Slashing IT maintenance budgets: Sign of the times

In a down economy, some shops are cutting where it really counts -- maintenance -- and are hoping for the best

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Where cuts are not being made

The only places where the sporting-goods firm avoided maintenance cuts altogether were in customer-facing applications, including customer Web portals, which generate revenue for the business. If the Web portals go down, "then our U.S. dealers can't order parts for our products," which cuts revenue, the engineer explained.

As for the financial-services firm, "if it's critical and customer-facing, even in these cost-cutting times, that will not be changed," the manager said. "Anytime you have any regulatory obligations, there is no way that you ... have that luxury to save money there."

In the non-critical areas, "maybe you can cut in areas such as turnaround time" for support and repairs, the financial-services manager said. "You can still look for cheaper solutions, but you'd look for them with a guarantee for the same level of service."

Pain points: Effects on the business

A network accelerator, which compresses traffic to get more speed over the network, recently broke at the sporting-goods firm. IT couldn't call the vendor to fix it, the engineer said, because there's no longer a maintenance contract on it. So his company began looking for a used replacement on eBay. "We lived without the extra speed while it was being replaced; everything just slowed down," he said. The device has since been replaced.

For their part, end users "were noticing the cuts," he said. "The network slowed down. . . and people don't like that." That caused new trouble tickets to be generated due to speed complaints, which overloaded the IT staff with even more work.

"They're generally OK when they're told it's going to hurt," he said of cuts and their effects on company workers. "Then when it hurts, they don't like it. We spent some time in meetings where we had to remind people that they agreed to this" when the cuts were looming. "Everyone wants a fuel-efficient car, but they still want it to go fast."

"Different groups [of users] inside a company might negotiate for different service levels, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease," consultant Whitehouse said. When IT services are shifted around due to budget and maintenance cuts, the users suffering the greatest cuts are the ones who are most unhappy and most vocal. "I'm sure this goes on on a regular basis," she said. "I think it's more pronounced this year because of the general cuts."

Green Mountain's Prevo pointed out that cutting back on maintenance in areas including security could make corporate IT systems more vulnerable in some cases.

Maintenance cuts can cause noticeable performance hits for users, Keane's Milde said. "Sometimes mistakes happen and sometimes balls are dropped. We definitely have had that happen at a couple of customer accounts," he explained. "It's fairly clear, it takes a certain amount of resources to support a certain number of applications."

In the end, maintenance cuts mean that end users will have to solve many of their own IT problems, including finding answers to questions online rather than dialing a help desk, Milde said.

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