So you’re starting up your own business?
Despite these tough economic times, there has been an explosion of startups forming all over the world. In fact, figures from Startup Britain released earlier this year marked 2013 a record year for new company formations. There was a time when startup culture had to be located nearer to larger industry, hence the expansion of Silicon Valley through the 90s - not to mention the tech clusters growing in major cities like London and New York. In recent years, thanks largely to the growth of the Internet and increasing levels of connectivity, the world is a smaller place making it easier for people to create their own businesses and forge their own opportunities.
No two businesses computing requirements are the same. This guide provides advice on the core areas of IT support and services that are available in the market which are particularly appropriate for start-up companies and small business owners. Having effective IT systems in place from day one doesn’t need to be expensive and it will provide peace of mind and allowing you to focus on the day-to-day running of the business.
Consider these core tenants to define the IT infrastructure of your brand new business. It is what has allowed for many others to create and manage effectively their small business IT.
Domain name and web presence
The first step, before you even begin to consider your physical IT systems is establishing your brand's presence online. This usually starts with a domain name. Your domain name will be the name that uniquely identifies your company on the Internet. It is a single set of alphanumeric characters that may include a hyphen (-). Your domain name will not only be the root of your web presence, and what your customers will come to know you by as your web address, it will also be the name attached to your email system, so choosing a short and memorable one is imperative. Don't be distracted by the misinformation on the web about choosing 'keyword rich domains to help with SEO' as it's simply no longer true.
More than likely, if you have already formed your company then it will already have a registered name, but you will need to check the availability of that name as a domain name. The golden rule is: the shorter the better when it comes to domain names, as it needs to stay memorable and easy to type.
Selecting your domain address is essentially your first exercise in the online marketing of your company. You will need to think about a name that will resonate with your target audience and prospective customers. Ideally, it will be something that the user will remember or at the very least associate you with a particular service. In regards to a suffix, a .com domain usually applies to a company registered in the USA whilst a .co.uk domain will direct you more towards a domestic market within the UK, which will be more effective at attracting real opportunities based within the country. In 2014, a whole new set of top level domains (i.e. .com, .diamonds and .photo) are being released, along with the UK's own top level domain; .uk in the Summer.
As well as setting up your domain name, in order to secure your brand's name online it's also good practice to register for your new brand's username on the popular social media channels. This prevents digital 'squatters' from strategically registering them to either inconvenience you or potentially try to sell them back.
Questions to ask yourself
Software and emails
Your company will have a whole range of software that will be used on a daily basis. This may be traditional off the shelf software, like the popular Microsoft Office, more niche products like Adobe Photoshop, or perhaps one of the new breed in cloud applications, such as Google Documents, Asana or your online accountancy package. In some cases there may be a requirement for bespoke software for your firm to perform a specific task. Obviously there are many different types of software on the market and you should compare your options based on the features that are important to you. For example, the traditional Microsoft Office suite has been the industry standard for word processing and spreadsheets for some time, but Google Docs now offers similar tools such as collaboration, automatic backup and cloud printing. Microsoft and a few other industry players have been quick to offer their alternatives - Microsoft's in the way of Office 365.
Email is the number one business application. Without emails, many businesses would fail, which makes it extremely important to ensure that the chosen solution is the best one. Anyone can easily go out and register an email address with one of the popular providers, but for business purposes it makes a greater impression when the email comes from your domain name. To achieve this, there are a few options.
Microsoft's enterprise email solution is called Microsoft Exchange, though with the brand name, updates and reliability also comes a price tag. Microsoft Exchange is a licenced piece of software based on the number of users. This would have typically been resident on a powerful machine meaning an expensive server purchase, but the market has changed somewhat over the past few years. In theory, you do not need to shell out for email servers as your own web server that hosts your website can host emails, but this method can be a little unreliable and brings with it other concerns relating to email delivery. In light of the clear gap in the market for a mid-market solution, numerous online email providers have begun offering cost effective solutions to the market.
For established businesses, we always recommend a fully hosted email solution - something we touch on later in the cloud computing section of this guide, but for startups and those with a modest IT budget, a good solution would be to use either Google Apps or Microsoft Exchange Online which offer per-user monthly pricing. These systems offer large email inboxes, accessible from anywhere, that mean your data is safe, and email deliverability is acceptable.
Questions to ask yourself
Hardware and devices
Hardware will be the backbone of your IT system and will likely entail the most significant cost with regards to your IT setup. But it doesn’t have to be overly expensive; there are many ways of utilising your hardware in a cost effective way. We recommend budgeting for both capital and operating expenditure on hardware so that you have a clear idea upfront on what it will cost to keep your business moving. Hardware will relate directly to the size of your organisation and how many people you will be working with. It is important to be realistic in terms of cost - cheapest is almost never the best option - a mantra applicable to almost all elements of small business IT.
When thinking about the hardware you need, it is important to break it down to the components you will need on an organisational level as well as a per-user level. The costs you arrive at will to a large extent depend on a few major factors;
Traditionally, all organisations always had a server or two covered in dust in the corner. The purpose of these servers was to house everything pertaining to the business such as files, applications and emails etc. Generally nothing was stored outside of the premises. Backups were partially manual so always came with the risk that they would be not completed correctly and the backup rendered useless. Many organisations no longer require this on-site power because of the increasing popularity of cloud computing. However, it's still sensible for some companies to house servers at their premises as individual circumstances dictate.
Desktops and laptops
Your staff will be using these on a daily basis, so don’t be tempted by cheaper models. Downtime in the future will cost you more than the difference in price you pay as you’re setting up. Consider which staff will need to be mobile as a laptop will be more appropriate. For desk-based staff, desktops may be more suitable due to their price and additional performance gains. Laptop and desktop prices have been falling for some time now, but ensure that you're getting a good deal by comparing relative specifications; - the processor clock speed (in GHz), the amount of RAM and hard disk space.
Printers, scanners, monitors, keyboards, etc. There's a lot of additional IT that you need to ensure you budget for to ensure your team are as effective as possible. Technology moves fast, so what's new at the time of writing will not remain so forever. When looking for printers, ensure they're WiFi enabled and support various Cloud Printing facilities as that's likely to increase in popularity this year.
Almost every one of your employees will now have access to a smartphone. And of those, many will be more than familiar with operating a tablet computer too. Implementing these kinds of devices to your IT infrastructure can boost productivity and the effect of presenting your company to potential clients and customers, but can also introduce various side effects too. Ensure that you implement a BYOD policy (bring your own device) if you're allowing personal devices access to business sensitive data. It should ensure that all devices may be centrally managed and wiped if lost or stolen.
The biggest issue you will have to consider is making sure that your solution is compatible, so it all works well together. The best way to ensure this is to purchase item from the same manufacturer, which also gets you great prices too. Alternatively, your IT provider will be able to procure the best models within your available budget on your behalf as they get better prices and will be able to confirm that the specification is good enough for your usage in each case.
Questions to ask yourself
Traditionally, servers housed an operating system and applications, and were able to complete a variety of tasks; everything that they were purchased to do. Whilst this is great, and business owners were getting good results from their purchases, the servers themselves were actually extremely under-utilised. Virtualisation is the practice of dividing up the resources of one physical server unit and provisioning multiple smaller environments. Each individual environment can support its own operating system, applications and peripherals. The result is that business owners and IT professionals can get a lot more value out of every single physical server purchased.
Although virtualisation can be traced back to early 1960 computer mainframes, the last decade has seen a significant increase in small business usage. Software platform price reductions and increased cost competition have contributed to this, but so too has the greater availability of the Internet, as many virtualised servers are located in datacenters rather within small business premises.
There are a whole range of benefits to hardware and software virtualisation - too many for this introductory guide, but the main three categories relate to cost, disaster recovery and time.
Virtualisation means you spend a lot less on physical hardware and the resources required to keep them running.
Improve disaster recovery
With virtual machines running on a handful of servers, management is modularised and made significantly easier. Backups are easier to replicate elsewhere and restore from.
Take less time
A virtualised system is easier to manage and therefore takes much less time to administer on a daily basis.
Many IT support providers can provide virtualisation either on-premises or via the cloud (meaning you can access all your files remotely, as long as you have a connection to the Internet), so check with a professional on whether this is suitable for your business.
Questions to ask yourself
Cloud computing, in some ways, takes many principles from virtualisation, but it's packaged up in a different way. The 'Cloud' is a series of distributed computers and technologies that sit on the Internet, and cloud computing is in effect the practice of using those computers to perform daily tasks. In cloud computing, nothing of any value needs to be stored on the computer accessing the Internet - it can act in a similar way that 'dumb terminals' used to access computer mainframes in the 1960's. As Internet connectivity in the UK has improved significantly over the past decade, technologies such as this have soared in both domestic and commercial settings.
Cloud computing comes in many flavours - from just providing some data storage that can be accessed from anywhere to providing whole software suites or entire desktop instances - all available in real time via the Internet. Here's our brief roundup of the types of cloud computing you might be considering, plus a reason it might be good for your business.
IaaS - Infrastructure as a service
Almost all pieces of a computing setup can be virtualised in the cloud. This includes; servers - applications, databases and normal file storage; desktop computers - through Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI); network services, such as email filtering or a network router. Businesses may be satisfied with just using lightweight data storage applications such as Dropbox to access files from anywhere, or they may require a more tailored solution to fit the business' needs.
SaaS - Software as a service
Traditionally, applications and software would be housed on servers owned by the businesses using them. The trend in this area has already been moving towards the cloud for some time, however some larger software companies (i.e. Microsoft) have also now began offering a software-on-demand service where a software suite can be streamed live to the user's computer. Cloud accountancy software is a great example of a particular software type that's now available online.
PaaS - Platform as a service
Almost a hybrid of IaaS and SaaS, PaaS is a more full-service solution for consumers and businesses allowing users to effectively rent hardware, operating systems, data storage and network capacity via the Internet. PaaS is usually seen as the next logical step from a pure SaaS solution. Whilst it's not going to be necessary for every business, it does have its merits where a fully managed solution is required.
Cloud computing is really attractive to smaller businesses and startups because of the pricing model. Typically, cloud computing is a monthly service that is purchased from a vendor. This has a great impact on company finances as IT spend moves from large upfront capital expenditure to much more manageable, scalable operating expenditure. Most cloud vendors charge on a per-user model for all services that are hosted. This means growing companies need not purchase large IT infrastructure or software ahead of new hires, and contracting companies save money each time headcount changes, making the whole department much more efficient.
There's a lot of discussion and concern about data ownership when looking into cloud computing. As the servers are technically only ever rented, you are entrusting your potentially sensitive data to others. Always check with your particular vendor, but in the majority of the cases the data stored on any storage mechanism you are renting will always belong to you.
Cloud computing brings with it numerous benefits - some of the main benefits we've highlighted here are:
Instead of having ageing technology on your balance sheet, you are able to rent cutting edge, well maintained technology supporting your entire IT system.
When you are paying for cloud computing, more often than not you are paying for a managed service. This takes staff away from the day-to-day management and allows for strategic IT planning.
Opex, not Capex
Cloud computing is a service and therefore a variable business expenditure - operating expenditure, not capital expenditure. For startups and small businesses, this is extremely important as it allows you to stay as lean as possible.
Questions to ask yourself
Having reliable online connectivity to ensure quick access to the Internet is paramount for any business. The main concerns when looking at business broadband should be speed, reliability, limitations and cost. When selecting an Internet service provider, it may seem initially that they are all providing the same thing but read the fine print and the nuances will reveal themselves. Obviously, if you require high speed Internet for the transfer of large amounts of data, you will have to be prepared to spend more on a monthly basis. Consider FTTC (fibre to the cabinet) or FTTP (fibre to the premises) technology if you're looking for extremely fast file upload and download speeds.
Questions to ask yourself
Data storage and backups
Data storage is vital for the storage of all your information. Emails, documents, spreadsheets, databases and graphics all require storage somewhere and it will need to be backed up to prevent data loss should something go wrong with your core systems or an external party gains illegal entry to your system.
You will need to decide where your data will be stored, either on a server on your own premises or offsite at a secure location in the cloud. Traditionally, most companies usually stored all their resources on a central server on premises and when an external hard drive was used for backup, they did not tend to last combined with the fact that their usage could be prone to human error. With increased online connectivity it is now easier to store data in the cloud. There are numerous application and services which can automate the remote backup process leading to an overall reduction in errors.
You have many different storage options:
Flash memory thumb drives
Small drives that can provide backup and transit of smaller documents and files.
External Hard Drives
External hard drives are a relatively low cost method of boosting your storage options. They are, of course, not without their problems in that they can either they be disconnected without being safely ejected first, or they simply wear out. This is especially true when they are used for backup purposes as many are just not designed for this intensive usage. These problems can lead to total loss of data.
Network Attached Storage
Connecting storage via a network connection is a good way of providing all your staff (so long as they have the correct access to the network) access to documents without using a server; it’s a typically low cost high capacity storage solution. There are limitations in terms of reporting, performance and reliability, but as an archive solution NAS is an option worth consideration.
Increasingly online storage is becoming a more popular way of storing and backing up data. Dropbox and Google Drive are all good examples for this service, but they are not to be confused with a dedicated offsite backup system. You will, however, need reliable Internet connectivity and works best with fast upload speeds.
A quality, dedicated offsite backup solution will be application aware (especially useful for SQL or Exchange backups) and will hold multiple versions of data giving you lots of different restore options.
Questions to ask yourself
Your business is likely to generate a large volume of information, some of which may be sensitive should it get into the wrong hands. It is for this reason that you want to secure all of your information and control who has access to it. Security is becoming an increasingly important field given the current political climate and the rise of hacking.
So long as you’re prepared however, you can remedy most outside threats. In terms of planning, an important first step is to assess what information and assets are critical to your business. This may include financial information or personal details regarding to your staff and/or customers. You will then work out what kinds of risks this information could be exposed to and what legal and compliance requirements they are subject to.
Having a security plan in place for your staff is a priority in this regard; instigating a set of rules that will drive proper security protocols such as:
Passwords must remain secret, privy only to the user. They should also include mandatory alphanumerical characters and be of sufficient length to ensure the creation of strong passwords that can’t easily be hacked.
Spend time with your staff to ensure they are familiar with the threats and the ways they can counteract them. The best defence against the most common security flaws is the organic unit behind the keyboard!
Questions to ask yourself
Disaster recovery & business continuity planning
Every business should take the time implement a disaster recovery plan and a resulting business continuity plan should a worst case scenario event occur, in which unforeseen circumstances such as fire, flooding and theft could render your operations unable to continue. For small businesses this process can be especially difficult in regards to time, money and resources.
Essentially, your plan should detail a solution that will protect your business and operations in the face of unforeseen circumstances. It should also provide an account of how you will restore daily operations should disaster occur. You want to assure your clients and customers that should the worst happen, you will be able to get back to business as quickly as possible.
For instance, it will always help to have your servers backed up through an external data centre that is specifically designed to counter disaster. Cloud backup provides another way of housing important information that can be preserved should your base of operations or physical server undergo structural damage.