When IT Becomes A One Man Show

Investment firm Hearthstone laid off its IT team during the economic downturn. CTO Rob Meltz turned to cloud services and virtualization to keep the business running and growing.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

November 5, 2012

6 Min Read

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20 Great Ideas To Steal

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Like plenty of people and organizations, the institutional investment firm Hearthstone was hit hard by the 2008 financial crisis. Its business -- managing assets for pension funds, endowments, Fortune 100 firms and other large clients -- was kicked directly in the teeth. Add to that the fact that Hearthstone invests exclusively in residential real estate development and, well, the math isn't that difficult.

The sobering results: Three rounds of layoffs in as many years. At its peak, Hearthstone had 80 people across four offices; today, it has 28. Hearthstone's five-person IT department became a one-man show: CTO Rob Meltz. The executive is now all things IT, relying on consultants and other outsourced help when the workload exceeds the available human resources. In other words: Him.

You don't often hear a company tell the remaining employees after a downsizing: It's OK to get less done. Hearthstone was no exception. The firm has managed more than $12 billion in real estate investments. IT is more than a help desk.

"When I lost those people, I didn't lose servers," Meltz said. "We lost some transactions, but we still had staff to support, [and] we still had servers and infrastructure to support. I just no longer had four additional souls helping me."

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In an interview, Meltz discussed the changes he made to ensure his gutted department could continue to support the business -- and that he could still get some sleep. "Doing more with less" went from everyday cliche to everyday reality. Meltz credits virtualization and cloud services as the twin pillars that kept things up and running. The strategic use of consultants for initiatives like Hearthstone's business intelligence deployment with IBM's Cognos, which is currently underway, has also played a part. The same IT shift that enabled survival is now supporting growth -- the company came through the crisis and is now expanding again. Here are the key specifics on what Meltz did to adapt to life without a team.

Server virtualization. Step one for Meltz was to virtualize using VMware; doing so, Hearthstone has halved the physical servers it maintains from 18 to nine. Meltz has also been able to eliminate $1,800 per month in expenses but cutting the company's outsourced co-located servers and virtualizing them instead. "Virtualization is probably [behind] 70% of all initiatives that I have going right now," Meltz said.

Cloud time and billing. Hearthstone's legacy time and billing application was one of its more labor-intensive systems from an IT support standpoint. The previous time-and-billing system alone used to take up nearly three-quarters of one employee's full-time job, according to Meltz. He opted for Harvest's online system as a replacement. Set-up and deployment took one day, and it was so well-received by employees that the case for additional cloud services was much easier to make. "That's one less major application for me to support," Meltz said.

Virtualized accounting system. Meltz has virtualized the company's accounting system, another labor-intensive legacy application, and is now considering moving it into Microsoft's Azure cloud for additional streamlining.

Outsourced remote monitoring and management. Keeping a network up-and-running 24-7 without a staff isn't a particularly appealing challenge, nor the best use of Meltz's time. He signed on with Continuum for remote monitoring and management services instead. Cloud backup and storage. Disaster recovery is a significant priority for Hearthstone. Compliance with financial industry regulations is one major reason. Earthquakes are another -- three of Hearthstone's offices are in California. The company is now in the process of dumping its old tape backups and offsite storage in favor of cloud backup with StorageCraft's ShadowProtect and cloud storage with Egnyte.

VoIP communications. Hearthstone swapped out its phone system for a VoIP platform last year. "That meant I no longer had a legacy PBX where you needed specialized talent to support it," Meltz said. "VoIP is just so much easier, and I could integrate that into our existing infrastructure."

Cloud filesharing and sync. Like lots of other small and midsize businesses (SMBs), Hearthstone's team is spread across multiple locations. Enabling everyone to access, share and -- perhaps most importantly -- sync files on and off the corporate network is one of the company's most pressing tech needs. "The biggest headache I had was [supporting] four offices and about a dozen people out of those various offices roaming around in the field, using the 'old-style' method," Meltz said. That method involved Microsoft's offline files feature and a VPN. The process was often slow and cumbersome; it also relied heavily on user action -- not usually the most foolproof IT strategy.

"The problem was that we had over 250,000 files that had to be synced across our mobile users," Meltz said. "These are the guys that do analytics for our company. They do $100 million deals and they need to have that information [in] their hands when they need it."

Meltz picked EMC's Syncplicity from an increasingly crowded field of business-oriented providers like Box.net and Citrix's ShareFile. Now the necessary files -- the company has roughly 1 TB of data on its file servers -- are synced automatically with no user intervention. Meltz was drawn to Syncplicity for several reasons. He found it easy to administer as a single person with minimal time; the platform's security protocols satisfy his auditors, among others; and Syncplicity can overlay an existing file-and-folder structure -- Meltz simply designates which folders and sub-folders he wants shared and synced -- rather than requiring administrators or users to move files to a special sync folder.

Another appeal: Meltz has been able to cut back his disaster recovery spending elsewhere -- around $20,000 annually with SunGard -- because the data is now online. "I no longer need to worry about having servers to rebuild after an earthquake," he said. "I can simply point users to an Internet connection and their files are there, and it's an automated process."

In a sense, Hearthstone's Syncplicity adoption has become a poster-child application for its cloud usage. Meltz now credits the platform for unintended benefits, such as better enabling a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) office. "I've been a big advocate of [BYOD], but prior to Syncplicity my hands were tied," Meltz said. "There was nothing that I could afford to do as a small shop to really be a promoter of [BYOD], and now I can."

A native iOS client allows employees to use iPhones and iPads to access corporate data; Meltz is comfortable with that because it doesn't require any additional effort on IT's part, and he can remotely wipe the data from a lost or stolen device. Meltz added that he's in the process of considering allowing Android and eventually Windows 8 devices on the network as well.

While Hearthstone's VPN traffic has dropped dramatically with its increased cloud reliance, there has been a seesaw effect on bandwidth consumption. The firm last week put in an order with its ISP to more than double bandwidth from four T-1 lines to 10 bundled together.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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