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Despite efforts, IT presence in OP mostly MIA

(Jan. 29, 2015) When the Ocean Pines Association Budget and Finance Committee began examining the fiscal year 2016 budget this month, several committee members zeroed in on information technology as something needing an upgrade.
General Manager Bob Thompson briefed the group on the issue during a meeting at the country club on Jan. 12.
“Our infrastructure for our hardware as a whole is problematic for us,” he said. “We budgeted last year for it [and] we’re really trying to address that now. That’s going to be an interesting dynamic when we get to making that investment to improve our IT structure.”
Thompson said the community took an aggressive approach when building the new yacht club pool.
“When we built the new pool and we did the new club, we put the proper amount of infrastructure in to support the yacht club pool, as an example,” he said. “We recognize that as something we’d like to get to with all of our facilities.”
Thompson said he also considered upgrading the IT infrastructure at the community center. Although he hoped to improve the systems to help meet vendor needs during special events, Thompson said the initial options he explored did not have the capacity to handle assorted tasks.
“It wasn’t big enough so we had to look at more of a commercial application,” he said. “We are looking at those types of things, but we’re trying to do it [in phases]. We recognize it. We know it’s there. We could put a simple one in, but as soon as we put it in we would have to upgrade.”
The plan, according to Thompson, is to begin upgrading certain systems during the current fiscal year, with additional advancements carrying over into 2016.
The first budget drafted included $45,000 for software upgrades that would serve recreation and parks and aquatics. In all, including carryover from fiscal year 2015, the proposal includes $235,000 plus additional funds for a permanent IT staff member.
Thompson hopes to finish the major part of the project during the next two years.
Jeff Knepper, a former executive with Intel, briefed the OPA board on IT issues while serving as a director in 2014.
“The IT systems are not in very good shape here,” Knepper said. “A combination of very old equipment, new requirements over the years and, like a lot of other things around here, we really haven’t kept up. Now we’re getting to the point where you can’t put it off much longer.”
Knepper said the community has actively discussed specific IT improvements for more than a year and a half. In his view, inexperience on the issue has hampered the current board’s ability to address some of the major problems.
“None of them have the credentials to do it,” he said. “Some of them know what they would like to have out of a system. They probably know most of the business requirements, but I doubt they know how to do it, and that’s the case with many companies. Unfortunately, that’s not unique.
“This is fairly technical stuff and it does make a difference how you do it,” Knepper continued. “There’s a great deal of space between something that works and something that works well.”
Rather than simply provide easy access to broadband for members of the community, Knepper, like Thompson, stressed the importance of building proper infrastructure.
“Broadband in amenities is something you would take account of in your design for a new system, but it honest to God isn’t the driving factor,” Knepper said. “People who like internet wherever they go, that would be their first priority, but when they do that they kind of make the assumption that the infrastructure they’re connecting to is there, designed for Wi-Fi connection and high quality and reliable. Some of those other things are actually more important than the Wi-Fi.
“If I was doing it, I would put Wi-Fi on the list, but it sure as a devil wouldn’t be first,” Knepper continued. “It wouldn’t even be that close to the top.”
Instead, Knepper suggested, “getting a network infrastructure that is capable of reliably running the business side of the amenities 24 hours a day, seven days a week 365 days a year,” estimating a cost of between $250,000-$500,000, likely spread out over two-to-three years.
“For my mind, for the capability you’re talking about, is not a lot of money,” he said. “It’s not exorbitant from my view. I think you could do the whole thing from that range.
“First you have to create the infrastructure,” Knepper continued. “Think of it as the roads. You have to create the pathways information can travel, go to the right places with the right capacity and with the right speed. Once you have figured out what that needs to look like and you start to build it out, then you have to come face to face with the applications.”
Applications, said Knepper, are the programs that run “what you want.”
“If you want to have the cash register in the bar at the yacht club literally talk to an accounting server somewhere else, you have to have an application or a program that will do that,” he said. “When you put the check into the register, the software knows what to do with it.
“If you put that application in, then when the bartender rings in my orange crush or whatever it goes into local storage in the register, and when you close it out that date record goes somewhere,” Knepper said. “Assuming you built reasonable roads, now you have to build a set of cars and trucks to drive on those roads.”
As Ocean Pines inches towards bringing information systems up to date, Knepper preached patience, and urged members of the community to keep an open mind as the numbers go slightly over or under budget.
“It will be hard to know with the precision that we sometimes like to have around here exactly what it’s going to cost because in all projects I’ve ever seen like this there are things you don’t know,” he said. “If you guess at them, you’re going to be wrong, and if that causes political problems … the project is called into question, everybody is a moron and we’re going to sue each other until we die. You can’t do that stuff.”
Bringing an entire community up to date in an age of rapidly evolving technology, according to Knepper, is “infinitely trickier than a building.”
“We know a lot about buildings,” he said. “When the yacht club is done if we end up a couple of a hundred thousand one way or the other over or under a roughly $5 million project, that would be bingo. That’s about as good as it gets. We don’t believe that here and we don’t like that here, but that’s the truth.
“It’ll be interesting to see where it goes,” Knepper continued. “It could be a lot of fun.”