to do with moving files than it did with bringing a new office onto our network. Furthermore, this particular issue was one which we’ve encountered before, and it was also one for which we didn’t have a readily available solution. In a nutshell, we ran into major problems attempting to move or copy Mac files from a UNIX server onto our new network and a Windows server.

I’ve run into this problem in the past, and it’s never fun. The problem lies with the ability of Macs to use characters not allowed by Windows, characters such as the slashes, bullets, and parentheses. When you run into hundreds or perhaps thousands of filenames extending deep into many levels of subfolders, it’s not an easy thing to clean up. Attempting to move or copy the files from one platform to the other results in either failure or truncation of the original filenames, neither of which is an acceptable outcome.

In our company, I’ve been lucky enough to have a Studio Department which has recognized this issue and taken steps to correct it. When IT has attempted to police this problem in the past, we’ve met with limited success. When the policing effort comes from within, as is the case with our Studio Department which is made up of hardcore Mac users, the other users tend to listen. As a result, we’ve pretty much eradicated the odd characters internally, and this hasn’t been a huge issue for us – which may also be the reason I didn’t think of it prior to this move.

What I wish I had done was send our Studio folks in ahead of our move to explain our internal processes, especially regarding the file naming conventions, and to encourage a general cleanup of files prior to our move. If we had done this, we would have had about 30 days to prepare, and we could have at least had the current jobs named correctly and ready to move onto our new systems. The solution we ultimately came up with involved maintaining the old network, connecting their old server to a Mac and a PC in a common area. We asked the users to do the cleanup of the filenames, and then utilized USB flash sticks to move the files onto the new network.

In any case, it was a valuable lesson re-learned, and just another one of those issues we can sometimes take for granted when we live in a cross-platform environment.

March 5, 2008  9:23 PM

Office Moves – Part 1

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

In hindsight, perhaps this wasn’t the best time for me to be launching a blog. Then again, in this line of work there’s never a good time for anything. My company acquired a new office about a month ago, and we just spent the past weekend bringing them onto our network. As these maneuvers go, this one seemed to give us more trouble than usual.

Our first order of business was connecting the new office to our WAN. We knew we were in trouble fairly early Friday evening when we ran into trouble bringing a new router online. It turned out that our telecomm vendor provided our router supplier with an incorrect config. If that wasn’t bad enough, when we attempted logging in ourselves to fix the config, the password we were given didn’t work. At that point of the evening, all of our usual contacts at both the provider and our hardware vendor had disappeared. The folks we were able to reach were all telling us that we’d have to wait until Monday.

Thanks to the persistence of my staff, a little help from Cisco tech support, and an assist from a sympathetic tech on our provider’s help desk – we managed to bring the connection to life a little after midnight. We were now 6 hours behind schedule, but at least we were connected. We quit for the evening figuring that the next step, creating a new Windows child domain was going to be easy.

Wrong again. The next day found us once again struggling as we attempted to run DCPromo on the local file server. After 5 or 6 more hours of struggle and a few hours on the phone to Microsoft, we finally found the culprit. Our new server was running Windows Server 2003 R2, and we had never run ADPrep for R2 back at the root of our forest. Ultimately it was a relatively simple fix, but now we were well over 10 hours behind schedule, and all our dreams of taking a Sunday off in sunny Florida had evaporated. We still had plenty left to do, but we worked through the day on Sunday and managed to finish up sometime after 1:00 am on Monday morning.

When Monday morning rolled around, people were connected and things were working fairly smoothly. At some point, somebody asked my why we didn’t document these things. Actually, we do, but the problem with documenting issues on something like this is that no two of these moves are the same. It’s still worth doing, but rarely do the same issues arise twice. We do occasionally add new offices or move existing offices, but it’s just not something we do with any great frequency. One issue which has bitten us more than once is file moves, especially where the Macs use strange characters in file and folder names. That one got us again this time, but I’ll leave the details of that, along with our other lessons learned for my next post.



January 29, 2008  2:30 AM

IT in the Ad Biz – A Unique Challenge

JohnWilder John Wilder Profile: JohnWilder

Welcome to my blog about IT in the Advertising business. As the title of my first post suggests, this is indeed a strange and unique niche in the IT industry. While we face many of the same challenges as everyone else when it comes to providing IT support, the day-to-day challenges of providing support in this industry are unique.

First, a little bit about my company and me. Eric Mower and Associates is a mid-size marketing and public relations firm located on the East Coast of the U.S. We currently have 7 locations, 4 in Upstate NY (Syracuse, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany), along with Charlotte, NC, Atlanta, GA, and Sarasota, FL. We support slightly over 200 users, and my staff consists of myself and 5 IT Administrators/Managers. We support a mix of PCs and Macs, approximately 60% PCs and 40% Macs, and we employ a Windows network. Like many other IT professionals in small to mid-size businesses, our responsibilities also include telecommunications and digital audio/video support as well as traditional IT.

I’m one of those IT folks who actually started out as a user. Prior to my IT career, I was an engineer in the Air Force for 11 years. During that time I was the person who frequently got called upon to do the IT-type stuff, and I quickly learned that I enjoyed that part of the job more than the engineering. As a result, I decided to study Computer Systems Management at the University of Maryland, and in 1993 I made the formal leap into IT. I have been with Eric Mower and Associates for 15 years, starting out as an MIS Administrator providing desktop support for Macs and PCs, eventually moving into Systems Administration (and even a little web development) and finally IT Management. I’ve seen the MIS Department split into separate IT and Interactive Departments, and seen both of these departments grow dramatically – there are now 6 of us in the IT Department while Interactive employs 10.

With all that as a background, what exactly is it about IT in the advertising industry which makes this job unique? In no particular order, I would suggest that the following three factors make life in our business a bit different. I’ll address all of these factors in greater detail in future posts, but for now here’s a quick overview.

The People (and the nature of our business)

We’re different. There’s a humorous mock ad on YouTube which does a pretty good job of describing what we do – I’m a little surprised the ad doesn’t mention the IT Department, but that’s probably a good thing. Coming to work every day in the advertising industry is an adventure, and personally it’s the thing I enjoy most about this job. It’s incredibly fast-paced, and while the deadline pressures and the reactive nature of supporting our users can get frustrating, there’s rarely a dull moment.

Perhaps a little more specifically, the simple fact that we support a large Creative Department makes us different. While many large companies may have small pockets of employees in Art or Marketing Departments, in our Industry it makes up a significant portion of our employees – approximately 30% of our employees work in Creative. Supporting this group is a challenge. To say that IT and Creative folks think differently may be the understatement of the year. But this also doesn’t mean that IT and Creative don’t get along in our company. What it does mean is that we have to find unique IT people when we are looking for support staff. You simply cannot approach this group of users the same way you might a group of engineers. Of course, the fact that our Creative users tend to prefer working with Macs leads to our next factor.

The Platforms

Mac vs. PC. This item will make for a few good blog posts. I don’t know of any other discussion in the IT community which incites passions the way this one does. While it was an argument which was more on the fringe when I started in this job, it seems that it’s become more of a mainstream discussion these days, especially as the Mac has picked up market share. Personally, I tend to stay on the fence in the dispute, and I guess what really bothers me is the extremes to which some will carry the disagreement. The PC and Windows are not nearly as bad as many of the Mac fans make them out to be, and the Mac is not the toy which some of the PC fans tend to brand it. Both are excellent computing platforms which serve their purpose very well. I will undoubtedly wade into the debate from time-to-time, and I’m sure there are a few folks out there who are more than willing to tell me that I’m wrong for staying on the fence in this argument. The fact of the matter is if I felt that either side was right in this battle, I should be actively working to move my company onto that platform.

The advertising industry tends to be ground zero for many of these Mac vs. PC arguments, and it’s interesting to see how different companies resolve it. There are Advertising agencies which run entirely on the Mac platform, and there are agencies which are purely PC. I suspect the vast majority of agencies run both platforms, and for those of us who operate both, the challenges are more about keeping that dual-platform environment running smoothly. I’ll spend quite a bit of time discussing some of the ways we do accomplish this, and I’d like to hear from others who fight the same battle on a daily basis.

Storage Needs

Finally, the single issue we struggle most with is that of storage. With the possible exception of those in the video business, I’m not sure there are many businesses of our size that have storage needs as great as ours. It’s a constant struggle to keep up with growing storage needs, and making sure it all gets backed up may be an even greater challenge. This one really hit home while I was working with a vendor to scope out a new backup solution. Following some of our early discussions where we provided the vendor with our specs, he came back and told us that his company of nearly 3,000 employees was backing up roughly the same amount of data. It’s definitely a challenge for us.

Those are the highlights, and specifically the 3 items I believe make us a bit unique. However, we also face other challenges which I plan to discuss here. We support multiple offices in geographically dispersed locations, yet we strive to remain very tightly connected, operating more like a single office. Collaboration between our offices is of vital importance to us. We tend to require our IT folks to be “jacks of all trades”. We’re not quite large enough to have specialists, yet in addition to supporting IT we’re expected to support telecommunications and digital AV equipment. I realize these particular challenges are by no means unique to the Advertising business, but they are still major issues for us.

My goal in writing this blog is to give those of us in this industry a place to discuss some of these challenges, although I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing from folks in other industries who face similar challenges. Those of us who provide IT support for the IT industry don’t seem to have many forums where we can engage in these discussions, and those forums we do have tend to be centered around applications we may share, or perhaps around industry groups to which we belong. While these forums are tremendously beneficial, I guess I’m looking to expand the borders somewhat with this blog. The discussions here may lean a bit more to the strategic side of things, as that reflects the nature of my own job these days (although I still manage to spend a fair amount of time in the trenches). I hope you’ll find something of interest in here, and feel free to comment (even if it’s to tell me I’m wrong about that Mac vs. PC thing).

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