Showing posts with label SMB. Show all posts
Showing posts with label SMB. Show all posts

Friday, November 16, 2018

How a Business Matchmaker Application Helps SMBs Impacted by Natural Disasters Gain New Credit

Transcript of a discussion on how data-driven supplier ecosystems enable new kinds of matchmaker finance relationships that work rapidly and at low risk for small- to medium-sized businesses in need.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: SAP Ariba.

Dana Gardner: Hi, this is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, and you’re listening to BriefingsDirect. Our next digital business innovation panel discussion explores how a matchmaker application assists small businesses impacted by natural disasters in the United States.

By leveraging the data and trust inherent in established business networks, Apparent Financing by SAP creates digital handshakes between lenders and businesses in urgent need of working capital financing.

The solution’s participants -- all in the SAP Ariba Network -- are putting the innovative model to good use by initially assisting businesses impacted directly or via supply chain disruptions from natural disasters such as forest fires and hurricanes.

To learn how data-driven supplier ecosystems enable new kinds of matchmaker finance relationships that work rapidly and at low risk, we are joined by our panel, Vishal Shah, Co-Founder and General Manager of Apparent Financing by SAP. Welcome, Vishal.

Vishal Shah: Thank you, Dana.

Gardner: We are here too with Alan Cohen, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Payments and Financing at SAP Ariba. Welcome, Alan.

Alan Cohen: Thank you. Great to be here.

Gardner: And we lastly welcome Winslow Garnier, President of Garnier Group Technology Solutions, LLC in San Diego, California.

Winslow Garnier: Thank you, Dana. I appreciate it.

Gardner: Vishal, what’s unique about this point in time that allows organizations like Apparent Financing to play matchmaker between lenders and businesses?

Small-business finance savoir faire 

Shah: The historical problem that limited small businesses from accessing financial services with ease was lack of trust and transparency. It’s also popularly known as the information asymmetry problem.

At this point in time there are three emerging trends and forces that are transforming the small business finance industry.

The first one is the digitalization of small businesses, such as from digital bookkeeping systems that are becoming more affordable and accessible -- even to the smallest of businesses globally.

The second force is the financial industry innovation. The financial crisis of 2008 actually unlocked new opportunities and created a developed industry called FinTech. This industry’s strong focus on delivering the frictionless customer experience is the key enabler.

And the third force is technological innovation. This includes cloud computing, mobility, and application programming interfaces (APIs). They combine to make it economically feasible to gain access to financial information about small businesses that is stored in today’s digital bookkeeping systems and e-commerce platforms. It's the confluence of these three forces that solve that information asymmetry problem, leading to both reduction of risk and cost to serve small businesses.

Gardner: Alan Cohen, why is this new business climate for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) a perfect fit for something like the SAP Ariba Network? Tell us how your business model and business network are helping Apparent Financing with its task.

Cohen: Think about it in two ways. First, think differently about combining the physical and the financial supply chains. Historically, the Ariba Network has been focused on connecting buyers with their suppliers. Now we are taking the next step in this evolution to better connect the physical with the financial supply chain to provide choice and value to suppliers about access to capital.

The second piece of it is in leveraging the data. There’s a ton of excitement in this world for artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and I am a big proponent of all of that. These are going to be awesome technologies that will help society and businesses as they evolve. It’s super important to keep in mind that the strength of the Ariba Network is not just its size -- $2.1 trillion in annual spend, 3.4 million buyers and suppliers -- it’s in the data. The intelligence drawn from this transactional data will enable lenders to make risk-adjusted lending decisions.

And that real data value goes beyond just traditional lending. It also helps lenders assess risk differently. This will help transform how lending is done to small and medium-sized businesses as time evolves.

Gardner: Some of these trends have been in the works for 20 or 30 years but are now coming together in a way that can help real people benefit in real situations. Winslow, please tell us about Garnier Group Technology Solutions and how you have been able to benefit from this new confluence of financing, data, and business platforms.

Rapid recovery resources

Garnier: Garnier Group Technology Solutions provides intrusion detection, installation services, security cameras, and Wi-Fi installation primarily for corporations and municipalities. We are a supplier and an installer with consistent requirements for working capital to keep our business functioning correctly.

A major challenge showed up for us in late 2017 when the Southern California fires took place. We had already ordered product for several installation sites. Because of the fires, those sites actually burned down. The time needed to recover from already having spent the capital, plus the fact that the business was no longer coming our way, created a real need for us.

We previously looked at working capital lines and other resources. The challenge, though, is that it is fairly complex. Our company is really good at what we do, but we are not good at finding financing and taking the time to interview multiple banks, multiple lenders. The process to just find the right type of lender to work with us -- that in itself could take four to six months.

In this case, we did not have the time or the manpower to do the due diligence necessary to make that all happen for us. Also, on a day-to-day basis, in dealing with large corporations, we can hope to get paid in 30 days, but in reality that doesn't happen. But we still need to pay our suppliers to maintain our credit terms and get delivery when required by making sure they get paid on the terms that we have agreed to.

We were fortunate to then be introduced to Vishal [Shah at Apparent Financing]. From that point on, he turned into a one-stop shop for us. He took what we had and worked with it, under the SAP guidance. That helped us to have confidence that we were working with a credible source, and that they would deliver on what we agreed to.

Gardner: We see that SMBs can be easily disrupted, they are vulnerable, and they have lag times between when they can get paid and when they have to pay their own suppliers. And they make up a huge part of the overall economy.

Vishal, this seems like a big market opportunity and addressable market. Yet traditional finance organizations mostly ignore this segment. Why is that? Why has bringing finance options to companies like Garnier Group been problematic in the past?

Bank shies, Network tries

Shah: Going back to early 2008 when the global financial crisis started, there was a lot of supply in the market and small businesses did not have to struggle as much to get access to capital.

Since then, banks have been faced with increasing regulatory burdens, as well as the fact that the cost to serve SMBs became much larger. Therefore the mainstream banks have shied away from lending to and serving this market. That has been one of the big factors.

The second is that banks have not truly embraced the power of technology. They haven’t focused on delivering customer-centric propositions. Most of the banks today are very product-centric organizations, and very siloed in their approach to serving customers.

The fundamental problems were, one, the structure of the banks and the way they were incentivized to serve this market. And secondly, the turn of events that happened post the financial crisis, which effectively resulted in the traditional lenders just backing out from this market, significantly reducing the supply side of the equation.
Banks have not truly embraced the power of technology. They haven't focused on delivering customer-centric propositions. Most banks today are very product-centric and siloed.

Gardner: Alan, it’s a great opportunity to show how this model can work by coming to the rescue of SMB organizations impacted by natural disasters. But it seems to me that this is a bellwether for a future wave of business services because of the transparency, data-driven intelligence, security, and mission-critical nature of SAP and SAP Ariba’s networks.

Do you see this as I do, as an opening inning in a longer game? Should we be thinking newly about how business networks and data-driven intelligence fosters entirely new markets and new business models?

SMB access to financing evolves

Cohen: Absolutely. I see this as the early stages of an evolution. There are a few reasons. One is ease. Winslow talked about it. It can be very hard for small businesses to access different banks or lenders to get financing. They need an easier way to do it. We have seen transformation in consumer banking, but that transformation has not followed through into business banking. So I think one opportunity is in bringing ease to the process transformation.

Another piece is trust. What I mean by that is the data from SAP and SAP Ariba is high-quality data that lenders can trust. And being able to trust that information is a big part of this process.

Finally, like with any network, being able to connect businesses with lenders has to evolve -- just as Ariba has connected buyers with suppliers to transact. This is a natural evolution of the SAP Ariba Network.

I am very excited. And while we are still early in a longer journey, this process will fundamentally change how business banking is done.

Gardner: Winslow, you had an hour of need. Certainly by circumstances that were beyond your control. You heard from Vishal. What happened next? How were they able to match you up with financing, and what was the outcome?

Garnier: The really unique thing here is that we were able to submit a single application to allow us to have offers by more than one lender. We decided on and agreed that it made sense select Fundation as the lender of choice.  All the lenders were competitive, but Fundation had a couple of features that were specific to our business and worked better for us.

I have to tell you, at first I was skeptical that we would get this done soon enough. At the same time, we had confidence -- having worked through the SAP Ariba Network previously. Once we submitted the application, we stopped looking for other resources because we felt that this would work for us. Fortunately, it did end up that way.

Within 30 days we were talking with lenders. We received a term sheet to understand what would be available for us. That gave us time internally to make decisions on what would work best. We closed on the transaction and it's been a good working relationship between us and Fundation ever since.

Gardner: Is this going to be more than a one-shot deal, a new business operating model for you all? Are you going to be able to take a revolving line of credit and thereby have a more secure approach to business? This may even allow you to increase the risk you are willing to take to find new clients. So is this a one-shot, band aid -- or is this something that’s changed your business model?

Not just reparations, relationships 

Garnier: Oh, absolutely. Having a revolving line of credit has become a staple for us because it’s a way to maximize our cash flow within our business. We can add additional clients now and take on new jobs that we may have still taken on, but we would have had to push them out later in time.

We are able to deliver our services faster at this point in time. And so it is the absolute right solution for what we needed and what we will continue to use over time.
Having a revolving line of credit has become a staple for us because it's a way to maximize our cash flow within our business. We can add additional clients and take on new jobs.

Gardner: Vishal, it's clear that organizations like Garnier Group are benefiting from this new model. It's clear that SAP and SAP Ariba have the platform, the data, and the integrity and trust to deliver on it.

But another big component here is to make sure that the financing organizations are comfortable, eager, and are gaining the right information to make their lending decisions. Tell us about that side of the equation. How do organizations like Fundation and others view this, and how do you keep them eager to find new credit opportunities?

Shah: If you think of Fundation, they are not a typical bank. They are willing to look at any e-commerce platform and any technology service providers as new distribution channels through which they can access new markets and a new customer base.

Beyond that, they are using these channels as a way to market their own products and solutions. They have much bigger reasons to look at these ecosystems that we have developed over the years.

In my view, traditional banks and lending institutions look at businesses like Garnier Group using what I call the rearview mirror. What I mean by that is lenders mostly base their lending decisions or credit decisions by obtaining information from credit bureaus, which they believe is an indicator of past performance. And that good indicator of their past performance is also taken as an indicator of good future performance, which, yes, does work in some cases -- but not in all.

By working with us, lenders like Fundation can not only look at traditional data sources like credit bureaus, they are able to also assess the financial health and the risk of lending to a business through alternative data sources like the one Alan mentioned, which is the SAP Ariba supply chain data. This provides them an increased degree of confidence before they make prudent lending decisions.

The data in itself doesn't create the value. When processed in an appropriate manner -- and when we learn from the insights the data provides – then our lending partner gains a precise view of both the historical business performance and a realistic view of the future position and future cash flow positions of a small business. That is an incredibly powerful proposition for our lending partners to comfortably and confidently lend to businesses such as Garnier Group.

Gardner: This appears to be a win, win, win. So far, everybody seems to be benefiting. Yet this could not have happened until the innovation of the model was recognized, and then executed on.

So how did this come about, Alan? How did such payments and financing innovation get started? SAP.iO Venture Studio got involved with Apparent Financing. How did SAP, SAP Ariba, and Apparent Financing come together to allow this sort of innovation to take place -- and not just remain in theory?

Data serves to simplify commerce 

Cohen: Like anything, it begins with the marketplace and looking at a problem. At the end of the day, financing is very inefficient and expensive for both suppliers and lenders.

From a supplier perspective, we saw this as an overly complex process. And it’s not always the most competitive because people don’t have the time. From a lender perspective, originating loans and mitigating risk are very important. Yet this process hasn’t gone through a transformation.

We looked at it all and said, “Gosh, how can we better leverage the Ariba Network and the data involved in it to help solve this problem?”

SAP.iO is a venture part of SAP that incubates new businesses. About a year-and-a-half ago, we began bringing this to market to challenge how things had been done and to open up new opportunities. It’s a very innovative approach to challenge the status quo, to get businesses and lenders to think and look at this differently and seize opportunities.

And if you think about what the SAP Ariba Network is, we run commerce. And we want the lenders to fund commerce. We are simply helping to bring these two together, leveraging some incredible data insights along with the security and trust of the SAP and SAP Ariba brands.

Gardner: Of course, it’s important to have the underlying infrastructure in place to provide such data availability, trust, integrity, and support of the mission-critical nature. But in more and more cases nowadays, the user experience and simplicity elements are terribly important.

Winslow, when it came to how you interacted with the process, did you find it simple? Did you find it direct? How important was that for you as an SMB to be able to take advantage of this?

Garnier: We found it very straightforward. It didn’t require us going outside of the data we have internally. We didn’t have to bring in our outside accounting firm or a legal firm to begin the process. We were able to interface by e-mail and simple phone calls. It was so simple. I’m still surprised that, based on our previous experiences, we were able to get this to happen as quickly as it did.

Gardner: Vishal, how do you account for the ability to make this simple and direct for both sides of the equation? Is there something about the investments SAP has made over the years in technology and the importance of the user experience?

How do you attribute getting from what could be a very complex process to something that’s boiled down to its essential simplicity?

Transparent transactions build trust 

Shah: A lot of people misunderstand the user experience and co-relate that to developing a very nice front end, creating an online experience, and making it seamless and easy to use. I think that is only a part of the truth, and part of the story.

What goes on behind that nice-looking user interface is really eliminating what I call the friction points in a customer’s journey. And a lot of those friction points are actually introduced because of manual processes behind those nice-looking screens.
What goes on behind that nice-looking user interface is really eliminating what I call the friction points in a customer's journey. A lot of those friction points are actually introduced because of manual processes behind the nice-looking screens.

Secondly, there are a lot of exceptions -- business exceptions -- when you’re trying to facilitate a complex transaction like a financial credit transaction.

You must overcome these challenges. You must ensure that customers and borrowers have a seamless customer experience. We provide a transparent process, accessible to them so they know every single point in time: Where they are with their credit process, are they approved, are they disapproved, are they waiting on certain decisions, or are they negotiating the deal with the partner?

That is one element, we bring in an increased level of transparency and openness to the process. Traditionally these services have been opaque. Historically, businesses submit applications to banks and literally wait for weeks to get a decision. They don’t know what’s going on inside the four walls of the bank for those many weeks.

The second thing we did is to help our partners understand the exceptions that they traditionally encounter in their credit decision process. As a result, they can reduce those manual exceptions or completely eliminate them with the help of technology.

Again, the insights we generated from the data that we already had about the businesses helped us overcome those challenges and overcome the friction points in the entire interaction on both sides.

Gardner: Alan Cohen, where do you go next with this particular program around financing? Is this a bellwether for other types of business services that depend on the platform, the data integrity, and the simplicity of the process?

Win-win lending scenarios 

Cohen: Simplicity is, I think, first and foremost. Vishal and Winslow talked about it. Just as you can get a consumer loan online, it should be just as simple for a business to get access to capital online. Make that a pleasurable process, not a complex process that takes a long time. Simplicity cannot be underrated to help drive this change.

When it comes to the data, we’ve only scratched the surface of what can be done. We talked about risk-adjusted lending decisions based on transactional information. What we’ll see more of is price elasticity, around both risk and demand, come into play as banks help to better manage their portfolio -- not with theoretical information but through practical information. They’ll have better insights to manage their portfolios.

Let’s not lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish: Broaden the capital availability to the community of businesses. There are so many different types of lending scenarios that could happen. You’ll see more of those scenarios become available to businesses over time in a much more efficient, cost-effective, and economic manner.

It’s not just a shifting of cost. It will be an elimination of cost -- where both parties win in this process.

Gardner: Winslow, for other SMBs that face credit issues or didn’t pursue revolving credit because of the complexity, what advice can you offer? What recommendations might you have for organizations to rethink their financing now that there are processes like what Apparent Financing provides?

Garnier: If I take a step back, we made the classic mistake that we should have put in place a bank line of credit prior to this event happening for us. The challenge was the time needed for the vetting process. We would rather pursue new clients than spend our time having to work with the different lenders.

Financing really is something that I think most small businesses should pursue, but I highly recommend they pursue it under something like what Apparent Financing has arranged. That’s because of the simplicity, the one-stop portal to find what you are looking for, the efficiency of the process, and the quality of the lenders.

All the folks that we ended up speaking to were very capable, and they wanted to do business with us, which was really outstanding. It was very different from the pushback and the, “We’ll let you know within the next 30 to 60 days or so.” That is very challenging.

We have not only added new clients since we put in the revolving credit, but our DUNS score has improved, and our credit-rating has continued to improve. It’s low risk for an SMB to look at a platform like Apparent Financing to see if this could be useful to them. I highly recommend it. It’s been nothing but a positive experience for us.

Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect digital business innovation podcast on how new financing applications are assisting small businesses impacted by natural disasters.

We have heard how leveraging the data and trust inherent in an established business network like SAP Ariba has allowed Apparent Financing by SAP to create a digital handshake between lenders and businesses in ways that just weren’t available before.

So please join me now in thanking our guests, Vishal Shah, Co-founder and General Manager of Apparent Financing by SAP. Thank you, Vishal.

Shah: Thank you, Dana. My pleasure.

Gardner: We have been joined by Alan Cohen, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Payments and Financing at SAP Ariba. Thank you so much, Alan.

Cohen: My pleasure.

Gardner: And thanks as well to Winslow Garnier, President of Garnier Group Technology Solutions LLC in San Diego.

Garnier: Dana, thank you.

Gardner: And a big thanks to our audience for joining this SAP Ariba-sponsored thought leadership discussion. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator. Thanks again for listening, and do come back next time.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: SAP Ariba.

Transcript of a discussion on how data-driven supplier ecosystems enable new kinds of matchmaker finance relationships that work rapidly and at low risk for small- to medium-sized businesses in need. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2018. All rights reserved.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2018

How a Widely Distributed Dental Firm Protects Sensitive Data While Making It Highly Available

Transcript of a discussion on how a rapidly growing dental services company combined hyperconverged infrastructure with advanced security products to efficiently gain data availability, privacy, and security.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender

Dana Gardner: Welcome to the next edition of the BriefingsDirect  podcast series. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator.

Modern dentistry depends on more than good care. It also demands rapid access to data and applications. For a rapidly growing dental services company -- consisting of hundreds of dental offices spread across 10 American states -- the task of managing all of its data availability, privacy, and security needs started out as complex and costly.

The next BriefingsDirect security innovations discussion examines how Great Expressions Dental Centers found a solution by combining hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) with advanced security products.

Here to share the story of how to best balance data compliance and availability requirements via modern IT infrastructure is Kevin Schokora, Director of IT Operations at Great Expressions Dental Centers in Southfield, Michigan.

Welcome to BriefingsDirect, Kevin.

Kevin Schokora: Thank you, Dana.

Gardner: What makes Great Expressions Dental Centers unique? How does that impact your ability to deliver data wherever your dentists, staff, and patients need it with the required security?

Schokora: Our model is based on being dispersed in multiple states. Across those sites, we have many software packages that we have to support on our infrastructure. Based on those requirements, we were afforded an excellent opportunity to come up with new solutions on how to meet our patients’, doctors’, and customers’ needs.

Gardner: You have been in business since 1982, but you have really expanded a lot in the past few years. Tell me about what’s happened to your company recently.

Schokora: We found our model was ripe for success. So we have experienced tremendous growth, expanding to 275-plus sites. And going forward, we expect to expand by 62 to 100 new sites every year. That is our goal. We can do that because of the unique offerings we have, specifically around patient care and our unique software.

Gardner: Not only do you have many sites, but you allow your patients to pick and choose different sites -- if they need to cross a state border or move around for any reason, but that wide access requires you to support data mobility.

Snowbird-driven software

Schokora: It does. This all came about because, while we were founded in Michigan, some of our customers go to Florida for the winter. Having had a dental office presence in Florida, they were coming to our offices there and asking for the same dental care that they had received in Michigan.

So, we expanded our software’s capabilities so that when a patient has an appointment in another state, the doctor there will have access to that patient’s records. They can treat them knowing everything in the patient's history.

Gardner: Who knew that snowbirds were going to put you to the test in IT? But you have come up with a solution.

Schokora: We did. And I think we did well. Our patients are extremely happy with us because they have that flexibility.

Gardner: In developing your solution, you leveraged HCI that is integrated with security software. The combination provides not only high availability and high efficiency, but also increased management automation. And, of course, you’re able to therefore adhere to the many privacy and other compliance rules that we have nowadays.

Tell us about your decision on infrastructure, because, it seems to me, that’s really had an impact on the end-solution.

We were able to go from five server racks in a co-location facility down to one -- all while providing a more consistent services delivery model. We have been able to grow and focus on the business side.
Schokora: It did, and the goal was always to set ourselves up for success so that we can have a model that would allow growth easily, without having huge upticks in cost.

When we first got here, growing so fast, we had a “duct tape solution” of putting infrastructure in place and doing spot buys every year to just meet the demands and accommodate the projected growth. We changed that approach by putting a resource plan together. We did a huge test and found that hyperconverged would work extremely well for our environment.

Given that, we were able to go from five server racks in a co-location facility down to one – all while providing a more consistent services delivery model. Our offices have been able to grow so that the company can pursue its plans without having to check back and ask, “Can the IT infrastructure support it?”

This is now a continuous model. It is part of our growth acquisition strategy. It's just one more check-box where we don't have to worry about the IT side. We can focus on the business side, and how that directly relates to the patients.

Gardner: Tell us about the variety of data and applications you are supporting for all 275 sites.

Aligning business and patient records

Schokora: We have the primary dentistry applications, and that includes x-rays, patient records, treatment plans, and all of the various clinical applications that we need. But then we also have cumbersome processes – in many cases still manual – for coordinating that all of our patients’ insurance carriers are billed properly. We have to ensure that they get their full benefits.

Anywhere we can, we are targeting for more provider-payer process automation, to ensure that any time we bill for services or care, it is automatically processed.  That level of automatic payments eliminates the touch points that we would have to do manually or through a patient.

And such automation allows us, as we scale and grow, to not have to add as many full-time employees. Our processes can scale in many cases by leveraging the technology.

Gardner: Another big part of the service puzzle is addressing privacy and compliance issues around patient information. You have to adhere to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) nowadays. What were your concerns were when it came to balancing the availability of data with these compliance requirements?

Schokora: We had to ensure from an infrastructure perspective that we afford all of our customers -- including the software applications development team -- a platform that they can have confidence in, and we had to earn their trust. To that end, the HCI approach allowed us the capability to use encryption at rest, which is a huge component for compliance for HIPAA, PCI, and things of that nature.

The other benefit was to move our entire environment -- what I call a forklift of our entire data center. That allowed us to then review what I would call the sins of our past to ensure that any of that cobbled-together infrastructure is built with the security needed to meet all of the requirements of the customer. We can now plan on a top-down basis.

We just completed this project and we have made a lot of changes to that model to support a better and more secure infrastructure.

Gardner: Before you had a Swiss army knife approach to security. What was the problem with that approach? And what kind of performance tax came with that?

HCI scalability adds value

Schokora: To meet the needs of the business at the time, the Swiss army knife approach took us far. But as we ramped up our acquisition strategy and expanded Great Expressions, we found that this was not scalable to achieve our new business needs.

We needed to look at a couple of key pieces. One was automation, and two was how we revolutionized how we do things. Once we looked at HCI and saw the differences in how we used to do things – it was an easy decision.

We put our new plan through a proof of concept (POC) test. I had some people who were heavily invested in our former technology, but they begged for this new technology. They wanted to use it. They saw how it translated into a value-add for the customers.

Gardner: What was the story behind the partners and technology you chose?

The one thing that really stood out for us with Nutanix was their customer approach, their engagement, and how they ensured that they are a partner with us. They were there hand-in-hand with us.
Schokora: We looked at three different vendors. We were an existing VMware customer, so we looked at their solution. We looked at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) SimpliVity, and we looked at Nutanix. They were all very similar in their approach, they all had their strengths.

The one thing that really stood out for us with Nutanix was their customer approach, their engagement, and how they ensured that they are a partner with us. They showcased this through the POC process, throughout testing the equipment and environment. They were there, hand-in-hand with us, responding to our questions -- almost ad nauseam. They ensured that customer experience for us, just to make sure that we were comfortable with it.

They also had their own hypervisor, what all their virtual machines rest on; same as VMware has their own. There were some benefits in moving with that, and it also aligned into our backup strategy, with the product we use called Rubrik.

So given all of this, as a complete package, we felt that this was an opportunity that could not be passed up on. When we wrote the business case -- and this was the easy part at that point, showcasing the benefits over five years -- this solution easily won out from a cost perspective and aligned with the business requirements of growth. That alignment supported our whole business, not just IT. That was also critical.

Gardner: How quickly were you able to do the migration? How did it go across 275 sites and 4,000-plus workstations, laptops, and other client devices?

Well-managed migration

Schokora: This required a lot of testing. This was about us going through with planning, with the test migrations, working with our users to have maintenance windows, so that once we did move we could execute a fully developed test plan to ensure that our customers also signed off on, “Okay, yes, this works for me, this meets my requirements.” I thought that was key as well.

Going through it, we did experience some hiccups, things that impacted project events, and so we had to adjust our timelines. We still finished it before we thought we would. We were on a pace to beat our timelines by half.

Gardner: Wow.

Schokora: Yeah. It was great. We were moving at this rapid pace and then we discovered that there were some issues or some errors happening in some of our virtual servers and some of the ones that were rather big, and this kind of showcases that support from Nutanix.

So we had Nutanix on the phone. They were with us every step of the way. They took our logs and they evaluated them, and they quickly issued out patches to address some of the things that they noticed that could be better within their migration tool. So we had a positive effect on Nutanix as well, recognizing some of their opportunities and them quickly addressing them.

Once we implemented this new tool that was provided to us, we were able to move some of our extremely large systems over without impacting the customer outside of our maintenance windows. And we are talking, not necessary petabytes, but very close to it, with database servers and customer entry points into our dental software.

Gardner: And this is for 2,400 employees, but you only have an IT staff of 30 or so people?

Schokora: Correct. And you will hear the A word a lot: Automation. While we had some late nights, given the tools and some of the automation techniques that the vendors use, specifically Nutanix, we were able to get this done with limited staff and with the result of our board of directors personally thanking us, which was great.

Gardner: Not only did you consolidate and modernize your infrastructure, but you in a sense consolidated and modernized your approach to security, too. How did the tag team between Nutanix and your security vendor help?

A secure solution

Schokora: From a security perspective, we chose -- after a lengthy process of evaluation -- a Bitdefender solution. We wanted to attack our endpoints and make sure that they were protected, as well as our servers. In addition to having a standardized methodology of delivering patches to both endpoints and to servers, we wanted an organization that integrated with Nutanix. Bitdefender checked off all of those boxes for us.

So far the results have been fairly positive to overwhelmingly positive. One thing that was a positive -- and was a showstopper with our last vendor -- was that our file server was so big. We needed to resolve that. We couldn’t run our antivirus or anti-malware security software on our file server because it made it too slow. It would bog down, and even as we worked with the vendor at the time we could not get it passed to “green.”

With Bitdefender, during our POC, we put it on the [file server] just to test it and our users had no impact. There were no impacting events, and we were now protected against our biggest threats on our file server. That was one of the clear highlights of moving to a Bitdefender solution.

Gardner: And how important was Bitdefender’s integration and certification with Nutanix?

The integration between Nutanix and Bitdefender put them ahead. Leveraging encryption at rest was a huge win for us from a compliance standpoint.
Schokora: It was one of the strengths listed on the business case. That integration between Nutanix and Bitdefender was not a key decision point, but it was one of those decision points that if it was close between two vendors it would have put Bitdefender ahead. It just so happened, based on the key decision points, that Bitdefender was already ahead. This was just another nice thing to have.

Gardner: By deploying Bitdefender, you also gained full-disk encryption. And you extended it to your Windows 10 endpoints. How easy or difficult was it?

Schokora: Leveraging encryption at rest was a huge win for us from a compliance standpoint. The other thing about the workstations and endpoints was that our current solution was unable to successfully encrypt Windows 10 devices, specifically the mobile ones, which we wanted to target as soon as possible.

The Bitdefender solution worked right out of the box. And I was able to have my desktop support team run that project, instead of my network operations team, which was hugely critical for me in leveraging labor and resources. One team is more designed for that kind of “keep the lights on” activity, and not necessarily project-based. So I was able to leverage the project-based resources in a more efficient and valuable way.

Gardner: It sounds like you have accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. Let’s look at some of the paybacks, the things that allowed you to get the congratulations from your board of directors. What were the top metrics of success?

Timing is everything

Schokora: The metrics were definitely based on timing. We wanted to be wrapped up by the end of June [2018] in support of our new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Our new ERP system was going through testing and development, and it was concluding at the end of June. We were going for a full roll-out for our Michigan region at that time. The timing was critical.

We also wanted to make sure there were no customer-impacting events. We wanted to ensure that all of our offices were going to be able to provide patient care without impact from the project that was only going to be deployed during scheduled maintenance hours.

We were able to achieve the June timeframe. Everything was up and running on our new Nutanix solution by the third week of June. So we even came in a week early, and I thought that was great.

We had no large customer-impacting events. The one thing we will own up to is that during our IT deployment and maintenance window, the applications development team had some nightly processes that were impacted -- but they recovered. All cards on the table, we did impact them from a nightly standpoint. Luckily, we did not impact the offices or our patients when they wanted to receive care.

Gardner: Now that you have accomplished this major migration, are there any ongoing operational paybacks that you can point to? How does this shakeout so far on operational efficiency measurements?

Schokora: We now have had several months of measurements, and the greatest success story that we’ve had on this new solution has been a 66 percent cut in the time it takes to identify and resolve incidents when they happen.

If we have slow server performance, or an impacting event for one of our applications, this new infrastructure affords us the information we need to quickly troubleshoot and get to the root cause so we can resolve it and ensure our customers are no longer impacted.

That has occurred at least five times that I can recall, where the information provided by this hyperconverged solution and Bitdefender have given us the ability to get our customers back on track sooner than we could on our old systems.

Gardner: And this is doing it all with fewer physical racks and fewer virtual servers?

Schokora: Yes. We went from five racks to one, saving $4,000 a month. And for us that’s real money. We also do not have to expand personnel on my network operations team, which is also part of infrastructure support piece.

Now, as we’re preparing for even more expansion in 2019, I’m not going to have to ask for any additional IT personnel resources. We are now attacking things on our to-do lists that had always been pushed back. Before the “keep the lights on” activities always took priority. Now, we have time back in our days to proactively go after those things that our customers request from us.

Gardner: Because you have moved from that Swiss army knife approach, are there benefits from having a single pane of glass for management?

Know who and what’s needed

Schokora: Based on having that single pane of glass, we are able to do better resource evaluations and forecasting. We are better able to forecast availability.

So when the business comes back with projects -- such as improved document management, which is what’s currently being discussed, and such as a new learning management system from our training department -- we are able to forecast what they will demand from our systems and give them a better cost model.

From an automation standpoint, we are now able to get new virtualized servers up within seconds, whereas it used to take days. We have a window into more metrics, and are in a better place as we migrate off of legacy systems.
From an automation standpoint, we are now looking at how to get new virtualized servers up within seconds, whereas it used to take days. From a support of legacy systems standpoint, now that we have a window into more metrics, we are in a better place as we migrate off. We are not having lingering issues when we are moving to our new ERP system.

All of these things have been the benefits that we have reaped, and that’s just been in two months.

Gardner: Looking to the future, with a welcome change in emphasis away from IT firefighting to being more proactive, what do you see coming next?

Schokora: This is going to directly translate into our improved disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC) strategies. With our older ERP system and that Swiss army knife approach, we had DR, but it was very cumbersome. If we ever had a high-impact event, it would have been a mad scramble.

This new solution allows us to be able to promise our customers a set schedule, that everything will be up in a certain number of days or hours, and that all critical systems will be online to meet their requirements. We never really had that before. It was hopes and prayers without concrete data behind how long we would need to get back up.

From a business continuity standpoint, the hyperconverged solution affords us the flexibility to leverage a hybrid cloud, or a secondary data center, in a way that my technicians feel, based on their testing, will be easier than our older approach.

Now, we haven’t done this yet. This is more for the future, but it is something that they are excited about, and they feel is going to directly translate into a better customer experience.

Being able to have Bitdefender provide us that single pane of glass for patching and to get critical patches out quickly also affords us the confidence in our compliance. For the latest assessment we had, we passed with flying colors.

There are some gaps we have to address, but there are significantly fewer gaps than last year. And other than some policies and procedures, the only thing we changed was Bitdefender. So that is where that value-add was.

Gardner: Any words of advice now that you have been through a really significant transition -- a wholesale migration of your infrastructure, security, encryption, new ERP system, and moving to a better DR posture. What words of advice do you have for other folks who are thinking of biting off so much at once?

Smooth transition tips

Schokora: Pick your partners carefully. Engage in a test, in a POC, or a test plan. Ensure that your technicians are allowed to see, hear, touch and feel every bit of the technology in advance.

Do yourself a favor and evaluate at least three different solutions or vendors, just so that you can see what else is out there.

Also, have a good relationship with your business and the business representation. Understand the requirements, how they want to accomplish things, and how you can enable them – because, at the end of the day, we can come up with the best technical solutions and the most secure. But if we don’t have that business buy-in, IT will only fail.

Gardner: I’m afraid we will have to leave it there. You’ve been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how Great Expression Dental Centers combined hyperconverged data centers with advanced security products to solve their security and data-availability needs.

And we’ve learned how balancing compliance and availability requirements with new modern IT infrastructure can provide for greater automation, IT staff productivity, and allow for broad improvements in a very short amount of time.

Please join me in thanking our guest, Kevin Schokora, Director of IT Operations at Great Expressions Dental Centers in Southfield, Michigan. Thank you so much, Kevin.

Schokora: Thank you.

Gardner: I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing series of BriefingsDirect discussions.

Do follow me please on Twitter @Dana_Gardner and find more security focused podcasts at A big thank you also to our sponsor, Bitdefender, for supporting these presentations. A big thank you as well to our audience for joining. Please pass this on to your IT community, and do come back next time.
Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes. Download the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender

Transcript of a discussion on how a rapidly growing dental services company combined hyperconverged infrastructure with advanced security products to efficiently gain data availability, privacy, and security. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2018. All rights reserved.

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