There was a time when small and mid-size businesses had to pay through the nose for high-end corporate networking gear made for large enterprises if they wanted to get any kind of decent performance out of their business systems. That, of course, assumed that you could schedule an appointment with a sales rep who was more interested in hunting big game clients.

But times have changed.

With the large enterprise market now saturated with technology, today many networking vendors are developing, packaging, and selling products specifically for small and mid-size businesses. The small business market is now seen as a hot, high-growth target of opportunity.

While this is undoubtedly good news for small and mid-size businesses, buyers need to careful. Price and packaging is important in providing access to technologies once the exclusive domain of the Forbes Global 2000.  But it is also important to ensure that smaller businesses get access to the support and maintenance services that are critical to business continuity and ongoing operations.  Large vendors that have typically done business with big firms can easily fall short of making these key ancillary services available to their mid-market clients. This is because they primarily sell through channel partners who don’t have the resources and know-how to offer these support services.

Price is no longer the only issue

“Affordability is not the issue anymore,” says Amir Hartman, co-founder of consulting firm Mainstay Partners, based in San Mateo, Calif. “It’s the post sale service and support that small and mid-size businesses have to be aware of.”

Large vendors see a huge untapped market in this space, Hartman says. Take Dell, which earlier this month announced its Vostro line of notebook PC computers designed for small businesses that have 1-25 employees. Dell has cut out unwanted applications that normally ship with new computers, and it has streamlined the process and time it takes for a customer with no IT experience to set up the machines down to 6 minutes. Dell says it’s dedicating 6,500 of its customer service workers to be available for 24-hour access. IBM, meanwhile, introduced a BladeCenter system for small businesses; blade servers were previously sold exclusively to mid-size and large businesses.  

Cisco, earlier this year introduced the Smart Business Communications Center (SBCS), a product specifically built for companies with fewer than 250 users, which supports new hardware products, a unified communications applications and offers basic systems-management tools. The product provides routing, switching security and wireless support, which can be turned on and off independently, at a customer’s own pace, says Ed Kudey, senior manager of solutions development for the Global Small and Medium-Sized Business group at Cisco.

More products let you pick and choose

Hartman notes that small and mid size companies should expect to see more products that give users the flexibility to pick and chose the feature and functions they want to activate when necessary.

Kudey says that Cisco has been supporting this market for eight years and is gratified to see that it continues to grow. Small (250 users or less) and medium (251-1,000 users) businesses now account for just over 25 percent of the company’s business.

Like many vendors, Cisco supports this market through value-added resellers. “We spend a good amount of time educating our partners on our direction so they can help us establish a strong eco-system" for small and mid-size businesses, says Kudey. Just as Cisco will spend time consulting with the IT staffs of large enterprise customers, he says they do the same with smaller partners.

While Hartman concedes that using established vendors like Cisco, Dell and IBM can offer small and mid-size companies some assurances in product stability and reliability, he argues that users should be clear with both vendors and resellers about support and service expectations. Although support is usually available, some vendors may charge extra to receive that support, he warns. As always, getting the facts before buying is critical.