4 Ways to Improve Small Business Network Data Protection

You should know this by now: Computers can and do fail. And nasty viruses can take down your system by creeping through your antivirus software and firewall. The problem is that you usually get no warning before it’s too late. Puff! Your data is gone.

This has happened to more than a few businesspeople. In extreme cases, it has put companies out of business. And the worst part is this: It’s completely avoidable. By backing up your data, you can retrieve all or most of what you lose. Yes, yes, I hear some of you snickering about the hassle involved. Indeed, there is a hassle involved. But you owe it to yourself– and your business — to take stock of your backup plan (or lack thereof) by reviewing these tips.

Most Important: Back up Your Customer Databases and Payroll Records
What’s the heart and soul of your company? People have different opinions, but certainly your customer or client database has to rank high. Inside one or two data files are all the nitty-gritty details including what they buy, when they buy, how they pay and so forth. Contact lists also are databases, and you might have yours combined with your customer list.

So, where would you be if you lost your database? How would you feel if you attempted to open your database and it wasn’t there? Not good, I’ll bet. So you should be backing up your database.

Also mission-critical for backups are your employee payroll records. You don’t want to lose the information that you have to report to the Internal Revenue Service. Your employees don’t want problems with the IRS, either. And they certainly don’t want to be paid late.

Protect Your Registry Settings
You should be backing up all of your data. But if you don’t, a third item you should have high on your priority list for regular backups is your Windows Registry. This is the huge database that tells your computer how to run. Without it, you have an expensive paperweight.

Most backup programs allow you to back up the Registry automatically. If not, you can easily do it manually. Here’s how:

  • Click Start > Run.
  • In the box, enter “regedit” (without the quotes). Click OK.
  • In the Registry, click File > Export (or Registry > Export Registry File in Windows 98). Navigate to your backup medium. It will probably be drive E:
  • Name the file and click Save.

You don’t need to back up Windows or your applications, such as Microsoft Word. If the worst happens, you can always re-install those programs. But the information you create must be protected.

Store Your Backups Off-Site
To really be safe, the backup medium (tape, CD or DVD, etc.) should be removed from your site. If you are backing up to tape, for instance, and you leave the tape cartridge in the machine, you’ll be protected if the hard drive fails. But if the equipment is stolen, or the office burns to the ground, the backup will be lost. The safest procedure is to use a different tape or disk each day. Keep all but the current day’s media off-site — at your home, perhaps.

Forget About Doing Backups With Floppies
The earliest backup medium was the floppy. These are no longer practical. They hold only 1.4 megabytes of data, so a large collection would be needed for a backup. You would have to sit at the computer for hours, swapping the floppies in and out. Don’t even think about it.

Tape has been the medium of choice for a number of years. Tape backups are relatively slow, but the process can be automated. You can schedule the backup for when you’re sleeping. Tape drives have a capacity of 10 to 40 gigabytes, with the data uncompressed. Most advertise that they’ll hold twice as much if the data is compressed. It’s true that they can hold more compressed data, but you’re unlikely to get double the storage. Some file types just don’t compress. Most tape drives cost several hundred dollars. Tapes are relatively expensive, too. And the software can be difficult. Tape is a great backup medium, once you understand it. It has its drawbacks in terms of the time and work involved. But once you get a system down, it can go smoothly.

Here are some other options:

  • Back up to a burner — a CD or DVD drive. Neither holds nearly as much data as a tape. If you decide to go this route, be sure your software allows automated backups. A CD or DVD will work well if your data is not voluminous. CDs will hold up to 700 MB; most DVDs will hold 4.7 GB.
  • Use a Zip or Jaz drive. These are made by Iomega. Zips hold 250 MB of data; Jaz holds 2 GB.
  • Use an external hard drive. These run U.S. $200-$300 and hold a vast amount of data. They attach to the computer via high-speed connections such as USB 2.0 or FireWire. Hard drives are fast, so the backup wouldn’t take much time. But an external hard drive is relatively bulky, so you would get tired of taking it home.

Another Option to Consider: Backing up on an Internal Hard Drive
You could use a second internal hard drive, although that would mean leaving the backup in the office. Massive hard drives can be had for less than U.S. $100. Windows automatically accommodates multiple hard drives. You could simply copy your data from the master hard drive to the second one, known as a slave. If you’re handy, you can install a second hard drive yourself. Having a shop retrofit a computer wouldn’t be especially expensive. Or, if you’re buying a new computer, order it with two hard drives.

If having two hard drives appeals to you, consider a RAID system. RAID means Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. RAID systems can be immensely complicated. But a two-disk system is not; you set it up as a mirror.

When you save something, it automatically saves to both drives. The second drive looks just like the first. So if one fails, you have a perfect copy. And RAID will automatically switch you over to the working drive. Some motherboards have RAID capability built in. If yours doesn’t, a RAID card can be added to the computer. However, a RAID system would leave your backup inside the computer. That leaves you vulnerable to fire or theft.

Need More Security? Consider an Online Backup Service
If you’re especially concerned about safety, you might want to consider an Internet backup. There are many firms on the Web that will store your data for you, for a monthly fee. You can run the backup automatically.

Most analysts recommend that only businesses with a high-speed Internet connection consider this option, because backups by dial-up modem could tie up your phone lines for several hours at a time. Also, Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services — which enable you to build a private intranet or extranet site for your business — offer the ability to store copies of your most-vital business documents in a secure area that you can access through the Internet.

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5 Common E-commerce Site Mistakes

So you’re planning to sell your products on the Web. Know that it’s not enough that your graphics are sharp, your content is fun and easy to read, and your online catalog is pretty darn spiffy. Your overall site design and infrastructure count, too. How fast do your pages load? How navigable is your site? What about server capacity and browser compatibility?

Brent Melson is a senior technical designer for NTSL (National Software Testing Labs), a Philadelphia-area company, who makes his living testing Web site architectures and related Internet technologies. Here are his five most-common e-commerce site boo-boos.

1. Too many dynamic pages that take valuable seconds to load. “Dynamic” pages are those with changing content processed in real time from application servers and other Web servers. Dynamic content often encompasses links to databases that aren’t part of the Web site — for updates in news headlines, stock quotes and sports scores — or ad blocks in which advertiser messages revolve through each time a new user hits the site.

For the most part, dynamic content is trendy, popular and valued by most Web users. But too much of it on pages, or spread over too many pages, can slow your site down, unless you have some of the more sophisticated Web software used by larger Internet and e-commerce sites. Pages that take several seconds to load generally send users to other sites. Melson argues that smaller e-commerce sites should confine their dynamic content to a certain number of pages, and make many or most of their Web pages “static,” or without continuously changing content. And they should limit dynamic content to windows or certain portions of mostly static pages. It is particularly important, he says, to keep your home page and many of your intro pages as static as possible. The deeper a user gets into your site, the more likely he or she is to tolerate pages taking longer to load (though some would even dispute this).”It is really a design issue,” he says. “It is easier for many businesses to make their Web pages dynamic. Most sites need dynamic pages. But there are performance issues with them. That’s what Web operators need to keep in mind.”

2. Overestimating concurrent traffic — and spending too much as a result. Most tech writers like me tell you to plan your site for peak traffic periods, especially those that occur in the last-minute buying frenzy before the December holidays. Melson, however, says the term “concurrent” is frequently misunderstood by Web operators. It doesn’t mean number of customers overall, or even site traffic in a day, but rather the number of users converging on a site simultaneously. Too often, he says, Web operators pay thousands of dollars more for server space and related software because they have been too generous in their estimates on concurrent traffic.

“If you aim high and have an unlimited hardware budget, it’s not going to be a big deal. But if you don’t have an unlimited budget, my advice is to think realistically about the number of people you will have using the site at any one time.”Alexis Gutzman, an e-business author and consultant, cautions that spikes do occur for many e-tailers around Dec. 12 or so (one of the last days you can ship packages long distances to arrive before Dec. 25). “In my experience, many people don’t overestimate. They fail to plan for the peak,” she says.

3. No consideration of resolving performance issues with software rather than buying new hardware. When performance bottlenecks occur, many Web operators quickly conclude it’s a hardware problem — and rush to buy a new server or two to add more capacity. That’s often a mistake, Melson says.”In our experience, about 70% of the time it’s a software issue and 30% of the time it’s a hardware problem. But instead of thinking about how they can fix or redesign their software, they throw more hardware at it.”It may be a case of simply rewriting the software or adding new application software, he says. Perhaps they need to buy more memory for their database server, rather than buying a new server.

Often the software solution is cheaper and quicker to implement, he says (although hardware currently is as cheap as it has been in some time).The difficulty here, Melson acknowledges, is that small businesses don’t have information technology (IT) staffs or the time and money to diagnose infrastructure problems and/or rewrite software. Most businesses should have an IT consultant or trusted value-added reseller (VAR) to advise them, however.

4. Not making the site compatible with more than one Web browser. If you had to choose one browser to support, it would be Microsoft Internet Explorer, the dominant browser with more than 80% of the market.”But what about the Apple Macintosh customer — do you want to turn him away?” Melson asks. “How about the Netscape user?” If not, you need to test your site and system with the other browsers. Some tweaking of the user interface is likely to ensure tables, charts, graphics and functionality work well on the different browsers.”Often these are very simple or minor fixes. You might need to only change some colors, or add new elements. If you don’t ever look at your site on other Web browsers, you won’t ever know that you need to fix it,” he says.

Supporting more than a single browser is more important for an online retailer than a B2B company, Melson says, because a retailer’s customers are more random. But if you don’t feel it is important, he says, you should put a disclaimer on your site noting that it supports — or works best with — only one particular browser.

5. Failure to get outside feedback on usability. “Usability” is now more than a buzzword. It has emerged as a significant metric for how Web sites are viewed today. Usability surveys, usability tests, usability scores and usability focus groups are all part of the research and development of most large Web sites. Melson’s finding is that many smaller e-commerce operators don’t get usability feedback from anyone beyond those on their development team. But those developers and others are too close to the process and biased toward the chosen design and infrastructure. “You get used to your site and used to any foibles.”For small businesses, organizing a focus group to evaluate your Web site is beyond your time and resources. But getting some sort of outside perspective — be it employees not involved in the design, or your spouses or friends — is crucial to the site’s development and performance. “You need to hear from people who aren’t working on it.”

Why Your Small Business Needs an Intranet

One thing I like about running a small company is the ability to act quickly. Decisions are not bogged down by layers of management. In fact, most moves are made with the interested parties meeting around a conference table.

But there can come a point when your business outgrows this arrangement. You need constant, reliable and secure communications with others in the company to ensure successful growth. You need an intranet. An intranet is similar to a Web site, and it uses Internet protocols, but it’s an internal network exclusive to one company. (An “extranet” also is an internal or private Web site, but access privileges are extended to designated customers, partners and/or others.)

Most large corporations use intranets. Information distribution is a huge task when you have 10,000 or more employees. Intranets can help cure that headache. I hear you, “I don’t have anywhere near 10,000 employees!” But I can give you three major reasons why your small business should invest in one. Here they are:

1. Communication Suffers When Dealing With More Than One Person
Even a very small company has communication issues. Most people find out what’s happening while gossiping around the coffee pot. Stories change as they spread, leading to a misinformed and disgruntled staff. If you have telecommuters, off-site workers, employees who travel a lot or a “virtual” company, communication issues become even more challenging.

In order for a company to succeed, all players must understand its goals. Neither long-term nor short-term goals should be confined to upper management meetings. It’s Business 101. Everyone needs to be working toward common goals. An intranet is the perfect place to post weekly reports, memos and goals. This way, everyone is on the same page.

Toby Ward, president of the intranet consulting firm Prescient Digital Media, notes that even a company with few employees benefits from an intranet. Even if you don’t have people working remotely, your sales staffers or consultants aren’t always in the office.

Building an intranet can enhance communication through message boards, instant messaging and moderated chats. How?

Let’s take a typical business scenario. The sales staff of five has to come up with a presentation to the president on increasing sales in the next fiscal year. Those five people will enter a conference room, eat pizza, drink coffee and drag it out for hours. The first meeting turns into a three-hour, stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session. The second meeting starts with a review of the best ideas from the first. The participants hash out why they will or will not work. By the third or fourth meeting, the five will come up with some proposals.

Using a discussion board in the days before the meetings can streamline the experience. Ideas can be debated beforehand. Participants come into the sales meeting more focused.

2. Time Is Money
Yes, this is a cliché. But it’s too valid not to use here. An intranet allows you to post critical information for all employees to see. Even having human resources information posted is valuable. One of my employees said workers in his former office once spent 45 minutes trying to find out if the day after Thanksgiving was a paid holiday. The personnel manager was gone and no one else knew.

Posting of calendars, company policies and company benefits is a great start. They’ll reduce wasted time. But an intranet can be used for more than basic information. The beauty of an intranet is its interactivity.

You can save time (and trees) with interactive forms. Vacation requests, supply orders, changes to benefits and more can be handled quickly and efficiently. Make sure your intranet follows good design principles. You can’t just throw stuff up there and hope people will find it. Organize your intranet to make it as user-friendly as possible. We’re trying to save time here, not frustrate people.

3. It’s Better Than E-Mail
You may be thinking, “Why doesn’t the personnel person just e-mail the form?” Or, “I communicate well with my employees through meetings and postings on the cork board.”

According to Ward, e-mailing multiple versions of the same document or presentation leads to confusion and sometimes information overload. Let’s take that same sales group we envisioned earlier. They’ve decided on three major ways they will increase sales. They are now working on a PowerPoint presentation. Five people collaborating on one PowerPoint file can lead to disastrous results. I can hear the shouting now. “Who has the most revised version?” “Johnson, you gave me the wrong figures. I thought we fixed that.” And so on.

By using an intranet, people can work on a shared file and have a central location for the most recent file. This will also help save space on your server. It may sound like a tiny thing, but having versions of various files on everybody’s computer takes up valuable space.

How To Get Started
Before you set up an intranet, make sure you understand what you want it to do. Understand how employees will use it. Finally, adhere to good design principles. If it takes five or six clicks to find a vacation request form, it’s too complex.

You’ll also have to decide if you want to build your own solution. A consultant can build an intranet to your specifications. It will have the look and feel and design principles you specify. This route will cost you U.S. $10 to $500 per person per month.

There also are software packages such as Windows SharePoint Services that allow you to customize and design most everything yourself, using someone else’s template. SharePoint runs U.S. $39.95 a month or $399 a year, no matter how many users. Some packages, such as Instant Intranet Builder, use Microsoft Access as the core database. They incorporate linking mechanisms to create a workable intranet easily. You don’t need a dedicated IT person to set up and maintain it. Depending on the company’s size, the entire package can be had for as little as U.S. $5 per person per month. Some other software products available include InfoStreet, IntraSmart and Intranet Suite. Pricing varies, depending on the number of users.

There’s Got To Be A Downside, Right?
To get your intranet ready for employee use, you will need someone to develop and maintain the content. The idea is to have continually updated information available. How you delegate those tasks may depend on the size of your company. If you only have 10 people, one person may be sufficient to maintain the information.

If you have a larger company, you’ll probably want to separate content updates among departments. No matter the size, you’ll have to budget maintenance time into an employee’s schedule. Remember, we’re dealing with computers — nothing ever runs as smoothly as we would like.

You’ll also have to invest in time for employee training. You may even have to spend time convincing old stalwarts to use the intranet. Once the system is up and running and everyone understands it, the return on investment will be significant.

Save Money via Web Meetings

Think hard now. Can you remember your first virtual meeting? For many of you, it was in the late 20th century, and you called it a “teleconference.” It was an expensive proposition.

Not anymore. Virtual meetings save you a boatload of money nowadays. And they are relatively simple. In this day and age, that’s a good strategy for a business owner. In fact, getting up and running with Web conferencing software today is so low-cost and easy that virtually anyone with a PC and an Internet connection can do it. For example, it took me less than two minutes to sign up for Microsoft Office Live Meeting’s free 14-day trial.

If it’s that easy, how much harder can holding a Web conference be? Careful. You can make mistakes. And blowing a Web meeting can cost your business money — either in lost sales (if it’s a sales presentation) or in lost productivity (if it’s a staff meeting).

So, before you jump into a Web conference, let’s review some of the most common Web conferencing errors, and discuss what can be done to prevent them.

1. You’re having a Web meeting — but you probably should have had a face-to-face meeting. A Web meeting isn’t a substitute for every kind of meeting. The No. 1 mistake small businesses often make is thinking that this newly affordable technology will actually eliminate their travel budget. “It’s a good way to maintain a relationship,” says Addison Schonland, chief executive of Innovation Analysis Group in La Jolla, Calif., and an experienced Web conferencing user. “It’s not a good way to start a relationship. You can’t read the expression on the participants’ faces; you can’t see their body language.”But even if you’re certain that a Web meeting is appropriate, Schonland advises caution.

Solicit questions from the audience. Pay attention to the little things, like the breathing on the other end. “You may have blown the sale without even knowing it,” he warns. Live Meeting participants can indicate their “state of mind” (for instance “I need help” or “I have a question”) by using buttons in the application to change their “seat colors.” That allows participants to give feedback without disrupting everyone. Pay attention to little things like that when you’re the moderator.

2. You don’t have an effective presenter or facilitator. “Delivery of the meeting is an area in which small businesses still lack experience, good reference models and tools that facilitate the effective management of a live online meeting,” says online meeting expert Robin Good, publisher of MasterNewMedia.org. “The ability to provide appropriate visuals, supporting information, clear objectives and interaction with other participants are of the essence in making such meetings successful.”In fact, many Web meeting experts say that, frequently, the weakest link in a Web meeting is a poorly trained or unprepared facilitator. Live Meeting offers a series of free resources for presenters that can make your Web meeting more effective.

3. You’re using the wrong technology. It goes beyond the right software and hardware, according to Web meeting experts. And not to downplay the importance of those, because having the right equipment makes a big difference. But often it can come down to something as simple as bandwidth. “Make sure that meeting participants have appropriate connectivity,” advises Richard Nicholas, chief executive of E Solutions Corp., a Tampa, Fla., data center and application development firm. “Dial-up connections generally do not work very well.”Although most Web meeting software, including Microsoft Office Live Meeting, can run on a connection as slow as 56 kilobits per second (Kbps), it goes without saying that a faster connection is more desirable. Make sure your participants are appropriately connected.

4. You’re not using the technology effectively. OK, so there are things you can’t do during a Web meeting — such as look out into the audience to see if anyone is snoozing. But there are other things you can and should do.”Use polls, ask questions, engage the audience through the interactive features available to you,” advises Mark Organ, chief executive and co-founder of Eloqua, a Toronto provider of marketing effectiveness solutions. “Your meeting participant will appreciate the attention and you’ll be able to gauge effectiveness and share results in real time.”Live Meeting offers features such as interactive polling, application and desktop sharing, a Q&A feature, and white board slides. If you use the Microsoft Office System, you’ll find them easy to use, and the latest version of Live Meeting offers even tighter integration with other Office applications — so it’s that much easier to learn.

5. You fail to follow up. Web meeting pros such as Good say that after every Web virtual pow-wow, a facilitator should do his or her due diligence. And what is that?”Offer attendees a meeting summary consisting of zipped files of the presentation or content shown, indexed recordings, and chat logs,” Good advises. That’s particularly important for sales meetings, when prospective customers may have additional questions about your product or service. Don’t leave them in the dark after the session ends. Live Meeting’s Registration Pro tool allows you to conduct evaluations, quizzes, send thank-you notes, and solicit opinions about future event recommendations by way of follow-up. (Here’s a full list of Registration Pro features.)

Your next Web meeting can be a success, as long as it’s carefully planned, takes advantage of your technology, but also appreciates the limits of the Internet. Stay in contact with your participants even after your session has ended, and your Web meeting will have proven to be a success.

6 Tips for a Paperless Office

Many people who use computers — whether it’s for their home or business — are moving toward a “paperless” office. Simply, they are tired and overwhelmed by scraps of paper, clunky old file folders, envelopes — and they want to reduce the clutter. Don’t believe me? Take a look at how many messages are stored in your e-mail’s in-basket. Now imagine how much paper would have been generated if they hadn’t come to you from cyberspace.

Many folks have made at least a partial move to a paperless office. They’re doing so this way: by using scanners instead of copying machines, sending electronic faxes instead of paper faxes, storing information electronically instead of in filing cabinets, giving friends, clients or vendors information on CDs or through Internet attachments instead of in bound folders. In short, they’re getting greater return on their hardware, software and technology investments.

Want to join the anti-paper campaign? Save a few trees along the way? Here are six things to keep in mind as you move toward a paperless home or business office.

1. Without paper, make sure you’re backing up files. In the traditional backup system, you would make a photocopy of a document and put it in a properly-labeled folder that can later be retrieved from a filing cabinet. Many people and businesses develop electronic filing systems that mimic the old paper systems, using Microsoft Word or customized programs for storing documents by type of document, client, project or other prioritization. But those files can’t just be created — they have to be backed up as well. Backup solutions can include backing up to second hard drives, to removable drives or to Internet and off-site locations to minimize the risk of loss of data from a computer failure. So, the message here is to have a system in place for regular and consistent backing up of your information.

2. Realize that a paperless office doesn’t happen overnight. Your home office or business won’t go from all-paper one day to paperless the next. It’s a progression. You might start out by scanning all incoming bills into your system, and then expand to include all general business correspondence. Initially, you might even find you’re creating more work instead of less — especially if you run a business. Dr. Boris Klopukh, a urologist with Urologists Specialists, LLC, in Miami, has embraced the paperless transition wherever possible but finds that he often stores medical records electronically and still prints out a copy for himself. “I’m not even sure why I do it; it’s just another way of backing up information that I’m still comfortable with,” he says.

3. You’ll need to rearrange your office — a good thing. There usually aren’t tremendous savings of office space when you first start focusing on using less paper. After all, you still have all those paper documents housed in your big, clunky file cabinets. At some point during your transition to a paperless office, however, the difference in your physical storage space will become apparent. “My eyes were opened when I had to move from one location to another and I realized I had many filing cabinets that I was holding on to for no reason,” says Ed Branson, a real estate broker and owner of Branson’s California Property in Carson, Calif. Branson estimates that he has fewer than half as many filing cabinets as he used before he started scanning documents into his computer.

4. “Paperless” often really means “less paper.” Yes, it’s possible to scan all received documents into your computer, and to store all in-house documents in your system as well. You can virtually eliminate paper faxes by generating faxes on your computer and having in-bound faxes delivered to your computer system. You can even electronically sign or signature-stamp outgoing documents. But you’re still likely to have some paper floating through your office. Not all of your clients or customers will want to be billed electronically. Some vendors will still want to communicate by snail mail. And tax and regulatory requirements could force you to either do some current business on paper or to keep hard copies of your past home or business records.

5. Everyone has to buy in. Merely saying as head of household, owner or manager of a business that you want those around you to embrace your paperless office doesn’t make it so. Your partner, spouse, family members or staff has to buy into the transition as a permanently-new way of doing business. Change can be difficult. People who have been making photocopies, sending paper faxes, putting documents into legal sized folders — or saving mounds of mail and catalogues that they just can’t part with — are going to have to change their perceptions. They will have to learn new routines that they already feel skilled at. “I think you really have to take them through the process a little at a time,” says Klopukh. There’s a learning curve which can be a significant learning curve — people have to understand how to use new software, some of which they haven’t seen before, and learn to deal with a new environment, he says.

6. Realize that less paper is just the beginning of the payoff. The most visible impact of a move to a paperless office is the reduction in the cost of printing, mailing, shipping and storing paper. Over time, lots of other benefits should become apparent: Less time spent looking for paper lost in the shuffle. Fewer hours looking for bills, documents and, if you’re in business, copies of client documents. The ability to access all sorts of information from computer files — in a matter of seconds without having to search your office. If you’ve got a home office that serves as a satellite office of a business, you can have access to all of your business files, using a product like Terminal Services or other software, even if you’re not at your business location. In short, change can be hard — but it can be profitable.

The Benefits of Volume Licensing: Discounts and More

There are precious few slam dunks in the world of running a small business. But volume licensing of software products is one of the notable, if misunderstood, exceptions. In a universe where cost control and options are often few and far between, volume licensing offers a hard-to-beat combination of dollars saved and flexibility.

“Once small-business owners really come to understand what volume licensing is, it just makes all the sense in the world,” says Eric Ligman, business development manager for Microsoft’s small-business segment. The rub is in knowing precisely what volume licensing really means, says Ligman, who acknowledges that the term is not clearly understood among many.

Volume licensing can be likened to bulk discount acquisitions, only the “bulk” isn’t necessarily required. Rather than purchasing necessary software on an as-needed, retail basis, acquiring through volume licensing allows you to obtain licenses in the quantities you need — from as few as five to as many as several thousand.

This hits on the first significant advantage of acquiring software through a volume licensing program such as the Microsoft Open License program — cost savings. But there are other benefits too. Here are half a dozen.

1. Volume discounts. Saving money is obviously at the top of the list for most business owners. While software bought piecemeal over the course of a number of years can add up to a prohibitive expense, volume licensing is far more cost effective. For one thing, the initial expense is less. To illustrate: buying a single copy of Microsoft Office System 2003 via a conventional retail outlet runs $499. By contrast, acquiring the same software through Microsoft’s Open License program trims the initial outlay to $456.The cost savings continue from there. One-time upgrades bought through retail cost $329. The Open License program trims that expense to $264 for upwards of two years. Add-ons such as InfoPath 2003 and eLearning are also included in Open License. Buying retail, on the other hand, means additional out-of-pocket expenses for both. Even the means of payment is advantageous with volume licensing. By locking in prices for a period of time, you can plan your software budget well in advance and make balanced, systematic payments. Not so with retail — when you need it, you pay for it, no matter how steep the expense.

2. License safety. While retail means a paper license that has to be safely stored, volume licensing offers electronic licensing — instead of paper that can be misplaced or destroyed, a license is stored electronically so that it can never be lost.”If you lose a physical license, you lose your license — period,” Ligman says. “That means you no longer have a product that qualifies for upgrades. With electronic licenses, there’s no paper license that can possibly be lost.”

3. Easier installation and management. Instead of different software programs with different identifications, volume licensing means one ID. That makes installation and subsequent management that much simpler. Also, with Microsoft Open License, you can manage your software license portfolios electronically, though eOpen.

4. Better training and education. Not even the best software on earth is worth what it costs if it’s used improperly or inefficiently. With Microsoft Software Assurance — an additional volume licensing option — companies get superior product training, education and support than usually comes with conventional retail purchases.

5. Greater flexibility. Every small-business owner knows that his or her work isn’t limited to the four walls of an office. With Software Assurance, users can obtain rights to use software at home, as well as the office. Not so with software bought through conventional retail.

6. Greater protection. Microsoft Open License program’s strict licensing parameters offer greater protection from piracy, no matter if it’s intentional or otherwise. (For tips on ridding your business of unlawful software piracy, see this article.) Even with these advantages, volume licensing is fraught with misconceptions among small-business owners, Ligman acknowledges. Some of them include:

  • I’m too small. Many small businesses assume that theirs is simply too small an operation to qualify for the Microsoft Open License program. Anything but. According to Ligman, businesses with as few as two computers can qualify (this includes desktop as well as laptop computers). The required initial order is five or more licenses for any combination of Microsoft products.
  • It’s an obligation. Mention anything other than a straight up, one-shot deal purchase and many small-business owners run out of fear of some strangling long-term obligation. While Microsoft Open License does, indeed, cover a certain amount of time, every element of the program is available exclusively at the business owner’s choice. “There’s no obligation to buy anything,” Ligman says. “These are just other options. You can just own the license and not buy anything else moving forward from there.”
  • The software is somehow different. Many small-business owners also have a hard time accepting the fact that Microsoft Open License software is not one iota different from the Microsoft products sold in retail outlets. They are, in fact identical. “It may have something to do with the fact that retail was a way of life in the ’90s,” Ligman says, “but these are the exact same products that you can buy in a store.”

There’s some funky purchase procedure. Acquiring the software you need through Microsoft Open License isn’t some form of alchemy, or some complicated, mysterious process. You should expect the software resellers serving you — from within a worldwide software-reseller channel involved in the program — to provide you with fast, efficient service, Ligman says. “It’s just as easy to buy [software licenses] as any boxed software program.”

6 Ways Low Cost Computing Can Save Your Small Business Money

Most small business owners see information technology as another expense. But what if IT could save your small business money-particularly when it comes to sales and marketing efforts?

Research shows the most popular strategies to saving money include:

  • Allowing employees to telecommute (26%)
  • Upgrading server infrastructure with the most energy-efficient technology available (16 %)
  • Using mobile technology (15 %)
  • Conducting live meetings that share resources over the Web such, as presentations (14 %)

“You have to take a hard look at your processes,” says Dave Minker, president of CMIT Solutions, an IT consulting firm. “That helps you design a solution that works for you, and helps you realize greater efficiency and organization.” Can smarter IT really do that? Yes.

Here are six ways that low-cost computing can give your small business a lift:

1. Use what you’ve got. Chances are, the resources you need to start saving money with your technology are right in front of you. “For example, most businesses have Microsoft Office installed,” says Neil Moodley, a managing director at FourThirds, a U.K. business consultancy. “That’s a good start. Most, however, could use it much more effectively.”

If users took the time to learn how to build a simple database in Access that tracks customers and orders or to learn how to export data from Access or Excel into Word for a mail merge or to understanding the features of Outlook to organize time and tasks, they could save lots of time and money. “These all need an hour of effort to learn, but once they are understood, huge piles of paper and binders full of orders can be archived away and processes big and small streamlined,” he says.

2. Turn your PCs into phones. Nico McLane, a broadcast media consultant, says she turns to free Web-based services such as Skype or Free Conference to bring clients together and show off her products. “I target ROI on everything I do for myself and my clients,” she says. “I use several tools in concert to achieve the exact type of virtual meeting I need to deliver, to educate potential clients on the power of these tools.”

How much does all of this cost? Usually, nothing, since many of the products offer free trials. This can also save money on travel expenses, since virtual conferences often eliminate the need for in-person meetings. Travel and entertainment costs are typically the second- or third-biggest business expense.

3. Automate processes. Are you still doing invoicing, receiving, purchasing and inventory control the old-fashioned way-by hand? IT can help you automate those processes and save money. Automate your processes as much as possible and trim unnecessary overhead,” says Loren Peterson, the vice president of global solutions for MCNi, which develops automation software that works with accounting applications used by small businesses. “The upfront costs are generally recouped with a few months of purchase.”

4. Outsource when it makes sense. In most small organizations, there’s usually an employee who is responsible for IT, including office machines, copiers and interactions with the phone company. “The problem is, this person usually has another primary responsibility-the job they were actually hired for,” says Brian Rosenfelt of CT Consulting of Independence, a firm that handles outsourcing for small businesses. “As the economy continues to tighten, companies are searching for ways to get more out of their existing employees, but we’ve found that these jack-of-all-trades are spending anywhere from 25% to 75% of their time dealing with [IT related] problems. By shifting resources, allowing your employees to do what they were meant to-and outsourcing the rest to a third party-you can save lots of money.”

5. Get rid of obsolete technology. Perhaps the only thing that’s worse than not using IT to help your business save money is trying to use obsolete technology. Take a fax machine, for example. “Get rid of it,” says Edith Yeung, who organizes the San Francisco Entrepreneur Meetup, a networking group for Bay Area entrepreneurs. Instead of using the traditional fax machine, check out eFax.com. You can save costs for faxing long distance, and you will also save money on paper and save the environment.

The same thing goes for other obsolete technologies such as computer screens that use cathode ray tubes, or old software. These vintage technologies slow down your business and cost money in the form of higher energy bills. Get rid of them and it won’t just speed up your processes; it will save your company serious money.

6. Shift more of your business to the Web. Many small retailers have realized they can target incremental revenues by establishing a Web site to sell from, in addition to their brick-and-mortar store, says Les Cowie, the director of business development for Worldwide Brands, a company that online retailers directly with qualified wholesale suppliers.

But why stop there? Using nothing more than a PC and a broadband connection, your small business can leverage the marketing power of the Internet. Social networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter let you push sales at virtually no cost to your business.

For small businesses, IT isn’t a problem. It’s a solution. By taking advantage of the technology you already have, outsourcing what you shouldn’t be doing, upgrading and rethinking the way your small business uses technology, you can harness the power of low-cost computing for your company.

4 Reasons Virtualization Saves Money

Most articles about virtualization discuss the technology in the context of “big” business. They are glowing about the potential for “data center consolidation” or “reduced system maintenance expenses.” Or they rave about the prospects for a better disaster recovery plan, better security and extra flexibility for employees.

What about small business? The good news is if you are a small business owner, there are plenty of short- and long-term benefits from virtualization-and you don’t need a big budget. (That makes virtualization attractive in a brutal economic climate.)

So what is virtualization? Quite simply, it is technology that explodes the traditional one-to-one relationship between computer hardware and the software that runs it. Virtualization software allows you to create two or more complete computing environments on a single piece of hardware. The proliferation of systems with multi-core microprocessors has made virtualization possible across a wide range of business applications.

Here’s a big benefit: Instead of buying more than one server for your growing small business, you can “virtualize.” In fact, many things can be virtualized beyond servers: desktop systems, storage devices and even networks. Virtual memory, for example, allows a computer to “borrow” from disk storage to extend its available memory resources-enhancing the user experience without you even realizing it. Likewise, one physical server, which runs one application, can be transformed to look like multiple servers when virtualization technology is applied.

“The key message is really focused on cost savings,” says M.J. Shoer, president and virtual chief technology officer for Jenaly Technology Group, Portsmouth, N.H., which provides IT services for small and mid-size businesses. “In terms of managing the server, it doesn’t really change anything. At the same time, we have found that it opens up new opportunities for new applications and processes.”

The benefits of server virtualization for small businesses are many. The good news: If you use Microsoft software as your technology infrastructure, you will reap the benefits, since server virtualization is a core consideration and principle of the Microsoft Windows Server 2008 platform through the Hyper-V product.

Without getting too esoteric, there are four tangible benefits your company can realize by investing in a virtualization strategy.

1. Add another business application or database without increasing the number of physical hardware servers you have to worry about.

No matter how good you are at financial planning, it’s tough to anticipate when your company may need to accommodate an influx of new employees or new customer accounts that could put a strain on your technology resources.

Shoer cites the example of a client, an 18-person business, that was already running two servers and that was evaluating a new, dedicated system to run a customer relationship management (CRM) application. Shoer’s team determined that by investing in slightly more robust multiprocessor hardware, the customer could replace one of its existing servers with a virtualized machine that ran both the new application along with the old ones. What’s more, the investment laid the groundwork for its team to work remotely, while still retaining access to the applications they needed to do their jobs. The server hardware that Shoer’s customer bought in order to make this happen was on the high side of what it would have had to pay for a dedicated server (between $5,000 and $10,000), but it now only needs to be concerned with the ongoing maintenance costs for one piece of hardware that acts like two servers. So, the company still has only two physical servers to manage, but it has extended the productivity of its employees while adding another application.

2. Cut back on energy consumption and technology maintenance costs.

Microsoft customer HotSchedules in Austin, Texas, which offers online scheduling services for the restaurant and hospitality industry, and serves as one of Microsoft’s case studies for virtualization, was able to accommodate rapid growth by migrating to Windows Server 2008 with the Hyper-V virtualization technology.

Because HotSchedules provides online services as its core product offering, each time it adds a certain number of new customers, it needs to invest in the technology backbone to support their accounts seamlessly, even in times of peak usage. Before it moved to a virtual architecture, the company reported that it would sometimes take weeks to provision a new server. With Hyper-V, that process has been cut down to a day or less. What’s more, the case study reports that by running up to 19 virtual machines on each of its physical servers HotSchedules was able to reduce power costs by up to 77% compared with the energy it would have needed to run a comparable number of “real” systems.

Energy costs and maintenance concerns were two big considerations for Linda Chan, senior information technology director of Veeco, a midsize manufacturing company in Plainview, N.Y., who was asked to organize a corporate facility consolidation that combined two nearby facilities.

Chan says virtualization made sense for her organization because her company was able to save space, cut its energy consumption and respond to requests for new applications or increased processor power in a matter of hours. Her company realized the return on its investment in new servers and the virtualization software within 18 months.

She advises those considering virtualization: Invest in a server assessment to determine whether virtualization is right for your company. That’s because some server applications, such as ones that rely on specialized peripherals or add-on cards like fax servers or engineering applications, cannot be used in a virtual environment. Veeco’s assessment provided valuable financial information Chan needed to prove the case for virtualization to her CEO.

“We were able to achieve getting greener,” she says. “I can now bring up a server in a couple of hours, or less than that. I’ve had times when a server is underpowered, and I’ve turned on another processor. These are things I couldn’t do if we hadn’t virtualized.”

3. Enhance your disaster recovery plan.

One very real strategy made possible by virtualization is a disaster recovery plan. Guy Baroan, founder and CEO of Baroan Technologies, an information technology solution provider in Elmwood Park, N.J., says virtualization allows a small business to create ongoing back-up snapshots image of a database or business application that can be replicated in more than one place.

If the main piece of hardware fails, the application can be restored from the fail-over server in a matter of two hours versus 72 hours. Most small businesses are horrified by the thought of their systems being out of commission for more than a day, so this message really resonates, Baroan says.

The rise of quad-core server hardware has made this process simpler and more affordable. “This might cost a small business a little more in terms of RAM or storage, but they can do so much more with that one server and the virtualization software,” Baroan says.

4. Stretch your technology budget.

Jay Tipton, CEO of Technology Specialists, a company in Fort Wayne, Ind., that provides technology services to small businesses, called on virtualization to help a 15-employee company that needed to run multiple e-commerce sites for its business. The licensing for the software application used to run the stores required them to be managed separately.

Tipton says this business may have been forced to buy and set up three different hardware servers. But it was able to buy a single system to run all three stores-running separately using virtualization software. This same company added another virtual server that allows employees to access certain databases remotely, Tipton says.

Koji Mori, director of network services for Calsoft Systems, a technology services company in Torrance, Calif., says pressure is building for small businesses to realize incremental value out of their spending, and technology is often the first place they should look.

Virtualization is compelling because it enables short-term and long-term cost reductions in systems maintenance, office real estate and electrical footprint. The additional upfront expense comes in the form of the virtualization software, which he says is minimal if you use a Microsoft platform; a hardware upgrade or refresh; and some additional implementation services. At a minimum, this will be 20% less than the cost of buying a second server, Mori says.

Companies with as few as two servers can realize an immediate benefit from virtualization, he says. “The situation is very rare where someone cannot handle a virtual environment,” he says. “We’ve migrated things as old as Windows NT 4 applications onto virtualized platforms.”

7 Steps to Good Work Habits Away From the Office

Your laptop was built for doing work away from the office. Making sure your self-discipline comes along for the trip is something else.

Many business owners and executives associate an office environment with the will to work. As a result, they fret that they — or their employees — may be less than diligent when working from home or a hotel room. But keeping up your self-discipline away from the office is just a matter of thoughtful planning. Here are seven strategies, culled from feedback from experts and my own experiences.

1. Know your work patterns. This philosophic tenet is particularly important to being disciplined away from an office environment. Consider what makes you more productive: being proactive well in advance or sweating things out under a tight deadline. Knowing what sets your wheels turning can help you establish work patterns and systems that bolster your discipline.”Are you motivated by feeling good or fear?” asks Jan Jasper, author of “Take Back Your Time: How to Regain Control of Work, Information and Technology.” “Some people don’t need to plan ahead as much because their discipline comes from adrenaline.”

2. Keep a comprehensive to-do list. Whether you seek to stay ahead of the game or you spring into action at the last minute, keeping track of all you need to accomplish is particularly important outside of an office setting. You’re absent from anyone ready to remind you what’s going on. But knowing just what you need to do and when, in comprehensive detail, can keep you focused and motivated. No matter how you do it, be it with a PDA or day timer, be obsessive about planning out your activities.

3. Set up a comfortable workspace. Ads showing a businessperson sprawled on a hotel bed, cell phone in one hand and calculator in the other, belong in the netherworld of Madison Avenue. Discipline away from the office often derives from a setting that singularly represents work. No matter where you are, earmark a particular spot for work. Jasper suggests bringing along family pictures and favorite music to bolster your perception that this is where work is going to happen. “It’s important to arrange things so you can function,” she says.

4. Look at time in a different manner. One of the pitfalls to discipline away from the office is time — or, rather, the lack of a regular schedule of events, be they meetings or business lunches. That can lead to downtime and, conceivably, a lapse in productivity. Plan ahead to make the most of those few minutes here and there to keep your discipline sharp. Recognizing the importance of working when time permits, many airports offer workstations for businesspeople in between flights. By the same token, read a business article while your flight is tenth in line for takeoff. Lisa Kanarek, founder of HomeOfficeLife.com, suggests clipping articles of interest rather than hauling along entire magazines. It’s less weight and a more expedient way to focus on what’s of interest to you.

5. Keep the paper moving. Working away from the office often means limited space. That, in turn, makes paper management critical. File those documents with which you’re finished and recycle any and all papers you don’t need any more. As Jasper notes, nothing can be more discouraging and crippling to discipline than a snow bank of papers with little clue as to what’s important and what’s leftover from 1998. “Just clearing out every bit of paper that’s unnecessary can do wonders for your morale,” she says.

6. Keep in touch with the office, but thoughtfully. Communicating with the folks downtown (or in another state) is not only essential to the mechanics of a workday; talking with colleagues and others can also be a boon to discipline. Even if you can’t see them, talking with others in the company is a reminder of people down the line who are counting on you. But tailor your communication accordingly. While you may want to check in with some people on a regular basis, you may want to shy away from others who, for instance, may take an hour to explain a two-minute problem. “You have to determine the level of contact that’s most helpful to you,” Jasper says. “Communication problems are really magnified once you have to deal with them away from the office.”

7. Know the dangers of procrastination — and avoid them. Putting off necessary tasks melts discipline in any setting, but it’s particularly destructive when you’re away from the office. For one thing, there’s no one physically nearby to boot you back into gear. On top of that, a task that’s repeatedly put on the back burner until it becomes a bona fide headache can drain time from other responsibilities — a workload that fosters despair rather than constructive discipline.”Procrastination is terribly damaging,” Jasper says. “The more you procrastinate, the more you turn a routine chore into something that’s really painful.”