Major technology vendors serving small and mid-sized firms are looking to take the edge off the increasingly complex task of selecting computing products and services.
The harsher economic realities over the past year and a half have only made it harder for small business operators to focus on anything but their core competencies and surviving until the next of end quarter.
Vendors looking to cater to the needs of those entrepreneurs – there’s 1.2 million of them in Canada – aren’t just selling pieces of hardware anymore. They’ve matched up their products and services to offer complete packages to small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) with a focus on plug-and-play connectivity.
SMBs are now often looking for the same technology capabilities as large enterprises, says Erik Dithmer, vice-president and general manager, SMB, for Dell Americas. But these companies can’t dedicate the staff to vet technology decisions, nor to support it.
“Our customers are saying stop giving us so many choices and start giving us advice on what choice is best,” he says. “They just need something they can plug and play and get up and running on the network.”
Austin, Texas-based Dell Inc. is moving to support the backend technology infrastructure of small businesses.
Likewise, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Company (HP) last week announced a slew of SMB targeted products and services including unified communications (UC), storage and backup, networking hardware and software, and voice and video applications.
The sales pitch is based on research surveys conducted by HP that revealed SMBs are still very much feeling the effects of the recession, says Natalie Benitah, director of SMB planning at HP. Entrepreneurs have less staff to help them and having a hard time getting credit from banks and payment from customers.
“This is the new normal for SMBs,” she says. “Many SMBs have to do more with less now.”
Promoting its latest batch up SMB offerings under the “HP Converged Infrastructure” banner, the vendor gets involved in integrating technology and then validating it, leaving the business with a ready-to-go environment.
For example, HP’s Unified Communication & Collaboration (UCC) offering can be set up to run in a Microsoft shop that’s using SharePoint or Exchange as the backend. The networking infrastructure is also sold by the vendor in the form of plug-and-play routers and switches.
The hardware is tailored for SMBs, designed to be low cost and without a fan to cut down on noise, so you can keep that switch under the front desk at reception if that’s all the space you’ve got.
But the business gains of UCC are the real focus of customers, Benitah says.
“It helps reduce costs around training, travel and teleconferencing,” she says. “It reduces lost productivity.”
As a former small business owner himself, Dithmer can relate to his customers.
The firm he once owned, High Tech Type & Colour, offered technology to communications and magazines companies, and offered training as well.
So he’s aware of specific pain points of running a small shop, and is looking to address these.
Many SMBs, he noted, have had to cut staff and are hesitant to add all of those staff back until they can see some consistency,” he says. “Building direct customer relationships is critical for this space.”
Customers are looking to get the most out of their installed technology, juggle a public-facing Internet presence that includes social media exposure, and make sure their storage needs are met, he adds. They’re considering technologies that a few years ago would have been thought of purely as enterprise level products, such as virtualization.
HP’s StorageWorks line of products reflects the growing, and varying, storage needs of smaller firms. With a user-friendly interface based on Windows Home Server, the storage boxes allow users to share local and remote files with a unique URL that is accessible by anyone with a browser.
The devices can do an automated backup of up to 10 computers daily and control user access to prevent insider theft or alteration. The X1000 Network Storage Systems model turns a firm’s existing direct-attached storage into a shared network storage platform.
The boxes are designed to be as automated and user-friendly as possible, though it may be the critical piece of storage for up to 15 TB of information.
“One of the things we hear a lot from smaller businesses is they don’t have an IT manager,” Benitah says. “They have an IT guy that has a bit more knowledge than the rest of the staff.”
The IT landscape won’t get any easier for SMBs even if the economic recovery continues upwards. Future challenges include supporting multiple devices on a shared infrastructure as smartphones and tablets become more popular.
Desktop sales are going up in Canada, Dithmer says. But so are laptop sales and mobiles.
“Smartphones are going crazy,” he says. “Customers are going to want to use all of these technologies today.”
It looks like choosing what technology to use to get the job done won’t get easier any time soon.