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Movin' On Up

Is your business limping along on outdated computers or a network that doesn't meet your needs anymore? Here are five ways to upgrade your technology and boost your company's productivity.

The term "small business" is not the best way to describe you anymore. Sure, we all started out that way, but the description certainly never fit your dreams. And now, it probably doesn't accurately describe your physical operation. Desktops, phone systems, networks and software licenses--lots and lots of software licenses--you just sort of collect them while you're busy doing whatever it is you do. But it gets to the point where the patchwork of stopgap technology you've acquired starts to cost more in breakdowns, system mismatches and management headaches than the cost of replacement.

If you've suddenly awakened to find that you're trying to squeeze a size 12 business into size 9 hardware and software, it may be time for a technology refresh. That could mean upgrading your network hardware or operating system, your back-end database or e-commerce server. Perhaps certain high-growth applications like e-commerce or instant messaging are straining your processor and storage resources and gobbling up network bandwidth. Maybe it's time to stop buying equipment and start buying systems you can more effectively manage to reduce your operating costs and improve worker productivity.

If you're at that stage, here are five product choices for an upwardly mobile enterprise like yours. You probably won't need them all. No one has the time to buy or deploy them all, and no single product is right for every business anyway. But these systems should, at least, be on the short shopping list of any growing business.

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Note that computer and phone stuff differs from most capital equipment by virtue of its relatively short useful life. There's always some new thing coming along to render obsolete whatever you're using now. No one says you have to upgrade, but you may have a competitor on a different refresh cycle who could use it to gain an advantage over you. So use your high-tech gear and lose it in three to four years, and while you have it, demand a return on your investment. That is, after all, what Adam Smith said machinery is supposed to do for us in the first place, right?

Little Engines That Can
Michael Dell has one of the most inspiring entrepreneurial stories of the last 20 years--from selling PCs in college to being the largest provider of computers in the world. He got to the top by constantly finding new ways to squeeze costs out of his business. The guy knows how to save a buck, and his system specialists are trained to help you do the same with your business systems.

One secret to saving money is to strive for as much uniformity and connectivity as possible across your entire enterprise. You don't want to buy desktops willy-nilly anymore. Even if you add or replace computers at different times, you want a master plan for their deployment and upgrade over the useful life of the asset--typically, three-plus years today.

You also want a company-wide network configuration that gives workers the greatest possible access to data across the enterprise and the most uptime. A critical aspect of that strategy, says Erik Schmude, Dell server and storage specialist, is the unhinging of your data from each departmental server and desktop. Instead, your company data is pooled with the help of Networked Attached Storage (NAS) devices that are easily scaled up as your needs grow and that foster better systemwide data backup and availability. When combined with RAID redundancy, this solution both reduces productivity-killing system downtime and requires fewer IT staff hours to troubleshoot. Although such soft-dollar savings are application- and company-specific, they're real nonetheless and almost always good news in any independent total cost of ownership (TCO) study.

Then, too, the right desktop hardware and network design makes the most of your productivity applications, saving a few seconds here or a minute there every hour. A faster processor, a larger display, a faster hard drive with adequate capacity, gigabit LAN and broadband Internet connections--each adds up to a little more being done in less time. That adds up to significant employee hours saved over the course of a year. That should translate into higher revenue from your capital equipment and, hopefully, more that will land on the bottom line.

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This article was originally published in the September 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Movin' On Up.

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