Sometimes people are surprised when I tell them that we don’t host our web site, or run and exchange server. They’re even more surprised when I tell them we also have a hosted point of sale system, hosted backup, hosted email newsletter system, and will soon be switching to a hosted VOIP solution (as soon as we can escape the clutches of Comcast).
This is the cloud you may have heard about, and while most of the things I just mentioned used to require bulky servers, noisy computer rooms and expensive software, they’re now just a few clicks away in your web browser. Some will say this has eliminated a lot of the work that companies like ours used to thrive on, which is probably true, but for most small businesses these services might be otherwise unobtainable.
Point of Sale
We use MerchantOS, and could not be more impressed. It tracks service tickets, customer information, processes credit cards, works with barcode scanners, receipt printers, and cash drawers (so we are told… we don’t accept cash). Best of all, it runs on any computer with a web browser. With a very small investment in hardware (a $100 used Dell Optiplex with Windows XP, a USB receipt printer, Barcode reader, and Credit card swiper) we have a fully functional point of sale system. An equivalent standalone system would have cost thousands of dollars, and probably come with a fat service contract or lease. We’ve already run through a real-world disaster recovery on this system. The drive failed on the $100 used Dell (go figure!) while ringing up a customer. We took two steps to the left to a workbench computer, fired up merchantOS, entered the card manually, and printed the receipt on our main network printer. Downtime: 30 seconds.
Google Apps is the hosted email solution of choice, and it includes all the coolness of google docs, google wave, and everything else you can use your google account for. Best of all, it’s free! The biggest challenge for the average person would be the initial steps of verifying your domain by uploading a file and changing MX records (that’s where a good I.T. services company comes in)
I’ve mentioned in other posts how I still encounter a surprisingly high number of professionals that have verizon.net or yahoo.com email addresses on their business cards. Google Apps may be the easiest way to establish email addresses with your domain name. Most hosts or registrars will bundle them in with your web hosting agreement, and then make you use some clunky web email client (usually inefficient) or pop your mail to a local mail client (very inefficient, very 5 years ago).
Again, disaster recovery instructions.
1. Curse the mortal remains of dead computer.
2. Load google apps on living computer.
3. No more disaster.
Hosted backups may not be the way to go if your company is processing massive architectural drawings, or generating tens of gigabytes of new data per day. For most small businesses, we are saving email archives, proposals, agreements, pdf brochures, advertisements, etc. Hosted backup is dirt cheap these days, and it works like a charm. Mozy and Carbonite are two of the better known brands. You sign up, install their software, tell it what to back up, then sit back and relax. It will constantly backup new files as they appear in the selected folders, and send them off to the cloud. Recovering them is just as easy, with an intuitive graphical interface, you just drag the file back to where it used to be (before your meddling coworkers accidentally overwrote it!) and all is well.
This is one hosted solution that we haven’t gone through the whole disaster recovery scenario for, but I am told it’s a snap… Things to remember: The backup is being done over the internet, so it’s not going to be as fast as moving files locally. If you have a lot to back up, the initial backup can take days. After that, it’s just one or two at a time as you change them. Some people don’t like the notion that their precious data is out in the cloud… to me, better in the hands of a trusted company than on a hard-disk-turned-paperweight making scratchy-clicky noises.
We advise clients to run a hosted backup solution on their server, and emphasize that employees keep file storage to a minimum on their workstations.
That’s it for now… there’s a few more hosted solutions we’ll be talking about soon.
To be continued…