Strategy Clinic The best ways to link your branch offices

I look after IT for an independent chain of 14 estate agencies. In IT terms each branch operates as a discrete unit. Now we want...

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I look after IT for an independent chain of 14 estate agencies. In IT terms each branch operates as a discrete unit. Now we want every desktop throughout the chain to be linked and for everyone to have access to the same data on the houses on our books. What is the most cost-effective approach?


A website will be cheapest but may not be best value

Start by considering carefully what you need and what youhave already:

  • Will the information be private (such as the seller's details), public (such as photos of the houses) or both?
  • Will you want everyone to be able to update information or just key people? What level of computer skills do they have?
  • Do you already have a network between your sites?
  • Do you have access to the skills and the security to manage a computer system?

In terms of pure cost-effectiveness for this task, a website would be your cheapest option. This can have a private area accessible only by your staff. A website hosted by an ISP will be relatively cheap and will avoid the need for a server at one of your sites. It can be accessed by an internet link from each site to avoid the need for a new network, but consider upgrading to a broadband line to provide cheap, always-on access to the site.

However, do take a step back and think about whether developing a company network could deliver better value for money for your company in the longer term. A network would let you build an internal database which would be the most flexible solution for your requirements and would let you share your public information via a dedicated website.

The network could also be used for voice and data, and for sharing other applications such as accounts, customer records, e-mail and calendars. Building networks is relatively straightforward and their potential benefits, in terms of efficiency and competitive advantage, are enormous.

Mick Hegarty, general manager, ICT, BT Business


ISPs can help if you want to be sure of future capacity

The most cost-effective way of connecting the individual estate agents would be to link them via the internet using a broadband connection (ADSL).

Using the internet in this way is straightforward but requires careful attention to security. The employment of data encryption and access control techniques, such as client certificates, is essential for this approach.

A centralised solution based at a single in-house location would minimise both hardware and infrastructure costs. However, a solution based on distributed data and services may be more suitable in order to ensure data is always accessible.

A lower-cost alternative toin-house hosting might be to use a third-party ISP providing dedicated servers. This reduces the potential bandwidth bottleneck of connecting toin-house sources and, by using multiple ISPs, would provide spare capacity for a future increase in traffic.

If the house price data application or other services to be linked require a legacy system, then an extranet based on a virtual private network or access infrastructure technologies would be appropriate. Or starting from scratch, the use of XML web services would allow a web-based solution to be built and could potentially reduce the cost of training staff.

When determining the most cost-effective solution, the existing in-house technical abilities should be carefully considered. Calculate if the solution would be cheaper if development and ongoing support were outsourced.

Mike Hudd, technical director, Netcel


Outsourcing is the key but set clear service levels

I recommend that you take advantage of the application hosting services available on the market and outsource theproject to them. This way youcan avoid the cost of setting up and maintaining your own web-based portal and centralised database completely.

Retain control of the cosmetic look and feel of the site and set clear service level agreements with the provider. This will narrow the scope for disagreements at a later stage and will ensure that the standard of work will match your expectations for quality.

Later, once your agencies are comfortable with using the site and you are confident that the information is kept up-to-date, you could look to turn the site into an extranet. If you do this you can involve your customers too - potentially opening up a whole new sales channel.

Mike Lucas, regional technology manager, Compuware


Centralise your data and take low-cost access route

One of the key challenges you face is achieving a balance between cost and reliability.

This type of scenario is crying out for a central solution based on thin-client technology, such as Windows Terminal Server or Citrix. With this set-up, you would have all your data in a central site and users would connect to it via low-cost thin-client PCs or terminals. All the users would then be sharing the same database and e-mail system.

However, in order for this to work, you will need a good, reliable communications network. Traditionally, this would have been provided via leased lines but with the introduction of digital subscriber line, you are more likely to use one of these services.

For the main site, you would need to go with either a conventional leased line or synchronous DSL so that you can at least get a service level agreement with the ISP.

Taking this approach would give you more choice for the remote sites since, in the event of a failure, you would normally only lose one site, not all. That means you could consider ADSL or SDSL. However, there are solutions available, such as the IP Stream package, which combine both the pipe for the main site with ADSL services for the remote sites.

Trevor Lucas, managing director, TAL Computer Services


Mobile options will ensure staff make best use of time

The key here is to have flexible access to the vital business information, not only the houses that are for sale but also relevant buyer and seller information around the sales process.

To this end, think about access to information on the move as well as in the office. I suggest you look to create a database of the properties for sale, link this to an intranet where you can work as a team on the sales.

Using business scenarios is a great way of getting these systems set up correctly. For example, how would you deal with the following situation? While visiting a house a client says they will buy it there and then. Can the agent find out the relevant info and reserve it without going back to the office?

This will give you great competitive advantage, reduce the time employees spend in the office, rather than out selling, and enable you to sell more houses with the same number of staff.

The system you need should have a database, a simple to use intranet and e-mail that you can access from any device anywhere. You also need to ensure you have the security built-in that you need to meet common e-mail threats, as well as backing up and restoring the important data in your business.

Given the dispersed nature of the business, I suggest you use a specialist to set up, install the system and train the staff. The total cost for all of this should be less than £30,000, equating to about £2,000 per office.

John Coulthard, head of small business, Microsoft UK

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