Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Why do they not listen?

I don't usually talk much about our customers, but sometimes things happen which truly beggar belief.

For many years we have been contracted by a consortium of schools who were geographically close and originally wanted to be able to share a single connection for financial reasons.  This is quite a common arrangement.  Due to the shifting landscape of internet provision, costs and politics, the arrangement came to an end some time ago, which is fine - projects don't last forever, customers come and go and the project ended amicably, with all of the schools involved being pretty happy with us.  In fact, they all ended up taking out independent contracts with us for one thing or another after the project ended anyway.

Just one of the schools has been somewhat... "odd" at times though (I will refer to them simply as "School" to retain their anonymity), and despite our best efforts it has gradually caused problems for them.  Their ICT support is outsourced, which can be both good or bad - some of the companies that provide outsourced ICT services are pretty good, but some of them seem to have a "rip everything out" attitude and insist on unnecessarily replacing a school's equipment on day one instead of spending some time looking to see what is working well and what isn't and only replacing the stuff that isn't working.  This generally seems to be because they want to use systems that they are already used to rather than learning something new.  There's some merit in trying to standardise on systems you know, but obviously leads to a lot of disruption and expense for the school, so in my view is not a great way of doing things.

Anyway, the story probably starts in 2013.

Summer 2013

We had been providing the connectivity between the schools for some years by this point.  Because of limitations of the technology which was available at the time when it was installed, the schools had unreliable, but redundant, interconnects.  These weren't installed by us, but we were contracted to provide and maintain systems to use those unreliable interconnects to provide reliable connectivity.  We were also contracted to provide online safety systems (web filtering, etc.) to the whole consortium.

School: We've just changed our ICT provider and the new provider has decided to replace the existing online safety system with a third party system.
Us: That's fine, but the connections you use for internet access aren't reliable enough to use independently and the equipment you're proposing to remove is used to provide reliable internet access over those unreliable connections. The third party equipment that you want to install is incompatible with the protocols used by the existing equipment, which means you will also need to replace the equipment at the far end of the connections.

Obviously we prefer not to lose a customer, but if they want to switch to another provider then that's fine and we try to guide them and minimise the disruption as best we can.

The ICT provider ordered the third party system, plugged it in, discovered that it didn't work with the interconnects (as we had told them) and ended up backtracking on the whole thing.  So they left our online safety system in place and in fact I think their ICT provider probably decided it was ok in the end - at least they made no further moves to replace it.

Summer 2015

School changed ICT provider again.  This didn't really have any impact on us.

Summer 2016

By now, all of the schools in the consortium, except for School had installed their own internet connections and the interconnects were just being used for a small amount of local traffic and as redundancy in case of failure of one of the internet connections.  The consortium decided that the project had run its course and announced that it would be dismantled by summer 2017.

There was also some discussion about retiring the infrastructure early:

Consortium: We should simplify things by removing all of the equipment that is managing the connections immediately.
Us: We can't do that because that equipment is still need to provide the connection to School.
Consortium: No problem, we'll leave it as-is until summer 2017.

Spring 2017

School: We intend to continue using the existing interconnects after the summer.
Us: It isn't economic to do so since you're now footing the whole bill instead of it being shared by the whole consortium.  The existing equipment is also very old so liable to fail soon.  Replace everything with a new connection, it'll cost less than continuing with the existing equipment.  We can do this for you or you can get a third party in, we don't mind either way.

Summer 2017:

Us: As agreed last year, the existing interconnects will now be shut down.  School will need to migrate over to their new connection.

School: No alternative connection has been procured, there's no time left to get one now, we need to keep using the existing connections.
Us: We already said this was uneconomic, but as a good will gesture we'll take some of the hit ourselves and knock 50% off the cost.  But this is a one year only deal - we will not support this next year because the equipment is well past its end of life.  Also, as the equipment is very old, we recommend you follow our original recommendation and replace the interconnect ASAP since it might fail at any point.  If any of the hardware fails, we won't fix it.

Spring 2018:

Us: Just a reminder, you need to replace the interconnects ASAP.

Summer 2018:

School: We've just changed our ICT provider (again) and the new provider has decided to replace the existing online safety system with a third party system.
Us: That's fine.  As you already know, the connection you are using for your internet access is going out of service this summer, we presume you've procured a replacement?
School: No we haven't, we intend to continue using the existing interconnects.
Us: But those interconnects aren't reliable enough to use independently and the equipment you're proposing to remove is used to provide reliable internet access over those unreliable connections. The third party equipment that you want to install is incompatible with the protocols used by the existing equipment, which means you will also need to replace the equipment at the far end of the connections.
Us: In fact, this is exactly what we said in the summer of 2013, then again in the summer of 2016, then again in spring 2017, and in summer 2017, and in spring 2018.
Us: Also, we already told you a year ago that we weren't going to support any of this equipment which manages those interconnects any more as it is far too old.
School: We don't need that equipment, we're just going to use a single (15 year old, unreliable) connection in isolation.
Us: Errm, that will be really unreliable, here are some statistics from our monitoring data to show just how unreliable it will be.

Panic ensues at School.

School: Why didn't you tell us that we would need a new connection!  It's now far too late to procure one in time.  You must extend our contract for free.
Us: Umm, no.
Us: We've made every effort to recommend the most economic and reliable way forward and have been ignored at every step.
Us: Last year we dug you out of a hole you'd made for yourselves and even gave you a big cost reduction out of our good will.  You have repaid us by continuing to ignore our recommendations, blaming us for the mess you've got yourself in, paying your last invoice months late and cancelling your contract with us.
Us: You have now demanded that we dig you out of a hole again out of the goodness of our hearts at extremely short notice.
Us: Here are a selection of get-out-of-jail cards from our standard price list, which we are happy for you to buy from us at the standard price, go pick one.

And apparently this is all our fault...  At least now that the contract with them has ended we won't have to deal with any of the fallout from this mess.  Seems like a classic case of "I think we've heard enough from the experts" to me :)

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