|Big Firm Technology Now Available for Small Firm Budgets
Pssst … here’s a little secret that could just make your day! The benefits of the big dollars large firms spend on hardware, software and people, are now available to smaller firms. And, small firms don’t have to invest in huge IT departments to get the job done; they just need to apply three simple principles of “information delivery” as stepping stones to taking advantage of what today’s technology has to offer: Store it, Access it and Preserve it.
As a provider of technology management and consulting services to companies ranging from 5 to 45,000 users, I’ve watched this industry for 20 years. At first, I felt compassion for smaller firms who had the need, but had no capital. However, I could also see disaster brewing at large firms who had the wherewithal to invest in technology and, at the same time, making potentially lethal commitments to previously-wed systems.
The cost of divorce can be high. I’ve patiently waited for the day when computers do what they’re supposed to: To level the playing field. That day is here!
My mission began about 10 years ago when I developed a concept of providing small businesses (30 employees or less) with enterprise information technology systems only the largest organizations could afford. The notion was to combine hardware, software and services into a per-seat monthly payment and deliver those services from multiple data centers. In this manner, the small guy could play on the same technology field as big budget organizations.
I left the technology-consulting world in 1998 to build a business around that notion. Our mission was to deliver “top notch” Application Services to firms that do not have the time, expertise or money to compete at the same level as do their larger counterparts.
As of this writing, my company is managing thousands of users and hundreds of terabytes of data storage, and all of these users belong to companies with 2 to 40 employees.
Over time, our services have been dubbed Application Service Providers (ASP), Managed Service, Cloud Computing, Utility Computing or Software as a Service Provider. I like to call it simply: Information Delivery – Store it, access it and preserve it!
This “information delivery” is what successful companies do well and what every firm is challenged to achieve. Harnessing information and delivering it effectively is the basis of empowerment for all firms of all sizes. It empowers them with the advantages needed to attract and retain clients, recruit the best employees, reduce costs and, best of all, increase profits. The faster and more efficiently we can process and deliver information on behalf of our customers, the more revenue their firms can achieve. Best of all, if that goal can be reached with fewer resources and expenses, then it leaves more profit for the organization’s stakeholders.
I personally categorize small businesses into two technology categories: 1) The Outsourcer, where all hardware, software and services are leased on a monthly basis, per user, per month, and 2) the Do-It-Yourselfer (DIY) where all resources are managed internally within the company walls. Neither way is right nor wrong. They are just different ways of getting to the same destination.
Whether you buy into the idea of outsourcing information delivery, or even if you still use the traditional DIY model, there are inexpensive ways to implement the delivery process. You don’t have to break the bank. Hundreds of technologies cost little and provide a great service. Here’s an overview of four newer technologies, that Microsoft and other businesses provide to help small firms achieve big firm systems at a reasonable cost. Any of these technologies can be outsourced or installed internally for you DIY firms.
Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services
Windows SharePoint Services (WSS) provides all three of the components of Information Delivery. This product is the base infrastructure for the more expensive add-on product, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, which is more commonly referred to as MOSS. WSS is a free download for any company that owns Windows Server 2003, Release 2, and will provide a small firm with 95 percent of the features of its enterprise cousin. All your company needs is a Windows Client Access License for each user. Not only is SharePoint a great tool for your internal staff, but it also provides an effective method to deliver information to your client base, sometimes referred to as a Client Portal.
Where most people get confused is SharePoint is not an out-of-the-box application. Instead it is a toolbox of Web components or parts that allow the end user to create document libraries and collaboration workspaces. As a result, some training and setup is required, but it should not be a major expense to get rolling. Once configured, no IT Guy is required to maintain the infrastructure; everything is maintained by staff users.
The backend of SharePoint is a Microsoft SQL database and the front end is a Web server. SharePoint goes beyond the typical Files Server and Web Site by providing four “application like” functions: Workflow, Version Control, Search Engine and Client Portal Access.
This product has the distinct advantage of being able to search for files and text within documents just as if you were using your favorite search engine Web site. It maintains every version of a document during creation and modifications, and tracks the approval status of documents throughout the organization, triggering automation based on that approval. The best part is it integrates with other Microsoft Office applications.
Accessing files and data, knowing the progress of jobs and being able to retrieve older versions of documents without IT intervention has made this product one of the fastest growing application platforms at Microsoft.
Spiceworks Technology Management Software
When Spiceworks was first released, it provided some basic features for monitoring servers, desktops, printers and switches, but lacked the functionality technology managers really desire. Today, this software (version 3.1) has grown into an excellent product. Spiceworks provides what more expensive products provide at no cost. While there are some unobtrusive banner ads scrolling in the side bar, the functionality this program provides is a must-try for anyone trying to manage more than one desktop and printer.
Install the software on one desktop or server, and it will proactively scan, monitor and alert you as to the status of your systems. Some of the features include automated software and hardware inventory; network, exchange and licensing monitoring; asset and inventory reporting; help desk ticket tracking; and IT summary portals and altering. There is even community-based interaction for troubleshooting issues people uncover on a daily basis.
Installation is simple and you will be up and running in less than one hour.
As with all server hardware and software products, it is only a matter of time before we upgrade. While most of us are on Microsoft Server 2003, the new 2008 Operating System and 64-bit hardware is changing the way we manage the server. One of the biggest changes is the Hyper-V add-on to the server that allows for server Virtualization without the additional expense of competing products such as VMware and XenServer.
Virtualization turns one physical server into multiple virtual servers. Server processors have become so powerful, with dual and quad core technologies, that the average company only uses 5 to 25 percent of a server’s capabilities. The reason we need multiple servers is many applications like to use all of the processor’s time and RAM capacity, leaving little resources for other applications. When most companies implement a database server and a mail server on separate physical hardware, your hardware and software costs double – not to mention the extra power consumption, cooling requirements and ethernet switch ports.
If you purchase the Standard version of Server 2008 with Hyper-V, you will get an additional server operating system license. The Enterprise version provides four additional server operating systems. Basically, you get two servers or four servers for the price of one. You can see that this will reduce your expenses and increase your productivity.
Ever have a client with questions associated with QuickBooks or their ledger, and you had to physically drive to his/her office to help? Do you have your clients upload large files to you so you can make changes and avoid the drive, or are you one of the progressive firms using remote technologies such as Web-ex, PC Anywhere or Go To My PC to provide value-added services?
Microsoft just released a new product named SharedView, and best of all, it is secure and FREE, at least for right now.
Microsoft SharedView is a fast, easy way to share documents and screen views with small groups of friends or coworkers, anytime, anywhere. Use SharedView to put your heads together and collaborate. Don’t pay for what Microsoft provides for free. This is a great way to access your customers desktop, QuickBooks and data files, and works just like Web-Ex without the fees.
My company has used SharedView over the past few months to remotely install server applications and provide desktop support. During this time, by moving away from more costly solutions, our support costs dropped by hundreds of dollars each month. And, our customers get the same, if not better support, with this service.
Sipping Champagne on a Beer Budget
As you can see, there are a few new information delivery technologies that Microsoft and other companies are now offering that don’t cost much more than your current hardware and software investment. Moreover, these technologies enable you to enhance the “store it, access it and preserve it” features that once were considered expensive ticket items.