Here we grow

Published: September 12th, 2004

Totalcarepharmacy.com CEO Dennis Cabel was thrilled to see his online pharmacy grow. He just wasn’t prepared for how quickly it happened. Starting with five employees in 2002, the business now has almost 200 workers on the payroll.

“”It really took us by surprise,”” Cabel says.

Growth is the aim of virtually every small company, but the process can wreak havoc on an IT department. Small- and medium-sized businesses need room to grow and, from an IT perspective, this requires both careful planning and an infrastructure that can scale up as required.

“”Scalability is extremely important to SMBs,”” says Tom Turchet, vice-president of midmarket business at IBM Canada. “”If I look at the five things that SMBs are looking for, scalability is always at or near the top.””

Totalcarepharmacy.com found out early on that its traditional pharmacy management system topped out at 32 concurrent users. “”Scalability has always been a challenge for us,”” Cabel says. “”Whenever we’d buy something, we’d think that it was scalable for a year, but we found that it was only for three months.””

Cabel’s solution was to buy IBM’s Intel-based xSeries servers. He says Big Blue’s little machines gave Totalcarepharmacy.com the flexibility to expand, but they also reflect the big IT vendors’ growing interest in small business.

Alan Freedman, IDC Canada’s research director of infrastructure hardware, notes that vendors such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard have finally come to understand that SMBs don’t necessarily want the latest and greatest, just technology that works today, and for some time into the future. “”Customers want something that integrates easily, runs on standards and is easy to implement without lots of maintenance,”” he says.

That’s the message Geoff Kereliuk, the newly appointed vice-president of HP Canada’s SMB division, wants to get across. The economic asteroid that wiped out the “”spend-spend”” heyday of the 1990s changed everything for SMBs. “”They need systems they can rely on,”” Kereliuk says.

Just what this means varies from company to company, of course, but a broad definition of SMB technology is beginning to emerge. Smaller companies are less likely than their multinational counterparts to take chances on the bleeding edge, Freedman says. For example, voice over IP (VoIP), which allows users to make telephone calls using a computer network over a data network like the Internet, just isn’t for everyone yet. “”That will probably take a while longer,”” Freedman says. “”VoIP vendors are just getting around to scaling their solutions to the SMB level.””

Wireless networking has a stronger SMB play. Liberation from Cat 5 cables and hardwired network drops is a compelling story for growing SMBs. “”If you look at the past, when you’d have the need or desire to redeploy or add employees and you had tied-down access points, one of the big considerations of growth was simply wiring,”” Kereliuk says. “”Wireless takes that consideration off the table.””

However, the technology is still new and both standards and security tools are evolving. The hottest technologies for growth are straightforward, mature business solutions that might not have the marquee value of wireless networking and VoIP, but come in a package that appeals to the SMB.

Even with IT budgets flat and the majority of funds earmarked for maintenance, SMBs are still making significant capital investments in technology to ensure they have capacity for growth. But that’s more the exception than the rule. “”Another part of the market is buying on demand, and some of these technologies enable that,”” Turchet says. “”What’s sexy today is ROI, and being sure the product is working before making that big investment.””

Blade servers and blade PCs, for example, offer SMBs the option of ramping up their processing power as necessary. Blade servers aren’t fancy: they’re simple, standards-based computing appliances whose slim form factor and relatively low cost permit extremely high-density stacking, so they can be deployed quickly. Both IBM and HP have begun to make their Intel-based server products available as blades with the SMB market in mind.

“”It’s critical to be able to add capacity as needed,”” Kereliuk says. “”You can have a PC locked down and dedicated to a specific user, but accessible from anywhere. A small company can redeploy employees without having to redeploy hardware.””

However, blade systems are likely to remain an option for the higher end of the SMB market for the foreseeable future. “”They’re small and they’re based on standards, so that’s appealing to the mid-market,”” Freedman says. “”On the other hand, they’re optimized for rack mounting, and companies with server racks tend to be bigger rather than smaller.””

Gradually, as vendors tailor products for an SMB audience, we will see less resentment and more contentment. But, until such vendors can put a stop to the installation headaches for users of bleeding edge technologies, most SMBs will continue to stick with solutions that promise immediate ROI.

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