Information Technology

Definition: A term that encompasses all forms of technology used to create, store, exchange and utilize information in its various forms including business data, conversations, still images, motion pictures and multimedia presentations

When it comes to technology and your business, you'll need to know enough about the topic to understand what your business needs and why. And while you won't need to be able to disassemble and reassemble a PC against a stopwatch like a Marine does his M-16, you'll want to know a little more than simply how to turn on your computer and then launch your favorite programs.

Computers and peripherals are constantly evolving, but knowing a few general specifications in each product category will help you find the best deal on the right equipment for your business--or at least understand what a tech expert is telling you. And what a business needs is not the same for everyone. There's no one "right" PC brand or printer type any more than there's one right car for everyone out on the road today.

Your business will have its own unique set of equipment needs that probably differ from those of the company next door. And, of course, you'll have a different amount of money to spend.

When it comes to pricing, the good news is that prices for office equipment have gone down every year during the past three decades, while features have continued to improve with every new version of hardware and software that's released. That's been true in every product category every year, so you can expect to get a better price and a more capable bundle of equipment than you could have found this time last year.

Also, you can expect your computer and telecommunications equipment to be your best business allies. As we've evolved from an industrial to an information-based economy, small businesses have used their office tools to be more competitive against larger businesses, which--let's face it--have a lot of built-in market advantages.

Getting Started
Let's start by behaving as if you're already a Fortune 500 company--in miniature. Over the decades, large businesses have learned quite a bit about getting the most out of their office equipment. The first lesson is: You don't buy equipment; you buy systems.

As you shop for PCs, fax machines and phones, keep in mind that the goal is to make all this equipment work well together and, to the extent possible, talk to one another--that is, share data. If your personal digital assistant (PDA) can't easily transfer data to your desktop, your fax machine can't accept computer files, or you're building contact lists and address books in a lot of different and incompatible applications, you're duplicating your efforts, which means you're losing time. Efficiency today means being well connected--both inside and outside the walls of your company.

Even if you start off as a solo operator working from a home office, you're still going to need connections to clients and suppliers in the wider world. That not only means phone, fax and internet connections, but also some level of connectivity in the applications that make them work--e-mail, instant messaging, web protocols and more.

At some point, you may want to share proposals, spreadsheets and other files--not only among co-workers but possibly customers and suppliers as well. That suggests you'll want to stick with the most popular operating systems and applications to improve your chances of collaboration with others. Certainly, you'll want to do that within your own company.

Incidentally, even if you're starting as a solo operator, you'll need at least two connected computers. And if you're like many businesspeople today, you probably already own three or four "computing devices"--PC, laptop, PDA, cell phone--with a lot of wired and/or wireless connections among them and your other office equipment.

But why two desktop computers? Actually, one of those could be a laptop for travel. But you need two because of that inevitable day when your hard drive crashes or your computer gets a virus or there's some inscrutable problem with your PC's on/off button--whatever. Your PC is likely to become the heart and soul of your operation, and while computer equipment is very durable, all equipment fails.

So what will you do when that machine that holds your critical business information fails? Even if you're among that small fraction of people who back up their data religiously and have it available somewhere on tape or CD-ROM, how long will it take you to run out and buy a new PC and add all the software you regularly use configured just the way you like it so you can start loading that data? How many hours or days can your business go before you get back online with your customers?

Realistically, you don't want even one hour of lost productivity. At a minimum, you need at least one duplicate of your main PC's entire setup that you can immediately turn to without losing a step. As mentioned, that duplicate image could be a laptop used for travel. Ideally, it will be another desktop just as capable or nearly so as your first.

That second computer doesn't have to sit idle until an emergency. It can be working in the meantime to help carry the computing load on your local area network (LAN)--and, for that matter, your wide area network, which includes your connection to the internet and your website.

Networking lets you share computing power and divvy up your workload among different systems. For example, as companies grow, they often find it cheaper and more convenient to keep master copies of software and even data on a central PC and give each employee's workstation access to more or less of it, depending on the employee's access privileges.

It's also often convenient to get your printer, fax and scanner off your desk by attaching them to a second PC that can accept jobs from all the other PCs on the network. Another increasingly common use of a second PC is as a communications server to your e-commerce web site and to house the several e-mail boxes and instant messaging archives you and co-workers will collect.

So you need to start shopping, not for computers, but for a network for your computers. That's not as complicated as it sounds, especially since Windows and other popular operating systems have networking capabilities built in these days. At the LAN level, that will be over an Ethernet connection. You'll also want to connect smaller devices to your network via various wired or wireless protocols that will be built into your different devices.

As mentioned, if you travel or work at home and the office or different spots around your home, you may prefer that your second computer be a laptop. Portables come in all shapes and sizes today, and you can easily find one powerful enough to perform any or all of the desktop duties described above.

Any PC that delivers data and other services to multiple devices is called a "server." The word "server" is also used to refer to the operating system--software like Windows 2000 or its successor, Windows XP. These operating systems include all the features you'll need to connect your server to other computers, sometimes called "clients."

The traditional way to create your LAN is to string very inexpensive Category 5 cable (it looks a lot like the typical phone line on steroids) between the Ethernet adapters of two or more PCs. You may need to buy a small and inexpensive Ethernet card to plug in to one or more of your PCs if any of them is either old or cheap. But the easier approach is to make built-in Ethernet a must-have on your PC shopping list. (As a matter of fact, Ethernet has become such a common feature of today's business-class PCs that it may not even cost you extra for the ability to transfer data at 10 or 100 megabits per second.)

Easier still is to network your PCs wirelessly using 802.11 or Wi-Fi network adapters. These come in a variety of adapter types and connect to your PC in different ways. Similarly, unable to accept an Ethernet card, some small devices like PDAs and cell phones rely on the wireless Bluetooth or Infrared communication methodologies.

Choosing a PC
When it comes to selecting the right computer for your business, you need to make sure you're looking at the business-class PCs. What exactly is a business-class PC? In brief, it's one that includes various connectivity components like built-in Ethernet and the software utilities to manage networking, as well as the slots, bays and ports needed to expand memory, storage and business peripherals.

A business-class PC isn't necessarily more expensive than today's well-equipped home computers, but it's not the cheapest PC you can buy, either. In its standard configuration, it's priced in the midrange. But you don't necessarily want to buy the standard configuration.

While high-end consumer systems focus on multimedia entertainment, gaming and other recreational activities, a business user's money is better spent getting just a little more of all the standard stuff. You want more memory, more storage, and a higher-resolution or larger display, because all these things not only make computing more pleasant, but also enhance your productivity.

They can help you do more in less time, and if you're in business, time is money. Waiting for databases to update, insufficient memory errors, waiting for web pages to download-these things waste your time. You want to have the best business productivity enhancer you can afford.

PC components change pretty quickly--always for the better. It's hard to take a snapshot of PC functionality that won't go out of date right away. But we can give you a few guidelines:

CPU. Starting with the brains of the computer or the central processing unit, you'll want your systems powered by nothing less than an Intel Pentium 4 or equivalent Athlon XP class processor from Advanced Micro Devices as opposed to, say, Celrons, Durons, Pentium IIIs or earlier generations. System clock speeds have been soaring higher in recent years, so you shouldn't invest in anything less than a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 or Athlon XP 2100+ machine with 512KB of on-chip cache memory and 400MHz frontside bus for processor-to-memory transfers. On-chip cache is critically important to your processor's performance.

RAM. Random Access Memory is also critically important. Considerably slower and cheaper than cache, RAM is the bucket your computer's processor uses to hold vast amounts of data and program instructions while it works. The standard amount of RAM is always climbing as the programs we use become ever more ambitious. Consider 512MB to be the minimum for a business-class PC, and you really should have 1GB. Here's where the price of your PC jumps the most. But adding memory is the single-most beneficial thing you can to enhance your PC's performance.

Hard drive. One or more physical hard drives, each of which can be divided into multiple logical drives, are the warehouses where you store multimegabyte programs and gigabytes worth of data. This is the permanent storage location of your programs and files, and, if only because they are so inexpensive, there's no reason to have a PC with less than 80GB of storage. The real price differential comes with the speed at which the platters in your hard drive spin. Another productivity enhancer: Make sure you don't buy anything slower than a 7200RPM drive.

Optical drive. It's pretty hard to find a computer without a CD-ROM drive these days. In fact, it's hard to find one without a rewritable CD. But time marches on, and today it's preferable to have a rewritable DVD in your PC. For starters, DVD platters hold 4.3GB instead of the 650MB of CD-ROMs. That's enough to hold a first-run movie, although the principal business application is to copy all your hard drive data onto one or more rewritable DVD discs and then store them off-site. Of all your backup alternatives, none is so reliable, so durable and so cheap as simply copying the contents of your hard drives to an optical drive. Any of the popular DVD rewriting methods will be able to read your CD-ROM discs as well.

Display. To put it bluntly, monitors are dead. Long live liquid crystal displays (LCDs). These thin-line, low-power alternatives to the hot, bulky monitor are still a good deal more expensive to buy. But prices are falling fast, and they not only save a huge amount of desktop space, but also enough in power and cooling costs over a traditional monitor that they are actually cheaper in the long run. A 15-inch LCD is the viewing equivalent of a 17-inch monitor but has a higher resolution and is easier on the eyes. Depending on features, it should cost $300 to $400. Spend a couple hundred dollars more, and a 17-inch LCD will provide higher resolution and contrast, and a wider viewing angle for, say, group presentations. Either is cheapest when purchased from a discount warehouse store separate from your PC.

Modem. One of your best business investments today is broadband Internet access. Depending on your location, that could be via a phone company's T1, ATM fiber relay or DSL, or the same cable that brings content to your TV. At the very least, your PC is likely to include a 56K modem for connections over a phone line, at least as an available option. Not much to think about there except, even if you have a broadband connection, the $30 to $50 you'll need to spend to get a 56K modem is well worth it in the event your broadband connection fails.

While nothing prevents you from buying parts at a computer retailer and building your own PC from the motherboard up, you'll find that the economics argue against that. Likewise, upgrades of your PC's CPU seldom make good economic sense anymore with new PC prices so low.

But it's still relatively easy and economically feasible to add memory, storage and peripherals. Make sure your new PC has free memory sockets, drive bays, PCI peripheral slots and ports. Usually, all these become more bountiful as you move from a desktop to minitower to full tower case. But there are some upgrade possibilities you should demand in even the smallest computer:

Memory. Always insist that all the initial memory on a new PC be included on a single DIMM (dual inline memory module). Insist on at least one open memory slot.

Storage. It's hard to say which is happening faster--the growth in hard-drive capacity or the fall in hard-drive prices. We measure storage in gigabytes these days, and you should be able to add another 80GB of storage for less than $100. While more is always better, at the very least, insist that your new PC have one free internal 3.5-inch storage bay that can accept another hard drive. Also insist on at least one externally available 5.25-inch drive bay into which you may want to add another kind of optical drive than the one that will ship with your PC.

Peripherals. You never know whether you may choose to add a different graphics adapter, a wireless networking card, a board for an external storage device or scanner, or who knows. Insist on two open PCI slots on even the smallest desktops.

Ports. Increasingly, the things that hang off your PC--mice, trackballs, keyboards, still and video cameras, external drives, printers and scanners--are relying on the new high-bandwidth FireWire and USB 2.0 ports, especially the latter. They often replace legacy serial, parallel and PS/2 ports--sometimes even PCI slots. No need to give up legacy connections yet, but make sure your PC still has a half-dozen USB 2.0 ports both front and back. If you're lucky, you may also find a Windows PC with a built-in FireWire port for multimedia connections. Add-on FireWire or USB 2.0 hubs will only put you back about cost $50 to $100.

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