For now, your office network is efficiently handling the day-to-day needs of your business. Congratulations on a job well done.
But how prepared is it -- and are you -- to roll with the changes of the latest technologies as they grow more mainstream? As data, voice, and video functions converge, your network is likely to need a serious upgrade.
“A single-service or dedicated network cannot meet diverse and growing consumer demands for ‘many services to many screens,’" warns a recent Cisco Systems white paper. These "screens" include phones, PCs, mobile TV, and hand-helds. The services? Instant messaging, voice-over Internet Protocol (VoIP), streaming video, and more. Meanwhile, the next generation of the Internet Protocol (IP), known as IP version 6, or IPv6 for short, will require most every business to make some network adjustments. With the U.S. government set to switch over to IPv6 from today’s IPv4 by 2008, businesses would do well to make preparations.
Making sure your network is ready to face the future makes a lot of sense. But what’s the best way to go about it? The experts say these are your choices:
Option 1: Find a good consultant
If your inclination is to build out your existing network, don’t go it alone, advises Abner Germanow, director of enterprise networking at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC. “Small businesses need solutions to grow their business without adding too much overhead,” he says. “Buying a new small LAN switch may be inexpensive, but add 15 of them and they become hard to manage.”
Instead, he says, find a consultant to work with you and figure out just how “infocentric” your business is, and what your needs are. Do you need wikis? Blogs? Instant messaging? How much of your business is done over the phone or face to face? A consultant can help you best, Germanow says. “Think of them as your IT department, just outsourced.” Prices for these services will vary widely, depending on your office’s needs.
A real plus for small businesses today is that most major network product and service providers now have small business lines. “There’s been a very big push on the part of Cisco, Nortel and others to develop products and services for this market,” Germanow says.
Option 2: Invest in hosted solutions
Another good option for small businesses is hosted solutions. Hosted IP telephony alone “would give you a lot of power for not much cost,” notes John Thompson, principal with Hinsdale, Ill.-based Thompson, Ross & Associates, a telecom/IT consulting firm.
While costs vary, for about $25-$75/month, small businesses can pay for VoIP through a host, such as Aptela, CallTower, Qwest and many others, who will handle all the switching, security, and messaging services.
“Through these services, voice mail can be integrated with e-mail, and your office phone integrated with your cell phone," Thompson says. "It can also grow with your office, and the same phone numbers can be used at outlying offices.”
In general, Thompson says, hosted solutions of various kinds -- storage, e-mail, Web conferencing, and others -- are good solutions for small businesses lacking their own IT staffs. “One of the problems we see with small offices, those with under 50 phone lines, is that they have bought bad technology, or it wasn’t implemented correctly, and they get themselves into a box,” Thompson says. “Hosted solutions are scalable, and can bring small businesses along until they are big enough to hire their own IT staff.”
In fact, Thompson is following his own advice. As his six-person office prepares to move to a new space, he says, “We’re looking at hosted services for ourselves.”