Up until this point, our series has concentrated on the essential questions to help you organize your business software itself. But that software has to live somewhere, and it has to be managed by someone. The most perfectly chosen and implemented software may feel horribly frustrating to your users if the network they are accessing it from isn't designed with sufficient capacity, speed, and/or flexibility for an enterprise solution. You don't have a network at all? Not to worry. Unlike the days when business owners were forced to build infrastructure and a department to maintain it, there are several more options these days. Our fifth and final batch of questions - courtesy of our Information Technology team - changes gears to help you think about the maintenance and distribution of the business software that you're taking such care to consider.
- Where will your software reside?
Computing hardware can be expensive, especially given the rapid pace with which technology advances. Like a new car driven off a sales lot, a new server begins its march towards reduced value and obsolescence as soon as the first piece of software is installed on it (in truth, the car probably has quite a longer lifespan). Workstations have an even shorter fate. Then there are backups, security, and user administration to think about...and probably a team of people to do all that thinking. These days, many businesses are eliminating those confusing - and pricey - obligations and opting instead to redirect technology budgets towards cloud hosting solutions. In these scenarios, businesses access their software remotely, while responsibility for all aspects of hardware upkeep is managed by the cloud provider. Of course, data and applications that live somewhere unseen may feel less under your control than if they were in a server closet down the hall. The sensitivity of your data and your personal tolerance for having it off-site must guide your decision. Consider, however, that these days many hosted solutions are far more secure and reliably backed up than on-premise ones.
- Which cloud is right for you?
Let's assume, for a moment, you determine that a cloud solution is right for your business and its budget. Despite 'The Cloud' being a popular phrase that makes it sound like a perpetually rainy day outside, these days we actually live in a multi-cloud world with options. A computing 'cloud' is just a cheerful phrase for a hosted hardware solution, in which you rent controlled space for your software to reside on and your data to be delivered from. Important questions to ask potential cloud providers include:
- Where is the actual data center?
- How frequently are off-site backups taken?
- How quickly can data be restored from backup, if requested?
- What up-time is guaranteed?
- How many software solutions are you deploying to run your business?
Depending on the results from evaluating their needs in accounting, reporting, inventory management, and manufacturing, many businesses opt to implement an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system that interweaves all of this functionality together in a single package. These can be complex systems with dozens of useful features and extensive databases that allow the various areas of your business to communicate seamlessly. They require significant computing and network resources, but, as a centralized solution, incompatibilities are rare. If you're going this route, you'll need a powerful server that is ready for future growth as well as decently fast workstations. If, on the other hand, you are bringing together several specialized pieces of software, you'll need to evaluate the hardware and compatibility requirements of each one. You'll also need to keep your eye trained on integration readiness so that you don't end up in a finger-pointing battle between vendors. Regardless which path you choose, a fast network is essential to avoid the costly annoyance of waiting for any solution to respond.
- How important is mobility to your workforce?
Would it be advantageous for your salespeople to submit expense reports from their smart phones? Do you need to know information about your outstanding invoices at 30,000 feet? Should your service people be able to order parts while on location at a job site? These days, mobile computing solutions have made work more of an activity than a place. If you're looking to reap the benefits of these un-tethering technologies, your information technology infrastructure - wherever it lives - will need to be capable of supporting mobile users and the applications they employ. Some of these solutions will involve third-party applications, while others will involve good, old-fashioned telephony. Additionally, your Information Technology and Human Resources departments will need to team up to address policy considerations regarding the double-edged sword of the bring your own device workplace.
- How will your users access the business software they need to use?
While it may seem that all software is moving into you Internet browser and onto your devices, the truth is that plenty of applications - and business applications, in particular - still launch in discrete windows. Depending on the solutions you select, your Information Technology team will need to determine the most elegant delivery methods available while still preserving a high level of integration. If you have a preferred form of access and/or specific limitations, you may want to include those as qualifying factors when evaluating your software options in the first place. It's much easier to start with pieces that fit together than try and force them into place later.