If you're a small or mid-sized business owner, one of the things you quickly come to realize is that support is expensive. Either you pay through the nose for a support contract for your hardware and software, hoping that it'll come to the rescue when you need it, or you take a chance and go without support, hoping that something doesn't break that will incur a high one-time cost for time and materials.

Hardware and software manufacturers understand this, which is why they're giving their customers more self-service options than ever before. They're also making their product more self-serviceable, allowing the customer to make fixes without having to call in a field technician. But, at the same time, environments are getting more complicated, leading customers to go down more blind alleys than ever before.

As complicated as all this sounds, however, the decision on whether to call in support comes down to one major factor: how much downtime your company can tolerate.

How long you can be down

"Many times, it comes down to a cost equation, and that cost includes cost of downtime," says Flynn Maloy, worldwide marketing manager of HP's technology services division. Their goal is to provide complete support solutions to customers, whether they've bought HP servers or not. "Even with our small customers, we have a conversation: 'What does it cost you to go down for an hour? What is the uptime you're looking for?’"

Server manufacturers like HP have all made it easier for customers to service their own hardware. Hot-swappable fans, hard drives, and other modules are designed to be easily removed and replaced while the server is still online. Monitoring tools, such as HP's Insight Manager, and remote operation boards, such as the company's Lights-Out management package, allow customers to have more control of what they're seeing.

Customers seek self-service options

Thanks to the Internet, customers have more self-diagnosis options than they had even a few years ago. In a 2007 study of small businesses, New York City-based Jupiter Research found that, when searching for customer and technical support, FAQs and self-service searches were adopted at nearly the same rate (over 90 percent of those surveyed) as more traditional phone and e-mail support. But satisfaction levels were lower for those methods: 41 percent for FAQ and 45 percent for search versus 58 percent for e-mail and 57 percent for phone. Text chat and community forums were being used less than FAQ and search, but yielded similar satisfaction statistics.

"People do like to be in control. They like to go online and figure the problem out before they get on the phone," says Sonal Gandhi, the main analyst on the Jupiter report. "The only reason people turn to the phone is that they can't find the answer they're looking for or it's more complicated than what they can find online."

Managed solutions for complex environments

Indeed, environments have gotten so complicated that customers sometimes go down the wrong path, blaming the hardware when it could be the software or network that's to blame. Maloy quoted an internal HP survey conducted in 2006 that showed that only 20 percent of total system downtime could be attributed to hardware failures. The other 80 percent were attributable to what he called "people and process" factors such as software failures, human error, network problems, security breaches, and other issues.

These wild-goose chases end up taking time, and even in a small business, downtime can potentially cost a business a lot of money. "There are certainly customers out there that roll the dice more," and go without a support contract, says Maloy. "Once things get a little out of hand to the people who are running it, then they seek coverage."

That's where companies such as HP step in, offering managed support of entire environments. The service arms of global companies like HP and IBM have groups that are dedicated to providing services for small and mid-sized businesses, with service packages that are scaled and priced to fit the needs of smaller shops. Solutions range from hosting software on shared servers managed by the outsourcing company to having people on-site on a full-time basis.

Some companies, says Gandhi, are using a "hybrid" model, where the management of only new applications and environments are outsourced, and the current environment is still taken care of in house. "It really depends on how crucial the application is for running the business," she says.