Are small businesses coming round to the cloud?

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The uptake of the cloud among small businesses hasn't been as strong as some experts originally expected. According to the research from managed services provider Claranet, more medium-sized companies are using cloud services (60%) than smaller businesses (44%).

But Matthew Thornington at solar electricity company SunSmart Energy, which has just eight staff, believes there is a growing trend among small businesses, particularly start-ups, in the adoption of cloud technology.

Thornington says using cloud management tools enabled the company to reduce management time on IT and quickly set up a second branch. "We started a branch in Cheltenham and got the IT set up in a shorter time than it takes to cut new keys," he said.

The company uses Microsoft Dynamics CRM to provide admin functions for people in different divisions and accounting tools.

"The strategy for IT is to spend as little time as possible with the maximum results. That's useful for cash-flow, as there was no initial cash spent in having to set up servers. Whenever we can we use software-as-a-service at its more scalable - which is good because it can be tricky to predict the industry."

The company was founded in January and started in April last year. "It wouldn't have been possible to do that in the same amount of time, because we had flexibility with the IT we were able to get on with other stuff. 

"We could have easily got through £20,000 in setting up servers and less accountable things like staff working out the hardware and systems. This way we spend just a couple of £100 per month."

Tanya Shirlow, Head of SMB at Microsoft, says there is still some scepticism among small companies about the cloud but believes this is starting to change.

"Businesses can be sceptical about new technologies that they do not understand well; many SMBs may associate new models of IT consumption as being the reserve of enterprises, as requiring an untenable level of in-house IT support or of being too 'vanilla' to apply to their organisation," she said.

"Innovation can be seen as risky to implement as there is no definitive guide on how to do it properly.  However, by making small changes to existing processes one step at a time, the benefits of cloud computing can lead to a path of innovation that will propel businesses forward," she said.

The article follows a roundtable discussion with Microsoft about SME cloud uptake in January.

Business continuity for the Olympics

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Andrew Bale, CEO at Resilient Networks, discusses the importance of business continuity for small businesses during the Olympic Games.

There is less than 200 days to go to the kick off to the Olympics, and being able to maintain business as usual during this event is becoming an increasingly important area of focus - especially for SMEs who are dependent on day-to-day operations to keep their doors open.

During London 2012, SMEs and businesses in general in the UK will be facing an immense amount of added pressure from additional infrastructure requirements, travel congestion, the sheer influx of visitors, officials and competitors and possible service disruptions.

It's for this reason that SMEs need to focus on putting the right continuity solution in place to ensure smooth and uninterrupted services to their customers, suppliers, partners, employees and the business ecosystem as a whole. For SMEs that are more often than not on a shoe string budget, the focus has to be on the most important aspects of business continuity.

Top ten business continuity tips:

Know your business

Understanding your current business continuity requirements involves going back to your business impact analysis and revisiting the key objectives of your organisation.

Match plans to requirements

The second step in implementing an effective business continuity plan is identifying all of the stakeholders that could impact upon your business. To do this you need to consider your audience both internal and external - suppliers, customers, staff.

Flag failure points

Pinpointing risks on and off premises is key. You need to look for failure points in business networks - but not only single points - it has to be wide ranging, from the loss of cable infrastructure to equipment. 

Develop a strategy

First look at your people infrastructure. How will you move people (should the need arise) yet maintain access to supporting systems, what message are you going to give in the first hours after an incident? By figuring this out upfront you will be able to develop a comprehensive strategy.

Gain senior management buy-in

At some stage you will seek financial sign-off to incorporate services and solutions into your business continuity strategy - and they will hold the key to the vaults.

Inform and train staff

Build a communications plan that includes all the people who are going to be involved in managing the business at the time of an unforeseeable event making sure that they understand the role they have to perform.

Rehearse it

You can have the best business continuity plan in the world on paper but you still need to put it into practice to ensure it is as effective as you think. You can do this by having walk through's, engaging in table top exercises or running real life 'shut-downs' department by department.

Have your plan readily available

Once your plan is ready you have to make sure it's available. Staff have to be able to access it offsite easily. Ideally you should be able to invoke your business continuity plan from anywhere at any time.

Update through change control

 Update the plan to fit in with the changing circumstances of your business, it should be a living, breathing part of your on-going operations.

Evaluate the importance of inbound and outbound communications

In business continuity planning the management of inbound and outbound voice communications is often a much neglected area. This is because people often don't fully appreciate the complexities of the inherent systems. To fully evaluate the importance of these telecoms systems you need to identify and communicate with suppliers, figure out how calls are routed and pinpoint risks.

How SMEs can benefit from the cloud

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Susan Holmes, IT director at investment vehicle for small businesses Angels Den, discusses some of the advantages of cloud computing for fast-growing small businesses 

Our recent decision to migrate to the cloud was driven by our rapid speed of growth and wanting to streamline the process of opening new regional offices. Previously, we used an in-house CRM system which offered no integration. This made setting up new offices complex and time-consuming.

The advantage for a small business in moving to the cloud is that it allows them to effectively reproduce their business model in each new site they take on.

For example, using Salesforce CRM allows us to replicate our existing business processes in newly-established offices, enabling us to achieve a consistent approach across the whole organisation that is scalable as we grow.  

With a traditional client-server model you typically have to deal with time-consuming administrative and technical issues before you can set up a new region. Using the cloud model allows you to save money because the need for infrastructure, upfront capital expense and on-going maintenance costs are greatly reduced.

Working in the cloud also makes it easier for work to be delegated from head office to the regional sites, (primarily because communications can easily be automated), relieving the administrative pressure on head office as a direct result.

This enhanced flexibility and business agility that cloud computing supports brings a range of additional benefits to SMEs, helping them, for example, to continuously improve the customer experience, plan sales strategy, track sales performance by region and ensure branding is consistent.

What SMEs need to consider when shopping for storage

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The following post is from Simon Marrion, channel development manager at Scale Computing

It is evident from today's economic climate that SMEs need to be extremely cautious and careful when it comes to spending money. With SMEs on the rise and battling in a competitive environment, they are having to make financial and efficiency savings to continue to survive.

Choosing the correct storage for your business is not always a straightforward decision, but spending the time to ensure that businesses make the right investment will be a rewarding decision in the long term. With storage demands growing at a rapid rate and the expectation that everything can be stored including every email, document and image, the pressure to accommodate this is rising.

Industry analysts Gartner predicted 800 per cent data growth by 2015 and businesses need to look at ways to accommodate these growing storage needs, protect data and assets as well as be financially smart.

Shopping for storage can be a complex process, so here are some points to consider helping you make the right choice:

•    Do an in-depth Business Impact Analysis: how much storage does my business really need? Is this storage solution flexible with my business growth?
•    Embrace virtualistion: virtual servers and virtualised desktops are now a fiscal reality as the cost of some storage solutions is low enough to make implementing virtual technologies feasible
•    Gap analysis: focus on what the business is doing now and what it expects to do in the future
•    Make informed business decisions: making IT decisions is not just up to the infrastructure manager, it is important to get involved and make an effort to understand the options available
•    Be aware of hidden costs: SMEs need to understand the potential hidden costs which usually include contracts, software upgrades, installations and warranty
•    Features vs. Functionality: SANs (Storage Area Networks) are not all the same, and not all data is created equal and neither are storage systems. When reviewing proposals, quotes and configurations, SMEs need to make sure that apples-to-apples comparisons are being made
•    Complete a comprehensive Operational Cost Analysis: understand the system from an operational point of view - costs vs. time and performance vs. business continuance
•    Cheaper is not always better: SMEs need to buy storage that suits their needs and growth.

Although storage options may seem cheaper in the short term, this is not always the case in the long term. There are sometimes additional feature costs such as purchasing extra licenses as you grow and necessary software upgrades

Future success depends on making the right decisions about storage architecture at a very early stage. SMEs need to understand that they are not just buying a simple storage solution, but are investing in the right storage solution for them. It needs to be affordable, flexible and scalable to take into account the changing requirements and demands on SMEs.

Exclusive: James Caan of Dragons' Den talks about information security for SMEs

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SMEs can't afford to neglect information security, writes Dragons' Den star James Caan, in an exclusive blog post for Small IT Matters. Read his top tips on how to avoid falling foul of the law below.

JamesCaan.jpgIn the current climate SMEs have enough on their plate managing sales and cash flow, without worrying about how to navigate the perils of information security. But this is an area they can't afford to take risks with as reputations can be left in tatters if you become known for losing customer information.

With this in mind, small businesses can do with all the help they can get to fully understand what information security risks they are up against and what the appropriate levels of protection are.

Everyone knows that SMEs just don't have the same amount of resources as large enterprises when it comes to time and money. This can leave them at a disadvantage when identifying what the evolving threats are to their information security and what the appropriate response is. Without a complete, up-to-date view, decision-makers within SMEs are left to make uninformed choices, putting their business assets at real risk.

It's no wonder that implementing adequate policies and technology that address information security risks can seem a daunting task for many small business owners and entrepreneurs. This is where the Information Systems Security Assocation's (ISSA) newly proposed security standard for UK SMBs comes in. This new standard is a critical step forward in equipping small businesses with the guidelines and practical help they need to address their security requirements.

Now has never been a better time to re-evaluate your own business security. There are many different types of security software out there that can help, but it can be hard to know where to start.  Here are a few tips that have helped me and my businesses over the years:

• Look at where your information is stored and protect those areas accordingly. Security products are available to protect information completely from malware, spam and other threats

• Back up all valuable data in a secure environment so that you're prepared for any unexpected IT outages. Data loss can lead to lost revenue all too easily

• Use strong passwords (using eight characters or more made up of a combination of letters, numbers and symbols) to protect your data, whatever device it's being accessed from. And, change passwords at least every three months

• Use encryption technology on desktops, laptops and removable media. This protects information from unauthorised access if the device is misplaced

• Implement comprehensive endpoint protection on your company systems that cover the smartphones and laptops used by employees. Keep the programme up to date and when prompted to, remove threats caught by the programme.


If you want to see how your small business shapes up when it comes to meeting today's information challenges then take a look at this free check-up tool from Symantec.

How SMEs can benefit from building applications in the cloud

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Steve Garnett, chairman EMEA, discusses how the cloud can help SMEs develop custom-built applications at a low cost

Most start-ups find their earliest months and years as a business are the most difficult. Research indicates that over 50% of small businesses fail in the first year and 95% within the first five. Many falter because they are unable to embrace new technology and harness it to drive the business forward. In a fast-changing world, the most successful growing enterprises are those that see the potential of new business solutions to enable them to work more efficiently.

Developing in the cloud frees organisations from the requirement to purchase hardware and software which has traditionally been expensive and complex to maintain. This means that the up-front capital required to get the business on its feet is significantly reduced.

Of course, if these kinds of platforms are to fully support business agility for SMEs over the long term, they need to be easy to use and easily integrated with a company's existing IT infrastructure.

Being able to easily bring different applications together should be another key objective of any successful IT strategy. It remains an elusive goal for many SMEs. Yet, it is one that they should not view as being out of their reach. Cloud services that incorporate open internet standards-based APIs (application programming interfaces) using SOAP and REST, which are accessible through web services, allow for diverse systems to easily communicate together.

The best application development platforms should not only provide the chance for SMEs to develop new applications but also to reduce the effort usually associated with integrating cloud computing applications with existing technology.

How SMEs can make the most of their IT

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Robert Rutherford, managing director of IT outsourcing consultancy QuoStar Solutions, has outlined the top five IT strategies for SMEs in 2011.

Look to the cloud

We expect to see a huge upturn in cloud services in 2011. A significant percentage of this growth will come from the SME market, as 'the cloud' will typically deliver enterprise-class systems and services without the upfront capital costs, or the ongoing maintenance costs and complexities. Many organisations have resisted cloud computing as they are concerned about losing control - don't be.

Focus on security

Over the last few years the security landscape has been relatively quiet. This has made many businesses a little complacent when it comes to IT security issues. Although we are seeing the risks rise, this isn't being reflected in awareness or spend. Most SMEs seem to work on a purely reactive basis when it comes to security, and that can be very dangerous.

At the moment, one of the largest threats comes from the rapid expansion of the mobile device market. I'd be willing to bet that at least 50% of SMEs have no security protection on their mobile devices, even on a basic level, such as encryption and antivirus. SMEs also need to focus on the basics, such as patch management, as the majority of exploits still come through unpatched software.

IT is not just an 'added cost'

 The majority of business gains to be made in 2011 and beyond are going to come from the intelligent use of technologies and systems. SMEs should be looking to see which systems and services can really provide a measurable return for their money. It all depends on your market, but great gains can be made by looking into the areas that maybe weren't right at the time, or which have hurt you in the past, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM) or Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) suite. 'A few years ago' is a long time in IT, and rapid globalisation has opened up competition, bringing real improvements and reduced costs.

Don't sweat your IT assets

SMEs shouldn't be sweating their assets, especially in terms of hardware, as I've seen numerous companies attempt this and regret the decision. IT departments often get the blame for the problems caused by outdated systems and software, even when the risks of this approach were made clear to the management. IT departments should draw up a 'risk register', and then ask management to sign off the risks as acceptable, particularly in relation to servers, storage and security.

It's understandable that many businesses do not have a lot of spare cash at the moment and a change in hardware may bring other associated costs, such as software. Perhaps look at financing the project, looking at thin-client solutions, and of course the cloud.

Resist the temptation of new gadgets

Some of the latest breakthroughs in technology may be perfect for home use, but the popularisation of technology can be risky for SMEs and is usually unsuitable for a working environment. SMEs should stick to tried-and-tested technology that has been designed for the business market. However, if you absolutely cannot resist the urge for the latest must-have gadget, then make sure that you control what the devices can and cannot do on the network, and what you'll do if the device is lost. 

Disaster recovery for SMEs

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Having an online backup and cloud storage system could be the difference between sink or swim for your business in the face of unexpected circumstances.

And modern data protection and disaster recovery solutions are becoming available to all companies at affordable price points and with a focus on simplicity and user friendliness.

Click here to see if this is something your business could benefit from.

More government contracts to go to small businesses?

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Good news for small businesses looking to win public sector contracts.

According to Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude they could benefit from the government's move to publish details of expenditure on public sector contracts.

New contractors looking online will [now]be able to see deals and say 'we can do that for half the price of what is being charged.'" The system will open up more government contracts to small businesses, he says.

Although issues around red tape and EU regulations, remain a concern for many SMEs - despite government promises to simplify the process - this could create a great opportunity for enterprising businesses prepared to sift through government data.

For more information click here.

Email policy for small businesses

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It's been an embarrassing week for accountancy giant PWC. The company is at the centre of a growing storm regarding an email in which young female interns were rated by their male colleagues in a 'Top 10' list. The internal email quickly went viral.

Many newspapers and websites were so scandalised by the list that they splashed photos of the 'top ten' across their pages.

Clearly this does not reflect the public image PWC would like to project: that of an equal opportunities employer. And no doubt the firm is kicking itself for not preventing its internal circulation.

But it's not just large corporates such as PWC that need to keep a check on staff emailing. "In many cases small businesses find it just as difficult to enforce acceptable email use policies as larger firms, because they may not have the in-house resources to stay on top of the staff education and policy enforcement," says Ed Rowley, senior product manager, M86 Security.

Employees are becoming increasingly aware of their rights and employers are bound by vicarious liability where electronic communications are concerned. In other words, it is their legal responsibility to protect staff from what could be considered written abuse.

There is technology available for smaller businesses which can catche inappropriate content and automatically prevents it from being circulated internally, or sent externally.

Failing that, it's worth reminding staff that you check all emails regularly and any messages containing sexist, bullying, racist or confidential content will be dealt with in the harshest manner.

As message worth reiterating given that most SMEs can scarce afford the fees that legal action usually involves.

Google plays catch up with Apple on SME apps

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It seems smartphones are fast becoming the number one business tool of choice for small businesses. So little wonder that Google has introduced eight new apps designed to extend its appeal to SMEs.

But the company may be a little behind its Apple rival - which has had many SMEs apps available on its iPhone for sometime - but these products are bound to be well received by the small business community all the same. 

They cover accounting and finance, calendar and scheduling, "idea management", workflow management, business-related social network management, customer relationship management, and two tools for site administrators.

Many of which integrate with the Gmail inbox, Google Contacts, Google Calendars and other apps.

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number ten: ERP

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Read the last instalment in our series on how small businesses can save many and boost sales by thinking differently about IT.

Enterprise resource planning is an integrated system companies use to manage business functions such as finances, materials, and human resources. Although it's traditionally been a tool for larger organisations, it is now becoming increasingly popular in mid-sized companies.

There are plenty of packages available, from Sage, Infor, SAP - all of which can be fairly labour intensive to run. However, on-demand platforms such as NetSuite are making ERP more accessible to SMEs.

"Here you pay a subscription per user for access to enterprise class technology which reduces the cost of entry for small organisations but allows access to all the benefits; inventory control, scheduling, costing," said Bob Tarzey, analyst at Quocirca.

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number nine: printing and storage

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Printing overheads can run into thousands of pounds for companies. But small businesses can save money by leasing machines or investing in copiers with double sided printing options and energy-saving functions.

Electronic storage can also result in substantial savings. David Green, managing director of Gowers chartered accountants, saved £25,000 in rental costs by moving his files online. "We bought a Kodak scanner which allowed the company to manage documents through windows," he said.

For Gowers the cost was minimal. "You can buy document management systems where the software is upgraded every year but at a big cost. Our scanner was around £600."

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number eight: Virtualisation

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This technology allows businesses to operate multiple servers from one piece of hardware.

For companies looking to reduce the running costs of their technology, but not ready to get rid of their servers entirely, virtualisation could be the solution. And with 31% of mid market businesses planning to move to virtualisation, according to a survey from AMI, it's an area of investment that's set to increase.

May's Ramsac said it has allowed his company to slash costs. "Its best practice as it gives us more resilience, has lowered the cost of ownership and is more environmentally friendly as we are using less power and generating less heat," he said.

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number seven: Video conferencing

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Cutting down on travel costs and dead time out of the office can be particularly useful if a company has clients spread across multiple locations. Video conferencing does exactly that by allowing companies to stay in touch with clients, while maintaining some of the personal feel of face-to-face encounters.

Chris Rouke, managing director of product testing company User Vision, is able to communicate with customers from all over the world with screen sharing.

The costs of this technology are negligible with sites like Mikogo providing a free service, he said. "Rather than dashing around to meet clients we can do it remotely. We were testing a product with a Chinese client and if we weren't using this technology that particular project would have come to around £3,000 in travel costs."


Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number six: BI

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Business intelligence enables companies to analyse data, such as sales revenue, by breaking it down by products or departments and provides historical, current, and predictive views of business operations.

James Walker, marketing director of underwear company Kiniki, used business intelligence to analyse customer data and cut advertising costs.

"We've been going for about 35 years and have a database of around 600,000 customers. In the past there was no way to find out what the buying patterns were. But now we can drill right down in to the data and even find out who buys blue underwear on Thursday, for example," he said.

Previously the company sent out fliers to its entire mailing list, which made the print runs very expensive. Now it uses the analytics to identify who is buying what and target specific audiences with campaigns. So far the company has saved £35,000 using the Safewire Arx BI system.

Walker said he deliberately took time to learn what they wanted from it when it was originally deployed, otherwise the company would have been drowning in information. "We realised we only needed it to profile customers, so we spent six months getting used to it. So far it's been a great tool," he said.

Offshoring is for start-ups and SMEs, too

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Think offshoring and you immediately picture big corporates overhauling services to the subcontinent in a bid to cut costs by laying waste to thousands of domestic employees.

But the benefits of offshoring are now being taking up by SMEs - and it doesn't involve call centres either.

Antonia Watson, founder of online children's products site KiddieBase, recently launched her business and used offshoring to develop the site.

"The main tweak was that we wanted was to the site's shopping basket. To make these changes we were originally quoted £3,000. But [by looking elsewhere] we were able to find someone who could make the same changes in Pakistan for £600."

Small businesses should take certain measures to ensure that offshoring works, she says. "My main advice is: make it clear exactly what you. Document everything, don't leave any ambiguity and don't assume they have any knowledge of your business.

"It's something I would definitely encourage other SMEs to use. I think a lot of the time they would like to make changes to their websites, but feel they can't afford it."

A recent survey from HP found that 96% of UK SMEs consider IT to be crucial to business growth, yet more than a quarter say they do not know how to make it work for them.

If the results are to be believed, then offshoring web development could prove to be a very useful tool.

For more information go to Vworker.

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number five: CRM

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Retaining customers and serving their needs should be at the heart of every business. But CRM systems can help you take that principle to the next level and turbocharge sales to boot.

Customer relationship management systems store customer information in a centralised database. CRM systems can make sales teams more efficient by speeding up leads and helping to retain customers by identifying spending habits and opportunity for upsell.

Ramsac's May installed Microsoft Dynamics CRM for around £30,000. "We wanted better management information and the ability to ease workflow. Now if we send out a quote the system will automate a follow up reminder to our staff. And if a customer purchases a product, 11 months later it will send a reminder to get in touch," he says.

Open source more popular than SaaS for SMEs

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Conventional wisdom has it that Software as a Service (SaaS) is set to grow in the SME market, as small companies continue to struggle with limited resources. But this is not so at the moment, writes Tim Harmon from Forrester Research.

"As their focus on business solutions- as opposed to technology products - continues to grow, SMBs are now investing in their own IT support staff as never before," he says.

Rather than ramping up SaaS as fast as large enterprises, small businesses are taking greater advantage of open source software. This is in part due to subscription fees putting them off, he says.

SMEs are making significant investments in what were traditionally enterprise business application solutions, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), customer service and support (CSS), marketing automation, and business intelligence (BI), adds Harnom.

"This reflects the fact that SMBs are boosting their marketing spend much faster than are their enterprise counterparts this year.

"The SMB market, with its increased investment in internal IT staff and business application solutions, is morphing from a transaction business to a more enterprise-like solution business," he says.

It seems conventional wisdom has one thing right: technology is rapidly changing the the small business landscape.

Top ten IT strategies for SMEs, number four: Voice over IP

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In the fourth part of our blog series on how small businesses can use technology to save money, we look at voice over IP as an effective tool to slash the cost of telephone bills.

Voice over IP delivers voice communications via the internet in place of a landline. Caroline Whittock, director at security company IdentiDot has cut her phone bills in half by moving to VoIP. Previously, the company had an office phone system that involved dialling '9' for an outside line, but then it moved to Cloud Net's VoIP service.

"Before we spent around £280 a month online and making calls now it's something more like £120, which is a massive saving for a small business like us," she said.

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