Just as many people rarely visit the doctor until they are sick or in pain, Goldstein Schechter Koch had not made any major changes to its IT infrastructure -- until one fateful day last tax season, when a system crash caused some lost data just as GSK was on a path towards virtualization.
Too little, too late, some would say, but the Florida firm managed to avoid major disaster, and is currently in the midst of plans to abate future IT- or weather-related problems through off-site hosting of its data and improved internal systems overall.
An aging IT infrastructure, coupled with the real possibility of natural disasters due to its location in hurricane country, prompted the firm's partners and IT Committee to begin a serious review on its current systems. The committee consists of tax practice partner Alan Kirzner, M&A practice partner Carlos Garcia, technology partner Zvi Gold and IT director Amelia Regalado.
A WAKE-UP CALL
Prior to the incident in April 2011, the group had decided that changes were needed to its systems, but with the firm and its clients still recovering from a recession, the investments were admittedly not made soon enough.
"What ultimately happened was we lost about 12 to 14 hours during the end of tax season, as well as some data," explained Kirzner. "We were backing up to tape before discs and the hardware went down. After that, we had a partners' meeting and everyone decided we wanted a system as bullet-proof as you can make it. Everybody bought in, [the IT Committee] spearheaded and led it. When the recession hit, everyone decided to be more conservative, and at the time, it was basically if it wasn't broke, don't fix it. When this [incident] happened, times had gotten better and we were more confident in spending money, but we realized from this how vulnerable we really were."
The IT department also realized that while some upgrades were being made at the time of the crash, prevention should have occurred sooner. Other issues also likely contributed, as Gold recalled. "In 2008, we put in [storage area network] and virtual servers, and the consultant that did it for us recommended how we set it up and we expected at the time it would last three years before it would need more space. That was around when [the crash] hit," he said. "We didn't understand enough about how they were setting it up."
Regalado agreed that while some investments were made to upgrade the system, there was limited understanding of what was really needed for the growth of the firm. "A year before things went down, we had discussed a way the system reserves space. We were looking at not only the space the data was taking up, but what VMware could do to replicate and reserve space," she said. "We didn't have the understanding of the space required to do all this, and when the time came to invest in more space, the firm decided to back off because it was fairly expensive and we were in a recession. Because there were no issues, we thought we could tackle it after tax season. Then the tape backup died and we didn't have enough snapshots. I was doing manual backups until the early hours of the morning weeks before [the crash]."
Regalado claims that the only data lost was related to time and billing, and in looking at what people were working on, she was advised by specific staff that they lost certain data. In the end, clients were not directly affected and not as many people in the firm were impacted as might have been. After that tax season, she and the IT Committee decided it was time to seek some outside advice on the future of the firm's IT infrastructure.
CALLING IN THE EXPERTS
Regalado first met with Gary and Jim Boomer's Boomer Circle CIO group and talked about the need to take her firm to the next level with regard to technology. She discussed the issues they were having and got advice on implementing the "right" technologies. Tech consulting group NMGI then came in to assess the state of the firm's technology and its plans for the future, ultimately devising recommendations for the next decade or so.
"After a total assessment of the IT system and department, we decided to use NMGI to assess where we needed to go. We spent three days with them and they produced a report that was 30 pages of findings and recommendations, broken down to short-term and long-term goals," said Gold. "All of the short-term items we tried to address before the following tax season."
NMGI found that GSK had servers that didn't match its drives, so they advised the firm to upgrade and move to virtual desktops -- but not all at once.
NMGI also found that the firm had numerous printers and scanners, and could save a lot on print cartridges by moving from individual printers and scanners to more general-area devices. This was only the beginning, according to partner and IT Committee member Garcia. "They helped us understand that the way we manage IT has to do with what the business is doing and how we change IT to do that," he said. "Everyone's needs from software to hardware also started becoming very specific. For example, not everyone needs to be loaded up with every bit of software when you join the firm. Lots of times they only use 10 percent of it, so your machines work slower, and that has a ripple effect." The firm now limits software on the system to what an individual professional will need. For example, an auditor will receive Microsoft Office, the firm's audit software, time management software, and possibly QuickBooks to receive client files.
"Also, rather than having everything locally, upgrades and patches can be done on the server side, rather than on someone's machine," added Garcia. "This is much easier to manage."
The bigger picture for the firm's IT future came with where and how it houses data. The majority of its servers are now offsite at a co-location facility that offers guaranteed maintenance and uptime. "There's servers offsite with backups going on all the time and people don't have to be off the system," Kirzner said. "People can now work whenever they want. Our backup system used to require us to be offline for up to seven hours, and now we can work 24/7."
The firm also now has document management, CRM and client portals in the cloud, but ultimately it would like all staff to be more mobile and able to work more virtually, with all necessary tools and files accessible from wherever they are.
Both Gold and Regalado recognized that an IT overhaul is no small undertaking; it was costly and involved time and dedicated staff, which may not be suitable for smaller firms. Regardless, they advised that firms of all sizes need to consider technology as a central part of a firm's growth and decision-making.
"One thing I can say is that an IT department is not just a cost center. It's a profit center. We can't make money without it and I think our partners realize this more," said Gold. "We would like to be technology leaders. I think we were there before the recession hit, and would like to be back there."
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