Remote Magic

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted September 19, 2006

Small businesses can rarely afford the luxury of having trained computer people on staff. The alternatives are muddling through on their own or outsourcing network and desktop management and maintenance to a consultant. The trouble is, consultants aren't dedicated and often aren't nearby. If something goes wrong, it can take time to reach them, and even longer to get them on site. Which is why remote network monitoring and maintenance makes particularly good sense for small businesses.

Modern network server systems, such as Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server 2003, monitor their own status and can generate — and then deliver — alerts to to an off-site management company if something even begins to go wrong. It was one of the features of the Microsoft server platform that appealed to Judith Huck, president of Portland, Oregon-based Classique Floors Inc., when she went looking for a new computer system earlier this year.

Classique Floors is a family business launched by Huck's parents in 1977. It sells floor coverings — hardwood, cork, marmoleum, carpeting — and counter tops, mainly to homeowners, from a 6,000-square-foot facility in east Portland. The company employs 14 people and generated sales last year of about $2.3 million.

In early 2006, Classique's peer-to-peer network, which Huck had cobbled together herself with help from employees, was maxed out at 10 PCs. The off-site backup solution she was paying for was extremely unreliable. There were continual glitches and the service provider had recently neglected to tell her that she was out of storage space for backups — a week ago.

Huck also sensed there was just a lot more that computers could do for her fast-growing business. Classique was already using Intuit's QuickBooks for accounting, Microsoft Office for job estimates (Excel), e-mail (Outlook) and correspondence (Word). But she had a vision of going paperless and putting all customer and job information on the computer to eliminate re-entry of data and reduce time spent searching for paper files at the store. This was little more than a vague, long-term vision for the future, though.

"I'm not a computer person," Huck says. "It's all I can do to run the business, keep track of customers, products and employees. And I don't really want to know about computers."

Solution: Small Business Server
So she turned to another small east Portland company, Mt. Hood Computer Services Inc., a four-person outfit owned and operated by president Tom Rich. Rich, a Microsoft Small Business Specialist, provides integration and network management and support services, mainly to small businesses. He targets companies with anywhere from three to 50 computers. The firm has 33 clients, and 16 of them use the Windows Small Business Server 2003.

Huck recalls, "I told Tom, 'My business is growing pretty quickly. What's the next step? What can I look at that will provide reliable backup, good security and that works well?'"

Rich recommended a Windows Small Business Server. It would provide all the basics she was looking for, plus Microsoft Office InfoPath 2003 and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 would make an ideal platform on which to build new paperless work flows.

Huck was convinced, but the project went on the back burner because she couldn't afford to spend anymore money or time on it at the moment. Then fate stepped in. Rich had entered Classique in a contest sponsored by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard for innovative small business IT projects. His entry won. Huck was awarded $75,000 to spend on Microsoft and HP gear and services from Mt. Hood.

She was able to immediately buy an HP server and the Windows Small Business Server 2003 system. She also upgraded to the latest Microsoft Office applications and platforms, purchased eight Hewlett-Packard tablet PCs for staff to use to enter customer data, a new multi-function (printer/fax/scanner) device, a digital projector for showing demos to customers, a big-screen TV to use in the store to run demos and promotional messages, and integration, management and maintenance services from Mt. Hood. It was a fantastic windfall.

"I was definitely going to buy the server," Huck says. "But the prize meant I was able to do some of the other things we talked about way sooner than I ever expected."

The new paperless work processes, designed and implemented by Rich, have made her staff much more efficient, she says. Sales staff are entering all information directly into the tablet PCs and generating printed estimates at the customer's home. It means fewer home visits, often a faster turn-around on the buying decision and an easier process for the customer. Huck and her staff also love the fact that they can log on to the server and work from home, or anywhere else, as if they were in the store.

It may have been the work process re-engineering that won Classique and Mt. Hood the Microsoft/HP award, but just as important for Huck are some of the less tangible features and benefits of the new system, such as the ultra-reliable backup system, a new and stronger firewall built into the Small Business Server — and the remote monitoring and maintenance services.

Remote Monitoring
The Small Business Server can monitor over 100 aspects of its operation. A system manager sets acceptable operating parameters, and the system reports if it goes "out of parameter," or if something stops working. For example, you could set up the system to report when the operating temperature hits a certain threshold, or storage usage approaches capacity or the SMTP (e-mail) service stops working.

Mt. Hood uses an add-on software package from Level Platforms Inc. to manage the alerts. If a monitored item goes out of parameter, Rich receives an alert by both text message and e-mail on his Palm Treo 700w Smartphone. As soon as he gets to a computer, he can log on to the server remotely, run diagnostics and often fix the problem without ever going to the customer's site.

One client, for example, backed up all the contents of a computer to the server, including countless MPEG music and JPEG digital photo files. The server was only ever intended to back up business-essential data. The system generated an alert because the storage subsystem was suddenly approaching capacity. Rich called the client and discussed alternate arrangements for backing up non-essential data.

Another client was using an e-mail "scrubbing" appliance, a gateway device that sits between the Internet firewall and the client's Exchange server (which is on the Small Business Server). The appliance does extra spam and virus filtering. The system generated an alert when one of the services (software modules) on the appliance stopped working and mail wasn't getting through to Exchange.

"This customer is about 40 miles away from my office," Rich says. "But I was able to go in and issue a restart command that resolved the problem. I did it all remotely in about 15 minutes."

Remote Maintenance
Rich has also begun offering a more proactive remote-maintenance service that makes sure, among other things, that computers on the network have all the necessary updates (security patches, virus and spam filter updates), that backups are being done properly each day and that the UPS (uninterruptible power supply) system is always working. "I've never had a customer that had any downtime from a virus outbreak since we've been doing this," Rich says.

For a package that includes both the monitoring and maintenance services, Mt. Hood charges $250 a month, plus $25 a month per PC on the network, plus a one-time fee of $450 for a network assessment. Needless to say it's a lot less than the salary and benefits you'd pay a computer staff person.

A Warm Fuzzy Feeling
Huck loves the remote monitoring and maintenance services, even though her server, installed in June, has yet to generate an alert. "It benefits me with peace of mind," she says. "I don't have to be a computer expert. Now I know I have a computer expert keeping an eye on my system all the time and alerting me if there are any problems. That's huge."

Rich is trying to convince all his clients to opt for the remote monitoring and maintenance package. Currently only six, including four of those with Small Business Servers, use it. Rich argues that clients benefit for a couple of reasons. "One part of it is that you're doing preventive maintenance so the equipment is more reliable," he says. "So you have less down time."

Also, if a small business doesn't hire somebody like Rich to perform these monitoring and maintenance functions, it means someone inside the firm has to do it. Chances are they won't do it as well because they're not properly trained and don't have the tools. It will take them away from other duties. And if it's the owner or some other senior employee spending time on computer-related chores, it may mean that costs are actually higher in the long run than if the company hired a consultant.

Of course, there are benefits to firms like Rich's as well. They can handle more clients with fewer people if they don't constantly have to go to customers' sites. But there's nothing wrong with that. You should want your suppliers — or at least the good ones — to prosper. It means they'll continue to provide you with excellent service.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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