In basic terms, SMEs are vital to the economy, eager to find new ways of competition, and see cost-efficiency as paramount.
These characteristics should make you of key interest to the technology industry, especially suppliers of networking equipment and services. After all, networks, be they local (LAN) or wide or remote (WAN) offer the chance to share data and applications, centralise information, and support new sales channels such as the Internet.
But for various reasons, if you’re an SME, you’re likely to not be making as much use of network technology as you could – and you may not even realise there is a need to manage it properly.
Lionel Lamy, Research Manager for Information Management Services with research group IDC, explains the issue, “The problem for the SME is that the major IT services companies still haven’t figured out a way to work with companies smaller than the large enterprises. As a result, they simply don’t get as good a level of service.”
That shouldn’t be a problem, though. For years smaller companies have turned to resellers as their key technology partners. The main reason – lack of in-house knowledge. “Often this level of customer just doesn’t have any real level of IT skills,” says Jason Salmon, co-founder of consultancy Imhotek. “They’re happy enough to install and manage Microsoft Office; beyond that they may find it a bit tricky.”
The potential problem is that your reseller may not have all the answers themselves. “Your reseller is often a very entrepreneurial chap who loves technology. But is he as worried about data integrity, specifically your data integrity, as you are?” asks Mark Herbert, founder and director of network consultancy intY.
“There just aren’t many resellers able to sell the whole package – voice, data, Internet access, Web and ecommerce support, firewalls and security, etc,” claims Keith Westcott, UK MD of international voice and data hosting specialist Via Networks.
Or as IDC’s Lamy puts it, “By just leaving it to your reseller you may not get told they have a problem or things could be better organised. That’s not to say resellers can’t do a good job – they’re often the perfect match – but they’re not always the right fit for a particular business’ network management needs. There’s really no black and white answer to this one.”
Maybe this isn’t a problem. After all, what could go wrong if you don’t do network management properly? Quite simply an SME could disappear as a company, if there’s a disaster with its data and, equally likely, is that it could be left behind by a competitor that makes better use of the technology.
Or more positively: “Done properly, network management will allow you to predict changes and challenges, and react in a timely way to those challenges,” claims Nick Watson, Communications and Marketing Director, Cisco UK and Ireland.
If you ignore the issue of network management it might turn around and bite you, in other words. Thomas Howard is Joint Chief Technology Officer and Executive Officer of North London consultancy Qube Newtorks. “The network is the foundation of your IT infrastructure – and just as you can’t see the infrastructure in your house, just rely on it, if there’s something wrong with that infrastructure you can end up with all sorts of niggly little problems,” he says.
“I see a lot of SMEs where the network lives in a neglected wiring cupboard, dust everywhere, fans broken down – just a mess. Do that and you’re trying to go hunting with a rifle you’ve washed in mud.”
But who gave you the gun? The gap between the needs of the smaller companies and the abilities of their usual partners to support them in the area of network management is beginning to be noticed. Microsoft’s recently announced Small Business Server 2003 is specifically aimed at SMEs, a community the software giant says has been “underserved” by technology companies. The suite can support up to 50 customers, and includes a number of wizards it says will help set up in companies with sparse IT skills.
That’s not to say that Microsoft is the only answer. In fact choice is part of the problem in itself, it turns out. Analyst group EuroLAN’s Olivier Charon notes, “The diversity of companies who fit the category of SME is only matched by the variety of products.”
Network management solutions range from specialist ‘lite’ versions of enterprise software from companies like Nortel Networks, Cisco, 3Com, and Novell, to best of breed networks built by specialists from a number of companies to managed service options – if you rent a managed office from a company like HSO, High Speed Offices, your network is built in – to completely outsourcing the network altogether.
Finding the right partner
Your strategy as an SME is, it would seem, to immerse yourself in the latest offerings of WiFi or VoIP and trust your reseller has everything under control.
It may not be that stark in reality, but business managers can’t be blamed for feeling this is an area of technology too far down the stack to worry about. “It’s the photocopier argument,” says Bob Jones, MD of Equiinet. “You buy a photocopier, you expect it to work, and when it goes wrong you want it fixed or replaced quickly. SMEs should be able to expect the same level of service from their LANs and WANs; they want a solution they don’t have to worry about. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re quite there yet.”
The answer is to find the right partner and make them worry about it. “The real reason for having a network at all is just to stop too much paper flying around. And to manage that network find the right reseller or provider or consultant to do the hard work for you – someone you trust, who will do things like source the right diagnostic tools you won’t have time or skills to do yourself,” suggests John Coulthard, Head of Small Business for Microsoft UK.
The message is clear. Your network matters – but you may not have the skills to know that, let alone manage it. So find someone you can trust and who has reference sites you can visit of companies like yours. You can then have a much better idea of how much technology you need or want, and how much of it you want to let your new chum run for you.
But as with all technology, don’t buy if you can’t say why. “Not all SMEs need networks,” says Cisco’s Watson. ‘It’s important not to run to ICT as the solution to everything without clear goals as to how it will help your business.”
A small but expanding professional services firm on the South Coast has recently beefed up its network with outside help.
Lester Aldridge, based in Bournemouth and with three offices in the region, is one of the largest UK regional law firms. Its 300 staff, split into 15 teams in a number of legal areas, now have the benefit of a network using a combination of fibre optic links and LAN extensions, plus Citrix network management and virtual private network (VPN) links to sister companies, all protected by firewalls and other security technology.
Neil Prevett, head of IT at the firm, explains that use of IT plays a central role for Lester Aldridge, from marketing through to accounting. But network management became an issue following the decision to support the company’s expansion with means to allow solicitors to exchange and share data on cases.
He turned to a local channel partner, Keyfort, which sells security firm SonicWall technology, to implement firewall solutions. With seven IT staff in the firm he was never going to do this all himself – but unlike smaller firms, Lester Aldrdige doesn’t want everything done for it.
“I’d have been nervous implementing the network ourselves and security moves so quickly that it’d be difficult to keep up, so outside expertise in these areas was vital,” he says.
“Outsourcing is all well and good, but if I’m responsible for my company’s network I want to make sure I know what’s going on – and that it doesn’t go wrong,” he says.
Web links that matter
Microsoft’s small business portal, www.bcentral.co.uk, has some useful links, imcluding this, www.bcentral.co.uk/fulfilment/FreeBCCGuide.asp a free 35-page Guide To Technology aimed at the smaller business produced in partnership for the British Chamber of Commerce
BT’s small business site is at
Networking the Owls
You wouldn’t necessarily categorise Sheffield Wednesday Football Club as a small to medium-sized enterprise – until you think about how its ‘goal’ is not just about keeping the football team itself as high up Division 2 as it can, but how it’s also a business serving a 40,000-seat entertainment centre with all the associated merchandising.
That centre – its famous Hillsborough stadium, pictured below – is now the focus of a new Cisco-based wireless local area network that’s linking executive and sales staff in a new ‘playing formation’. The system means better intra-club communication between offices as well as the training ground and a new study centre for local youth. “Previously, we had to phone, fax or pigeonhole another member of the team on the other side of the club – now we can communicate instantly,” says Steve Chu, Sheffield Wednesday’s Communications Manager.
“Another big benefit is real-time data on stock and sales levels in the shop and for tickets, which saves us a lot of time and increases efficiency. It’s all about us stopping working in isolation and getting more connected.”
Phil Cracknell, Head of Consultancy CISSP, says: “The network can stand alone and is robust enough to be managed perfectly well by the club’s own IT staff. They now have just one network to manage.”
Eventually, the club aims to layer both voice over IP and closed circuit TV feeds over IP, and beyond that offer Owls fans an Internet connection via their PDAs and telephones while inside the ground for exclusive replay and match information.