Do you consider yourself overworked? Consider these factors when you’re trying to determine how large the network staff should be.

Server Support Staffing

Do you consider yourself overworked? Consider these factors when you’re trying to determine how large the network staff should be.

Am I needed? It’s a question that many of us in the MCSE community ask at one time or another. At times, you’re completely overloaded. Other times, you’re bored silly, left reading trade journals and day-trading from your workstation. What’s going on in the back room?

Hands-on MCSEs and the technology managers who lead them face a challenge: What’s the appropriate level of server support staffing? That’s a difficult question, and one that’s typically answered on a case-by-case basis. But this month, allow me to provide some server support staffing guidelines for you to consider.

The Personnel Ratios

There are a few rules of thumb when it comes to server staffing. Some of these are “institutionalized” in the products that Microsoft sells, whereas others are based on observation. For example, the 50-user limit for Small Business Server 4.5 is, in all likelihood, the point at which a firm should hire its first network administrator. The server-based network assumes increasing importance, and you can justify hiring a full-time network professional. The computer network has become a mission-critical matter.

Adhering to this 50:1 ratio can help you efficiently amortize the salary expense of a network administrator. For example, assuming that a firm with 50 users could retain your services for approximately $60,000 per year, that works out to $1,200 per user per year for computer network support at the 50:1 ratio level. Then add the cost of new computer purchases, upgrades, and amortization of existing hardware and software and you’ll find yourself at the $3,000 to $5,000 per-user per-year technology cost factor—which is where major studies say you should be.

Note that I’ve seen organizations as “fat” as 25:1, where one person supports a 25-user network. But I’ve also seen organizations as “skinny” as 100:1 (ouch!), where one person supports a 100-user network. No thank you!

S-M-L-XL

The one server support staff member per 50 users isn’t a one-size-fits-all rule, however. Based on my experience, demand for server support staff is shaped like a bell curve. Smaller firms will often have one person overseeing all computer operations from server to desktop and cradle to grave. It’s an impossible test that no one can really pass. In other words, it can be a thankless job when you’re the only one on staff supporting the technology function of your company.

It gets better for MCSEs in medium-sized companies—at least that’s what I’ve found with my parent company (a regional accounting firm) and other similarly sized clients. (Microsoft defines medium-sized as those organizations with 500 to 5,000 PCs.) The medium-sized companies are yearning to exploit the latest technologies such as power accounting systems, e-commerce, and Web pages. Not only do you have fellow MCSE peers (a.k.a. buddies) to collaborate with, but you can also enjoy the benefits of having others help you do your job, spread the workload, and let you go on vacation. In medium-sized companies, accounting for special projects like new databases, I’ve seen IT staffing levels below the 50:1 yardstick measure.

The size of the server support staff in medium-sized or larger firms is also a function of the number of servers. A rough ratio for this is one server support staff member for every six servers, but that’s just my observation.

Do my basic ratios apply to large and extra large organizations? Imagine Boeing, with its 250,000 workers, having server support at a 50:1 ratio. There would be 5,000 tech heads running around. Could that be right? Considering they’ve recently outsourced some IT operations to IBM in a $2 billion deal, I’m supposing the numbers roughly hold strong.

Branch Offices

Speaking of organizational size, don’t forget branch offices. It’s been my experience that a branch office isn’t much different than a small office in its server support needs. That is, one person at a smaller branch assumes all network support responsibilities. Depending on the size of the branch office, this may well be someone on staff with or without MCSE credentials. For some branch offices, it’s an outside MCSE-type consultant who’s contracted to come in and help with network support.

And then there’s the overbearing central office. I’ve seen it firsthand. Take the Canadian forest products company with a Seattle office that tried to coordinate everything related to the network from its home office in Toronto. It was a challenge, and the network support staff racked up tons of frequent flyer miles visiting each office. I guess I’d call this scenario a one-to-many server support staff model. That is, the existing network support staff supports many sites. On the upside, this model allows for standard configurations at each branch office site. You’re likely to see fewer network-related problems when a sole source (the home office server support staff) is responsible for the network, dispersed as it is.

Oh, did I forget to mention that branch office support is one of the major design paradigms in the newly released BackOffice 4.5? It’s one of the main reasons for the SBS-like easy administrative features such as wizards, something you’ll see more of in Windows 2000.

Project vs. Ongoing Maintenance

Ready for another view on server support staffing? A project may demand a bevy of server support staffers just to get the darned network up and running. But an ongoing network typically has a much smaller server support staff on the company dole. Furthermore, mature networks often need less attention than newly born networks—at least up to a point. Really old networks, nearing retirement, often need more care than ever just to stay up and running.

Ah, but the wise among the MCP Magazine readership will have correctly identified projects as the real concern. They never end—which bodes well for us MCSEs seeking ongoing employment. In fact, such an observation may call into question some of the underlying technology staffing assumptions made earlier in this column. Determining correct server support staffing is an ongoing challenge. What’s your firm’s ratio, and how does it work?

About the Author

Bainbridge Island, Washington author Harry Brelsford is the CEO of NetHealthMon.com, a Small Business Server consulting and networking monitoring firm. He publishes the "Small Business Best Practices" newsletter (subscribe@nethealthmon.com), and is the author of several IT books, including MCSE Consulting Bible (Hungry Minds) and Small Business Server 2000 Best Practices (Hara Publishing).

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