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Why I'm sick of the new 'digital divide' between SMEs and the big boys

IT design by white paper is a stick to beat the little guy

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Sysadmin blog Recently I have been spending most of my time with enterprise CIOs and vendors' "product owners"; their dismissiveness of the needs of small and medium-sized businesses has finally got to me.

As a rule, talking about the needs of corner cases is boring to the masses, but today I just need to get up on my soapbox and talk a little about the little guy.

As a sysadmin, I live and work on the edge of the bell curve: SMEs with enterprise-class requirements but no possible means of obtaining enterprise-class budgets.

These companies seek me out to help them design, implement and manage solutions that are an order of magnitude cheaper than you'll find in any technology white paper.

As always, cost cutting comes with a price, but SMEs generally choose different compromises than mid-market organisations and enterprises.

SMEs don't exist in the same universe as hyperscale operators; it's one of the reasons why strategies such as Microsoft's Azure <--> Server "rapid release" design feedback loop do not fill us with warm fuzzies.

Microsoft's new design concept - one that many vendors are mimicking – is where Redmond dogfoods its own operating system and server apps by using it to underpin its Azure cloud.

Lessons learned there are fed back into the design for the next generation of Windows Server, SQL, Exchange and so forth. Similarly, anything the server teams come up with or neat ideas they get from partners and customers are then tried out on Azure with the next release.

That's an awesome way to build an operating system designed to run a hyperscale datacenter. Of course what the people playing with clouds get up to is an irrelevant thought to those of us way down here working on our local ant colony.

Disconnected in approach

The options facing my clients are often:

  • Don't provide the service in question and thus go out of business
  • Buy something you can't afford and thus go out of business
  • Buy something less redundant than your competition and gamble that it won't fail

When I talk to my peers who work in "proper" IT they tell me that these options are the only options that my clients should consider. I tend to disagree.

We live in a world where fickle consumers spoiled for choice can and will pack up and go elsewhere if you are down for a few minutes, let alone hours at a time.

Larger companies and governments sit on payments to suppliers far longer than they should, draining capital from smaller organisations. Meanwhile, the commoditisation of everything under the sun drives margins into the ground.

Buying a single "proper" enterprise server, filer, switch or whatever can be gambling your entire company on not becoming an insolvency statistic. That "four-hour enterprise service window" can – if the outage hits at the wrong time of year – be enough to sink a company.

No matter how unlikely the risk that the device in question will break, SMEs simply cannot afford to be a statistic.

This is what I bear in mind when I do my job. Every single time I design a system I think about a friend of mine, a single mother with two deaf children who works herself to the bone to give these kids a future.

If I design the wrong system or make the wrong choices then the company she works for will take a massive blow. Maybe her job will be cut – maybe the company will fold – and where will she (and her kids) be then? Where will all those people I've worked with for all those years be?

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