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How to Standardize Your IT Infrastructure

How Standardized Do You Need to Be?

Being open and adaptive to new technologies can be important to both your organization's mission and its ability to operate efficiently. Likewise, being flexible when it comes to individual preferences can help employees work better and encourage creativity.

Yet every technology you introduce to your nonprofit — whether you implement it organization­ wide or just on one computer — comes with hidden and not­-so-­hidden costs. Every new piece of software you add to your IT arsenal requires installation, maintenance, staff training, repair, patches, upgrades, and more.

How you address this tension between innovation on the one hand and the need for consistency on the other depends on your size, your organizational culture, how many IT staff you have, and how tech­-savvy your staff is. While some organizations are very centralized — purging unsupported hardware or software as soon as it’s detected — other organizations eschew strict enforcement in favor of a more balanced, less time­ and resource­-intensive approach. These organizations may allow staff to download unsupported software, for example, but refuse to troubleshoot it and will uninstall it if it conflicts with other programs. (Note that this more flexible route carries with it an increased risk of spyware and virus infections, however.)

For these reasons, it's important to adopt a standardization policy that fits your situation and needs. Though there are many benefits to centralizing your purchases, decide what makes the best sense for your organization before making sweeping changes to your current setup.

Standardizing Your Equipment

If you work in a library with multiple models and versions of software and equipment, the task of standardizing everything can be overwhelming. Starting from scratch by buying all-new equipment is probably not an option for most (if any) organizations, but there are a few steps you can take to standardize your equipment over time. We suggest you check out our Eight Smart Tips for Standardizing Your Equipment tool.

Balancing IT Needs and Staff Needs

If your organization has traditionally allowed departments to choose and customize their own equipment, it can be difficult to convince employees to switch to a more centralized, standardization-­friendly IT purchasing system. Yet there are ways to streamline your purchasing procedures without ignoring staff needs.

  • Involve front­line staff in the technology planning process and purchasing decisions. Representatives from each department can be a part of the team that writes your organization's tech plan; if staff members don't have time to participate directly, you can interview them about their technology priorities and concerns. If you’re making a major purchasing decision, be sure to ask staff from various departments to weigh in on the packages offered by various vendors.
  • Train your front­line staff. If your staff doesn’t know how to use the official, supported programs, they’re more likely to fall back on unsupported software.
  • Create a list of “preference” software. Many organizations have a list of “preference” software that employees can request from the IT department. These applications are supported, but not installed by default on every machine. This model gives employees access to specialized software, while controlling cost and complexity.
  • Allow unsupported software, but make it clear that staff uses it at their own risk. If it causes headaches for IT, they can uninstall the program or re­image the hard drive if the situation is dire enough. This approach can cause extra headaches for your IT department if staff doesn’t remember what they’ve installed or doesn’t disclose it. On the other hand, your front­line staff might discover useful applications that IT eventually adopts for the whole organization.

The Benefits of Standardization

Hardware and software aren’t the only aspects of an IT system that you might consider streamlining. We’ve highlighted some of the advantages of standardizing everything from your operating system to your vendor relationships in the following sections.

Operating Systems

It’s hard for techies to stay on top of new releases, updates and information when they’re supporting more than one operating system. Moreover, because each operating system supports different software, you may end up supporting two versions of every piece of software, or different pieces of software that serve the same purpose, if you fail to impose a standard operating system at your organization.

Hardware

  • Computer manufacturers change their models almost weekly in response to fluctuations in price and the availability of new components from their suppliers. This can cause problems for IT departments, who often want to support a minimum number of hardware configurations.
  • You’ll also have an easier time finding and tracking replacement parts (e.g., hard drives, network cards, etc.) with standardized hardware.
  • If you use disk-cloning software, a new hardware model might force you to build and test a new image. See Disk-Cloning in Libraries for more information.

Software

  • Some users feel comfortable with their ancient, serviceable software, while others will always clamor for the latest applications and features. However, you can save a lot of time and hassle when your entire organization uses the same version of the same software.
  • When you have more software, it’s harder to automate the installation of security patches and software upgrades.
  • With fewer programs, it’s easier to test new programs and upgrades for conflicts. If your organization plans to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista, for example, the IT department has to look at every major piece of software in the organization to make sure it works with the new operating system. More software equals more chances for software conflicts.
  • Sometimes you can allow for some customization by allowing staff to choose software off an approved list. This reduces the number of supported applications without eliminating choice altogether. This will also discourage staff from clinging to old, outdated software.
  • Training staff on new software will also decrease their dependency on old, non-­standard programs.

Vendor Relationships

Dealing with too many vendors can be confusing from a billing, tech support and interpersonal perspective. You may be able to reduce the number of vendors you work with by purchasing your printers and servers from the same company that sells you desktop PCs. Technology resellers — businesses that buy equipment on your behalf — can also often be a good place to purchase hardware and software from different manufacturers from one central point of contact, simplifying the purchasing process.

Miscellaneous

Servers, printers, scanners, copiers and other pieces of hardware are cheaper and easier to support if you’re buying in bulk from the same vendor. However, only large organizations buy these items frequently enough to make bulk purchases. On the other hand, since successive models from the same manufacturer often have a lot in common, even small organizations can build on their existing skills by staying with the same company over time.

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