Info-Tech Relief For Small Business

Two new products that target a woefully underserved market

Small business is a huge market for information technology. Yet probably no sector is served more poorly, especially those businesses with five to 25 employees -- big enough to need a tech staff but too small to afford one. Microsoft's (MSFT ) Windows Small Business Server 2003 and EmergeCore's IT in a Box both hope to close the gap but in very different ways.

Any organization with more than one computer probably has a local area network, but many of these only allow sharing an Internet connection or printers. If files are shared, it's often done using the cranky and insecure Windows file-sharing. Many businesses, even the smallest ones, could benefit from easier collaboration, controlled and secure access to common files, and an internal Web site.

Windows SBS offers corporate-style computing for little companies. It's based on the Windows Server 2003 operating system plus high-end add-ons such as Exchange Server for e-mail and group scheduling and SharePoint for collaborative use of Microsoft Word and other Office applications. The software is a remarkable bargain: $599 for five users, compared with $999 for Server 2003 Standard Edition alone. Hardware to run it on will typically cost $1,500 or less.

MICROSOFT HAS DONE AN EXCELLENT JOB of making such chores as adding or deleting users simple, with no need to face the terrors of the regular Exchange or Windows Active Directory management software. But all the cleverness in the world cannot hide the complexity of the underlying software. It's only a matter of time before the designated -- but probably nonexpert -- administrator gets an e-mail alert from the server warning of a "critical error" that may require immediate attention or be of no importance at all.

SBS can be administered remotely, and I think most small companies would do best to farm the job out. Cleveland's Ross-Tek is typical of the companies offering such service starting at $7,000 a year -- a fraction of the cost of a staff pro -- for remote monitoring with occasional on-site visits. In a sort of back-handed compliment, Ross-Tek President Frederick Johnson says Microsoft has so simplified setup that "it doesn't take a significant amount of time to install the box," so Ross-Tek earns its living from ongoing service.

EmergeCore's IT in a Box is a simpler solution for small companies that prefer to do it themselves. The $1,395 IT-100 is a compact box not much bigger than a cable modem. It provides standard Internet e-mail that is simple but lacks the collaborative features of Exchange, plus file-sharing, network management, a firewall, and built-in wireless access. You can even run a public Web site on it, though it's a better idea to pay a hosting company for that service, given security concerns.

The IT-100 runs on Linux, but the operating system is completely hidden from users and administrators. All interaction is through a Web browser, and normal maintenance, such as adding and deleting users, is easy. Initial setup is more difficult, so most small businesses could use some help. That's one reason that earlier offerings similar to IT in a Box from Compaq Computer (HPQ ) and Sun Microsystems (SUNW ) failed in the marketplace. Without much chance of making money from service and support, traditional business resellers have been reluctant to get involved with the sales and setup of these devices.

SBS is a good product for a small business that wants corporate-style computing and can pay the price. IT in a Box is a solid choice for a company with enough tech smarts to handle the setup and administration, since outside help may be hard to find. This, however, leaves a lot of small businesses out in the cold.

The solution might be for Internet service providers to offer small businesses a package of Net access and technical services, but they haven't been rushing into the business. So most small companies will have to cope as best they can, and while neither of these products may be ideal, either might be a big help.

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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