When Yvonne Ochoa was starting as a real estate agent in San Antonio, she noticed that the most productive agents employed laptop computers, email, cellular telephones and other information technology in their work. "The faster you are, the more organized you are, the better you can get information to yourself and your clients," Ochoa theorized.

While far from being a techno-phobe, she was daunted by the prospect of buying, integrating and maintaining a well-equipped real estate agent's IT infrastructure. Then she connected with the support desk at a local retailer while shopping for a new computer.

Since then Ochoa has used the resource as an IT support service provider, hiring them to come out to her home office to set up her equipment, calling their support line to get help with problems. and soliciting their advice on products and strategies for her IT investment. "Your computer's your life," Ochoa says, "so it's good to have somebody who can advise you."

Many sources of IT support exist, from retailer repair and support services to freelance consultants and large enterprises specializing in offering call-center help desks and similar services. Before choosing a supplier, however, a small business owner should evaluate his or her business's need for IT support.

A good support evaluation involves asking some questions. For instance, what kind of support will be comfortable for users? It may be telephone support, remote support delivered through the Internet or on-site support by a live human.

He or she also needs to ask what types of IT equipment and software requires support. Answers could include advice on hardware and software, assistance configuring backup or disaster recovery systems, website monitoring and monthly reporting, to name a few. Support could cover Ethernet switches, uninterruptible power supplies, firewalls, backups and servers, depending on what the business's IT installation consists of.

It's also important to ask how quickly support needs to be delivered. If it's okay to wait a few hours or a day or so for support, email-delivered support might be a good solution. For immediate gratification, telephone or live chat support is better.

Support agreements can call for monthly flat fees to cover a variety of support services or be charged for on an individual, per-case basis. Ochoa prefers to pay as she goes. A support technician's visit to her home to make technology recommendations, for instance, costs $100. A phone call to diagnose a specific problem runs $70.

A support agreement can cover parts and labor required to restore a system to functionality, or it can only involve advice, with the actual reconfiguring or other work to be done by the business owner or someone on staff. If response time is important enough, you may specify a service level agreement as part of your contract.

Choosing the right IT support provider is as important as choosing the right hardware and software to begin with. For instance, if you use an IT support provider's online backup services, your files are only as safe as long as the provider stays in business and actively protecting your data. And, since IT support often involves providing advice on IT purchases, the recommendations of a support person who is uninformed about your business requirements can, in effect, lock you by default into a subpar future IT strategy.

IT support can't necessarily solve all problems, either. For instance, while an IT support provider will likely be able to help you configure a backup system, the provider may not be able to recover files from a damaged disk that wasn't backed up. For that you'll probably require a more advanced IT service provider specializing in data recovery.

The most prominent trend in IT support today is that it is going to the web. From increasingly sophisticated and useful online databases of frequently asked questions to ever-more powerful remote diagnostic and repair tools, IT support is becoming readily available almost anywhere there is an Internet connection.

For business owners like Ochoa, having top-quality IT support is now a key competitive advantage she plans to keep by her side, now matter how it is delivered. "I'm pretty computer-literate and I'm always up for a challenge," she says. "But it helps to have people on your side, because something you think you know things, and you really don't."