The company operates more than 70 primarily regional newspapers in Australia, in addition to 12 radio stations and outdoor advertising work. But until recently, APN's IT systems were located at each of its 50 locations and supported by remote administrators at each site.
For reasons of cost efficiency that had to change, the company's service desk manager David Slyderink told ZDNet Australia in a telephone interview last week.
"If you've got 50 newspapers spread throughout various sites, including regional towns, if you go and put 50 servers on those sites, how are you going to manage it?" he asked. "It's a matter of trying to find IT resources to spread right across two states."
"Last year, we started to centralise quite a few services.
"We thought well, let's buy you-beaut Super Tower servers, and stick them in our data centre in our technical headquarters in Maroochydore here, and let's back it with some central resources and use technology such as Citrix to deploy thin clients across a wide area network," he added.
One of the key aspects of the centralisation was the need to provide a unified IT support structure for the company's 2000 users.
"We set up what we call our service desk," said Slyderink. "That contains level one service desk analysts, that respond to calls in the first instance from these sites."
These analysts attempt to resolve user problems via telephone, escalating to APN's specialist IT team or back out to remote IT administrators if necessary.
To record incidents coming through the service desk, the company is implementing the incident management modules of software vendor FrontRange's IT Service Management platform (ITSM). APN bought some 25 ITSM licences, covering the service desk and remote administrators.
"We're three quarters through implementing incident management throughout our group," said Slyderink.
The service desk manager said the main benefit of the software was having the ability to document all IT support incidents, allowing his team to pick up trends and problem areas.
"We can use this to spit out all the stats that can convince our accountants to spend the money in an area," he said.
In addition, being able to automatically escalate problems to staff members, and provide a more professional experience for end users was important.
Slyderink likened the changed end-user experience to using an automatic teller machine instead of a human teller.
"Talking to someone over the phone or sending an e-mail to a service desk can feel quite impersonal, compared to walking up to someone you've known for many years to help you with the problem," he said, noting though that the overall benefits outweighed the decreased human interaction.
Slyderink said the support centralisation had not found favour with APN's remote IT administrators.
"It's quite a culture shock to be told, especially for the external IT guys that they're not the first port of call anymore," he said. However end users have reacted positively to the system.
APN installed ITSM on a Dell PowerEdge 2850 server running Windows NT, connecting to a Microsoft SQL Server database. End users connect to the support interface through Citrix. "Bandwidth-wise, it's the only way," said Slyderink of the Citrix software.
"Maybe if you want to do some fancy database stuff and have Oracle experts you'd go that way, but we find Oracle probably a bit over the top for something like this," he said of the Microsoft database.
ITSM also connects to APN's Active Directory rollout, which contains the company's end-user profiles.
Although ITSM has met APN's needs, Slyderink would like to see some improvements in the next version of the software. "Even though it's up to version five, it feels like it's on version two," he said, noting the software's dashboards, performance and external software interfaces could be improved.
The Lotus position
Another aspect of APN's IT centralisation has been e-mail, with the company recently migrating "quite a few sites" from IBM's Lotus Notes or other platforms to Microsoft's Exchange 2003.
The migration to Exchange was based on cost and the availability of in-house skills in the area, according to Slyderink.
"We had Lotus Notes initially, and the decision was made at a management level to go to Microsoft for volume licensing reasons," he said. "And we also had in-house expertise on Exchange as opposed to Notes."
"Probably the product isn't quite as good as Notes as far as the feature set goes and workflow. But a lot of things fall down to economics," he added.
"We're about two-thirds of the way through the company changing to 2003, and that's on a centralised mail server," he said. "Some of the sites even had e-mail hosted by Telstra BigPond, or domains they'd set up themselves that were running on a Linux box."
"So now part of the centralisation is to just take it all away ... we let them have their domains -- for example mercury.com.au for Mackay -- but everything comes through here."
One of APN's next planned IT moves will be to implement the change management modules of ITSM. "That might include IT changes or it might just include a change coming in from a site that affects something. That'll be our next area of focus. That'll probably keep us busy for the rest of the year on ITSM," said Slyderink.
"Once the change management module is implemented, any change in the organisation that impacts on or involves IT in some way will have to go before a review board and be digitally signed off by the members before IT start the implementation," he said in a statement sent to ZDNet Australia.
But ultimately the issues that give APN's IT staff the biggest headaches are not related to infrastructure at all. "I think the biggest challenges are the human ones, not the technical ones," concluded the service desk manager.