Seven Lessons That SMBs Can Learn from Big IT

By David Strom, PC World |  Small Business, Backup & Recovery, cell phone

4. Use a VPN

Many larger IT shops make use of virtual private networks (VPNs) to ensure that their communications are kept confidential, and that traveling users can access home office files and other resources when on the road. Many of these VPN products can be quite expensive, but the SMB alternatives don't have to cost a lot of money.

Some, such as Openvpn.org, are free, while low-cost VPN service providers such as LogMeIn.com's Hamachi can run about US$50 per person per year. "Hamachi allows us to connect to hundreds of our customers and monitor live videos of our security cameras discreetly and without having to worry about being compromised by unauthorized users," says Ben Molloy, the vice president of Pro-Vigil, a San Antonio, Texas-based company that provides security for off-hours construction sites.

And VPNs come integrated in a variety of lower-cost security gateway appliances, too. Nanette Lepore makes use of the SSL VPNs that are included in the SonicWall appliances to connect their stores together, and to ensure that no one can compromise their communications.

The Lepore firm even set up temporary accounts for guest workers and maintenance personnel that are purposely time-limited. Granting accounts for temporary personnel without such time limits is another common mistake. Time-limited accounts mean that the IT staff doesn't have to remember to remove the account when the maintenance is completed.

5. Run Personal Firewalls, Especially on Windows PCs

Windows is notorious for being a security sinkhole, and most larger IT operations now require their PCs to run some kind of personal firewall to prevent infections and malware from taking over. A wide range of products is available, but the key is to pick one, make it standard, and make sure that all employees are educated about why it is necessary to keep the firewall running at all times, especially when traveling. Inexpensive but effective firewalls include AVG from Grisoft.com, Online Armour, and Kaspersky Labs.

However, you can't always manage each individual machine, and a careless user could turn off these defenses and let viruses in. This is where having a drive image copy can come in handy.

Another way to enforce security policies and other protective measures is to deploy some endpoint security tool that will block unhealthy PCs from gaining network access. Napera is one product that is specifically targeted at SMB installations, and McAfee and Sophos have others.

Matt Stevenson, who is the director of information technology for Talyst, a pharmacy automation vendor in Bellevue, Washington, has been using the $3500 Napera appliance on his 120-node network for the past six months. "A lot of our staff is out in the field, and they attach to a wide variety of networks. When they come back to our office, the Napera box forces their PCs to become compliant and to ensure that our network won't get infected," he says.

6. Rely on VoIP PBX for Your Phone System

As more and more big IT shops can attest, using a VoIP PBX telephone system has tremendous cost advantages. The biggest one is for your remote workers who can have extensions on your headquarters' phone system. These systems are also very flexible in terms of call handling, and offer other features such as call forwarding, multiple simultaneous rings (where an incoming call can be answered wherever it is more convenient), so-called follow-me (where incoming calls are routed to particular numbers at particular times of the day), and do-not-disturb.

"Now businesses are able to get features that can set the rules on how they are contacted, and be able to conduct more business when they aren't in their office," says Henry Kaestner, the founder and CEO of Internet phone provider Bandwidth.com, one of the many vendors that offer this kind of service. CBeyond and Asterisk are other companies that offer VoIP PBX.

These systems start at around $400 a month and have the advantage of being able to grow or contract with your staffing needs. They also can present your company as more professional, with features that are normally found on very expensive phone systems. The downside is that you need to ensure that your network is up to snuff to handle all the voice traffic; and to get the most out of these systems, you'll want to find a VAR or consultant who specializes in VoIP PBX installations.

7. Have a Solid Test Plan for Adding New Technology

The big guys don't put some new tech into their operations without first doing a lot of testing first. Put together a test lab or designate one office that will be your "beta bar," and encourage your most technical staffer to try out new things before getting them deployed.

Ramon Ray, the owner of the site Smallbiztechnology, advises that in addition to testing, it's important to analyze a variety of options. "Just don't just go for the first choice, but think and review the pros and cons and what else is available to you. During the testing, it is also important to consider your future needs. Many smaller businesses don't think of their future growth, which will affect their IT plans," he says.

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