Upkeep can be hazardous

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 October, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 October, 1993, 12:00am

THE open systems concept has allowed dozens of small manufacturers and vendors into the fray. Fortunately, many of these never surface in Hong Kong but we do have more than enough players offering open systems.

At first glance, this fierce competition may appear to be to the advantage of the buyers, but, be warned, the advantages may be outweighed by the hazards of a lack of satisfactory hardware maintenance.

Although hardware is inherently far more reliable these days than it was a few years ago, it still does, and always will, break down. It remains a vital requirement of any system configuration that a company be protected against lengthy interruptions to its operations because of hardware and associated system software failures.

Complacency towards maintenance, because of improved reliability, is not very clever.

I recall witnessing a woman taking delivery of a new car not so long ago. As she was about to drive off, the salesman ran up to her and said: ''Madam, you left your fire extinguisher in your old car, would you like us to install it in your new car?''. The woman replied: ''No thanks, I never used it anyway.'' Computer systems parallel to this tale are commonplace and the ill-informed judgment inevitably causes substantial costs which could have been avoided.

Traditionally, with proprietary computer systems, the user negotiated a maintenance agreement with the vendor at the time of purchase.

In the halcyon days of the cost-laden mainframe installations, companies such as airlines and banks, with mammoth configurations, often carried their own spare parts and employed their own engineering maintenance teams. Some still do.

The engineering maintenance market in the territory has never been large enough to attract any of the many third-party maintenance organisations which sprang up during the 1970s in other parts of the world.

These days, an executive is faced with some new dilemmas. It makes a lot of sense to implement open-systems architecture throughout an organisation.

Consultants and vendors alike extol the virtues of open systems and promote the extra resilience that the concept may bring. But is it necessarily so? Problems become apparent when a company finds itself with a multi-platform array of equipment fragmented throughout the organisation.

How does the executive consolidate and possibly save money on maintenance? For some years, Digital Equipment Hong Kong has provided multi-vendor maintenance services through its Multi-vendor Customer Service (MCS) direct to its larger corporate customers.

A couple of weeks ago the company opened a Super Service Centre, offering maintenance of PCs, workstations, terminals and other computer products from Digital and other leading vendors.

In addition to hardware maintenance, the Super Service Centre staff will help users to resolve problems with industry-standard operating systems, databases, query languages and popular application packages, as well as advise on networking issues.

If this innovative idea takes off among all major vendors then the executive's selection of a system maintenance strategy will become much more straightforward.

In other parts of the world, problems often arise with multi-vendor maintenance contracts because the prime contractor proves to be a ''fourth party'' and simply sub-contracts the work out to smaller engineering service companies, perhaps without the knowledge of the client.

This leaves the client a further step removed from the engineer actually doing the work.

Tom Nixson, manager of Engineering Services at Hong Kong's longest established computer services company, COL Ltd, said: ''Hong Kong is different to the rest of the world in that it is geographically viable to commit call response times which would provedifficult, if not impossible, to achieve in other countries.

''Also, because of the close-knit business community, sub-contracting is an acceptable practice.

''The Hong Kong executive is pragmatic and would prefer to have the best people for a given job, but he rarely has the time, or the in-house expertise, to manage such matters as hardware and systems software maintenance.

''At COL, we offer a maintenance management service to satisfy this special local need,'' he said.

As the cost of hardware decreases, and the cost of staffing climbs exponentially, more and more companies are turning towards facilities management contracts for their entire systems. Besides COL, there are a number of computer service companies in the territory which provide such services.

This approach could be considered as the safest method on all fronts because, not only is hardware/software maintenance covered, resilience against specialist staff movements is inherent to the contract.

It is all too easy to allow the finance people to apply the ''fire extinguisher'' mentality to the maintenance contracts of computer systems on which the entire welfare of the company depends.

Remember, they are also the people who will provide a detailed account of every cent of the cost of recovery of the corporate database, inventory or accounting systems after a system failure.