Friday, May 18, 2007

Will Outsourcing Your IT Save Time and Money?

At the intersection of business and technology, the rationale known as "we've always done it that way" seems downright antiquated. Still, it's a surprisingly resilient dogma — particularly in the area of IT. A lot of small business owners struggle with the idea of letting a third-party manage and maintain the infrastructure on which the business depends.

Hosted IT infrastructure? A brief definition: instead of buying, installing, managing and supporting the various servers, data backup systems, virus protection and e-mail platforms (for example) on your premises, you pay a monthly fee for these services from a company that maintains and protects all of the infrastructure in its secure data centers – and thus avoid an up-front cash investment.

The Planet, a company that provides on-demand IT infrastructure solutions and thus very interested in promoting the benefits of hosted IT infrastructure, did a little outsourcing of its own. It commissioned BizTechReports.Com to survey small business owners to see what, if any, benefits hosted IT provides over the traditional do-it-yourself approach. The report, The Small Business Transition to Hosted Technology: Costs vs. Benefits, was published last month. Let's take a look at the results.

BizTechReports surveyed 326 small business decision-makers from 19 different industries. These respondents fell into two groups: The first consisted of 164 people in companies (all randomly selected customers of The Planet) that outsource at least one major component of their IT infrastructure. The remaining 162 people (also randomly selected) came from companies that manage all major IT infrastructure components on their own.
The respondents were members of senior management, with 96 percent listing their titles as manager, director or higher. The majority of them — 97 percent — work at companies with fewer than 100 employees.

The study found that small businesses that use a hosted IT infrastructure are more likely to spend a smaller percentage of their annual revenue on technology than are their counterparts who manage IT internally. SMBs that outsource are also two times more open to and likely to use new technologies such as software as a service (SaaS) applications like

The study also revealed that businesses that rely on hosted IT don't have as many security issues or technical failures, which reduces downtime and its associated cost. Another factor: The rate at which hardware becomes faster and more powerful. The study noted the rapidly shrinking shelf life of hardware makes investing in the technology a lot less appealing for SMBs

Steve Kahan, The Planet's vice president of marketing and product management noted the study's finding that a hosted infrastructure makes it easy for a company to expand or contact their IT operations as needed. "Customers pay a monthly fee, which makes predicting costs a snap," he said. "Plus, being able to buy what they need and scale up or down quickly is a real advantage, particularly when dealing with seasonal business."

Another notable finding relates to e-commerce. Specifically, outsourcing SMBs add e-commence applications to their business "to generate top-line revenue" twice as often as do companies that manage their own infrastructure. The study also noted that e-commerce apps "require a much higher degree of infrastructure reliability and availability to be successful."

Kahan said that a hosted infrastructure provides small businesses with the technological backbone necessary to be competitive in the e-commerce arena. "SMBs face behemoth competition when it comes to e-commerce. A hosted infrastructure gives them world-class resources at an affordable price."

Earlier in the year, The Planet commissioned Stratecast, a division of Frost and Sullivan, to compare the costs involved in a both hosted and a nonhosted IT infrastructure scenario. In its total cost analysis, Stratecast found that a small business owning and maintaining its own IT infrastructure would spend $104,600 over a three-year period where as a company with a hosted IT infrastructure would pay $24,100 for the same infrastructure over the same period of time.

Best Computing Products of the Year

Small Business Computing has released their best picks of the year for small businesses.

You can see the entire article here

Desktop PC
Dell OptiPlex 745 Runner-up: iMac (MA590LL)

Notebook PC
Dell Latitude D820 Runner-up: MacBook (2.0GHz)

Color Printer
HP Color LaserJet 2605dn Runner-up: Xerox Phaser 6120

Black & White Printer
HP LaserJet 5200 Runner-up: Samsung ML-2571N

Multifunction Device
HP Officejet 4315 All-in-One Runner-up: Xerox WorkCentre 4118 Multifunction Printer

Mobile Device
BlackBerry Pearl 8100 Runner-up: Palm Treo 700wx

NetApp StoreVault S500 Runner-up: EMC CLARiiON AX150i

HP Proliant ML570 G4 Runner-up: IBM System x3105

PC Security
Norton Internet Security 2007 (Symantec) Runner-up: McAfee Internet Security Suite 2007

Network Security
McAfee Total Protection for Small Business Runner-up: Trend Micro Client Server Security 3 for SMB

PC Data Backup And Recovery
Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery Desktop Edition 6.5 Runner-up: Maxtor OneTouch III, Turbo Edition (Seagate Corp.)

Network Data Backup And Recovery
EVault Small Business Edition Runner-up: Seagate Mirra Sync and Share Personal Server 320 GB

Software and Services:
Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 Runner-up: FileMaker Pro 8.5

Accounting and Finance
QuickBooks Premier 2007 (Intuit) Runner-up: Peachtree by Sage Premium Accounting 2007

Graphics and Multimedia
Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0 Runner-up: Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo XI

Sales and Customer Management Runner-up: ACT by Sage 2007

Citrix GoToWebinar Runner-up: Central Desktop

Skype for Business Runner-up: SmartVoice Plus (Accessline Communications)

Volusion Runner-up: Yahoo Merchant Solutions

Web Hosting Provider
Yahoo Web Hosting Runners-up: GoDaddy and Verio

Customer Service
Volusion Live Chat Premium Edition Runner-up: Live Person Pro

SEO/SEM/Web Analytics
WebTrends Runner-up: Omniture

Online Marketing and Advertising
Google AdWords Runner-up: Constant Contact

Affiliate Program
Google AdSense Runner-up: Amazon Associates

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ten Tips for Getting the Most from Virtual Support Networks

Tip 1: Make It Easy For Your Customers
Leaders are making themselves easy for customers to do business with by:
1. Enabling true hands-off support and maintenance. On-site staff should not have to press the reboot button, install new versions of the software, or click “OK” to security requests. Remote access should be completely transparent.
2. Providing effective tools for administering and monitoring remote access. Permissions to access and modify systems should be very clearly granted and documented, and should be easy to revoke for any reason.
3. Working anywhere, anytime. Whether your customers’ systems are peered to an Internet backbone or connected via slow dial-up line, remote access and management should just work.
Customers are paying for someone else to do the worrying for them. Making it easy for them to forget all about you makes for a very good memory at renewal time.

Tip 2: Be Secure
Managed service providers are trusted partners and the access they have to customer systems carries a significant burden of responsibility. As a result, leaders do everything in their power to make sure the ways that they remotely access systems is as secure as possible.
To assure security, managed service leaders do the following:
1. Avoid direct connections. There should be no direct connection between the remote system and the analyst’s machine. This is important because a direct machine-to-machine connection is easier to hijack. The most secure solution is to have each machine initiate a session with a common set of network services in a physically and logically secure location, and to have those services intermediate interaction between the two machines. Obviously, a signal needs to get to the target machine since it’s unattended, but the actual live connection should still go through a server network.
2. Use strong encryption. Encryption should be at last 128 bits for practical insurance against cracking. As mentioned in the Gartner quote above, a standard such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) should be used so that the protection afforded by the encryption is broadly understood.

Tip 3: The Internet Isn’t Perfect. Deal With It
On an engineer’s whiteboard, the Internet looks like a pretty well organized place: Internet Protocol (IP) packets whiz from machine to machine regardless of the underlying physical transport mechanism.
Those of us who have tried to download large email attachments from hotel rooms or stream video from overseas servers know better.
While poor performance may be invisible to your customers, it will directly interfere with your analysts’ ability to do their work, and as a result will hinder the adoption of VSN technology. No expert likes sitting around waiting for a screen refresh.
Make sure your VSN works well when deployed wherever your customers may be. Test it specifically through dial-ups, satellite, ISDN, WiFi, and other less-than-perfect connections.
If you’re using a hosted service, make sure that they have Internet access points that are logically close to your customers worldwide. If you’re hosting the service yourself, make sure your IT organization can support these local points of presence.

Tip 4: Set Customer Expectations
The effectiveness of Virtual Support Networks can be its own trap, raising the expectations of customers beyond a level that’s needed or mutually profitable. And, by getting attached with the technology, users can drive its use in cases when it’s less appropriate, much as patients ask their doctors to prescribe antibiotics for the common cold. The inappropriate use of powerful technology can get in the way of its effectiveness in cases when it is the right tool.
Leaders manage—and exceed—customer expectations using a combination of techniques:
• Define clear SLAs. Whether providing a managed service or supporting unattended technology from the IT help desk, leaders define service level agreements that clearly specify the actions (and in some cases, the outcomes) of support in specific circumstances. An SLA is not just a way of enforcing a contract; it’s a tool for facilitating conversations about value with the customer.
• Keep communicating with the customer. Make sure the customer knows when VNSs are mutually beneficial—and when a brief telephone conversation will accomplish the same thing more quickly. While a VSN is an outstanding way to get access to a machine, it doesn’t help at all understanding the customer’s situation, plans, or state of mind.
• Define clear policies internally for using remote support and VSNs. If your support team is clear about when the VSN should and should not be used, they’ll be able to manage customers who immediately demand remote connectivity. This is especially true when the service is value-add, but not fully managed.

Tip 5: Be Prepared For Hard Questions
Customers who are giving you remote, unsupervised access into mission-critical applications and systems are going to ask difficult questions. They’ll come from both the business and the IT side, and will increasingly focus on their own regulatory compliance issues. The most challenging will come from companies in the healthcare industry based on the stringent nature of HIPAA regulations, but all sectors are affected by compliance.
Customer-facing staff need materials—whether scripts, bullet points, FAQs, or a knowledge base article—to help them explain the benefits to customers and overcome likely concerns about security, privacy, and changes in the resolution process. They should be coached to answer customer questions based on their needs and interests (“we’ll take less of your time”) and not their own (“I don’t have to drive all the way out to your facility anymore.”)
Questions to cover include “will I be able to see what you did?” “can you take files from my machine?” “can you put viruses on my machine?” “will your software stay on my machine and monitor my actions?” “is this spyware?” and “does this cause a breach in our firewall?”
Customers need to understand that remote support is an option, not a requirement, and that their security contract will grant rights only for certain pre-defined activities.
Leading VSN users also provide white papers and detailed security information on their web site or customer extranet to help technical people at customer sites evaluate the security of the VSN. Ideally, this is backed up with internal expertise and, as a last resort, a conference call with the vendor. Vendors should provide customers with a template white paper that can be customized and branded for the specifics of the implementation.

Tip 6: Measure Effectiveness
Most support organizations need to build an ROI and business case to justify the purchase of technology, but then fail to follow up to see what the business impact actually is. This is a mistake: without measuring effectiveness, it’s hard to validate the original assumptions, and it’s hard to identify areas for improving the return. Additionally, since there is an ongoing cost component to most VSN solutions (either internal for software or paid as a service fee for hosted solutions), this cost needs to be justified as well.
Leaders track:
1. In what percentage of incidents remote support is used
2. What the alternatives would have been to the virtual support network in these incidents (e.g., 50% would have required an on-site visit; 40% would have required a customer call-back, 10% would have required an additional escalation)
3. What the cost of a VSN incident is, and what the cost of the alternative is. Most companies look to marginal cost—that is, the cost that would have been saved by not doing the last incident in this way—rather than allocating all the fixed cost equally across all incidents.
With this data, a very simple spreadsheet model can show the financial benefit of the VSN.
One other point to keep in mind: if you’re casting the benefit of VSN in pure apples-to-apples cost savings, you need to be prepared for management to take you up on the offer, which will mean layoffs or consolidations. Most organizations focus on (a) the ability to handle new support demand without scaling headcount and (b) the ability to create new value-added offerings to drive margins.

Tip 7: Create a Dedicated Team
As with any other effort, specialization has its benefits. And the leaders we spoke with have all taken the initiative to create a dedicated team that’s focused on using the VSN. This makes them expert in the tool as well as the resolution processes that are most effective. And, if a particular type of incident pops up all of a sudden, for example, related to an OS upgrade or a virus, this team can quickly document and share best practices for dealing with it.
Tip 8: Back It Up with Remote Access
Virtual Support Networks are an excellent hammer—but that doesn’t mean that all your support problems are nails.
VSNs are ideal for unattended machines: kiosks, conference rooms, and servers. They’re also good for machines without a dedicated owner, like point of sale terminals. They are not, however, appropriate for machines that are actually “owned” by someone. Dedicated users would rightly resent and feel uncomfortable about others having transparent access to their machines, no matter how legitimate the business purpose.
In the case of user-dedicated machines, back up the VSN with Internet-based remote access. In particular, select a solution that provides fine-grain opt-in privacy, so users need only grant those rights which make sense for their support needs, whether it’s view but not drive, access to specific applications, or logins to specific user accounts.

Tip 9: Keep Good Records
All public enterprises have a regulatory requirement to manage their IT resources, and all businesses have a right to know what actions their service providers are taking. This is especially true in today’s hostile security environment, in which a single badly managed technology asset could compromise the security of the entire enterprise network.
Clean audit trails are a must-have for managed service providers. Unfortunately, these are often easier said than done.
Files that are transferred and executed, or scripts that are run, can be logged in an audit trail conventionally. But many of the actions taken over a VSN work through a graphical user interface, for which a simple audit trail won’t suffice: “mouse moved to 125, 765, double clicked, moved to…” isn’t helpful.
In the case of actions taken through the desktop or GUI of a computer system the audit trail needs to include a complete session record of the activities and displays. This needs to be maintained so that customers have secure access to it, but others don’t. Also, the identities of the authenticated users taking the actions must be stored as well.
Good audit trails and session recordings will simplify compliance, increase confidence, simplify debugging, and cover you should questions arise about support practices.

Tip 10: Pick the Right Technology Partner
Most of the practices described in the previous nine tips require some technology support, as well as people and process management. After reviewing them, make sure that your business requirements capture the points that are most important to your organization. These will typically include:
1. Certified security and security architecture
2. Breadth of functionality for unattended operation
3. Auditing and session recording functionality
4. Performance over the Internet, including low-bandwidth and unreliable links
5. Effective management tools and reporting
An additional consideration is whether to select a software solution or a hosted solution. Software solutions are appealing from a control standpoint, but their total cost of ownership can be surprisingly high, given the challenges involved in creating a worldwide network that supports VSN functionality. The following table summarizes some of the trade-offs between hosted and licensed solutions:
Software Solutions
Hosted Solutions
Global, highly available network
Ability to be integrated
Low starting costs
Cost predictability (vendor, not TCO)
Ability to scale to demand spikes

The Virtual Support Network

Virtual Support Networks allow managed service providers and IT organizations to support unattended, on-premise hardware and software as though they were there in person, even if they’re ten thousand miles away and managing a computer connected to the internet through a low-speed dial-up line.

Virtual Support Networks (VSNs) are a second-generation of internet-based remote access technology. Like those solutions, VSNs are:
• Web-based. This means they communicate over standard secure web ports that are already open in the firewall.
• High-performance. They are not only faster over any kind of network but also more resilient to packet loss, temporary loss of connections, and the other realities of today’s Internet.
• Secure. Using the same secure web protocols that drive billions of dollars of financial transactions VSNs are secure, permissions-based, and give granular control over the level of access the supported system provides.

These additional characteristics distinguish VSN technology further:
• Bulletproof security contracts. Without an on-site user to grant or deny each individual action, VSNs must allow customers to set, manage, and monitor specific policies about who can do what to their machines.
• Full control. When supported by the security contract, the remote user must be able to install software, reboot the system and immediately reconnect, log on as both a user and an administrator, and generally have the same access to the system as if he or she were in the same room.
• Total auditability. While auditing actions is important in any remote access scenario, it becomes especially important in an unattended scenario. This is even more true in the light of today’s IT compliance and regulatory environment created by Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, EU privacy regulations, and more.

The Business Case for Virtual Support Networks
The business case for the Virtual Support Network is simple: for organizations providing support to a stringent service level, VSNs reduce the number of costly field visits. The result is higher per-agent productivity, lower cost and higher margins, and (because of shorter resolution times) higher customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Reduced Support Costs
Support industry research shows that the cost of a single field visit costs a minimum of $100 to $150 dollars, even for the simplest issues. Not only that, but it takes time: time to dispatch busy technicians, time for them to become available, time for them to badge in, and time for them to get to and from the customer location. A field service technician who can resolve four issues in a day is considered productive, where their remote counterpart may be expected to resolve three or four issues in an hour.

The math is clear: managed support organizations must do as much work remotely as possible. With Virtual Support Network technology, a much greater percentage of incidents can be resolved remotely with no loss of close rates or customer success. The bottom line is lower support costs and higher margin for managed services. Remote support can even create the opportunity to package additional high-margin value-added services that are priced attractively to the customer.

Reduced Time to Resolution
In addition to being more cost effective, remote support (empowered by next-best-thing-to-being-there VSN technology) resolves issues much faster for customers—especially if the issues are complex. The field technician might not have the expertise to debug the issue without a great deal of back-and-forth with escalation engineers in the support center or the sustaining engineering organization. In contrast, with a VSN, all the experts can collaborate at first contact—even if they’re in different locations.

The result is faster time to relief for the customer, faster time to close and lower backlog for the service provider.

Increased Customer Satisfaction and Loyalty
Managed service customers pay a premium for not having to think about support—for making downtime “somebody else’s problem.” And the services they’re buying are often business-critical. So it’s no surprise that they’re impatient when having to wait for a technician.
Similarly, system maintenance is a necessary evil. While customers understand the role of maintenance in delivering the uptime they need, they’d prefer not to be involved in it.
By enabling effective remote support, VSNs provide more of what the customer is paying for: rapid resolutions and transparent maintenance. In many cases, problems are detected and resolved long before the customer knows there’s a problem. Upgrades and maintenance are invisible. The whole messy reality of the technology is hidden from the customer, and they just reap the business benefits.

This model can have major impacts on satisfaction. But more importantly, from a business standpoint, it can be great for loyalty. Customers now see the managed service provider not a vendor who is always trying to justify their support contract on a cost-per-incident basis but as a trustworthy business partner who deserves to share in the benefits they enable.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ubiquitous Support Launches in Houston, TX

Ubiquitous Support - existing or being everywhere, especially at the same time.

A new company has started up in Northwest Houston to support small businesses. Ubiquitous Support offers the same level of support that large mulitnational companies enjoy without all the overhead.

The Ubiquitous Support model is a subscription based service based on the number of PCs and servers on your network. For a low monthly fee, Ubiquitous Support supplies unlimited remote support of your PCs, network and servers. If there is something that cannot be fixed remotely, they send a technician to your location... all included in your monthly fee.

Ubiquitous Support goes well beyond the day-to-day support. They actively monitor all of your company assets to deal with issues before the result in the loss of productivity. Ubiquitous Support will meet regularly with your companies management to make sure you are getting the most out of the money you spend on new technology. No more throwing money away on technology you thought you needed.

Ubiquitous Support also offers other "add-on" services, including website design, security audits, application audits, and contingency planning.

This model allows small businesses to budget well in advance for the IT expenses. For more information on Ubiquitous Support, you may contact them here.

Inbound Links - the Key to High Pageranks

Link text is singly the most important factor when Google determines the rankings for any given search term.

Why do we need inbound links?
Even before Google came on the scene, link popularity (linkpop) was being used by one or two search engines as part of their algorithm when determining the rankings for any given search term. Then when Google arrived with their link-based Page Rank, link popularity took off and became an absolute essential ingredient in achieving top rankings.

The idea behind linkpop is that the more pages that link to a page, the more important the page is and it, therefore, deserves a higher ranking than it would otherwise have.

Some engines simply counted the number of links coming into a page (inbound links), but Google took the idea a step further. Each inbound link comes from a page which itself has inbound links. The more inbound links on the linking page, the more important that page is and, therefore, the more important the link to our page is. So Google gives more weight to inbound links from important pages that it does to inbound links from lesser pages. They call the idea "PageRank", and you can learn all about in this PageRank article.

Google is the world's number one search engine, and currently provides the results for around 80% of all the searches done in the world. Because of that, it is vitally important for any website that relies on search engine traffic to do well in Google. Doing well in Google means making the site 'important' in Google's eyes and, to do that, the site must have good inbound links - as many of them as possible, and preferably from important pages (pages with medium to high PageRank values).

How do we get inbound links?
There are a number of ways. Some of them are:-

Directories usually provide one-way links to websites, although some require a reciprocal link. Personally, I have no time for those that require reciprocal links, because they aren't really trying to be useful directories. Submitting to directories is time-consuming and boring, but there are a number of cheap directory submitting services that do a very good job. There are several of them in this forum thread.

Join forums and place links to your site(s) in your signature line. Use your main searchterms as the link text - I'll come to why that is necessary later in this article. But before spending time writing lots of posts with your signature line in each post, make sure that the forum is spiderable by checking the robots.txt file, and make sure that non-members don't have session IDs in the URLs. Also make sure that links in signature lines are not hidden from spiders (view the source code to make sure that signature links are in plain HTML format and not in Javascript).

Link exchange centers
Find a join free link exchange center like There you can find a categorized directory of websites that also want to exchange links. Be careful not to sign up with FFA (Free For All) sites because they are mostly email address gatherers and you can expect a sudden increase in email spam soon after you sign up. Also, only sign up with centers where you can approach other sites personally, and where they can approach you personally.

Do not join any link farms!!! Link farms, such as, sound excellent for building up linkpop and PageRank, but search engines (Google in particular) disapprove of them as blatant attempts to manipulate the rankings and they will penalize sites that use them. Once a site has been penalized, it is very difficult to get the penalty lifted, so avoid all link farms.

Email requests
(a) Search on Google for your main searchterms and find the websites that are competing with you. Then find which sites link to them by searching "". Email them and ask for a link exchange.
(b) Search on Google for websites that are related to your site's topic, but not direct competitors, and ask them for a link exchange.

Buy them
There are websites that want to sell links. They are usually medium to high PageRank sites, and often the link will be placed on multiple pages, or all pages within the site. It's possible to approach individual sites where you would like your links to appear, but it is much quicker, easier and more reliable to use a middle-man service (or broker).

Link brokers offer links for sale on behalf of other websites (you could use the service to sell links on your site!). With these services, it is usual to be able to choose the type (topic) of the website(s) where you want to place your links. I am not aware of any disreputable practises with link brokering.

Finally, there are even links for sale by public auction, such as the one at LinkAdage Auctions.

Inbound links are important for websites that want to move up the rankings. Inbound links, with the right link text, are essential for achieving top rankings.

Most websites are not natural link magnets, and link acquisition can be time-consuming and frustrating. Many websites that are approached by email will say no, but some will say yes. For top rankings, it is essential to take the time and get many inbound links.

Create a Site Map

Sitemaps are an easy way for webmasters to inform search engines about pages on their sites that are available for crawling. In its simplest form, a Sitemap is an XML file that lists URLs for a site along with additional metadata about each URL (when it was last updated, how often it usually changes, and how important it is, relative to other URLs in the site) so that search engines can more intelligently crawl the site.

Web crawlers usually discover pages from links within the site and from other sites. Sitemaps supplement this data to allow crawlers that support Sitemaps to pick up all URLs in the Sitemap and learn about those URLs using the associated metadata. Using the Sitemap protocol does not guarantee that web pages are included in search engines, but provides hints for web crawlers to do a better job of crawling your site.

There are hundreds of Sitemap tools that will help you build a site map. The one I use is A1 Sitemap Generator. It is easy to use and gives you all the options you need to create a Google friendly sitemap. Click here to see a screen shot of the A1 Sitemap Generator.