The small to medium sized business tier is where leading-edge networking lives. Enterprise-level companies focus on tried and tested solutions. Safe bets. Smaller companies are more inclined to test the waters with new technologies, and even to deploy consumer-focused offerings should these work for them. This is not to say that value is not important, but SME businesses want their challenges solved rapidly and are not overly picky on the shape of the plug, but are more concerned with the hole it fills.
Case in point; small to medium sized companies have been using wireless networking for some time, while their enterprise contemporaries are generally only now implementing WiFi technology with the wider introduction of 802.11n. They were waiting for faster data throughput, wider coverage and more robust security. Smaller businesses look for the convenience of wireless in rapidly provisioning network services. Security is still an issue, but can be tackled quickly by focusing attention on one or a few access points, whereas large organisations have to consider a broader environment. Bigger company, bigger challenges.
The network has also evolved to become a focal point business. The network is the business. When it goes down, staff go home. Some would say that when it comes to investments, network infrastructure and tools should be on top of the pile in terms of importance. That is not saying much though – these days everything from 'basic' productivity applications to storage hardware are networked. The network is everywhere and in everything.
Added to this is the growing focus on mobility that is shifting dynamics in the workplace as a whole. Workers are no longer tied to their desks, but are often empowered to work from home, the local coffee shop or anywhere else. In South Africa this is bolstered by ubiquitous and affordable mobile broadband in the form of 3G HSDPA. The shift has begun; Stafford Masie, country manager of Google South Africa says that one in six Google searches in the country are conducted on a mobile phone and that mobile is a strong focus for the search behemoth’s local operations.
Small to medium sized case study
Sytech Supplies is an SME signage supply company that provides to a niche market nationwide. The company is highly tech-savvy and as with just about any modern business, relies heavily on its network.
“We have a receptionist, managers, a bookkeeper, sales executives, a branding and marketing guy and technicians in our office building, along with warehouse and dispatch workers,” explains Arthur van Wyk, the company’s head of brand marketing. “All staff must have access to the same information and speak the same language. We run networked accounting, database and stock control software and are busy working on a company-wide contact management system.”
“We run our own mail server on the premises and are in the process of getting a VPN (virtual private network),” he continues. “E-mail is a primary form of communication with clients and we have a demo room where we have examples of our specialised printing machines set up to show customers.”
Van Wyk says that the entire business is networked.
“Our internal sales executives, managers and technicians work on laptops that are wirelessly connected,” he states. “60% of all external communication is via e-mail and our network is structured so that every computer in the building can reach any machine in our demo room and send through requests. We also have a server that functions as a communal storage hub for documents and artwork.”
As with many other small to medium sized enterprises, Sytech is also focusing on mobility going forward.
“We will need a solution whereby our external sales consultants carry Blackberries and are able to tap into our stock control system when taking orders out in the field,” says Van Wyk. “We will also need a document web that clients can access securely.”
The proposed solution for Sytech is part social network, part web-facing customer resource management (CRM) system and part file server.
“We foresee building a web-based community space where we can solicit client feedback and communicate nationally and internationally with service providers, clients and suppliers in realtime,” explains Van Wyk.
“Information dissemination will take place via the online space and a lot of what we do technologically will have to shift to mobile platforms. We might have to start investing in handheld devices with loads of business functionality as opposed to the simple mobile phone with a colour screen, a camera and Bluetooth,” he adds.
And in that space, ASUS and Acer have businesses like Sytech firmly set in their sites with Netbook offerings such as the Eee PC and Aspire One that offer affordable, minimal mobile computing that is rugged and geared for persistent networking.
Small to medium sized companies often grow their infrastructure organically, and as business needs evolve. Armand Steffens, Netgear business development manager for Duxbury Networking argues that there is much to be gained, however, from carefully analysing motives before taking purchasing decisions.
“In the past most small to medium size enterprises reacted instinctively by ‘making do’ with their existing technology or, at best, upgrading the bare minimum in order to meet demands for better efficiency and more productivity,” he says.
“This is no longer the case. SMEs are beginning to realise the big business benefits that accrue from new technologies and trends – such as collaboration and remote working.”
They are also increasingly investigating the use of new Web technologies such as social networking, corporate blogging and other emergent technologies some would label as ‘Web 2.0’ in nature. Wikinomics at play in the SME can be a powerful tool, but businesses must be wary of getting ahead of themselves in the space.
SMEs would also do well to treat the slew of rising Web 2.0 ‘strategists’ and ‘visionaries’ in the space with caution as this particular brigade of consultants tend to offer limited insight into broader business requirements and instead focus on deployment. Their solutions are usually geared for the cool factor, but are left wanting in terms of value.
“The first question should always be, ‘but where is the value’,” suggests Wayne de Nobrega, CEO of Technology Concepts. “Businesses run the risk of chasing the technology curve instead of the business curve and wasting time on new Web initiatives that do not deliver value.”
He adds that much can be gained from working with an holistic networking solution provider that can tailor solutions to customer requirements and ensure that value can be derived.
“Whether your approach focuses on Windows or Linux, for example, it is key to work with a technology partner that can assist the business in identifying the right tools and applications for the job at hand, and then develop solutions for specific requirements, while bearing the bigger business picture in mind,” he adds. “It is also favourable to engage with a local partner that innovates to meet local challenges instead of simply reselling internationally developed solutions.”
With value in mind the business network needs physical infrastructure to get going. This begins with the Internet pipe that gets the business on the net. And in the South African context this means dealing with expensive and limited broadband solutions.
While wireless offerings such as HSDPA, iBurst and new CDMA solutions from second network provider Neotel are quick to deploy and are price competitive with terrestrial connectivity in the form of ADSL, they are also more limited in terms of bandwidth and latency. The last thing your business needs are e-mail bottlenecks and limited capacity for vital traffic.
ADSL is a popular option for connectivity, where dedicated enterprise solutions are out of the SME’s league. However, for businesses running their own mail servers and, with multiple users on their network, even the top-end Telkom offering of four megabits per second is way too slow.
This is where the local innovation Technology Concept’s Wayne de Nobrega speaks of can offer solutions. For example, Technology Concepts offers a bonded ADSL solution that can offer up to 20 megabits per second of bandwidth by bonding together up to five ADSL lines. This is also a true bonded solution, not a load balancing approach that some providers call ‘bonded’ when really it is not.
The advantages of true bonding as opposed to load balancing of multiple ADSL lines is in quality of service. A true bonded offering is, for all intents and purposes, a 20 megabit per second connection.
Another option is on the horizon in the form of fibre connectivity from Neotel. The second network operator is already able to provide ‘fibre to the curb’ connectivity in selected business centres and this will eventually be available nationwide.
While fibre connectivity is currently aimed at enterprise customers, it will be within the reach of SMEs located in business parks that Neotel is linking up. This will provide businesses with a healthy slice of the one gigabit connectivity Neotel is making available from its metro Ethernet offering.
Convergence and collaboration
Convergence onto the IP stack has been talked about for some time, but businesses still generally make use of separate voice services from Telkom, and now Neotel, as voice over IP (VoIP) for SMEs is limited by bandwidth in South Africa and rarely delivers value when costed out. Of course, the scenario is different for the likes of enterprise call centres where economies of scale shift the dynamics.
Other communications tools such as instant messaging are now commonplace in the daily operations of SMEs and collaboration tools are being targeted at the space by everyone from Microsoft to Google.
“As it has in the public domain, collaborative computing is now making its presence felt in the business environment,” says Duxbury Networking’s Armand Steffens. “It is proving to be successful for executives who have the courage to adapt their thinking to embrace this new concept – which includes such facets as the use of a corporate wiki and the pooling of knowledge in centralised repositories.”
“Globally, SMEs are expected to drive this technology forward,” he continues. “Unlike their larger counterparts, they have less constrained business environments. Because of this flexibility, SMEs will adopt and soon realise the benefits of collaboration technologies – and the viability of ‘teamspace’.”
Companies like Google are also targeting small to medium sized businesses with free tools to drive this dynamic. For example, it is possible for businesses to direct their entire domains to Google, that will then provide e-mail, Google Apps including collaborative document tools, and other services free of charge. Hosting from Google is also being made available freely. Premium services are available at nominal costs.
The challenge with hosted solutions, including software as a service (SaaS) offerings for the likes of CRM, is in working with vendors that have local infrastructure allowing access to services over the local loop. This allows them to be utilised regardless of bandwidth caps and at improved speeds. Effective host-side data backup should also be an imperative.
The bottom line in networking is to stay focused on the value it brings to the business, in driving its bottom line.