Is your old IT Suffocating your Business?
At Lennox IT we strive to deliver 21st century IT solutions which are agile, flexible and robust. A large number of our clients come to us with older systems which hark back to the days when every business aspired towards a large room full of giant computers like something out of the movie Tron. In 2016 though a giant server room brings with it an equally giant electricity bill and an army of IT support workers to keep the whole thing working. Unless your business is in IT Services then it’s unlikely that this is a cost which your business really needs or wants.
We frequently see small businesses of under 10 employees who are struggling with enterprise grade IT solutions (Active Directory, DNS servers, Exchange servers, Commercial Firewalls, Group Policy etc. etc.) when a much simpler solution would suffice. I’m sure these systems sound fantastic when a salesmen is describing how productive your staff will become but really they are overkill for an SME and quickly become an expensive, risky burden.
If you are unfortunate enough to possess one of these systems then I have a question: Do you really understand what that server in the corner is doing and what data it holds? Do you have a plan in place for when it suddenly stops working? What about if the building catches fire, how long would it take to get another server up and running again?
A scary thought? It shouldn’t be!
The Cloud is here to stay
10 years ago the server in the corner was a necessary evil but times have very much changed. Internet connections are faster –and crucially more reliable – than ever with a large number of businesses having access to high speed fibre lines. On-line services have also become well established and whilst the big names like Google and Microsoft still offer some of the best services, there are an increasing number of smaller companies now offering similar services at affordable prices. The cost of devices have also fallen with laptops coming in under £200 and most people carrying around a smart phone in their pocket.
There was a time not long ago where an IT Director could argue that the cloud is too unreliable as a basis for business IT but this argument rings hollow today. Obviously if you’re based in a rural location where your internet is patchy then moving completely into the cloud without an offline cache could be a risk but for most UK cities and towns the internet is no longer a limiting factor and will let you down considerably less often than your staff’s sick days or the weather!
So what should I do?
If you’re planning to move your IT into the 21st century then the first thing you need to do is understand what your existing IT is doing for you. If you have an old server then usually it will be providing :
- Exchange email server – provides email management, calendars, contacts, etc.
- Active Directory – controls security and user profiles across your network
- File sharing (and potentially printer sharing too)
- Remote access (VPN)
- Running your line of business applications – e.g. business management applications, customer databases, financial systems like Sage, etc.
Let’s take a look at how each one in turn can be upgraded:
Exchange Email Server
Moving from Exchange is relatively simple in this day and age. There are literally thousands of companies offering email hosting at affordable prices and there are also a wide range of options for shared calendars, contact management, and tasks/project management.
In fact many of the on-line services provide better integration with Android/IOS than Exchange does and make it easy to share information around the company and your devices rather than “squirrelling” it away into individual user accounts or user profiles where it can be difficult to control.
To understand AD its easiest to talk about what it really brings to your business. The main benefit of AD is that it allows your staff to hot-desk so that they are not tied to one PC. It also allows you to push out settings and policies across all of your workstations so you don’t have to manually configure each one.
However in practice it rarely works out perfectly:
Shunting large user profiles around the network is inefficient and leads to long loading times for your staff. Whilst hot-desking becomes easier in practice, in reality it can become a massive headache for your users since even a slight configuration difference between workstations can stop your applications working or create confusing quirks or lost settings. Allocating your staff a laptop or tablet which they can carry with them is a considerably simpler solution which works must better in practice.
The benefits of Group Policy and centralized configuration is also overstated. Again, in theory this should save time but in practice it often takes a long to write specific deployment or configuration scripts . It can often be quicker and cheaper to simply run around your workstations and do it manually. It is also important to consider what policies need enforcing through the software and what can be enforced through company culture and staff policies. If you trust your staff and operate an open office culture then it’s not always necessary to lock all of your workstations down. Similarly users should be discouraged from storing sensitive or private data on their computers and this should instead be stored in managed file stores which are backed up and protected.
In Summary: if your staff MUST desk-swap (and can’t just use a laptop!) then you need AD. Similarly, if you have a large number of workstations (more than 30-40) and need to regularly push out updates, settings, etc. then potentially you also need AD. Otherwise we recommend that you give it a miss as it will be bringing no value to your business.
File / Printer Sharing
There are a huge variety of low cost file sharing solutions around these days to store and share your company documents. If your documents must stay on site then you could use a low cost NAS storage drive. Most of these now support RAID 1 for extra resiliency and can also be configured to sync to a take-home USB drive or cloud backup system.
For cloud solutions you have a wide choice from DropBox to Google Drive, SkyDrive and many more. Cloud storage gives you the option of easily accessing your documents from phones and tablets which can be great for your Sales team or Road Warriors who sometimes struggle to get back to the office.
All modern printers are capable of managing their own queues and can be shared on the network so “printer sharing” on a server is a throw back to the olden days and not really an issue any more.
Remote Access (VPN)
Many commercial grade internet routers now offer VPN out of the box and even the most basic internet routers provide options for traffic routing and port forwarding along with a basic firewall. If you have specific requirements in this space then there is some argument for running a server or buying a dedicated firewall box but for most SME the internet router that comes free with your broadband is suitable for your requirements.
There are also a wide range of “remote access” tools now available on the web like PCAnywhere, LogMeIn, etc. which can provide no-nonsense remote access to workstations. If you have remote workers that need to access a specific PC on your network then these services can be a good solution.
Business Application Server
If you are running specific business applications then this is one area where a server in the corner is completely justified. Many standard business tools like Sage and QuickBooks now offer web alternatives should you wish to move into the cloud there but if you are running specialist management software then this is not always an option.
If you need a business application server then we recommend keeping it clean and only use it to run the software your business needs and nothing else. This keeps thing manageable and means that if the server does develop a fault then it can be isolated and resolved without affecting other aspects of the business.
The Next Step
All of our “business in a box” systems are built around cloud services and simple, low cost technology which empower your business instead of enslaving it. head over to the business in a box section to learn more and to see how cost effective these systems are
If you need help transitioning from your old IT system to something new then we are here to help! We can talk you through all the pros and cons and help you choose a modern system that truly works for your business. Simply drop us a message on our contact page and we can arrange a free, no obligation consultation to discuss your business.