Are you tired of dealing with multiple products from multiple vendors with multiple licences and contracts (and multiple expiry dates)? For smaller businesses, keeping track of such technology details can become an administrative headache.

Fortunately, vendors are recognizing this, and they’re coming out with all-inclusive solutions that combine hardware or software with services and support. While, in the past, vendors may have offered hardware/services combos, there’s now more of a direct intention to target the small business market, specifically in Canada, says Michelle Warren, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group. And that’s why we’re seeing vendors like Microsoft, HP and Cisco come out with solutions that provide a single point of contact for the customer.

In Canada, some 98 per cent of all businesses fall under the small business category. And 57 per cent fall into the “very small” category, which is comprised of one to four employees. Vendors have always had a hard time targeting this market segment, even though it represents a huge portion of Canada’s businesspeople.

Why try?

The benefit of going with one vendor is that a small business can strengthen its relationship with that vendor. If they opt for HP’s Total Care, for example, they can increase their presence within HP’s database, says Warren.

The obstacles emerge when an SMB invests all its eggs in one basket and becomes too reliant on one vendor. “So it’s good in terms of purchasing power,” she says, “but not so good when it comes to a heterogeneous environment, which [typically] spreads the risk out a little bit more.”

The problem with multiple products, however, is that users get overwhelmed, and they might not bother updating products or doing regular backups. They don’t want to spend time maintaining their PC – they just want it to work when they turn it on, says Jacky Mok, Windows Live product manager with Microsoft Canada.

This was the thinking behind Microsoft OneCare, which is a self-regulating program that provides everything from anti-virus scanning to automatic backups – essentially all of the janitorial tasks that keep a PC running smoothly. It’s offered as an annual subscription for a three-user licence, including all upgrades and unlimited support.

Blame games

Often a small business doesn’t know where to go for support. Should they call their Internet service provider (ISP), their retailer or reseller, or should they contact their software provider? Many of these all-inclusive packages include technical support; OneCare, for example, offers free 24-hour support, via the Web, e-mail or telephone.

By the end of 2007 HP will be offering a similar solution in Canada, called Total Care, which combines hardware with services. Currently available in the U.S., the package provides personalized services for every stage of a computer’s life, including configuration, protection, tuning and recycling.

Cisco is also targeting the SMB market with its Smart Care Service, aimed at simplifying network maintenance through regular, proactive network assessments, remote software repairs and technical support. Cisco is relying on its partners to deliver the service to SMBs.

The partner will determine the end-price to the customer based on value-added services, says John Paul Silvestre, Cisco‘s commercial services marketing manager in Canada. There’s also flexibility in the pricing model (such as monthly or annually), depending on the level of complexity within the network. The program offers anywhere from five core devices up to 105, and is targeted at 20 to 600 users. Cisco is currently wrapping up market trials, he says, with plans to roll out the program in September.

The appeal of these offerings lies in the simplicity of a single contract, so an SMB is less likely to forget to renew or update a particular product. After all, they don’t want to be caught with their information exposed or not backed up – and it’s much more expensive to recover that data than to pay for an ongoing service, says Warren. But these ongoing services don’t have to be expensive – in many cases they cost a small amount each month or year.

But before you commit, look at your infrastructure, and then where you’d like to take your business in the next one to three years. Then ask an IT consultant or expert if your current infrastructure will support that as your company grows. If not, consider some of the all-inclusive options out there.

The danger is that an executive will sign up for a package and then put the whole IT thing out of his mind, relying on someone else to take care of it. “They have to remain knowledgeable about what’s going on in the organization,” says Warren, “and if they themselves don’t remain up to date, to have someone trusted within the organization that is, just to keep checks and balances in place.”

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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