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Lean, Mean Machines: Tech for the SMB, Part 2

By Jack M. Germain
Jun 26, 2008 4:00 AM PT

Part 1 of this two-part series discussed hardware for the small to medium-sized business. Part 2 tackles software aimed at the SMB.

Lean, Mean Machines: Tech for the SMB, Part 2

The continuing growth of the SMB market is pushing vendors to adapt or lose sales. Vendors are tweaking their more costly enterprise-grade offerings to feature sets and price levels SMB customers can afford.

The SMB segment makes up 34 percent of the entire notebook market, according to research firm IDC. About 35 million small and midsize businesses are operating worldwide. That number swells to an estimated 60 million if you include home-based businesses. Thus, heavy software players like Microsoft are focused on the tremendous variety of technology needs small businesses have.

Software can be no less costly than hardware when SMB budget levels are stretched thin. SMB entrepreneurs often report favoring multipurpose software suites over separate packages to provide their business computing needs.

"While every small business has a slightly different idea of what technology can do to improve the bottom line, there are several core solutions that we believe make up the foundation of a productive small business network," Janet Smith, director of small business strategy at Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld.

Suite vs. Single

One concern most SMBs face is selecting the most appropriate software for their needs. Are suites or bundles better than separate products purchased for specific needs? That depends on the business involved.

"Single-purpose products are absolutely great if they are mission-critical to your business. For example, [there are] financial services or CRM software for financial or professional services organizations, or content filtering for Internet cafes," Ron Culler, CTO of Secure Designs, told TechNewsWorld. Secure Designs is an IT consultancy that specializes in setting up small business networks.

On the other hand, product suites can be very cost effective, because they usually include several different products at a much lower price than purchasing them individually, according to Jeff Black, CIO of Integrated Technology Corporate Solutions (ITCS). His company is an IT solutions partner for small and mid-sized businesses.

As a general rule, product suites are a good option only when the end users will utilize the features in the different programs.

"It would be useless for someone to purchase a product suite and only utilize a component that could have been purchased individually for much less money," Black told TechNewsWorld.

Single-Purpose Burden

The answer to the suite debate may come down to personal choice. Considering tasks in regard to product groupings could present a better resolution.

"Most small businesses would be swamped by the administration required to manage dozens of single-purpose products," Culler suggested. "There are groupings of functionality that can logically be combined in a single product."

For example, an SMB owner could consider unified threat management firewall/VPN (virtual private network) products that also offer secure wireless, VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) security and secure remote access, or URL/content filtering products that also offer security capabilities, he explained.

More Choices

The majority of enterprise-class software products have sophisticated and extensive capabilities that are perfect for large organizations. But these same features are generally too complex to manage for an office of five to 15 people.

Microsoft Office suite is a popular SMB choice for desktop/office productivity. And VoIP is mainstream these days, so the network needs to accommodate the requirements to support quality of service and consistent uptime, said Culler.

"Secure VPN is essential for organizations to accommodate employees working from home or remotely or in a mobile environment. There are some great options for simple remote access via SSL-VPN (secure socket layer/virtual private networking) which are being adopted by many smaller businesses," he said.

Critical Concern

If you're connected, you have to be protected -- security is essential. Spam remains the single largest time-waster for businesses of all sizes, occupying up to 98 percent of e-mail server space, so a spam prevention product is vital for office productivity, Culler advised.

"Small businesses cannot afford to suffer down-time that results in lost or stolen data. It's for this reason that security needs to be at the top of every small business' list," he said.

Symantec and McAfee both offer robust desktop anti-virus solutions that meet SMB needs. But other options exist.

For example, SMBs can look to managed providers that can bring economies of scale and rich features to meet the customers' needs. This takes the burden off the end user.

For its part, Culler's company uses SonicWALL products.

Redmond Riches

Microsoft's office products generally meet typical SMB needs. The company bundles applications such as e-mail, accounting, presentation and data management software into the 2007 Microsoft Office system.

Depending upon the type of business, retail applications like Microsoft Dynamics - Point of Sale or accounting software such as Office Accounting Express 2008 may be warranted, said Smith. Working in concert with each of the previous solutions, or for those who simply don't want to manage on-premise software, Microsoft also offers its Office Live Small Business service. This is an Internet-based service for promoting and managing a small business online. More information is available at Microsoft's Startup Center.

As a small business grows into more extensive operations, its software needs change, and Microsoft has a few alternatives.

One is Microsoft's Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 R2. It provides many of the features used by large companies such as e-mail, Internet connection, internal Web sites, remote access, support for mobile devices, file and printer sharing and backup and restore.

A new version of SBS, Windows Small Business Server 2008, will be available in the second half of 2008, Smith said.

Microsoft Response Point phone system software was designed for small businesses, she added. It offers a voice-activated user interface, simplified setup and system management and a host of calling capabilities.

Must-Haves

Many SMB players have about as many software favorites as there are software choices, and there is little consensus on whether software tailored for SMB users rather than enterprise workers is better.

"The differences come down to how the office works and what features are important. [Microsoft] Exchange Server is expensive and requires hardware in-house. [Microsoft Office] SharePoint [Server] replaces Exchange and is Web-based and cheap," Jennifer Hall Goodwin, president of internetGIRLfriday.com, told TechNewsWorld.

In working with her clients, however, she uses an assortment of software that is not limited to any one vendor.

Goodwin's Recommendations

  • Quickbooks Online: This allows users to have up to three admins logging in from the Web so their bookkeeper can be off-site. New businesses should use Virtual Help.

    "Getting bookkeeping out of the headspace is one of the biggest gifts SMBs can give themselves," Goodwin said.

  • Ring Central: For US$15 per month, SMB users get professional voicemail lines forwarded to their e-mail. This eliminates land line, phone, electricity, etc., she said.
  • Microsoft Outlook (with or without Business Contact Manager): You really can get started running a business if you maximize the organizational power of Outlook, she added.
  • TimeBridge: SMBs can schedule meetings and consultation calls back to new leads with less time involved.

Lean, Mean Machines: Tech for the SMB, Part 1


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