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Essential IT Infrastructure for a Small Business Setup
If you’re reading this, you’re in the process of taking your business idea that you’ve talked to some people about to make some serious money.
What I will cover will give you all the necessary knowledge to cover at least 5 employees. This setup will run and run, and when you finally hire an IT person they’ll be able to take over with ease (and probably question whether they’re really needed).
Laptops and desktops
First you need to decide between a desktop and a laptop. I would strongly advise on a laptop, as it gives you the portability you need and you don’t need to plug in anything other than a charger. Simple and straightforward.
The first thing you need to get your system working is an internet connection. This can be via mobile, cable or ADSL. All are great, when used correctly, but you need to choose one to get started.
For any office of ten people or less, you may find it very convenient to get an ADSL connection from whoever is the cheapest and best reviewed provider in your area. When you set it up you’ll want to ask for a static IP and be adamant that you need it. Right now, it doesn’t matter, but it might be less and it will save you time later. Some services will charge a little more for this, so I recommend shopping around.
In terms of speed, the speed quoted on advertisements (for example 20Mb) is how fast you can get content from the internet and is mainly what we are concerned with at the moment. Uploads will usually be much smaller, maybe 512kbps, but usually the amount of traffic you’re sending back to the Internet is small.
You should look for bandwidth caps: some service providers will either limit your speed or cut your connection when you download too many files from the Internet. It’s less common now, but it’s important to ask about it.
Email, calendaring and contacts
A lot has changed over the last six years, with the focus moving away from having your own mail server, to using one managed by someone else (also known as ‘moving to the cloud’).
There are only two players in this field: Google and Microsoft.
Many IT consultancies will push you towards Microsoft Small Business Server, which may look attractive, but is very expensive up front and in the long run when you move away from it. I cannot advise you enough to stay away from this product.
If you’re still stuck on Microsoft’s idea, most IT consultants will be happy to offer you a hosted Exchange server, but at the cheapest, it’ll be 100% more expensive than the next offering, which provides everything Hosted Exchange does, and more.
The major innovator in this field is Google: initially, they launched their incredibly popular Gmail product, which popularized the idea of threaded conversations and offered a lot of space for free. This, coupled with unobtrusive advertising and a clean interface, has led them to become perhaps the largest email provider today.
Office suite and note taking
If you’ve opted for Google Apps, you’ve already set up your office suite: it doesn’t have every feature of iWork or Microsoft Office, but it has enough that for free, there’s little point in moving forward initially. It has word processing capabilities, spreadsheets, slideshows, diagrams and very neat data collection tables (useful for emailing questionnaires or posting on websites).
But let’s say you need more: you’re trying to create a very complicated layout for a flyer, or you have a monstrous spreadsheet that Google Docs can’t quite handle. Microsoft has written its Office suite for Mac very carefully and it works very well. Apple has its competing platform, iWork, which integrates neatly with iWork on your iPhone or iPad for an additional fee. You can buy Microsoft Office for Mac (traditionally Microsoft gives the odd year award to Apple and even Windows) from anywhere else that sells software, or you can buy iWork from the App Store on your Mac. The advantage of the app store approach is that you can have it installed and ready in minutes. The total is £42 for Pages, Numbers and Keynote, but each application is purchased individually for £13.99. Office for Mac runs around £150 and you’ll need to use a DVD drive to install it.
Any files you create should be saved somewhere that’s backed up, for example your Dropbox (keep reading… ).
Note taking is helpful. Synchronized note taking is more useful on web browser-based clients on Mac, Windows, iPhone, and Android. The product of choice in this category is Evernote, which gives you a generous account for free, and if you upload a photo (for example, of a business card), you can later search for text and find that image. You can share notebooks with other people, which is great for creating a shared repository of information. These notebooks may be shared with anyone on the Internet, although this is entirely at your discretion.
Evernote lets you encrypt chunks of text, so it’s very useful for saving passwords. Select the text, right-click and select Encrypt.
Evernote is a great place to store your documents.
So now that you have your internet connection, your computer, and are able to send emails to people, you probably need a place to store your files.
My first recommendation for startups would always be Dropbox. Dropbox is a small piece of software that runs on your computer and looks for a special folder called Dropbox. It is available for Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile. Every time you add or modify a file in that folder, that file or those changes are written back to the central Dropbox server.
A free account gives you 2GB of space and keeps any changes you’ve made to the file for the past 30 days, turning it into your personal time machine for everything stored there. If you delete a file, you can restore it immediately.
Additionally, you may have a shared folder with someone, meaning that the folder on your computer that you share with them is a mirror image of the same folder on theirs. You can see when they are working on the file and vice versa. After those changes are saved, these changes are replicated to your computer.
Finally, there is a special folder in your Dropbox called Public. Anything you put here can be shared with someone else by emailing a link to the file. It’s an excellent choice for emailing large attachments or using an FTP server (great for artwork files, for example).
If you pay Dropbox, they’ll give you more than 2GB and save changes to your files forever instead of saving them for the last 30 days, which can be useful if you want to chain work.
For a more serious, server-like approach to file serving, I suggest purchasing a Synology Disk Station. Synology makes incredibly user-friendly self-contained servers that can quietly hum to themselves in the corner of a room without anyone noticing. They have support for something called RAID, which means that if a disk fails, you can simply remove the broken disk and replace it with a new one. They have built-in virus scanning for peace of mind (although you have to enable it), and can act as a web server if you ever need it.
Note that when you buy Synology, you need to buy hard drives separately: you don’t need to buy enough to charge your device at once, but you need to buy at least one to be able to use it.
You owe it to yourself and your clients to secure your data. Essentially, security can be broken down into three categories: privacy, integrity, and accessibility. Encrypting your laptop, for example, helps maintain privacy, while backing it up helps maintain data integrity. Finally, accessibility is maintained by having a secure, but sensible password to access your laptop. (To impress people, or maybe bore them, you can tell them it’s called the CIA-Triad.)
Next, encrypt your laptop
In OS X, it’s as simple as ever: Open System Preferences (it’s the icon with the cog in it), click Security & Privacy in the top row, and click FileVault. Enable FileVault and if someone steals your laptop now, it will take them hundreds of years to see what’s on it.
In Windows, as always, it’s more complicated: open the Start menu and type BitLocker to start.
Happily, everything in Google Apps is as secure as the password you choose: they’ve been audited against several international standards and offer something called two-step verification for greatly increased security.
Make sure you activate the passcode on your mobile phone and turn it on after about 15 minutes. Make sure it’s not 1111 or something similar.
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