IT Chief Heals Growing Pains At Expanding SMB

Georgia-based Digital Insurance has IT pain points that might sound familiar. Consider these strategies if your SMB has a growing need for speed.

When Bob Schoen moved from a Fortune 500 IT shop to a much smaller company a couple of years ago, he realized some unintended upside. For starters, it's a lot easier to communicate with a team of seven people than with a team of 160.

He also found out that the phrase "do more with less" is no throwaway cliche for IT execs at small and midsize businesses (SMBs). Schoen is VP of IT at Digital Insurance, an employee benefits firm that specializes in insurance for other SMBs. The company grew at a 50% clip in 2011 and is rapidly approaching 300 employees, and this growth has produced plenty of growing pains in the process.

In an interview, Schoen shared the various challenges IT faced when he came aboard--and how his team is rising to them.

Challenge: 300 employees, 80 offices.

Like plenty of other SMBs, Digital Insurance is spread out--very, very spread out. About half of its employees are remote, meaning they work somewhere other than the company's Atlanta headquarters. Digital Insurance has more than 10 "official" remote offices, many of which opened last year during an acquisition spree. It has many more than that if you count each of the additional 70 consultants who work out of their home.

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That latter segment of the staff presented a particular pain point because they connect to the company via local Internet providers. Sharing and collaborating on large files over consumer-grade broadband was cumbersome. Getting everyone on the company's Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system was another headache.

"It's hard to get [every remote employee] enterprise-class connectivity because of the cost," Schoen said. "It just doesn't fit our business model. That was probably one of the biggest challenges."

Solution: Desktop virtualization.

Digital Insurance has virtualized much of its infrastructure, including employee PCs, for which it runs VMware. Now, remote staff working with large files--common in the healthcare and insurance industries--aren't hindered by slow speeds and related problems. "The computers are all running out of the data center right next to the storage. The files open much quicker because they're all local on the network," Schoen said.

Challenge: Lack of infrastructure to support growth.

Digital Insurance's "data center" was ostensibly a small server room in the corporate offices. Once the company entered its current hyper-growth period, it became clear that this setup was no longer going to cut it--there was simply too much at stake if servers went down or a bona fide disaster struck.

Solution: A "real" data center.

Schoen's team has spent the past 18 months or so moving its on-site data center to a much larger, more sophisticated facility downtown Atlanta, where it essentially rents rack space from Time Warner. That has improved uptime, among other benefits.

"One of the things that has helped us most as a small business is the price of local fiber," Schoen said. "Now we're able to connect our office here to the downtown data center with a fiber connection that's actually relatively inexpensive compared to what it would have been five years ago."

Challenge: Perform like a large company--on a small budget.

When it comes to things like performance and availability, no one gives IT a break just because it's a small team. "We need to act like an enterprise," Schoen said. That gets tricky, though, because he can't afford highly specialized experts who deal with only one area or technology, like networking or storage. Schoen said he had to let one employee go after he joined the company because it became clear that the person didn't have the technical skill set for their role; as a result, they were causing more problems than they were solving.

Solution: Build the right team.

Everyone has to cover multiple responsibilities. "We have to have people that work across multiple technologies," Schoen said. Patience is a virtue when evaluating a team and building relationships as a new boss. "That was a little bit of a challenge, having to come in and evaluate people--because they know you're doing it--and trying to make people understand you're not here to blow things up but to make them better," Schoen said. "I think that proves itself out over time."

Challenge: Too many technologies.

Having too many disparate systems and technologies is a quagmire-in-waiting when you're asking people to handle diverse roles and responsibilities. It's a common problem as a company quickly grows, too. An example: Digital Insurance had developed its various websites across different content management systems and coding frameworks.

Solution: Technology consolidation.

On the development front, for example, Digital is rewriting most everything in .NET. That was its choice because Microsoft CRM is its core application, according to Schoen. Reducing the number of platforms, languages, and so forth helps simplify things for an overtaxed team.

Challenge: The hardware hodgepodge.

As with other areas such as development, Schoen found inconsistent hardware platforms when he arrived. "It's the nature of the small company: As they grow, there's this server sprawl," Schoen said. The disparate locations of Digital Insurance's growing staff only complicated the issue.

Solution: Server virtualization.

"With VMware, we've reduced the footprint of our servers, and the technology is much easier to manage from one location," Schoen said. That became all the more important because while the company's headcount grew by 50% last year, IT's headcount actually went down by one person.

Challenge: Data, Data, Data.

Schoen never uttered the current phrase of choice--big data--but Digital Insurance deals with it by the boatload. Because it's ultimately a healthcare company, it deals with heavy-duty compliance requirements, among other data drivers. In everyday terms, it can't throw stuff away, no matter how old. Schoen noted that his team must service massive amounts of documents and emails because of the nature of Digital Insurance's business. "I would guess there are companies five or ten times our size that do less email than we do," he said.

The real problem: Digital Insurance's original storage infrastructure wasn't set up to scale beyond a certain size--once the available drives were maxed out, they'd have to "forklift" in more storage. But that would have required more people and infrastructure than the company had the resources for.

Solution: Storage virtualization.

Digital Insurance moved from its physical storage infrastructure to NetApp; the company's data growth rate simply couldn't be sustained otherwise. "If my SQL server now needs another 50 GB or 150 GB of storage, I don't have to back it up and restore it on a new piece of hardware because we can change it on the fly," Schoen said. "It's the same thing as virtualizing the servers; virtualizing the storage was just as important because of the growth rate."

Schoen said the company's infrastructure makeover has improved another area, too: Disaster recovery. In the past, Digital Insurance effectively had no redundancy for its on-site data center. "[The new infrastructure] allowed us to have a DR [plan], whereas four years ago a company of our size just couldn’t afford it," Schoen said. "It still adds a lot of complexity, which I think a lot of smaller companies are afraid of. But I would say it's much easier than it was."

Of course, that has created one of IT's next challenges: Actually testing that DR plan.

IT can't maintain absolute control over highly virtualized infrastructures. Instituting a smart role-based control strategy to decentralize management can empower business units to prioritize their own data assets while freeing IT to focus on the next big project. Download our Delegation Delivers Virtualization Savings report. (Free registration required.)

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