Feb 152012
 

Cloud or Small Business ServerWhile advising a friend of mine in his research quest for a small business server for file sharing and storage solution for his new legal business, I am trying to channel him to the cloud and away from being penny-smart and dollar-foolish like most new small business owners, and get him to choose a quality, worry-free solution that lasts.

On the contrary to popular belief, a new small business may not need an in-house server for file sharing, even if you’re trying to make things very cheap (but still robust) and use Linux. You may be able to set up simple sharing on a peer-to-peer network from a workstation to workstation. Unfortunately, most owners who want an in-house hosted server stay away from open source and freeware just because they don’t have the expertise to install these solutions and because they don’t trust local experts, so instead of to their knowledgeable neighbors, they give their money to Microsoft shareholders. Well, for those eager to do that I have another post with one possible small office server configuration that I helped select, and I will also have yet another post with a penny pincher solution for simple file sharing in a very small office.

Cheap Now May Be More Expensive Later

Throughout my 15 years in information technology, whenever I ignored the saying “I’m not rich enough to buy cheap”, it came back to haunt me and I’d spend more money in the long run. Moreover, having researched, bought and managed numerous technology solutions, I believe that new small businesses can nowadays compete with the big guys if they choose new, reasonably affordable cloud solutions which provide high uptime and great backup and recovery options at a low support and maintenance cost (built into subscription). Each new startup currently has at least one advantage over an already established, big business – flexibility, no worries about compatibility to legacy (past) solutions and no necessary expenses and risks to smoothly migrate old systems into new solutions, so why not just bite the bullet right now and get ahead of the game?

Why The Cloud Is The Best Bet for Small Business

I used to be a strong opponent of “the cloud” when I was a Deputy CIO because it was mostly politics, used as a buzzword to provide new power shifts and introduce new vendors, and because at my large institution we already had our private cloud that worked very well. However, unless you have one or more of these valid reasons to stay off the cloud, the in-house solutions of a small business office can never match the redundancy and uptime of huge server farms of the cloud software and storage providers.

Take Intuit for example, which not only provides QuickBooks Online accounting solution to millions of subscribers, but also hosts Turbotax for yet more millions of personal and corporate tax accounts, hence they just have to be as safe and reliable as online banking, otherwise they would have gone out of business long time ago. This includes 24/7 online service with free support, 256-bit encription, hourly data backups to different locations, with software and system upgrades on the run (no downtime, no version upgrades required on the client end), unlimited USA-based free support, activity log (audit trails) transaction by transaction and login/logouts. In addition, this way you get browser access from anywhere on the internet without a need to install anything on any machine, no maintenance, no VPN, no backups, no necessary hardware and software support for the server, antivirus and anti-spyware, security patches, etc, etc… You can’t match their levels of security and availability on an in-house installation without a huge investment far beyond feasibility for a small business.

Recommended Cloud Solutions for Small Business

This is what I recommended to a small office with three permanent users and what I’d most likely consider to be the best solution if I were going live with a new small office business:

Box

Formerly known as Box.net, this cloud service provides 1 TB of online storage with advanced sharing and collaboration which in my book beats any in-house hosted server, all that for $15 per user per month. Let’s see, for three users it’s $45/month = $540 per year. No server hardware and software installation to worry about, no backups (I’d still do some), no single point of failure, no weekly security patches, no server antivirus, no extra in-house maintenance and technical support services. I believe it’s worth it, and if this price is too high, there are even cheaper providers with less features, but again, remember the question that may haunt you later: are you rich enough to buy cheap? For those who want to look further into cloud storage and collaboration solutions I recommend the Gizmodo.com article “The Best Way to Store Stuff in The Cloud”. Although this review is more oriented towards individual users, it gives you a good idea how cloud storage providers compare to each other.

Google Apps

Although Google Apps for Business and Box work best when combined, Google Apps for Business ($5 per user per month or $50 per user annually) can be a very attractive and affordable standalone alternative, particularly if the only files you share with your coworkers are documents. At this low price it comes with amazing 25 GB of email storage so you can say goodbye to deleting emails. There’s also the free version for up to 10 users with 7 GB of email storage, if you don’t mind seeing the same discrete Google adds you see (do you?) in your personal Gmail web client, and even with the free one you still get to use your custom domain name on up to 10 email accounts so their addresses match your website and look really professional to your partners, clients and customers.

Google Apps may also be a viable alternative to spending money on Microsoft Office which is quite costly for business customers.

With all these options, your cost for having your own customized industrial-strength email service is so far below what the big guys spend per user for systems of their own. Another goodness that would make me sign up for the free Google Apps or subscribe to Google Apps for Business (besides Google going green unlike Facebook and Apple) is that I can’t remember the last time my Gmail was down or slow.

QuickBooks Online

At $12.99 per month for a single user for QuickBooks Online accounting software your annual cost is about $156 per year. For three users you pay $27 per month or $324 annually, which is nearly half the price of the in-house hosted software with three licenses, but again, no need for tech support and installation services, backups, maintenance, upgrades, antivirus and worry about server hardware, location, power, heat noise, etc..

If you use some or all of the above options, you may eliminate the need for an in-house server. You’d still need the in-house desktops or laptops, a printer, a good connection to the internet and most likely a WiFi router, but that’s it. Having worked in IT for all these years I believe I’ve seen too many things that can go wrong, so if I owned a new small business I’d just keep file sharing and accounting in the cloud, reliable, affordable, and away from the office. Annual cost: under $700, (about $1,000 if you need three QuickBooks users instead of one), or even far less if you only use Google Apps and QuickBooks. Sleeping well at night, knowing you can access your files from any computer connected to the internet, even if everything in your office burns down to the ground? Priceless.

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