Most small businesses these days try to use the Internet to compete more effectively. The trick, however, is to accomplish that goal without spending too much of your precious money and time.
That's becoming increasingly possible, according to some experts. You still must hire somebody to create and update your website. However, prices for hosting your website are falling rapidly, which will enable small businesses to create sites that are more sophisticated. Hosting services provide the computers, or servers, on which your Web site is located.
Most small businesses typically use so-called shared servers in which your website shares a server with the sites of other companies, according to Steve Dauber, vice president of marketing for Ensim. Shared servers typically cost between $10 and $50 a month, he noted.
A better solution is to have your own, dedicated server, but that previously was too expensive for many small companies typically about $200 a month, according to Dauber. His company develops software to help manage both shared and dedicated servers.
"Now that price is coming down to as little as $100 a month," Dauber said. "And I'll bet it'll get even lower."
Dedicated servers have many advantages, Dauber said. But, he cautioned, they also create new challenges.
Opportunities and Challenges
Dauber noted that dedicated servers are faster and more secure than shared servers.
"If you are sharing a server and another company's site gets a lot of traffic, your site will slow down," Dauber said. "And shared servers aren't always secure."
Those are among the reasons that Aaron Byrne, a Web designer for Northeast Wisconsin Technical College in Green Bay, Wis., said his small organization recently switched from a shared to a dedicated server.
Besides the advantages cited by Dauber, Byrne said his hosting service provider is better able to support dedicated servers.
"When issues arise, we get great response time (from the service provider)," Byrne said. "If the Web site goes down for some reason, they're on it in minutes."
Perhaps more important, though, Byrne said he can create more sophisticated Web applications and data because of the increased speed and storage capacity of the dedicated server, according to Byrne.
However, one challenge is that dedicated servers are more complex to manage. Byrne, for example, develops websites and, like many developers, is not trained to manage Web servers. Nor is he familiar with Linux, the operating system used by the dedicated server, or Apache, the software that administers the Web site. Large enterprises typically hire personnel for those tasks, a luxury few small businesses have.
As a result, Byrne said he uses Webppliance Basic from Dauber's company, Ensim, to manage the Web sites hosted on a dedicated server. The product isn't sold to users like Byrne but many hosting services make it, and products like it, available as a service to users.
"The program (Webppliance Basic) means you don't have to hire an IT (information technology) person or a consultant," Byrne said. "It's simple enough that you can administer services on the server and do things like restart the server. That's a two-minute chore that, if you don't have something like (Webppliance), you have to call somebody in. Now, it's just a couple of quick clicks."
Other capabilities of the program include being able to grant permission for those who can upload parts of Web pages, control the size of logs that list server activity and set other server parameters. It operates via a Web browser so anybody with Web access and access rights can use it.
"If I had to learn (Linux), I'd have to go to school for weeks," he said.
Byrne and Dauber agreed that using a product like Webppliance isn't for technical neophytes. However, it is usable by those who are interested in technology, even if they have non-technical jobs in a company, they agreed.
Dauber predicted that lower prices would lead many, if not most, small businesses to dedicated servers for their websites. However, the rise of dedicated servers has one additional benefit, he noted. They make it easier for small businesses to afford and manage enterprise-level e-mail products like Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes.
Products such as these, which are staples in large enterprises, support group e-mail, calendaring and other functions. In larger enterprises, these applications typically are found on servers located within the company and are managed by internal IT personnel.
However, the lowering price of dedicated servers combined with products like Webppliance Basic, which can manage these products, means that smaller companies will be able to afford such applications. That's particularly true with Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, which Dauber said has more tools than previous versions for operating from dedicated hosted servers.
"Most small companies have their e-mail services hosted (by an Internet Service Provider), but there comes at time when you need something like Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes," Dauber said. "It's different for every company, but the sweet spot for that is when companies get to about 50 employees."
Byrne said he isn't involved in his institution's e-mail, but a dedicated server has enabled him to create more sophisticated Web sites. That's possible both because of lower costs for dedicated server and products like Webppliance Basic.
"This takes all the features you need as an administrator and makes them very easy," he said.
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