Thursday, April 10, 2008

Small Business Technology

There have been some really great technologies that have developed since I left IT and opened the store several years ago. Some of these resemble the dot-com attempts I remember from the beginning of the decade. Others are smart, simple solutions to complicated, expensive problems that I labored on in my IT career. All leverage the Internet.

Remote Access. Remote access is the second biggest pain in the butt thing to set up for a company. It used to be that smaller companies would use something like PCAnywhere, which required that you poke holes through firewalls and bypass all network security. It took time to configure on both ends so the computers would sync up properly. The other solution was hardcore VPN (virtual private network), usually sitting at or on the firewall, which required client based software and configurations and a trained staff to manage it. I spent two years setting something like this up for a large company at my last IT job.

Nowadays we have several hosted remote access solutions that require virtually no configuration to get started. They bypass all security like the old solutions, but they're clientless and can be used from any computer with a web browser. This is the holy grail of remote access. Sit down at an Internet cafe in France and instantly log into your computer at the office. Logmein is the program I'm using for this. Large companies still need traditional VPN solutions, but a small company can get by with something like this.

Backups. Backups are by far the biggest pain in the butt for businesses. I've seen IT workers fired for not being able to manage backups effectively. My solution for backups when I started was a DLT backup drive attached to a powerful server. Backups were scheduled regularly, had problems regularly, and wasted my time regularly. Yes, they saved my butt once when that same server crashed with all my information, but the time and effort to set up backups and manage tape rotations and offsite storage is ridiculous for a small business.

The new backup solution is hosted backups. These services run on you computers and periodically backup your files, streaming them onto their servers on the Internet. With the advent of even cheaper storage, companies like Carbonite have no limit to your backups. It's $50 a year, but that clunky file server uses about $120/year in electricity alone. These services don't back up entire systems for an easy restore, and probably never will until we have really high speed Internet, but cheap disk space has allowed me to use old fashioned programs like Ghost to backup my system nightly to an inexpensive external hard drive. Again, most large companies will need traditional backup systems, some may even be legally obligated to have them, but small companies can get away with solutions like this.

Cheap Hosting. This has been around for a while now, but the costs of having your email and website hosted are now cheaper than the electricity it takes to run your own server! There's no excuse for having an address for your company when you can pay about $10/month for your own hosted email account with your own domain name. The same is true with websites, often with a bottomless pit of storage available. I could run a company with ten people easily with my hosted email account, all for $10/month. I use Yahoo for this, but I would probably look at gmail or something similar if I were starting from scratch.

Almost. Vonage and similar services might seem like an inexpensive no brainer, but the phone company has managed to rope small companies into package deals. My Yellow Pages ad, phone service, and Internet service, are lumped into an inexpensive package that makes it difficult and less efficient to de-couple them. Remove phone service from this package and I'm likely paying the same amount.

Needs Improvement

Online banking is ubiquitous for consumers. I've had online bill pay on my Wells Fargo personal account since 1997. Business oriented banks are a little slower to catch on, and with very few fees, provided you meet their criteria, they're not interested in offering additional services. Bill payment for my business account used to be me writing a check by hand and putting it in an envelope. I've recently graduated to check printing, but it's still an antiquated way to pay.

IT Meet Accounting. Accounting, IT. If I can hire an IT engineer in India to remotely work on my server for $14/hour, why can't I hire a bookkeeper? There's a lot to be said for managing your own books, but I wouldn't mind some practical advice in this area without spending a fortune.

Windows. I'm still going to point to Vista and tell you my computing experience is diminished from when I had Windows XP installed. I love Vista because of it's slickness, but it's a vice and a luxury that wastes my time on a regular basis with its faults, malfunctions and general retardedness. Avoid it.


  1. Hopefully Windows 7 will be better than Vista, but it's Microsoft so I won't be holding my breath. For some reason they decided after XP that their customers were actually the media companies and not the end-users, meaning that making Vista DRM friendly was more important than making it user friendly. Unless they fix their attitude I doubt their software will improve.

    I'd be pretty leery about outsourcing my accounting to the degree you're talking about. I was uncomfortable when my accountant was in Arkansas and I was in California! That's one area where I'd really like to be able to go into their office (or have them come to mine) if necessary to go over something tricky.

    I'll have to check out that remote access solution. That's always been an area that I felt needed improvement, so it's good to hear that there's been some.

    What version of Ghost did you end up using, and how do you like it? I still need to implement better backup procedures.

  2. I'm using Ghost 12. I haven't tested a restore yet, because I'm lacking a key piece of hardware, but the backups seem to work. I'm using that on the POS system, since it will do my database files, but I wouldn't bother on a non-production machine. In those cases I would just re-install the applications and grab my data from Carbonite.

  3. As for the VOIP telephone scene, it's really cheap now. I've been using for a few months now, and I've yet to have a phone bill over $7 per month. (Phone number is $1.95 per month, E911 $2.50, and useage is .015 per min.) Hook it up to a $25 dollar voip adapter, or for an instant PBX, with auto attendant, time of day routing etc. I've got the above hooked up with a bluetooth USB stick, so when I'm in the house calls to my cellphone ring the house phones.

  4. My problem with VOIP is reliability. Not necessarily the reliability of the VOIP provider, but the reliability of the ISP. My internet is up about 95% to 99% of the time. My phone lines (land line and cell) are up 100% of the time (or close enough to that to not make a difference). When my internet goes down I have one way of fixing it: calling the provider. If all I have is VOIP that's going to be a problem.

    Now, I could see possibly switching my land line for VOIP, but the only reason I have a land line in the first place is for things that my cell phone can't do, like link up to the alarm system. I'd hesitate trusting that to VOIP, even if it's possible (which I suspect may not be).