Craig Beringer is an IT consultant based in Pennsauken, N.J. For most of his clients that little piece of information is immaterial because they rarely see him. His group of 12 employees at Beringer Associates provides remote IT support to literally thousands of end users for their total customer base.

How do they serve so many with so few people and typically without ever leaving their own building? If asked a year ago, Beringer would have given a completely different answer than today. “Before, we were using a bunch of different solutions. Different clients have different sets of issues. For some it’s their firewall, for others it’s working around their VPN," says Beringer, of virtual private networks. He now believes he’s found a one-size-fits-all solution that conveniently comes in a box.

The box, a hardware appliance that houses a set of unique application tools to handle all aspects of remote IT support, is made by Bomgar. The five year old start-up company based in Ridgeland, Miss. “There are two increasingly popular trends in recent years that have come about that are also naturally juxtaposed against each other. Everyone’s mobile and highly networked and at the same time companies are responsible to maintain compliance," says Nathan McNeill, Bomgar’s vice president of product strategy. "Our product not only allows you to work on any desktop from anywhere in the world, it is all auditable, you can replay sessions and it’s securely centralized and housed on the box.”

Products like the Bomgar Box give smaller companies a turnkey option of handling its own remote IT support for staffers working out of the main office. It also makes life easier for IT consultants, like Beringer, offering managed IT services like basic help desk calls.

However, Bomgar is only one of a wide variety of solutions available today for small to mid-sized businesses that need remote support for a remote staff that spends little time in the main office.

Hired help desk

“The options are numerous and now affordable for the smaller consultant or business,” says Sonal Ghandi, an analyst from Jupiter Research. For companies that want to outsource the help desk to an outside vendor, Ghandi categorizes providers into two categories:

  • End-to-end management. Just like it sounds, this means the provider takes care of everything, from buying equipment, implementation, maintaining it, and round-the-clock support.
  • Managed hosting. This works in a variety of ways. “Some providers manage what’s in their complex only. You may rent both the space and equipment, or just the space to house your equipment. Some companies outsource support for only certain applications while keeping others like e-mail, for example, in house,” says Ghandi.

Shopping for the right provider

Just like hiring any service provider, business owners should always check references, read the company website thoroughly to get a sense of what the vendor can and cannot do, and make sure they hold the appropriate certifications to work on your equipment.

“Have everything spelled out in that service contract. You need to understand up front where their responsibility begins and ends with the equipment. Also have a clause to get out of it if they are not performing. The more clearly this is all defined, the less likely there’ll be problems,” says Ghandi.

Keeping it in-house

It is increasingly easier for companies to provide their own remote IT support for far flung workers, with products such as the Bomgar Box that requires very little implementation to get it up and running. Other options include software solutions like Numara’s  Windows-based “Track It! 8.5” and “Remote” applications and WebEx’s fairly new Web-based Remote Support software on a subscription basis.

Not only are more companies pricing products like these for smaller businesses, the technology has become easier to use and more automated, while offering more richly detailed reports.

Every company is different

Before picking a vendor, businesses would be wise to first evaluate their remote IT support needs. Ghandi offers the following check list to go over before making any major decisions:

  • Guaranteed up time. Very few companies can afford for any part of their network to be down for any length of time. “Guaranteed up time should be around 99.5 percent or 99.6 percent," says Ghandi. "If they offer less than that, you need to be prepared to live with it. If the provider is only guaranteeing 95 percent up time, that may be okay if you’re a nine-to-five weekdays only business. Most likely that 5 percent of down time will be on the weekends anyway, although it could happen during business hours.” .
  • Web-based or phone support? A combination of both may be the best bet. “With Web-based IT support, hopefully it would allow for escalation to phone support, if it’s an emergency,” says Ghandi.
  • Scalability. Whether it’s an outside vendor or a piece of software being used in- house to provide remote support to workers, growing businesses need to have some idea how fast they plan to build out over a period of time. If a company has 10 employees today, but plans to ramp up to more than a 100 within a year, IT support needs to be able to keep up the pace along with that growth.
  • Security. Most providers are following industry standards, but it needs to be clear who is liable for what. Ghandi points out that while larger vendors may have more security infrastructure in place, they also tend to be more attractive targets for hackers. Smaller businesses are less likely to be targeted. Businesses need to analyze the level of sensitive data each of their applications generates and shop for a provider accordingly.
  • Industry-specific solutions. Providers love to use this as a selling point. For example, a medical records company might use a consultant or software solution specific to that field. “If you’re not a very specialized business then you don’t need to pay for a specialized provider. Don’t fall for that as a selling point,” warns Ghandi.