The hardware and software SMBs need to succeed

The term small and medium-sized business (SMB) means different things to different people, covering everything from the one-man-band to a growing business with up to 1,000 seats. If you look at the figures, this covers a disproportionately large amount of the businesses in the UK in terms of people employed. The large PLCs dominate the news, but it’s the bedrock of SMBs that keep the country going.

The sheer range of SMBs means IT in this space is a curious thing. For some, it consists of little more than a spreadsheet for doing accounts, sending a few emails and, occasionally, updating a website. For others, it’s an inextricable part of the way they do business.

This month, we take a wide-ranging look at the hardware and software infrastructure your business needs to succeed, and in the coming months we’ll go into far more detail. We’ll cover everything from how to set up a network infrastructure that can grow with your company, to the security steps you need to put in place to keep your business safe from internal and external threats.

First steps

There are a number of hurdles you’ll need to overcome if you want to create an IT infrastructure worthy of the name in the 21st century. First, there’s a huge amount of “if you want to get there, don’t start here” – old hardware, old software, and quite often (and most importantly) old thinking in place.

Second, IT is almost always seen as a service provision within the company, and so budgets are tight even in the good times. In today’s dreadful trading conditions, with a future bleaker than many can remember, the concept of “investing in IT” comes a very poor second to paying the wage bill and retaining key staff. And rightly so.

You’ve never had so much capability for so little money

Against this we should balance the reality that the software and systems of the past few years have never been so good. You’ve never had so much capability for so little money, and this is important to remember because there’s real scope for improving day-to-day operations for minimal financial spend.

A few thousand can transform a broken network, for example, by ripping out old wiring and overloaded switches, and replacing them with modern items and new cabling. This doesn’t all need to be done in one go, but a structured and considered approach can bring huge benefits for hundreds of pounds.

Recognising these weak spots is the key to ekeing value out of existing infrastructure. And that includes limitations in the people who look after the system – if you run Exchange Server 2003, for example, and your IT person has no training in the product, then don’t despair the high cost of an off-site training course. A few books from Amazon, and the time to read them, are a better investment of limited resources.

Get off of their cloud

Let’s look at the essential items that should be on your worry list. To make things simple, at this point we’re going to stand firm and say that anything that involves an internet-hosted service or solution isn’t up for consideration. Google Docs might seem a good idea, but the product is in eternal beta and, as the PC Pro review revealed, it suffers from a number of frustrating limitations.

Microsoft’s new hosted solutions offerings might look tempting, but the SLA and other issues will make you weep. Big business can afford to look to internet-hosted services, because they can build them as pieces into a bigger plan. SMBs don’t have that luxury. Keeping everything on-site, with the appropriate skills to match, is by far the best way to progress. After all, a small failure in a huge organisation is an annoyance, but it won’t kill the mother ship. A week of downtime in the entire IT infrastructure of an SMB could put you out of business.

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