Bringing the outsourcers in

Computer networks are no longer just handy communications tools. Instead, they are increasingly mission-critical components in the business process, enabling firms to communicate with their customers, suppliers and the rest of the outside world. Consequently, a network outage usually means more than inconvenience — it means lost opportunities and dollars off a business’s bottom line.

Ensuring a network stays on-line and functions at its fullest capacity is no simple task. Not only must network managers craft strategies for deploying quality of service, application upgrades and hardware improvements, but they must also deal with more mundane chores such as router and switch maintenance.

Unfortunately, there is a shortage of personnel properly qualified to perform the work required to maintain mission-critical networks. This makes it expensive to hire networking staff if they can be found. And there’s no advantage in trying to save money by training staff from the ground up, because they’ll only be lured away by more lucrative offers from competitors.

One potential source of salvation for overburdened network managers is third-party network management providers. Encompassing a variety of firms including IT integrators, carriers and pure management outfits, this class of company typically offers a range of services, ranging from complete network outsourcing to remote monitoring and troubleshooting.

While the network outsourcing market has been relatively stable for the last few years, Mark Fabbi, an analyst with consultancy Gartner Group Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont., expects that in the near future, enterprises will be handing more and more of their management functions off to third-party providers.

There are two factors driving this trend, Fabbi said.

One is the impending move to converged network services on the WAN where both voice and data will be transported over the same network.

“The choice of network access device will move from the enterprise to the carrier,” Fabbi said. “Integrated carrier service offerings will include the access device, so by its very nature, it will be a managed service.”

The second factor is that many vendors, including Cisco Systems Canada Co., are offering their customers some LAN management services as part of larger packages. Fabbi expects LAN management outsourcing to pick up once the rate of technological change settles down — something he sees happening soon.

Dan McLean, an analyst with IDC Canada Ltd. in Toronto, noted that large corporations have been outsourcing the management of their networks for some time.

Typically day-to-day tasks, such as help desk functions, call centre capability and network monitoring and analysis, are the services handed off to outside providers.

“The philosophy people are trying to adhere to is they want to use their internal staff for strategic activities rather than having them running around testing switches and routers when a port goes down,” McLean explained.