As a small business owner, you’ve got a lot on your plate. Likely, you’re inundated with information on what hardware and software will make your life and your job that much easier, but what are the absolute essentials?
You want to make sure you’re getting the best value for your money, and you want to make sure your buys are focused on items that will go the distance. Value, utility, longevity – heck, you should even go for future-proof if it’s possible. The most important thing is that your needs are covered and that you are aware of what options are available to you. You’re known for making smart decisions – why should your IT buys be any different?
Here’s our rundown of vital IT hardware that you can’t do without if you’re doing business in 2016 and beyond:
No matter what business you are in, you will need computing power for your workforce. Think about how your business moves: is most of your work done in the office or is your team on the move? Even if your headquarters is purely for administrative purposes, you will require workstations so that your staff can complete these tasks. For the sake of security and efficiency, it is often best to allocate a unique workstation for each position.
As for the decision to purchase desktops over laptops, the way your business works should dictate your needs. If your team does the majority of its work within the office environment, desktops are probably the way to go. Desktops offer more flexibility in areas like computing power, and are far easier to secure within a firewall. However, the portability of a laptop may be an option to consider if much of your work is done in the field, though depending on the type of work you do, a more compact mobile solution might be preferable. More on that later.
Types of workstations to consider:
PC based systems offer the greatest compatibility and affordability, and if you anticipate the need for an application server at some point in your future, they are best suited to adapt. Most PC components are interchangeable, with towers of all sizes that are often expandable. Monitors and other peripherals can be purchased in a range of sizes and styles to suit your specific needs. PC components are made by a multitude of manufacturers, and so putting together affordable systems is within reach. Large computer companies like Dell offer small business solutions which may allow you to upgrade your equipment as needed without having to re-purchase down the line.
Apple products have long been the realm of professional graphics and audio applications, but tend to be more cost prohibitive. One of Apple’s flagship products is the iMac, its all-in-one design integrates a high-quality monitor and stand with wired or wireless keyboards. Mac Pro offers a more conventional setup, with a computer tower and separate monitor, which can be purchased in any size or resolution that makes sense to you. Since Apple offers many other products such as smartphones and tablets, you might find it to be a good business decision to connect all of your IT hardware across the entire channel.
If you are running more than two computer workstations, you will likely want to secure a local area network. Operating your own servers adds a great deal of flexibility when it comes to securing your data. Security is only one concern when establishing a network, but it’s a significant one. When you operate within a closed network you are better able to control your perimeter, so to speak, ensuring all your files, your communications and your infrastructure is safe.
Depending on the volume of data you process, what apps you are running and how much information you need to store, be sure that you are purchasing a server that can handle your capacity. It should be fast enough to deliver efficient access to your workforce, and to your customers if your business depends on an end-user application. It should also be scalable, as you just might find yourself in the market for new hardware if you don’t plan ahead. Fortunately, there are cloud server solutions available that combine security, integrity and scalability, and these might provide the greatest value in the long run.
Types of servers you might consider include:
Network Attached Servers (NAS)
Perfect for small businesses who need a central place to store files for use across the entire network. Rather than having to access a specific computer to use a file, an app or your CRM database, your commonly shared and used items can live on your file server where they can be accessed by everybody on the team. An NAS is an affordable file-sharing and email server solution for the small business office that is just looking to run their day-to-day processes more efficiently. For businesses who need to process more data than an NAS can typically handle, you can scale up to a tower server with the appropriate capacity and CPU’s to suit your specific needs.
You might consider an application server if you are running application platforms such as Microsoft, Oracle or IBM. An application server gives you more flexibility in pushing upgrades to all of your users, and allows for more robust security and flexibility.
Whatever server you decide on, choose one that is within your budget, is the right size for your needs and can scale with you if the need demands.
Wireless Routers and range extenders
A wireless router will keep all of your workstations and devices accessible to the network server as well as the internet. Wireless connectivity will also reduce the need to be hardwired into the network, allowing your workforce to connect their mobile devices or move about the space as they like.
A wireless router will also allow Wi-Fi internet access for your customers, colleagues and guests. An indispensable tool for conferencing, a dependable Wi-Fi connection promotes collaboration, productivity and efficiency. Depending on the size and scope of your headquarters, you may require a range extender to cover hard-to-reach areas that are further away from the router. A range extender ensures full strength access to the Wi-Fi signal, even if the user is not close to the router.
Network Printers and Multi-Function Machines
Gone are the days when it was required to be wired into a printer, scanner or fax machine in order to access their functions. Giving your team the ability to print or fax from any location within the network supports productivity and fosters collaboration, effectively freeing them from the ties (or in this case, cables) that bind.
Multi-function units are simply printers with added functionality. With the ability to fax, print, copy and scan with one machine, you can reduce the cost of your buy several-fold. However, many multi-function units do not represent the highest possible quality for any one of the four functions, so depending on your company’s needs, you may want to invest in a higher quality printer or a dedicated copy machine to ensure you are getting the performance you require. For instance, an attorney’s office has a need for a large amount of printing and copying, and a marketing agency may require a high quality printer to output stunning presentations. A multi-function’s capacity will nowhere near support these types of volume or quality. Fax machines, on the other hand, are quite passé in most industries, so you may be able to get away with using your multi-function as the only fax machine in the office, even though it might not be sufficient as the sole printer or copier. As a backup machine, it represents all-around good value, and for a small office that only has need for a small print volume, it might be just fine.
Mobile Phones and Tablets
There is a strong move among SMB’s towards BYOD (bring-your-own-device), but from a security standpoint it’s not necessarily the best route to pursue. While you may not be dealing with particularly sensitive data, your network security could still be compromised. One of the primary ways that cyber-thieves gain access to a network is by using social engineering tactics; that is, they manipulate people with emails to trick them into divulging passwords or personal information. Another angle is to coerce the recipient to click on a link that leads to a malicious site which will begin to download malware or otherwise attempt to access their system. In a BYOD situation, there is little way to control this, and your employee might haplessly give this malicious code access to your network from the inside.
While you likely want your employees to be able to have access to a mobile device, it’s likely better to distribute dedicated mobile devices that are secured by the network at all times. Establishing perimeter security on the network will effectively filter out malicious incoming messages before they reach their target, which is something you won’t be able to control in a BYOD situation. Additional network security protocols can be established to filter all kinds of activity, from disallowing access to malicious websites to geo-filtering access to and from entire countries, but the first line of defense should always be to control your technology at the source.
Your company’s operations should dictate the types of devices you distribute. Smartphones might be all that you need, but if you are running complex applications to perform essential functions, or have a need to video conference with your sales team, you might consider using tablets. By distributing the same devices among your workforce, you create more consistency and can control any required upgrades and access restrictions if need be.
External Disc Drives
Essential for backing up your vital data, external drives can take on many guises and sizes. While you may opt for a secure cloud backup, it is always a good idea to have physical backups on hand for redundancy sake. The truth is, in the event of a disaster, it is always better to be well protected no matter what. Choose backup drives that will accommodate all your data locally, and implement a regular backup schedule to ensure there is always a clean, recent backup available in case of a catastrophic incident such as a system-wide crash, or if there is physical damage to your location such as in a fire, flood, earthquake or major storm. Invest in several backup drives and keep one in a separate location to ensure that not all is lost. This is where a cloud solution comes in handy, but it’s always good to have options. Your business continuity is what is most important.
Portable disc drives are also handy to have, both to transfer files locally and to archive old data. Keep on hand a selection of portable drives in sizes that are sufficient to handle the type of data you trade in. While it may not be the most efficient way to transfer files, if you have a smaller network you may require the kind of flexibility that a portable drive affords.
While most of the world lives and dies by their smartphone, a mobile solution can’t replace your office phone. However, it is no longer necessary to invest tens of thousands of dollars on a PBX phone system in order to have a professional communications solution in place. Unified communications is primarily a software tool, but the hardware that accompanies it is specific to its use, providing flexibility and functionality far beyond what could ever be expected from a mere phone system.
Your communications equipment might be the heart and soul of your business if you are in sales, or if you have the need to communicate with customers, vendors or colleagues around the globe. If you are a new business, it’s an even easier decision to make, as there is nothing to replace – you’ll be starting from scratch with high-quality VoIP through a supplier like Skype for Business or Microsoft. Companies like AudioCodes specialize in feature-rich IP phones that promise crystal-clear communications, noise canceling headsets, audio and video conferencing and so much more. The best part is, you’ll save a lot of money over a conventional phone system, and you’ll always have the option to scale up if the need arises.
Sound advice for all your small business IT hardware needs
Whether you are just starting up or expanding into new territory, you need to make sound decisions about your IT hardware buys. When you have questions, EC-MSP has answers, and one of our IT specialists is always on hand to chat about the latest trends in small business technology. Call today to speak to one of our technicians, and find out how easy it is power up your office with hardware solutions that are right for you.