16 IT strategies to do less with less

Tough times call for tough measures. Layoffs and cutbacks are rampant. Even if your IT budget is relatively stable, you will probably be asked to do more with less.

But perhaps a better solution would be to do less with less — to scale back on over-allocated services, curtail unnecessary capital expenditures, and clean house of legacy apps and orphaned software. Many government IT departments can take the cue from the enterprise counterparts on how use the tough economy as an opportunity to show the organization how it can save money using open source software, virtualization, cloud computing, or SaaS.

Pushed to the brink, top brass may prove more receptive to ideas you’ve been itching to implement for a long time. In short, this is when IT can show its true value.

“I think this is the year IT steps up to the plate and shows how we can make the business more efficient,” says Patti Dock, COO for DataMotion, provider of data governance services. “Someone has to do it. I think IT professionals can become evangelists for efficiency in the organization.” With great change comes great opportunity. Here are 16 ways you can achieve the same or better results by doing less — and keep your staff sane and intact in the process.

1. Lay it out in black and white

The first step toward doing less is to figure out IT’s real load. In other words, take account of all the resources required to keep the lights running, as well as those development projects on the back burner.

This is harder than it sounds, says Jim Smith, CEO of Enterprise Management Group, which for years specialized in troubleshooting struggling IT departments.

As a services firm, Smith’s group would take over IT operations inside large organizations and make each manager account for each hour of every employee’s time for the next year. Then Smith would present the results to management. The project list always exceeded the number of bodies necessary to complete the work. The officers would then be forced to have an open dialog about which projects to fund and which ones to cut.

Smith says his group routinely managed to cut 10 to 20 percent of each organization’s IT budget in less than three months.

“We eliminated the mystery that IT is some amorphous thing they can’t understand,” says Smith. “This stuff isn’t smoke, mirrors, and magic. It’s labor, like any other department. And once the business side understands IT, they can’t second-guess it any more because they’re the ones making the decisions.”

2. Focus on short-term wins

For years, IT managers have been taught to think strategically and plan for the long term. But for many organizations, the future is now, says Joe Wolke, director of IT strategy at Forsythe Solutions Group.

“A project with a significant return that won’t be realized for three to five years does not make sense if a CIO is charged with reducing costs this year,” he says.

If you’re working on a complex project that spans multiple years, break it into pieces, find the parts with the biggest immediate payoffs, and implement those first, says Wolke. The world changes too quickly to bet on a long-term return that may never be realized.

“You’ve got to be realistic,” he says. “There’s a danger that you could be suboptimizing for the long term, but if you’re concerned that your company might not be here for the long term, it makes sense to make that choice.”

3. Slay your SLAs

When dealing with tech requests from the business side, many CIOs just can’t say no.

The result: internal maintenance and service agreements that go well beyond what’s necessary to keep the business running. “We find a lot of companies spending money on maintenance that doesn’t align with their expectations,” says Wolke. “If you ask the customer what level of service they want, they always say ’24/7.’ You have to sit down with them and ask, ‘If this system goes down at 2 a.m. on a Sunday, do you really need someone to come out and fix it, or can it wait until 7 a.m. on Monday?'”

John Baschab, managing director of Technisource Management Services, recommends IT managers meet with business stakeholders armed with an a la carte menu of service offerings, backed up by the costs and usage stats for each.

“You want to go in and say something like, ‘Our recommendation is we get rid of weekend and deep night support because we’re spending a lot of money and we’re only fielding four calls per hour,'” he adds. “If you give them the opportunity to pick and choose, you’re much more likely to have a successful conversation.”

Wolke says rationalizing internal service expectations can also reduce wear and tear on IT staff: “If you’re asking people to be covering systems 24/7 or carrying pagers everywhere, you’re going to burn out your IT operations staff.”

4. Max out your storage

Even though your company’s data needs are growing, odds are you probably don’t have to invest in more storage now, especially when the ROI is years away.

Richard Clark, CEO of storage software maker APTARE, notes that most enterprises use only 30 to 45 percent of the storage they’ve already allocated — leaving significant amounts of what Clark calls “hidden pockets” of unclaimed storage.

“Smart companies will get very analytical in understanding how much storage they actually have available,” he says. “Given the enormous investments organizations make in storage, visibility into just how much is really being used — versus just allocated — can make a significant difference in cost outlays.” The second half of the equation is clearing out the deadwood, says Sunny Gupta, CEO of Apptio, provider of IT cost optimization solutions.

“Everybody knows this, but it is politically hard to do anything about it,” he says. “You need to get people to go through all their network storage or application storage and trash or archive items that are no longer needed. Storage is expensive — $7 to $12 per gigabyte managed — and growing at 30 to 50 percent per year. Gaining back a few gigabytes per employee could be a savings of $200,000 or more, depending on the size of your organization.”

5. Go open source

The benefits of going open source are well known, as are the risks. The good news is open source software has come a long way toward being enterprise-ready, says Amit Pandey, CEO of Terracotta, makers of an open source clustering product for Java apps. “There are very good open source alternatives to the monolithic JEE application servers like Weblogic,” says Pandey. “Lightweight components like Spring, Jetty, and Tomcat not only save upfront costs but can save significant development effort. Similarly, open source databases such as MySQL, when complemented by high-performance in-memory data management solutions, can replace expensive databases, saving a considerable amount in license fees and ongoing support costs.”

For example, when commercial construction firm Balfour Beat

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