The financial rationale for many small and mid-size businesses to standardize on software for the company's computing platform is convincing: a standard build can mitigate security risks while drastically reducing the amount of time your technology staff needs to spend loading applications on each PC and laptop used by employees.

These days, top-tier applications of every stripe are optimized to be delivered remotely, via subscription services or Web applications. This means companies that centrally manage resources are no longer limited in the quality of software tools offered.

But, at the same time, small businesses need to consider certain situations when giving users autonomy over their desktops remains justifiable – particularly when an employee's job duties include unique requirements.

A standard build can lower costs

For a small business, standardizing the computing platform "is not so much an advantage as it is a necessity," says Kevin Kelly, the technology manager at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a small business based in Woodacre, Calif. Small businesses with limited technology budgets cannot afford to have administrators spending hours removing applications or scrubbing hard drives of viruses and spyware, Kelly says. He makes sure his company's 50 users are always up-to-date and productive by refreshing their desktop software overnight and scanning for wayward applications.

Businesses involved in managing financial and personal data have additional security and privacy concerns that justify centrally storing and managing applications. The potential for losing laptops with sensitive personal information and the risks from users who inadvertently create security holes justify the central administration of software. Centralized management also prevents users from installing the many popular applications for communicating, playing media files or sharing files online that decrease productivity and increase security risks.

The software-as-service model

A client-server platform for delivering applications has traditionally been too costly for many small businesses. A preferable and more affordable model that is attracting more interest from small businesses is delivering applications over the Internet, according to Tim Bajarin, the principal analyst at Creative Strategies, a consulting firm based in Campbell, Calif. Small companies sign up for services known alternatively known as "on demand applications," "software as a service," or "Web-hosted applications" that provide all of the applications necessary for sales, customer relationship management or human resources organizations.

Bajarin says companies such as Salesforce.com, SmartOnline, and Citrix can securely deliver applications while lowering the cost of technology. On-demand applications can often be installed without changing the current platform and are suitable for organizations without a dedicated technology staff. According to research company AMI-Partners, small- and medium-sized businesses will increase their spending on online customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) software by 17 percent in 2007 over the prior year.

When it's okay to deviate from the standard

In certain cases, it's okay to stray from the standard build model. Small businesses with media departments that require specific applications, such as video or graphics processing, or individuals who manipulate sophisticated financial models or engineering documents will likely need computers that deviate from a standard build. Standardizing the desktop build may not be suitable for very small businesses (fewer than 10 employees) that do not have an administrator to enforce standardization or cannot afford to invest the time needed to establish a relationship with a remote applications provider.

Fortunately for businesses that have departments with varied requirements, centralizing administration does not have to be an all or nothing proposition. Standard builds can be customized to business departments while other workgroups can have their own configurations. Technology manager Kelly says Microsoft's new Vista operating system simplifies the task of managing the desktops of multiple workgroups while allowing a company to grant permission to install applications on an individual basis.