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Bright ideas for the enterprise

Being a small business doesn’t necessarily mean settling for a small-time back end.

It seems that everywhere you go, you see wonderful stories about ERP, CRM, VPNs, sales-force automation, and B2B products and services. The only snag is that these solutions seem to exist only for large corporations–the so-called enterprise marketplace.

As a small business owner, you’d like to be able to take advantage of a lot of the back-end services the big boys get to play with, but there’s a problem–all these solutions are scaled (and priced) for the enterprise. You don’t have enterprise-level hardware and enterprise-level experienced IT staff, and your purse, while well-lined, isn’t quite deep enough to spring for one of these modern electronic miracles. So you get to stand by the sidelines and dream that someday you’ll be able to tack the moniker enterprise onto your operation.

But the truth of the matter is this: You can be a small business and reap many of the same benefits enjoyed by enterprises. All it takes is a little research and a willingness to think … er, small.

The good news is that enterprise solutions are finally within reach for small businesses. As particular enterprise market segments approach saturation, vendors in those segments have started making their offerings more small-business friendly. They do so by enabling Web interfaces (instead of proprietary client/server software), allowing smaller database engines to hook into their products, and by lowering costs. For example, Windows 2000 originally rolled out for midsized-to-large enterprises; several months later, the Small Business edition was released.

Given this trend in the marketplace, one obvious approach is to see if the vendor’s enterprise-class product comes in a small-business edition. Failing that, a small enterprise can check to see if there are any plans (and projected dates) for the vendor to offer such a product.

Another strategy is to outsource your back-end needs by signing on with an application service provider (ASP). The small-business ASP market is exploding; ASPs are taking formerly enterprise-class applications and services and offering them to small-to-medium-sized businesses on an appropriate scale and at a reasonable price point. Better yet, some of these operations will let you have a single user account for a low price (or even free in some cases) and allow you to add other user accounts at a discount as your business grows. You get the same functionality as the big guys without having to pay big-guy rates.

So what kind of back-end services are you in the market for? Chances are there is an affordable (and appropriately scaled-down version) out there waiting for your small business. Looking for general office connectivity with e-mail, faxing, database services, and a little Internet access thrown in for good measure? There are a variety of approaches from which to choose.

Windows 2000 writ small

If your small business is Windows-based, you need look no further than Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2000 (SBS 2000). Most small businesses will never use all of SBS 2000’s components-Exchange 2000; Windows 2000 Server; Outlook 2000; SQL 2000; Internet Security and Acceleration Server (IAS); Shared Modem Service; Shared Fax Service; and Health Monitor–but the price makes it a great bargain nonetheless. And just because you don’t need some of its products today doesn’t mean you won’t want them down the road. That is what makes SBS such a good deal: You buy a feature-rich product now and simply start using services as you need them and as your business grows. The SBS package also includes a common installation routine, centralized monitoring and management of services and users, and an easy-to-deploy client access tool. And you get all this for about $1,500 for five users–or the price of Windows 2000 Server and just one of the bundled SBS components.

As remarkable a deal as this may seem, you do need to keep a few points in mind. First, SBS 2000 is designed for a single office and doesn’t scale past 50 users, nor does it connect very well to an enterprise WAN. Second, if you do need to link to an existing Windows network, you should consider BackOffice Server 2000 (which is also still a pretty good deal). Third, you’ll need to invest in a fairly robust server for SBS 2000 to live on. You’ll need at least a Pentium III with 256MB of RAM and 4GB of disk space. But as with most Windows products, these are the minimum requirements. Plan on doubling these specs for good measure.

If you don’t want to shell out for SBS’s purchase price, look for an ISP in your area that provides SBS-based services. Microsoft provides a Web page listing such providers.

Mac strikes back

Windows-based businesses aren’t the only ones with such enticing options. Apple Computer has a pair of server offerings that can serve a Macintosh-based (or even mixed-platform) small business’s needs quite nicely.

AppleShare IP 6.3 gives you high-speed processing and easy setup–complete with e-mail, file and print serving, and Internet and intranet services–in one package. You can install any combination of its integrated file, print, mail, and Web servers as needed. Basic setup takes only minutes, and ongoing server management is simple with shared users and groups and its new, fast remote-administration interface. The services of AppleShare IP 6.3 work over TCP/IP and AppleTalk networks, and its native SMB support for Windows clients means that it looks just like a Windows NT file server in the Network Neighborhood. Like SBS 2000, this whole package is reasonably priced: $999, including 50 client licenses.

Mac OS X for Servers, attractively priced at $499, combines the power of Unix with Macintosh ease of use. You get bundled services for Web serving, e-mail, file serving, QuickTime Streaming, WebObjects developer tools, and a really interesting feature called NetBoot. NetBoot software enables a network of Macintosh computers to run from the same shared System Folder and applications volume stored on the NetBoot server. Just update the NetBoot server, and all the other computers attached to the server have instant access to the new configuration.

Going the ASP route

Let’s say you don’t need all the stuff that SBS 2000 or the Apple servers give you. All you want is high-end e-mail services without the hassles of maintaining servers yourself.

Again, the Internet steps up to the plate in the form of hosted e-mail providers. For example, a typical ASP can provide mailboxes via POP or the Web for about $5 per mailbox per month. To compare, large IT shops running traditional solutions typically pay $80 to $150 per month in total cost of ownership. And that $5 per month isn’t just buying bare-bones e-mail service. For your money you’ll often get lots of big-league features such as spam filtering, auto-responders (e-mail addresses that send back information or attachments when sent e-mail by a potential customer), and POP- and Web-based access to your mailbox. In addition, depending on your needs and budget, you might also get calendaring services, discussion forums, and Listserv services.

Or maybe what you really want is an e-commerce-enabled Web site. You don’t necessarily have to plop down several hundred thousand dollars in applications, toolkits, and developer fees (not to mention hardware costs). That’s because ASPs offer a variety of e-commerce services at a fraction of the cost you would incur if you were to try to do it like the big guys.

In fact, there are ASPs out there that will provide you with everything from a simple catalog-based site with a shopping cart to a high-end e-commerce site with business-specific applications, payment systems, and sales analysis. What you need to do is define what your needs are, and then shop around a little bit. You’ll be pleasantly surprised that the cost of most of these services is very reasonable (especially compared to trying to do the whole works yourself in-house). Pricing is based on number of users, add-on features, transaction or processing fees, or any combination of these items.

At the lower end of the spectrum, you have simple catalog and shopping-cart providers. These services let you build your own Web store from start to finish, including all of the elements that you’d expect in a store: shopping carts, credit card processing, and even promotional tools. These services are often template-based. They allow you to create a reasonably attractive shopping site, even if you don’t boast a lot of computer or design skills.

Most of these Web-store services also make it easy to set up all the complicated details of handling transactions, including shopping carts, shipping, tax tables, and order management. Some sites offer these fundamentals for free, while others charge extra. And most of them, through partner companies, let you handle credit-card transactions with real-time approvals for an extra fee.

Statistical reports for analyzing shopping trends are also part of the service. These reports are another differentiating factor among providers, since some services offer more in-depth analysis than others do. Most of the Web-store services also offer some level of marketing and promotional tools to help lure shoppers to your site. Once they’re there, sales tools built into the sites make it easy to promote particular items, or place items on sale.

In this category you should check out the offerings of some of the leading e-store providers: BigStep, eCongo, FreeMerchant, and Yahoo Store

At the higher end of the ASP enterprise, you can have just about anything that a large company has. Your costs will vary according to what features and services you choose. But again, contracting with an ASP will probably be significantly less expensive than tackling this kind of project in-house.

To start getting a feel for this category of provider, check out the services offered by Verio, Exodus, XO, and Genuity’s Black Rocket services .

With a little poking around on the Web, you’ll find ASPs offering all kinds of useful back-end services online: time slips and invoicing; payroll; payment and transactions; project management; database hosting; data mining; and business analysis.

Today, being a small business doesn’t necessarily mean settling for small-time back-end services. Whether you choose to use small-business editions of back-end software in-house, or outsource your needs through an ASP, you can operate exactly like the big guys do-and do it on a small-business budget.

Contributing Editor Don Fitzwater is a principal partner in Interface Solutions, a Minneapolis consulting firm.

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