Employee complaints about lagging applications or jittery phone connections may feel low-priority, but each one is an early warning sign of poor network stability. These daily performance shortfalls aren't the only IT risks facing your small business. Putting security, backup and business continuity on the back-burner can lead to significant losses in revenue and productivity.
Cash-strapped directors only think about IT problems when everything grinds to a halt. Often they call in the proverbial friend — the one who, well, knows something about computers. "In an effort to save money, small businesses do not implement necessary systems controls," observes Jason Greenwell, owner of My Tech Team, a small business IT services provider in Bossier City, Louisiana. "This leads to catastrophic failure and data loss."
Prioritize Security Now
Basic security protections like antivirus, firewall and access control can prevent network performance issues that aren't as minor as the initial threat may look. Spyware and malware don't just affect workstation performance; they also hijack valuable network bandwidth. Data breaches, particularly in highly regulated industries, can also lead to lawsuits and expensive regulatory fines by clients and their local governments. If you've been neglecting network security, start with installing an effective antivirus and firewall solution for workstations.
Most small businesses, according to Greenwell, lack any sort of access control mechanism. He recalls one small-business client with users who could freely attach personal USB drives and mobile devices to their workspace. In that environment, everyone was an administrative user. "Anyone could install software," he says. "Needless to say, every workstation was infected."
There is software that allows you to implement network-access control, but make sure users can only perform functions or access information that's required for doing their jobs.
Spend Money Where It Matters Most
Two functions that are essential to your network stability are business continuity and backup. During a power outage, a simple $50 uninterruptible power supply (UPS) keeps network stations running for at least a few minutes so employees can save their work. UPS devices also protect your equipment from unexpected power surges. Either way, your business never stops during a short outage. And during a longer downtime, you buy a few crucial minutes to save data and properly shut down each workstation.
If you operate a POS, talk to your provider about offline-mode options for processing transactions. Mobile POS providers like Square can do this when you lose Internet access. According to Software Advice, many VoIP service providers also offer mobile-ready VoIP, which lets a designated mobile device access your VoIP system when onsite service is down.
Most cloud services (e.g., Google Apps or QuickBooks Online) offer guaranteed backup for data stored online, but these kits don't protect all vital onsite applications and data. One solution, according to Michael DeAlmeida, collegiate systems and audio engineer for the University of Hartford in Connecticut, is to use inexpensive network-attached storage (NAS) devices.
Automating NAS to perform regular network drive backups can be the difference between staying open and losing everything. "Point your NAS at your online service or a device on your network," he says, "and it will automatically suck everything down."
Plan for Growth
Many small businesses daisy-chain new devices as they expand, and poorly planned setup upends network stability. Jim Ericson, owner of Connecticut-based small-business IT consulting company EncompassIT - Computer Port USA, emphasizes the importance of working with an IT adviser early into a business growth spurt. "VARs will offer sound advice and help clients to accomplish their automation goals while working within a budget," he says. Small businesses can initially save money purchasing refurbished (yet high-quality) devices while still developing a network configuration to accommodate a larger workforce.
To save even more, Ericson advises using less-costly computers on LAN stations without significant power and performance requirements. Choose different computers based on the types of applications and the expected workload at each station. "Striking the right balance between what is necessary and what is not," he says, "can be key in conserving capital."
Although cloud services are initially inexpensive, an upfront investment in onsite networking means a lot less spending over the life of the business. You might even build a core system and implement new features in stages as the business reaches certain goals along the way.