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Types of IT Service Providers

A big challenge, both to IT Service Providers and to their customers, is in attempting to define exactly what an IT vendor is and how their customers should expect to interact with them.  Many people see IT Service Providers (we will call them ITSPs for short here) as a single type of animal but, in reality, ITSPs come in all shapes and sizes and need to be understood in order to leverage a relationship with them well.  Even if we lack precise or universally accepted terms, the concepts are universal.

Even within the ITSP industry there is little to no standardization of naming conventions, even though there are relatively tried and true company structures which are nearly always followed.  The really important aspect of this discussion is not to carefully define the names of service providers but to explain the competing approaches so that, when engaging a service provider, a meaningful discussion around these models can be had so that an understanding of an appropriate resultant relationship can be achieved.

It is also important to note that any given service provider many use a hybrid or combination of models.  Using one model does not preclude the use of another as well.  In fact it is most common for a few approaches to be combined as multiple approaches makes it easier to capture revenue which is quite critical and IT service provisioning is a relatively low margin business.

Resellers and VARs:  The first, largest and most important to identify category is that of a reseller.  Resellers are the easiest to identify as they, as their name indicates, resell things.  Resellers vary from pure resellers, those companies that do nothing but purchase from vendors on one side and sell to customers on the other (vendors like NewEgg and Amazon would fit into this category while not focusing on IT products) to the more popular Value Added Resellers who not only resell products but maintain some degree of skill or knowledge around products.

Value Added Resellers are a key component of the overall IT vendor ecosystem as they supply more than just a product purchasing supply chain but maintain key skills around those products.  Commonly VARs will have skills around product integration, supply chain logistics, supported configurations, common support issues, licensing and other factors.  It is common for customers and even other types of ITSPs to lean on a VAR in order to get details about product specifics or insider information.

Resellers of any type, quite obviously, earn their money through markup and margins on the goods that they resell.  This creates for an interesting relationship between customers and the vendor as the vendor is always in a position of needing to make a sale in order to produce revenue.  Resellers are often turned to for advice, but it must be understood that the relationship is one of sales and the reseller only gets compensated when a sale takes place.  This makes the use of a reseller somewhat complicated as the advice or expertise sought may come at a conflict with what is in the interest of the reseller.  The relationship with a reseller requires careful management to ensure that guidance and direction coming from the reseller is aligned with the customer’s needs and is isolated to areas in which the reseller is an expert and in ways that is mutually beneficial to both parties.

Managed Service Providers or MSPs: The MSP has probably the most well known title in this field.  In recent years the term MSP has come to be used so often that it is often simply used to denote any IT service provider, whether or not they provide something that would appropriately be deemed to be a “managed service.”  To understand what an MSP is truly meant to be we have to understand what a “managed service” is meant to be in the context of IT.

The idea of managed services is generally understood to be related to the concept of “packaging” a service.  That is producing a carefully designed and designated service or set of services that can be sold with a fixed or relatively predictable price.  MSPs typically have very well defined service offerings and can often provide very predictable pricing.  MSPs take the time up front to develop predictable service offerings allowing customers to be able to plan and budget easily.

This heavy service definition process generally means that selecting an MSP is normally done very tightly around specific products or processes and nearly always requires customers to conform to the MSPs standards.  In exchange, MSPs can provide very low cost and predictable pricing in many cases.  Some of the most famous approaches from MSPs include the concepts of “price per desktop”, “price per user” or “price per server” packages where a customer might pay one hundred dollars per desktop per month and work from a fixed price for whatever they need.  The MSP, in turn, may define what desktops will be used, what operating system is used and what software may be run on top of it.  MSPs almost universally have a software package or a set of standard software packages that are used to manage their customers.   MSPs generally rely on scaling across many customers with shared processes and procedures in order to create a cost effective structure.

MSPs typically focus on internal efficiencies to maximize profits.  The idea being that a set price service offering can be made to be more and more effective by adding more nearly identical customers and improving processes and tooling in order to reduce the cost of delivering the service.  This can be a great model with a high degree of alignment between the needs of the vendor and the customer as both benefit from an improvement in service delivery and the MSP is encouraged to undertake the investments to improve operational efficiency in order to improve profits.  The customer benefits from set pricing and improved services while the vendor benefits from improved margins.  The caveat here is that there is a risk that the MSP will seek to skirt responsibilities or to lean towards slow response or corner cutting since the prices are fixed and only the services are flexible.

IT Outsourcers & Consultants: IT Outsourcing may seen like the most obvious form of ITSP but it is actually a rather uncommon approach.  I lump together the ideas of IT Outsourcing and consulting because, in general, they are actually the same thing but simply handled at two different scales.  The behaviours are essentially the same between them.  In contrast with MSPs, we could also think of this group as Unmanaged Service Providers.  IT Outsourcers do not develop heavily defined service packages but instead rely on flexibility and a behaviour much more akin to that of an internal IT department.  IT Outsourcers literally act like an external IT department or portion thereof.  An IT Outsourcer will typically have a technological specialty or a range of specialties but many are also very generalized and will handle nearly any technological need.

This category can act in a number of different ways when interacting with a business.  When brought in for a small project or a single technological issue they are normally thought of as a consultancy – providing expertise and advice around a single issue or set of issues.  Outsourcing can also mean using the provider as a replacement for the entire IT department allowing a company to exist without any IT staff of their own.  And there is a lot of middle ground where the IT Outsourcer might be brought in only to handle specific roles within the larger IT organization such as only running and manning the help desk, only doing network engineering or providing continuous management and oversight but not doing hands on technical work.  IT Outsources are very hard to define because they are so flexible and can exist in so many different ways.  Each IT Outsourcer is unique as is, in most cases, every client engagement.

IT Outsourcing is far more common, and almost ubiquitous, within the large business and enterprise spaces.  It is a very rare enterprise that does not turn to outsourcing for at least some role within the organization.  Small businesses use IT Outsourcers heavily but are more likely to use the more well defined MSP model than their larger counterparts.  The MSP market is focused primarily on the small and medium business space.

It is imperative, of course, that the concept of outsourcing not be conflated with off-shoring which is the practice of sending IT jobs overseas.  These two things are completely unrelated.  Outsourcing often means sending work to a company down the street or at least in the same country or region.  Off-shoring means going to a distant country, presumably across the ocean.  It is off-shoring that has the bad reputation but sadly people often use the term outsourcing to incorrectly refer to it which leads to much confusion.  Many companies use internal staff in foreign markets to off-shore while being able to say that no jobs are outsourced.  The misuse of this term has made it easy for companies to hide off-shoring of labor and given the local use of outsourced experts a bad reputation without cause.

It is common for IT Outsourcing relationships to be based around a cost per hour or per “man day” or on something akin to a time and materials relationship.  These arrangements come in all shapes and sizes, to be sure, but generally the alignment of an IT Outsourcer to a business is the most like the relationship that a business has with its own internal IT department.  Unlike MSPs who generally have a contractual leaning towards pushing for efficiency and cutting corners to add to profits, Outsourcers have a contractual leaning towards doing more work and having more billable hours.  Understanding how each organization makes its money and where it is likely to “pad” or where cost is likely to creep is critical in managing the relationships.

Professional Services: Professional Services firms overlap heavily with the more focused consulting role within IT Outsourcing and this makes both of these roles rather hard to define.  Professional Services tend to be much more focused, however, on very specific markets whether horizontal, vertical or both.  Professional Services firms generally do not offer full IT department or fully flexible arrangements like the IT Outsourcer does but are not packaged services like the MSP model.  Typically a Professional Services firm might be centered around a small group of products that compete for a specific internal function and invest heavily in the expertise around those functions.  Professional Services tend to be brought in more on a project basis than Outsourcers who, in turn are more likely to be project based than MSPs.

Professional Services firms tend to bill based on project scope.  This means that the relationship with a PS firm requires careful scope management.  Many IT Outsourcers will do project based work as well and when billing in this way this would apply equally to them and some PS firms will be billing by the hour and so the IT Outsourcing relationship would apply.  In a project it is important that everyone be acutely aware of the scope and how it is defined.  A large amount of overhead must go into the scoping by both sides as it is the scope document that will define the ability for profits and cost.  PS firms are by necessity experts at ensuring that scopes are well defined and profitable to them.  It is very easy for a naive IT department to improperly scope a project and be left with a project that they feel is incomplete.  If scope management is, and you will excuse the pun, out of scope for your organization then it is wise to pursue Professional Services arrangements via a more flexible term such as hourly or time and materials.

All of these types of firms have an important role to play in the IT ecosystem.  Rarely can an internal IT department have all of the skills necessary to handle every situation on their own, it requires the careful selection and management of outside firms to help to round out the needs of a business to cover what is needed in the best ways possible.  At a minimum, internal IT must work with vendors and resellers to acquire the gear that they need for IT to exist.  Rarely does it stop there.  Whether an IT department needs advice on a project, extra hands when things get busy, oversight on something that has not been done before, support during holidays or off hours or just peers off of whom ideas can be bounced, IT departments of all sizes and types turn to IT Service Providers to fill in gaps both big and small.

Any IT role or function can be moved from internal to external staff.  The only role that ultimately can never be moved to an external team is the top level of vendor management.  At some point, someone internal to the business in question must oversee the relationship with at least one vendor (or else there must be a full internal IT staff fulfilling all roles.)  In many modern companies it may make sense for a single internal person to the company, often a highly trusted senior manager, be assigned to oversee vendor relationships but allow a vendor or a group of vendors to actually handle all aspects of IT.  Some vendors specialize in vendor relationship management and may bring experience with and quality management of other vendors with them as part of their skill set.  Often these are MSPs or IT Outsources who are bringing IT Management as part of their core skill set.  This can be a very valuable component as often these vendors work with other vendors a great deal and have a better understanding of performance expectations, cost expectations and leverage more scale and reputation than the end customer will.

Just as an internal IT department is filled with variety, so are IT service and product vendors.  Your vendor and support ecosystem is likely to be large and unique and will play a significant role in defining how you function as an IT department.  The key to working well with this ecosystem is understanding what kind of organization it is that you are working with, considering their needs and motivations and working to establish relationships based on mutual business respect coupled with relational guidelines that promote mutual success.

Remember that as the customer you drive the relationship with the vendor; they are stuck in the position of delivering the service requested or declining to do so.  But as the customer, you are in a position to push for a good working relationship that makes everyone able to work together in a healthy way.  Not every relationship is going to work out for the best, but there are ways to encourage good outcomes and to put the best foot forward in starting a new relationship.

Avoiding Local Service Providers

Inflammatory article titles aside, the idea of choosing a technology service provider based on the fact or partially based on the fact that they are in some way located geographically near to where you are currently, is almost always a very bad idea.  Knowledge based services are difficult enough to find at all, let alone finding the best potential skills, experience and price while introducing artificial and unnecessary constraints to limit the field of potential candidates.

With the rare exception of major global market cities like New York City and London, it is nearly impossible to find a full range of skills in Information Technology in a single locality, at least not in conjunction with a great degree of experience and breadth.  This is true of nearly all highly technical industries – expertise tends to focus around a handful of localities around the world and the remaining skills are scattered in a rather unpredictable manner often because those people in the highest demand can command salary and locations as desired and live where they want to, not where they have to.

IT, more than nearly any other field, has little value in being geographically near to the business that it is supporting.  Enterprise IT departments, even when located locally to their associated businesses and working in an office on premises are often kept isolated in different buildings away from both the businesses that they are supporting and the physical systems on which they work.  It is actually very rare that enterprise server admins would physically ever see their servers or network admins see their switches and routers.  This becomes even less likely when we start talking about roles like database administrators, software developers and others who have even less association with devices that have any physical component.

Adding in a local limitation when looking for consulting talent (and in many cases even internal IT staff) adds an artificial constraint that eliminates nearly the entire possible field of talented people while encouraging people to work on site even for work for which it makes no sense.  Often working on site causes a large increase in cost and loss of productivity due to interruptions, lack of resources, poor work environment, travel or similar.  Working with exclusively or predominantly remote resources encourages a healthy investment in efficient working conditions that generally pay off very well.  But it is important to keep in mind that just because a service company is remote does not imply that the work that they will do will be remote.  In many cases this will make sense, but in others it will not.

Location agnostic workers have many advantages.  By not being tied to a specific location you get far more flexibility as to skill level (allowing you to pursue the absolute best people) or cost (by allowing you to hire people living in low cost areas) or simply offering flexibility as an incentive or get broader skill sets, larger staff, etc.  Choosing purely local services simply limits you in many ways.

Companies that are not based locally are not necessarily unable to provide local resources.  Many companies work with local resources, either local companies or individuals, to allow them to have a local presence.  In many cases this is simply what we call local “hands” and is analogous to how most enterprises work internally with centrally or remotely based IT staff and physical “hands” existing only at locations with physical equipment to be serviced.  In cases where specific expertise needs to be located with physical equipment or people it is common for companies to either staff locally in cases where the resource is needed on a very regular basis or to have specific resources travel to the location when needed.  These techniques are generally far more effective than attempting to hire firms with the needed staff already coincidentally located in the best location.  This can easily be more cost effective than working with a full staff that is already local.

As time marches forward needs change as well.  Companies that work local only can find themselves facing new challenges when they expand to include other regions or locations.  Do they choose vendors and partners only where they were originally located?  Or where they are moving to or expanding to?  Do they choose local for each location separately?  The idea of working with local resources only is nearly exclusive to the smallest of business.  Typically as businesses grow the concept of local begins to change in interesting ways.

Locality and jurisdiction may represent different things.  In many cases it may be necessary to work with businesses located in the same state or country as your business due to legal or financial logistical reasoning and this can often make sense.  Small companies especially may not be prepared the tackle the complexities of working with a foreign firm.  Larger companies may find these boundaries to be worthy of ignoring as well.  But the idea that location should be ignored should not be taken to mean that jurisdiction, by extension, should also be ignored.  Jurisdiction still plays a significant role – one that some IT service providers or other vendors may be able to navigate on your behalf allowing you to focus on working with a vendor within your jurisdiction while getting the benefits of support from another jurisdiction.

As with many artificial constraint situations, not only do we generally eliminate the most ideal vendor candidates, but we also risk “informing” the existing vendor candidate pool that we care more about locality than quality of service or other important factors.  This can lead to a situation where the vendor, especially in a smaller market, feels that they have a lock in to you as the customer and do not need to perform up to a market standard level, price competitively (as there is no true competition given the constraints) or worse.  A vendor who feels that they have a trapped customer is unlikely to perform as a good vendor long term.

Of course we don’t want to avoid companies simply because they are local to our own businesses, but we should not be giving undue preference to companies for this reason either.  Some work has advantages to being done in person, there is no denying this.  But we must be careful not to extend this to rules and needs that do not have this advantage nor should we confuse the location of a vendor with the location(s) where they do or are willing to do business.

In extreme cases, all IT work can, in theory, be done completely remotely and only bench work (the physical remote hands) aspects of IT need an on premises presence.  This is extreme and of course there are reasons to have IT on site.  Working with a vendor to determine how best service can be provided, whether locally, remotely or a combination of the two can be very beneficial.

In a broader context, the most important concept here is to avoid adding artificial or unnecessary constraints to the vendor selection process.  Assuming that a local vendor will be able or willing to deliver a value that a non-local vendor can or will do is just one way that we might bring assumption or prejudice to a process such as this.  There is every possibility that the local company will do the best possible job and be the best, most viable vendor long term – but the chances are far higher than you will find the right partner for your business elsewhere.  It’s a big world and in IT more than nearly any other field it is becoming a large, flat playing field.

The Smallest IT Department

Working with small businesses means working with small IT shops.  It is very common to find the “one man” shows and I am often in discussions about how to handle environments so small.  There is no easy answer.  Unlike most company departments or job roles, IT is almost always an “around the clock” job that services the fundamental “plumbing” of the business – the infrastructure on which everything else depends.  Normal departments like finance, human resources, legal, management or marketing tend to knock off at the end of the day, leave an hour early on Fridays, go completely offline during the weekend, take normal vacations with little or no office contact, require little ongoing education or training once they are established and almost never have to worry about being expected to spend their nights or weekends doing their work to avoid interrupting others while they work, but this exactly how IT departments need to function.  IT staffs don’t reminisce about that “one time” that things were so bad at work that they had to work through the whole weekend or a full overnight and still work the next day or had to give up their family vacation because the company made no allowance for it operationally – that is simply day to day life for many people in IT.  What other departments often feel is completely unacceptable in IT is just normal practice.  But that doesn’t mean that it works well, IT departments are often driven into the ground and little consideration is given for their long term viability or success.

With rare exception, IT departments have needs that are different from normal departments – based primarily on what business demand from them: high reliability, continuous availability, deep business knowledge of all departments, ability to train others, knowledge of broad and disparate technologies, business skills, financial skills, procurement skills, travel, experience across technologies and industries, efficiency and experience on the latest technologies, trends, architectures, techniques and knowledge of the latest threats and products arriving daily – and to not only use all of that skill and experience to provide support roles but to also be a productive engineer, customer service representative and to present and defend recommendations to management that often pushes back or provides erratic or emotional support of infrastructural needs.  Quite literally, no single person can possibly fill those shoes and one that could would demand a salary higher than the revenue of most small businesses.

How do larger businesses handle this daunting task?  They do so with large IT departments filled with people who specialize in specific tasks, generalists who glue specialists together, dedicated support people who don’t need to do engineering, engineers who don’t get support interruptions, tiered support roles to filter tasks by difficulty, mentors to train newcomers, career pipelines, on call schedules or follow the sun support desks and internal education systems.  The number of challenges presented to a lone IT professional or very small IT department are nearly insurmountable forcing corners to be cut nearly everywhere, often dangerously.  There is no time or resources for tiny IT departments to handle the scope of the job thrown at them.  Even if the job role is whittled down to a very specific job role, SMB IT professionals are often faced with decision making for which they cannot be prepared.  For example, a simple server failure might be seen as just another “hardware upgrade” task because the overworked, under-scoped IT professional isn’t being given the necessary latitude to be able to flag management as to an arising opportunity for some strategic roadmap execution – maybe a complete departure from previous plans due to a late breaking technology change, or a chance to consolidate systems for cost savings or a tactical upgrade or change of platform might deliver unrealized features.

Having worked both in the trenches and in management I believe that there are two thresholds that need to be considered.  One is the minimum functional IT department size.  That is, the minimal size that an internal IT department can be to be able to complete basic job functions using internal staff.  To clarify, “internal staff” can be a rather ambiguous term.  Internal here I use to mean dedicated or effectively dedicated staff.  These people can be employees or contractors.  But at a minimum, with the exception of very rare companies that don’t operate during full business hours or other niche scenario, it takes at least three IT professionals on an IT team to functionally operate as an IT department.

With three people there is an opportunity for peer review, very critical in a technical field that is complex at the best of times and a swirling quagmire of unknown requirements, continuous change and insurmountable complexity at the worst of times.  Like any technical field, IT professionals need peers to talk to, to oversee their work, to check their ideas against and to keep them from entering the SMB IT Bubble.  Three is an important number.  Two people will have a natural tendency to become adversarial with one carrying the weight of recommendation to management and one living in their shadow – typically with the one with the greater soft skills or business skills gaining the ear of management while the one with the greater technical acumen losing their voice if management isn’t careful to intentionally include them.  As with maritime chronometers, it is critical that you have three because you can have a quorum.  Two simply have an argument.

IT is an “around the clock” endeavor.  During the day there are continuous needs from IT end users and the continuous potential for an outage or other disaster plus meetings, design sessions, planning and documentation.  In the evenings and on weekends there is all of the system maintenance that cannot, or at least should not, be done while the business is up and running.  This is often an extensive level of work, not an occasional bit of missing happy hour but regular workload eliminating dinner and family time.  Then comes the emergency calls and outages that happen any time day or night.  And there is the watching of email – even if nothing is wrong it is commonplace for IT to be involved in company business twelve to sixteen hours a day and weekends too, even in very small companies.  Even the most dedicated IT professional will face rapid burnout in an environment such as this without the ability to have a service rotation to facilitate necessary rest and work/life balance.

This comes before the considerations for the unforeseeable sick days, emergency leave or even just holidays or vacation.  If there are not enough people left behind to cover the business as usual tasks plus the unforeseeables, then vacations or even sick days become nearly, if not totally, impossible.  Skipping vacations for a year or two is theoretically possible but it is not healthy and doesn’t provide for a sustainable department.

Then there is training and education.  IT is a demanding field.  Running your own IT department suggests a desire to control the level of skill and availability granted to the company.  To maintain truly useful IT staff time and resources for continuous education is critical.  IT pros at any stage in their career need to have time to engage in discussions and forums, attend classes and training, participate in user groups, go to conferences and even just sit down and read books and web sites on the latest products, techniques and technologies.  If an IT professional is not given the chance to not just maintain, but grow their skills they will stagnate and gradually become useless technically and likely to fall into depression.  A one or two man shop, with even the smallest of organizations, cannot support the necessary free time for serious educational opportunities.

Lastly, and far more critical than it seems at first, is the need to handle request queues.  If issues arise within a business at a continuous, average rate of just enough per day to require eight hours per day to service them it may seem like only one person would be necessary to handle the queue that this work load would generate.  In an ideal world, perhaps that is true.  In the real world, requests come in at varying degrees of priority and often at very inopportune moments so that even a business that has taken on the expense of having dedicated, internal IT cannot have the “instant response time” that they often hope for because their IT professional is busy on an existing task.  The idea of instant response is based on the assumption that the IT resource is sitting idle and watching the ticket queue or waiting by the phone at all times.  That is not realistic.

In large enterprises, to handle the response time concerns of critical environments, surplus IT resources are maintained so that only in the direst of emergencies would all of them be called upon at one time to deal with high criticality issues at the same time.  There is always someone left behind to deal with another pressing issue should one arise.  This not only allows for low latency response to any important customer need but also provides spare time for projects, learning and the necessary mental downtime needed for abstract processing of troubleshooting without which IT professionals in a support role will lose efficiency even if other work does not force them to multitask.

In small shops there is little to be done.  There is a lack of scale to allow for the excess IT resource capacity to be sitting n the wings just waiting for issues to arise.  Having three people is, in my opinion, an absolute minimum to allow for the handling of most cases of this nature if the business is small enough.  By having three people there is, we hope, some chance of avoiding continuous re-prioritization of requests, inefficient multi-tasking and context switching.

In larger organizations there is also a separation of duties between administration or support job roles and engineering job roles.  One job is event driven, sitting “idle” waiting for a customer request and then reacting as quickly as possible. The other focused on projects and working towards overall efficiency.  Two very different aspects of IT that are nearly impossible for a single person to tackle simultaneously.  With a three person shop these roles can exist in many cases even if the roles are temporarily assigned as needed and not permanent aspects of title or function.

With only three people an IT department still lacks the size and scale necessary to provide a healthy, professional growth and training environment internally.  There are not enough rungs on the ladder for IT employees to move up and only turnover, unlikely to happen in the top slot, allows for any upward mobility forcing good candidates to leave rapidly for the sake of their careers leaving good shops with continuous turnover and training and lesser shops with dramatically inferior staff.  There is no simple solution for small organizations.  IT is a broad field with a great many steps on the ladder from helpdesk to CIO.  Top IT organizations have thousands or, in the most extreme cases, hundreds of thousands of IT professionals in a single organization.  These environments naturally have a great degree or both upward and lateral mobility, peer interaction and review, vendor resources, mentoring, lead oversight, career guidance and development and opportunities to explore new ideas and paths often that don’t exist in SMBs of any size.

To maintain a truly healthy IT department takes a much larger pool of resources.  Likely one hundred, or more, IT professionals would be required to provide adequate internal peerage, growth and opportunity to begin to provide for career needs, rather than “job needs.”  Realistically, the SMB market cannot bear this at an individual business scale and must accept that the nature of SMB IT is to have high turnover of the best resources and to work with other businesses, typically ones that are not directly competitive, to share or exchange resources.  In the enterprise space, even in the largest businesses, this is often very common – friendly exchanges of IT staff to allow for career advancement often with no penalties for returning later in their career for different positions at the original company.

Given this bleak picture of SMB IT staff scaling needs, what is the answer?  The reality is is that there is no easy one.  SMB IT sits at a serious disadvantage to its enterprise counterparts and at some scale, especially falling below three dedicated IT staff members, the scale becomes too low to allow for a sustainable work environment in all but the most extreme cases.

In smaller organizations, one answer is turning to consulting, outsourcing and/or managed service providers who are willing and able to work either in the role of internal staff or as a hybrid with existing internal staff to provide for an effectively larger IT organization shared between many businesses.   Another is simply investing more heavily in IT resources or using other departments as part time IT to handle helpdesk or other high demand roles, but this tends to be very ineffective as IT duties tend to overwhelm any other job role.  A more theoretical approach is to form a partnership with another one or two businesses to share in house IT in a closed environment.  This last approach is very difficult and problematic and generally works only when technology is heavily shared as is geographic location between the businesses in question.

More important than providing a simple answer is the realization that IT professionals need a team on which to work in order to thrive and will perform far better on a healthy team than they will alone.  How this is accomplished depends on the unique needs of any given business.  But the efficacy and viability of the one or two “man” IT shop, for even the smallest businesses, is questionable.  Some businesses are lucky enough to find themselves in a situation where this can work for a few years but often live day to day at a high degree of risk and almost always face high turnover with their entire IT department, a key underpinning of the workings of their entire business, leaving at once with the benefits of staggered turnover that a three person and larger shop at least have an opportunity to provide.  With a single person shop there is no handover of knowledge from predecessors, no training and often no opportunity to seek an adequate replacement before the original IT professional is gone leaving at best an abrupt handover and at worst a long period of time with no IT support at all and no in house skills necessary to interview and locate a successor.