Small Business IT Systems

Overheads will make or break a small business, and typically a key component of these overheads is IT systems, software and support. Keeping these costs to a minimum whilst ensuring the IT systems deliver maximum functionality should be very high on the SMB executive agenda.

Every IT technician/engineer/administrator will no doubt have their own best practice solution (sometimes not always the best solution for the client) but I thought it may be worth detailing some solutions that seems to work well for most small businesses by utilising cloud based systems and Software as a Service (SAAS). Please note that the recommendations below are provided without support. As every organisation differs you should always conduct your own investigations to determine whether IT systems are suitable to your requirements and test the water before you dive in (try first before changing systems).

Most small businesses have three types of data in their organisations:

  • File Data (word, excel, powerpoint, adobe files, images etc);
  • Email Data; and
  • Accounting Data

1. File Data

Background: When a user saves files to their computer, they are saved to the hard disk drive, usually to My Documents. This data is local to that computer and in the event of a hard disk failure, without the presence of a backup system, the data will be lost. In order to share these files, typically they would need to be setup on a network share/drive, at which point people start thinking server. Firstly a server usually costs a bit. Whether you are thinking a NAS (Hard Disks connected to the network) or dedicated server running an operating system (windows or Linux) you will still need to update the software on the systems (and antivirus) and have a central point of hardware failure.

Recommended Solution: Dropbox. Dropbox is a file synchronisation service which means that the files on your computer are the same as the files on your associates computer next to you, and the same as the files on your associate in another state or country. The files are actually stored on your computer so if the internet goes down (or you aren’t connected), or Dropbox falls of the face of the earth you will still have those files on your computer. You can connect your computer, tablet or smart phone to the Dropbox (must install the Dropbox app) to access your files on the go. Dropbox also allows you to access all previous versions of a file, and by enabling the Ratpack option ($39/year) users are able to restore any file that you have ever saved. Dropbox is free up to 2GB of storage or $100/year for 100GB (other pricing options area available). Cons: if two users access and modify the one file simultaneously this will cause a second file to be saved: UserNames version. Dropbox not recommended if users require simultaneous access to common files.

2. Email Data

Background: Most web hosting comes with a free POP email address which will get you in business using your domain name in your email eg joe@yourbusiness.com. What this means is a small amount of space on the web server is made into a virtual PO Box (post office box) into which all inbound emails are stored. Users then connect to the post box and download a copy of the emails to various devices (notebook, smart phone etc). The problem here is that usually the devices are not synchronised, and as such (for example) if you send an email from your phone it won’t go to your Sent items on your laptop. Likewise if you delete something you don’t need on your laptop, be it an email, contact or calendar entry it will still be there on your tablet so the item must be double handled. In summary having separate mail stores on separate devices can get very messy in the event that a device, and all of the information it contains is lost.

Recommended Solution: Office 365 Exchange Online. Microsoft Office 365 Exchange online is a relatively low cost, highly scalable and fully functional email server system that can provide access to a mailbox of up to 25GB (bigger if needed) to most smart devices, laptops, notebooks (Note: Microsoft Outlook required for windows based systems) or even via a web portal (like gmail/Hotmail). You can get going with one user or a thousand users and you don’t need to worry about server updates: patches, spam filters and antiviruses. It delivers all of the features of an exchange email server eg contacts, calendar sharing, out of office and the basic setup is relatively easy (best to get your IT guy to help if you are unsure or if you need to migrate from an existing exchange server). The best part is that if you loose your laptop (or the hard drive dies) then you can grab a new laptop, connect up to the exchange, and your entire mail box will download, including calendars, contacts and emails. Cons: none really, if you have a lot of users then the cost may add up, but so will the cost of forking out for capital purchases (every three years) and ongoing maintenance.

3. Accounting Data

Background: Just like Coles and Woolworths, Holden and Ford, and all of the other duopolies in life, QuickBooks and MYOB were the two big players in the accounting software field. Providing accountants with data meant compressing large data files and transferring them via sneaker-net (walking them across town). Software updates/patches needed to be installed on network computers/servers to keep the software current (often the cause of incompatibilities between the updates and the operating system version) and backups of the data had to be maintained, either to backup media or to online backup.

Recommended Solution: XERO. About five years ago a new player called came onto the scene offering an extremely easy to use web interface (you access the software by using Internet Explorer or Firefox) and in doing changed the face of accounting software forever, making book keeping intuitive and eliminating the need to manage the database files. If you haven’t used accounting software before I’m sure your accountant can help setup the trial and if you are used to MYOB, just try it, I’m sure you will be impressed.

Summary

Of course these solutions will not work for every business, but it might be a good place to start for a small business looking for functionality and low setup costs.

PS if you are unsure of where to start, Aussie Computer Experts on 1300 223 123 are worth a call.