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IT Basics for Small Businesses - including Non-Profit (Charity) Tips

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As a small business (SMB), you realize that budgets are usually tight and all money must be spent with the utmost scrutiny.  Outlined here are some main Information Technology (IT) basics with advice and suggestions every SMB must focus on when supporting its mission.  Also inserted in many of these topics are tips specifically aimed at non-profit organizations (charities).

  •  Hardware
  •  Security
  •  Software
  •  Backups
  •  Websites and Social Networking
  •  Support
  •  Computer Use and Policies

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip:
  •  Funding and Donations

Hardware

The first thing you need is hardware (specifically desktop computers).  It’s tempting to purchase the cheapest thing, but the cheapest computers normally have slower components, such as the Intel Celeron or the AMD Sempron processor.  If cost is NOT the ONLY issue, then don’t purchase these computers.  You will get longer life out of a system that has better quality components and expect to get about five years from a new computer.  Anything five years or older is just asking for trouble. Technology gets old and components begin to fail.  You will also notice performance degradation using many of the more recent software products.

Try to get on a cycle that allows you to replace a few computers each year, making it easier to budget.  For example, if you have 20 computers, try to replace four per year and after five years you’ve replaced all 20. Then, start over again with the oldest four.  Believe me; you will have happier, more productive employees if they have adequate technology to perform their job.

If your office has over five employees, I usually recommend a SMB start to think about implementing a server, rather than working peer-to-peer.  This will add a complexity to your environment, but will be more beneficial and increase productivity.  When connecting your computers together, look at purchasing faster components that support Gigabit (Gb) speeds.  If you see 10/100/1000, that’s the 1000.

A typical 10-person, single office will include the following hardware: server, desktops, router, switch, ethernet cabling, NAS Drive (backups), Cable or DSL modem (internet connection), and printers.

You can support your local economy by purchasing hardware locally or Dell.com is also a good value and easy to configure and purchase online.  Remember though, it’s important to purchase as many computers at one time that are identically configured, so they will be easier to support.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: It’s tempting to use the most recently-donated hardware.  However, if the donation is five years or older, it may cost you more in the long run to implement and maintain it.  If the computer donation is three years old or less, you’re probably OK with formatting the hard drive and installing all your software.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: Larger, for-profit companies tend to turn their hardware over more frequently, so it’s possible to obtain donations from them that are still usable.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: Keep in mind, most charities don’t need to be on the leading edge of technology, but shouldn’t be laggards either.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: There are a few online sites that target charities, such as techsoup.org and giftsinkind.org (this latter one requires annual fee).

Security

Physical – Once you’ve purchased the right hardware, you’ve got to create a secure environment for it (do not put the server on top of the reception desk!).  In the course of doing business, you’ll create lots of data that someone else may want to get their hands on or you can’t afford to lose.  It goes without saying that your environment needs to have locks and/or a security system.  Critical systems also need Uninterruptible Power Supplies (UPS) that keep systems running in the event of a power outage and shut them down properly if the power is out for longer periods.  If you have a server, I suggest keeping it in a separate room that has additional security such as a locked door, walls that go above the fake ceilings, dedicated power, and non-carpet floors.

Software – Threats to computers today are numerous with multiple points of entry for malicious activity.  Whether you have one computer or a hundred you need a multi-faceted approach and something that detects various types of infection, such as viruses, malware, Trojans, spyware, etc. Getting software that just checks for viruses is only partially protecting you.  In a server environment, choose a product that can deploy clients from the server and can monitor all computers from one centralized administrator console.  If you are using a mail server, such as Microsoft Exchange, choose a product that also monitors the flow of e-mail - many viruses and spam are transmitted by e-mail.

If your budget allows, purchase a network appliance from vendors such as Cisco, Sonicwall, or Juniper that include internet filtering and virus and malware scanning.  Along with e-mail, internet surfing is the most likely place where a computer can get infected.  A couple of free options to protect your users from going to the wrong places on the internet are: opendns.org and mvps.org.

A good, free, desktop security program is Microsoft Security Essentials (microsoft.com) or AVG Free (avg.com). I would not trust any free server-based security solutions.  By the way, yes, your server needs the client software installed on it.  Even if no one even uses the server, an infected client can copy files to the server (specifically through network shares).

Policies – Don’t leave your computer logged in while you’re away for a certain period of time.  How long is up to each company.  At least have it set to lock after say, 30 minutes, so you have to enter a password to get back in.  I see people all the time go away for lunch and leave their computer open for ANYONE to use.  Maybe a disgruntled employee wants to send an e-mail to the rest of the office on your behalf – yikes!  If you don’t come back from lunch or that sales meeting, your computer will be vulnerable all night and the cleaning crew may love to surf pornographic sites for you – double yikes!

Have your company use strong or difficult passwords for their login accounts.  Many passwords can be guessed or hacked easily and don’t leave it on a sticky note taped to the front of your monitor! Office documents, such as Microsoft Word or Excel can also be individually password protected.

Software

Operating Systems – If you’re already on Windows 7 – great!  If you’re on a previous version of Windows, then it’s time to think about upgrading.

For servers, you’ll need Microsoft Small Business Server 2008 (SBS 2008). This package includes Sharepoint, Forefront, Exchange, and SQL Server (in the Premium version). You should at least configure and use Exchange with SBS.  Exchange Server can be opened up to the world for e-mail, but I like hosting the e-mail accounts somewhere else, such as your ISP, and using POP3 to retrieve the e-mail every 15 minutes.  A good ISP will filter out a lot of bad stuff before it gets to your server and this method usually requires less IT support time.

Office Suite – This is essential (at least something that is compatible with Microsoft Word and Excel).  Microsoft is the king here, but more costly than some other solutions.  A free suite can be obtained at openoffice.org and the web-based Google Docs is gaining support.  Also important is the familiarity users have with these applications.  As an employer, it’s going to be easier to find someone who knows Microsoft Word than it is to find someone who knows OpenOffice Writer or WordPerfect.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: Once again, I’ll reference techsoup.org, since you can get Microsoft products and many others VERY cheap as a qualifying charity.

Web Browser – This is a matter of preference.  Windows OS versions come with Internet Explorer, but other popular free browsers are Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, or Apple Safari.

Miscellaneous SoftwareAdobe Reader (view PDFs), Adobe Flash (show website animation), CCleaner (cleans unneeded files from your drive), MalwareBytes (run this first if you think you’re infected), Google Toolbar (stops browser pop-ups), SiteAdvisor (identifies safe/unsafe websites when browsing the internet). There is a ton of free software out there, but these are a few to get you started.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: Donor Management – The cadillac here is The Raiser’s Edge.  This can be the most expensive, but is also the most full-featured.  I would recommend it for larger charities that would have several people using it.  The software is very modular as you can add necessary features to the base product.  Other popular options are eTapestry, GiftWorks, and DonorPerfect.  The best thing to do is put together a committee to evaluate a short list of products that best meet your needs and decide as a group.  A good package, used properly can actually pay for itself and generate much needed revenue.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: Example of basic software ypu'll needed from techsoup.org (estimates effective April, 2010)
SBS 2008 Premium w/5 CALs ($62)
SBS User CALs ($3 ea.)
Windows 7 Enterprise ($9 ea.)
Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2007 ($20 ea.)
Symantec Endpoint Protection (10-user) ($60)

Backups

Repeat after me, “I will backup my data regularly.”  I won’t yell and scream at you about the reasons why - let’s just say this is a mandatory requirement.  Microsoft Windows Vista, 7, and Server 2003/2008, have a built-in capability called Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS).  This feature will take snapshots of modified files twice a day allowing you to restore previous versions.  Depending on how frequently you change things, you can expect to have about 7-10 days worth of file changes using the default storage size - 10% of your hard drive.  Microsoft claims this will take care of 80% of restores rather than retrieving files from an external backup.

For very small offices, you may want to use a flash drive and copy/paste important files to it.  External USB drives are also helpful for making backups and can be used with the built-in Microsoft backup program ntbackup.  Offices with servers only need to backup data from the server, since any company information should be stored there and not on local hard drives.  Tape drives and external hard drive storage are also normal in a server environment.  A particularly fast option is to use Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices.  They are much like external USB drives, but have an Ethernet port, so it can have its own IP address and is accessible by anyone on the local area network.

The last option I’ll mention is to subscribe to an online service where you would store your backup files.  Many of these sites have their own software and all you have to do is configure what and when to backup and forget it.  These sites usually charge monthly fees based on how much data you’re backing up.

Websites and Social Networking

Website – Almost all SMBs need a web presence.  In some ways, it gives you credibility.  The first thing you need to do is secure your domain name.  Some helpful websites are networksolutions.com, godaddy.com, 1and1.com, and register.com. Many of these same places can also host your website and e-mail.  The first question I ask a client is, “Strategically, what do you want your website to do?” Do you want 6 pages of seldom changed information or a fully configurable website with calendars, blogging, animation, shopping cart, etc.?  If all you want is a few pages, then you shouldn’t have to pay more than $5 per month and set it up with the web hosting company tools.  If you want more and don’t have the staff to maintain it, contract with someone to get it set up and then use special tools like Adobe Contribute to change content.  Many companies have grand ideas for their websites, but I caution you to only put up as much as you can maintain.  You want to drive people to your site – not away.

Social Networking – This is all the buzz right now.  Do you have a Facebook?  Do you twitter?  Do you Blog?  Should you?  If you sell or provide services to the general public, then you may want to consider using Social Networking so your “followers” can stay in touch with you.  Three things to be careful as an employer: 1) monitor what you or your employees post. You don’t want any lawsuits or bad publicity, 2) your employees should be working, not participating in personal social networking, and 3) this has become one of the top ways that viruses can spread.

Support

OK, so you think you’ve got your IT issues covered because one of your staff took some computer classes.  It’s helpful that your staff can work on some computer issues, but you still need to establish a relationship with a local, professional IT vendor.  A few words of advice from them can go a long way to keep you out of deep, perhaps costly problems.  Technology issues are vast and change quickly, so you need someone whose skills and knowledge are up to date.  

I usually recommend that a SMB find a vendor that can come on-site at regularly scheduled days and times.  This approach is easier to budget, proactive, and allows the vendor to get familiar with your environment.  Small, routine issues fixed early can reduce the likelihood of a major disaster.  Once the staff knows when the support will be there, they can start saving many of their issues for when they arrive – thereby maximizing the support person’s time.

As a rule of thumb, the minimum number of hours per week should be about 25% times the number of computers you have.  For example, if you have 10 computers in a server environment, you would need about 2.5 hours per week to keep your environment running smooth.  There are a lot of additional factors where this would vary, but this is a starting point.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: If you can’t find a professional IT volunteer, then interview several IT vendors and ask them if they provide a discount for charities – many of them will.

Computer Use and Policies

As an employer, you want to protect the information you produce and make sure your employees are productive.  Company policies signed by employees should be in place so that you have a document to fall back on during any disputes or legal issues.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip:

Funding and Donations

Funding - I see charities pull money out of the general overhead fund all the time to pay for technology.  Take a little time once a year or so and put together a technology grant that can pay for several things at once.  Check with your grant writer or local library for technology funders.  Another good source to ask for funding is the companies where your board members work.

Donations – Technology can assist with donations.  One of the easiest ways for this to happen is to set up a
PayPal account and direct people to it.  On your website, you can also create a button that goes to firstgiving.com, but you’ll pay a fee for the service. If you have the ambition and know-how, you can accept all forms of credit/debit cards through your website.  Also, Sign up with missionfish.org and anyone selling on eBay can donate a portion of the proceeds to your organization.


Summary

Technology is so integrated into our work lives and unfortunately has become more complicated and vulnerable.  I hope with the information in this article you can see what’s involved, contain costs, and talk intelligently with those you rely on to manage your IT environment.

Non-Profit (Charity) Tip: If you’ve learned nothing else from this article, I hope I’ve made you aware of techsoup.org where it is essential that you obtain much of your software -- at the cost of only a small administrative fee.
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