Small Business Imperative

Many large companies see mobility as key to improving productivity. Mobile devices, smart cell phones and pocket PCs will let workers on the road stay connected to the corporate network and use many of the applications they depend on at their desks. But these benefits are not confined only to large corporations, and Akshay Lamba looks at where else they are in demand.

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By  Akshay Lamba Published  October 9, 2006

|~|Akshay-Lamba-200.jpg|~|Akshay Lamba believes that SMBs are coming to terms with the benefits of offering additional flexibility to the working conditions of staff. |~|Increasingly, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) around the globe are reaping the fruits of their labour after introducing mobility in the workplace. The ability to access information on the go is a compelling weapon in the competitive business landscape. A number of trends — including wireless, business-to-business and mobility — are also driving SMBs toward upgrading and extending their networks. The use of wireless LANs for data continues to grow in SMBs, and wireless e-mail continues to become more attractive in offerings and price to SMBs. There are three main methodologies that drive mobility in the SMB sector: 1 Internet VPN solutions 2 Web adaptation of applications combined with hosting solutions 3 M-adaptation of applications via SMS extensions or email-on-the-device extensions. Internet VPN Solutions A number of organisations have discovered that they have been able to increase their bandwidth while maintaining or even reducing network costs by moving to an internet VPN based solution. With the increased penetration of broadband internet access, a number of VPN solutions for the SMB sector are today available as “off the rack” solutions, customised solutions or even as a managed solutions. In the UAE, on one end consumer have a number of mature proprietary solutions available to them from leading vendors such as Juniper Networks, Cisco, Checkpoint and Nokia that target the SMB market; and on the other end there are open source based VPN solutions available in the region by players such as Acme IT Services. In the SMB segment, most organisations do not have the necessary in-house skill sets to deploy VPN solutions. While the needed VPN solution is not very complex to deploy and maintain for the smaller SMBs, the lack of understanding of the technology and low awareness levels tend to be barriers to penetration. Targeted managed VPN solutions for this sector are difficult to come by. However, as can be expected, larger SMBs (with more than 100 employees) have more complex connectivity requirements. This means that greater proportions of their networks are managed in full or in part by their IP VPN service provider because they are likely to be more complex than a smaller SMB's network. Confusing packaging and pricing has made it difficult for SMBs to understand many of the managed services offered over the past few years. Success in the SMB market will depend on the ability of service providers to offer coherent, turnkey managed solutions that present verifiable value propositions, are easy to understand, and communicate features and price structures. Managed service offerings will continue to improve and evolve. One example of this is the availability of “in the cloud” services. This type of managed offering provides services that do not depend on customer premises equipment. The network perimeter is still in place, but it is outsourced and pushed off-site. Some of the benefits when compared with other managed services include a reduction in capital expenditure and total cost of ownership by the reduction or elimination of customer premise equipment required for infrastructure management and even security devices. Web adaptation of applications The internet continues to change the business landscape with an increased focus on value-chain collaboration, broadened competition, deregulation and merger and acquisition activities. Because of this, web-enabled end-to-end business process management (BPM) has taken on heightened importance when small and midsize businesses evaluate packaged business solutions. In fact, BPM has overtaken enterprise application integration (EAI) as the highest level of integration because it focuses on actual processes while incorporating the platform and application as crucial components. Because of the need to create seamless business processes, enterprise resource planning is a major consideration for SMBs. Within two years, most carriers' core internet protocol (IP) infrastructure will be fully Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS)-enabled and interoperable, allowing carriers to offer and support various IP quality of service classes at Layer 2 and Layer 3 broadband rates. Enterprises have started to and will continue to migrate their wide area networks from frame relay, ATM and leased line services to IP/MPLS to take advantage of more bandwidth at lower cost, with comparable security and reliability. Improved voice over IP (VoIP), video and network-attached storage will result. However, carriers are not expected to continue frequent upgrades to their internet access IP infrastructures (which are a separate IP network for most carriers). This will negatively impact users of web-based applications and internet-based virtual private networks. End users must expect to get what is paid for, in this case, an internet “best effort” service. Having said that, with price sensitivity being a critical factor for the SMB market, internet based VPN applications and web based applications can play a critical role to mobilise the work force while the enterprise segment is addressed by MPLS-based, higher QoS, services. M-adaptation of applications In today's business word, mobile and wireless applications are used extensively to automate a mobile employee's workflow or extend the desktop of an executive whose job is primarily in the office. Mobile applications have changed many facets of business. Today, density of mobile applications is much more than computers in many parts of the world. Mobile applications for enterprise usage are a logical extension of the applications that are already in use in the form of enterprise, web enterprise resource planning (ERP), and backend processes. However, the SMB sector, typically, cannot afford or sustain a long drawn plan for m-adaptation of their business critical applications. Though integrating their current applications with standard SMS and WAP connectors can help them jump into the m-adaptation wagon while keeping development and deployment costs to an acceptable level. ||**|||~|Navin-Narayan200.jpg|~|Acme IT Service's managing director, Navin Narayan is seeking to deliver competitive business differentiation. |~|One SMS/WAP extension that has traditionally worked very well has been integrating with the lead management system for travelling sales personnel and agents. SMS extensions have also been used for alert management for monitoring of IT infrastructure. A number of network and system administrators use SMS as an alternative to their alert management system to send them alerts on their mobile handsets when they are on the road. Similar application of this technology to business critical processes that either help in generation of revenue or give considerable cost advantages are potentially an excellent way for an SMB to mobilise their workforce. A practical case study Acme IT Services is a “case in the making” for mobilising an SMB organisation. Building on business requirements of the parent company's desires, the team at Acme has put together an impressive package of products and services to deliver mobility at a reasonable price point. The parent company, an industrial hardware trading firm, is a second generation firm in Dubai. As the market expanded in the last two years in the region, this organisation, like many others, needed to enable its workforce to deliver while out in the field. Hence, it started out on a strategic journey to revamp its IT infrastructure while keeping a very critical eye on cost of deployment. Today, it has built up an interesting set of applications, infrastructure services and even a service delivery model to help enable other SMB organisations to mobilise their workforces. Leveraging on its experience with its internal customers, two primary concerns surfaced during discussions with Acme. Firstly, the cost and speed of deployment was a major concern and secondly, the desire to hold critical data at its own premises. In order to address these requirements the team at Acme built a VPN solution based on open source software. Giving up control of certain IT functions has always been a difficult decision for SMBs and other organisations. However, the stark reality is that outsourcing, to some degree, is the only way that they will be able to create and manage a low-cost, flexible infrastructure. As a result, SMBs that once insisted on doing everything internally are becoming more willing to consider outsourcing various aspects of their networks to simplify their infrastructures and live within their budget and skill constraints. The introduction of new networking technologies, voice and data convergence, greater security demands, and the need for improved network performance and reliability will drive the adoption of managed network services by SMBs. Complex initiatives, such as IP telephony, usually require upfront services to deploy and integrate into a network. These same IT initiatives prove to be a management challenge for many SMBs, which will have no choice but to use a third party to manage some of their new communications infrastructure. This is especially true when it comes to mobilising their workforces. SMBs are looking towards solutions that are able to deliver a holistic solution for mobilising those areas of their IT system that can help them achieve strategic advantages for the business. This includes VPN access to their infrastructure and SMS extensions or even WAP connectors that can integrate with their current applications. The way ahead One of the biggest challenges reported by SMBs is that their IT staff and budgets cannot keep pace with the demands of their IT infrastructures. These companies are finding a proliferation of new systems and devices coming to market — from laptops to BlackBerries to wireless access points to virtual private networks — all of which have made infrastructure management more complicated. Many SMBs are realising that they need to simplify and standardise to improve the manageability of their infrastructure. As part of this, many SMBs are looking for clues on how to best manage their enterprise networks. SMB networks are becoming increasingly complex because of three main reasons - rapidly growing user requirements, the ever increasing and vast array of technological alternatives, and past expedient and tactical decisions. Utilising these methodologies, SMBs can better control and manage their networks through simplifying them where possible. In many cases, costs can be reduced and performance improved as well. But, the core question that develops is who would be on the other side of the table? Who would deliver mobility solutions, maybe even as part of managed services with a focus on the SMB customer segment? Given that large enterprises have never been more dependent on communications for the success of their businesses, their survival ultimately depends on management's focus on their core business. Organisations must reduce fixed support expenses with minimal risk to the enterprise's core business by improving efficiency. Carriers are looking at managed services as a new, higher-margin revenue stream that can mitigate commoditisation in their legacy data services and stabilise their revenue while reducing churn. Systems integrators and outsourcers are looking to incorporate managed services into their product mix in an effort to expand contract scope and market reach, and improve revenue. Carriers have an early advantage by controlling the access/transport infrastructure, and generally strong customer relationships and support organisations. However, they lack the depth of LAN/customer premise equipment (CPE) management and integration capabilities of the system integrators and outsourcers, and thus the ability to expand their contract scope beyond the transport component. This is true for the SMB segment too. System integrators and outsourcers are all building managed services into mobility solutions and the SMB segment must leverage them as they rapidly grow in a buoyant marketplace. The author is a business & telecom consultant and can be reached at akshay@lambaweb.com. The views in the article are attributed to the author alone and are not associated with the publisher or the employer in any way. ||**||

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