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IT in Northern British Columbia carries its own challenges

Solution provider ITnorth.ca faced unique challenges bringing a world class IT infrastructure to a Northern BC municipality

Much like its client, the District of Tumbler Ridge, solution provider ITnorth.ca of Fort St. John is also challenged by the remoteness of its location in Northern British Columbia.

For the district, this has meant difficulty retaining skilled IT staff to build, maintain and manage an IT infrastructure to support the regional government that covers a vast geography and includes multiple facilities.

With over 23 years of experience in the IT industry, Peter Heider says since he started ITnorth.ca in 2003 the 19-employee organization has built a solid reputation in the community, which is why Tumbler Ridge turned to the solution provider for help getting its IT house in order and to address some issues with its existing infrastructure.

Like many businesses, Tumbler Ridge had developed a case of IT sprawl over the years, as it turned to a variety of technologies to help it meet business requirements in a point-solution fashion, rather than working within a comprehensive IT strategy and framework.

Over time, this led to an unwieldy IT infrastructure that was larger than the district’s IT staff was even physically able to support. Many technologies were out of date, security was a concern, and crashes were frequent. In short, the infrastructure was unreliable, and district staff was often without critical business data.

“When I got there I found an old Novel server, but they had no one that knew Novel anymore,” says Heider. “I’d done my Novell certification in 1992 so I helped them out there, and I offered to redesign their infrastructure because they were really lost with everything they had there.”

The ITnorth.ca team began with an IT assessment to determine the current state, and to plan an infrastructure for future growth that would be in-line with the region’s strategic goals and objectives. Heider says the location was one of the challenges.

“Tumbler Ridge is totally remote, so the only way to have solid Internet access is to be wireless,” says Heider. “We have radio connections between certain buildings because we can’t change the infrastructure.”

With 40 workstations, ITnorth.ca recommended Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) 2003, which Heider says balanced their budget considerations with the desire for closer control and security. The district is also using Sharepoint Server, and the waste management division is leveraging the remote access capability of SBS through a secondary terminal server.

“It has given them efficiencies they’ve never had before, and tremendous time savings,” said Heider. “Messaging collaboration, file management, everything has changed for them. They’re more efficient, they have security implemented, information is protected, and users are able to log-on remotely. It’s a totally new world for them.”

ITnorth.ca continues to provide IT helpdesk and support services to Tumbler Ridge through in-house developed help desk software, with four staff standing-by for remote support and ready to come on site of necessary.

Given ITnorth.ca’s location in Northern B.C., Heider said they have an advantage in that they’re the only Microsoft Gold Certified Partner in the area. And certifications are important to Heider – he insists on them for all his staff, and he takes them as well.

“We’re really extreme with this, every employee has to have certifications in order to really service the customer,” said Heider. “I make sure all my employees have their certifications and on top of that I write it as well, so no one is able to whine at me.”

Attracting skilled employees to Northern B.C. is a challenge though, said Heider, even though he’ll pay for the exams and study materials.

“People say we’re way too far north. When I try to find employees and they learn we’re on the Alaska Highway, it’s pretty much impossible,” said Heider.ITnorth.ca does a lot of business with Dell, so Heider says when Dell closed its Edmonton call centre last year, laying-off 900 employees, he was invited to come and interview the employees.

“None of them, even though they were going to be unemployed, wanted to come to Fort St. John,” said Heider.

Instead, Heider, who is from Germany originally, has had to bring in international employees to support ITnorth.ca’s growth.