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

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

The continuing growth of the SMB market is pushing vendors to adaptor lose sales. Vendors are tweaking their more costlyenterprise-grade offerings to feature sets and price levels SMBcustomers can afford.

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

Software can be no less costly than hardware when SMB budget levelsare stretched thin. SMB entrepreneurs often report favoringmultipurpose software suites over separate packages to provide theirbusiness computing needs.

“While every small business has a slightly different idea of whattechnology can do to improve the bottom line, there are several coresolutions that we believe make up the foundation of a productivesmall business network,” Janet Smith, director of small businessstrategy at Microsoft, told TechNewsWorld.

Suite vs. Single

One concern most SMBs face is selecting the most appropriate softwarefor their needs. Are suites or bundles better thanseparate 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 thatspecializes in setting up small business networks.

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

As a general rule, product suites are a goodoption only when the end users will utilize the features in thedifferent programs.

“It would be useless for someone to purchase a product suite and onlyutilize a component that could have been purchased individually formuch 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 betterresolution.

“Most small businesses would be swamped by the administrationrequired to manage dozens of single-purpose products,” Cullersuggested. “There are groupings of functionality that can logicallybe combined in a single product.”

For example, an SMB owner could consider unified threat managementfirewall/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 alsooffer security capabilities, he explained.

More Choices

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

Microsoft Office suite is a popular SMB choice for desktop/officeproductivity. And VoIP is mainstream these days, so the network needsto accommodate the requirements to support quality of service andconsistent uptime, said Culler.

“Secure VPN is essential for organizations to accommodate employeesworking from home or remotely or in a mobile environment. There aresome great options for simple remote access via SSL-VPN (securesocket layer/virtual private networking) which are being adopted bymany 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 businessesof all sizes, occupying up to 98 percent of e-mail server space, so aspam prevention product is vital for office productivity, Culleradvised.

“Small businesses cannot afford to suffer down-time that results inlost or stolen data. It’s for this reason that security needs to beat the top of every small business’ list,” he said.

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

For example, SMBs can look to managed providers that can bringeconomies 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 likeMicrosoft Dynamics – Point of Sale or accounting software such asOffice Accounting Express 2008 may be warranted, said Smith. Working in concert with each of the previous solutions, or forthose who simply don’t want to manage on-premise software, Microsoftalso offers its Office Live Small Business service. This is anInternet-based service for promoting and managing asmall 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 Microsofthas 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 smallbusinesses, she added. It offers avoice-activated user interface, simplified setup and systemmanagement and a host of calling capabilities.

Must-Haves

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

“The differences come down to how the office works and what featuresare important. [Microsoft] Exchange Server is expensive and requireshardware in-house. [Microsoft Office] SharePoint [Server] replacesExchange 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 ofsoftware that is not limited to any one vendor.

Goodwin’s Recommendations

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

    “Getting bookkeeping out of the headspace is one of the biggest giftsSMBs 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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