Notebooks as a service – a small biz offering with “big” potential

While software – or even hardware – as a service isn’t a novel concept, a market may be emerging for what some call “notebooks as a service.”

One player in this space is a Canadian firm — Markham, Ont.-based No Panic Computing Inc. (NPC) that recently announced an offering targeted at small business.   

Here’s how it works: For an operating lease cost of $129.95 a month, an NPC small business customer receives an HP enterprise notebook pre-configured with Microsoft Office 2007, and anti-virus/anti-spyware software. A carrying case and notebook accessories are part of the package.

Once the business starts to use the notebook, all data and programs on the machine are backed up daily to a secure facility operated by Iron Mountain Inc., a global data protection and records management firm.

So if the notebook is stolen, broken, or its data compromised, NPC is able to replace the device, with all the data re-loaded to the time of the last backup.

Customers can also securely access their data from any Web browser while their notebook is being replaced, or when they’re away from the machine.

This offering, says NPC president CEO Larry Keating, is just what the doctor ordered for many small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs), for whom the notebook computer is becoming the default computing device.

Selecting, equipping and securely running such a machine, he said, is difficult for SMBs or knowledge workers who don’t have access to an IT department.

So they walk into retail stores, pick up a few boxes, go home and try to make it all work together, he said. “That’s crazy. It’s like buying a refrigerator and going down the street to get an electric motor.”

When you peel back the layers of many large corporate data breaches, Keating said, it turns out the most prevalent loss took place on a notebook computer, often belonging to a consultant from a small business.

The NPC executive said his company spent two years testing out the concept of notebooks as a service, and came up with an offering where data is secured, managed and backed up regularly, with 24 x7 support. This support is a crucial aspect the offering, suggested Keating.

His company’s research revealed that the average professional who does his own tech support spends about 91 hours a year configuring his notebook – and those are billable hours.

Many can’t figure out how to configure certain features, such as the fingerprint reader, so those features go unused.

“It’s the end of do-it-yourself computing for these guys, ” said Keating.

The NPC chief said his company’s offering is targeted at professionals who need to have their data protected, such as a small accounting firm or HR professionals.

Each day, an image of the notebook is captured. And if the machine is lost or stolen, NPC has the ability to remotely destroy the data. A new notebook can then be taken off the shelf and reloaded to the level the person was working at before.

Security can be the start of the conversation – ensuring that their anti-virus software is up-to-date and the firewall is functional. But it’s also about productivity, about running their notebooks in a better way, said Keating.

The concept of combining hardware, software and services in this way is new, according to Avinash Arun, a senior associate with New York based consulting firm AMI- Partners Inc. that analyzes IT, Internet, and telecom trends in the SMB marketplace.

Arun said s mall businesses often don’t have a formal IT department, and may need an offering that takes care of all their IT needs – device management, data loss prevention, encryption and data backup.  

This is particularly the case in Canada, he said, where 75 to 80 per cent of businesses have less than 10 employees.

With growing mobility among small business employees, chances of data on their laptops falling into the wrong hands greatly increases.

“Whenever we come out with new innovations in security, small businesses are in danger of falling behind, ” said Arun.

He said notebooks will be particularly useful for professionals such as accountants, HR managers, lawyers, auditors and insurance agents – especially those among them who are constantly on the go.

While for the small business market , security is a vital consideration, these firms often don’t have the time or expertise to deal with the issue, Arun said.

Over the years, he added, such businesses have become acutely aware of the costs of a data breach.

Despite this about one-fifth of firms are not securing their business data and about a quarter don’t encrypt or back up their PCs, he said, so there’s an opportunity in ” notebooks as a service” market.

And while this is an emerging market in Canada and the U.S. it’s one with a great deal of potential, another analyst says.

It has the potential to transform how computing is done at the small and mid-sized business level, said Michelle Warren, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Group.

However, there may be obstacles to be overcome, she suggests.

One is selling SMB customers or professionals the idea of leasing notebooks for a monthly charge.”It’s a psychological hurdle for some companies, ” she said. “That’s why they’re pushing security. ” But for many SMBs, decreasing rates have made leasing a more attractive option.

For companies that have 30 to 40 employees with one or two people in the IT department – or none at all – this is a no-brainer, said Warren. “The premise is good . The challenge is if we run into some sort of recession. “

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