IT guy wanted; must have own tools

If you work in IT, you not only put your heart and soul into your job, you often sacrifice your own hardware to the cause

As I rummaged around in a few backpacks searching for a USB-to-serial converter, I suddenly recalled that I had "donated" my stash of them. I had left them in various places running serial consoles for cutover tasks and back-end access during data center migrations. I could look all I wanted, but I wouldn't find them. They had been absorbed into the IT infrastructure.

Often, small-but-critical parts slip from personal stores into the corporate maw. Sometimes I feel like a teacher who has spent his own money on school supplies -- and I'm certain I'm not alone. Who knows how many IT folks have used their own gear to get projects completed on time or to save the day while troubleshooting, only to leave those parts behind because they've become indispensible?

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For a consultant like me, the list includes miles of Ethernet patch cords, serial cables, and dongles, not to mention modems, RAM, and even hard drives in a pinch. All of these were absolutely necessary for midnight problem solving, when the priority is to get it done and count the wounded later. I can recall several times when I've cannibalized an older desktop system of mine for old DIMMs to replace failed RAM in Cisco firewalls, for instance.

As for IT staffers -- who do you think invented BYOD (bring your own device)? IT folks have always had trouble with purchasing restrictions, so they bring their own laptops and even desktops to the office for business purposes. Or it could be the random Wi-Fi access point needed for some business reason or other that winds up being used by everyone. And when an expensive edge switch bites the bullet at 10pm, someone may go home and retrieve a switch they happened to have, just to get by for the short term. It winds up sticking around for a few years.

In smaller shops, I've seen an old desktop system someone brought in from home during an emergency dutifully running as a domain controller. Or you might notice a consumer-grade NAS device with two 500GB disks in a RAID 1 holding down the fort as an "emergency" storage array -- for the past year.

When budgets are tight, how else are you going to get things done? With pre-approval to expense parts nonexistent, not to mention the scarcity of certain parts in certain locations, there are no alternatives. And human nature is such that once a fix is in place, it tends to stay there until it breaks again, at which point another duct-tape-and-sealing-wax "solution" will be implemented.

The proper way to deal with these issues is, of course, foresight. Having cold spares or alternates for critical components is an easy way to do this in many cases. Dropping a few thousand dollars on a medium-grade NAS device can get you through a suddenly critical data migration, like when a production array starts developing problems and the vendor can't deliver a permanent fix for a day or more. Likewise, having a spare switch or two on the shelf is always a good idea. And never forget cold spare hard drives.

If you're involved in a suitably large infrastructure, then you probably don't run into this problem often, thanks to expensive support contracts and budgets large enough to keep provisions stocked. Small and medium-sized businesses are not so fortunate, especially in today's economic climate, and in many places quick fixes bought by staffers have become status quo.

Over the past few years many companies have let support contracts lapse and are limping along with decrepit hardware because purse strings have never been tighter. Unless and until that changes, more and more admins will have no choice but to summon their inner MacGyver and do whatever they can to get by, as they plead for just a few more dollars to fend off disaster.

For those folks, the options when the chips are down are few. You can't run out to Wal-Mart and grab a 48-port gigabit switch or a 5TB NAS, but you can cobble together a few unmanaged 16-port switches and throw a bunch of hard drives into a chassis and continue limping along. After all, the network can't go down or else the company will be in serious peril, right? The lack of a suitable IT budget never seems to get in the way of the 24/7/365 demands on a corporate IT infrastructure.

But that's the nature of IT. You pull a rabbit out of a hat and all you get is someone demanding to know why the rabbit wasn't already there and how much the hat cost.

This story, "IT guy wanted; must have own tools," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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