Out Of The Box And Onto The Net

New no-frills `on-ramps' are godsends for small business

Architect Steven Lopez, who doubles as the computer systems chief for his Los Angeles architectural and engineering firm, knew firsthand the business benefits of Internet access: E-mail for the cost of a local phone call and a pipeline to the Net's vast information storehouse. But when Lopez wanted to bring the company's 55-employee office online, he knew it wouldn't be cost-effective to repeat his own setup of modem, dedicated phone line, and individual account with CompuServe Inc.

The other option he knew of--taking advantage of the firm's local-area network, or LAN, to hook everyone up to the Internet--would require two pieces of hardware: a communications server known as a gateway and an E-mail server, along with software such as browsers for each computer. Lopez, a vice-president at Fields Devereaux Architects & Engineers, calculated that the capital investment for this Internet "on-ramp" system would run $7,500 to $8,000 and could pay for itself in a year's time, simply by reducing the company's use of messengers, faxes, and overnight mail. Furthermore, the monthly expenses--fees for one Internet Service Provider (ISP) business account and a high-capacity ISDN phone line--would run about $190.

Lopez quickly persuaded his firm to invest in the Internet on-ramp equipment. But fortunately, he played poker first. There, at his monthly game, he met a computer engineer from a company called i-Planet and learned about a new alternative that could bring all the employees online much more cheaply.

The result was the business equivalent of a royal flush. Lopez tested i-Planet's $2,500 Surf & Mail Gateway--one easy-to-use box, not much bigger than a VCR, that would allow all the computers in his network to communicate with the Internet. When i-Planet's product, aimed squarely at the small-business market, was rolled out last August, Lopez's firm became one of the first customers.

Today, about 50 Fields Devereaux employees connected to the firm's LAN are sending E-mail and surfing the Net with just one high-capacity phone line and ISP account. Best of all, Lopez says: "It worked the first time I plugged it in." What's more, administration costs have been virtually nil. The cheaper system, by Lopez's conservative estimates, will pay for itself in less than six months. Ironically, the most time-consuming activity was getting the ISDN phone line.

BASIC SYSTEM. Affordable, easy Internet access for networked small businesses. Could it be? Yes. Over the past year, a handful of companies have begun selling low-budget Internet on-ramps, and more products are expected soon. These devices offer a no-frills solution, by and large, to managing your office's Internet traffic. True, they can't be customized like the more expensive gateway and E-mail servers that Lopez had priced. But they're much easier to install and adequate for most small operations. Those pricier systems, produced by Cisco Systems Inc., 3Com Corp., and other top network hardware vendors for the corporate market, range from $4,000 all the way up to $35,000 for high-end models. As a rule, they're too complex to install without an outside consultant.

Contrast that with the new low-end options: About $2,000 to $6,000 pays for an on-ramp device that will, at minimum, combine an E-mail and communications server, according to analyst James Staten at Dataquest Inc., a San Jose (Calif.) market research firm. For an even cheaper alternative, there are products that tie small office networks to the Internet for $1,000 or less--minus the capabilities of an E-mail server. While they still let you send E-mail over the Internet, they lack some of the cost-saving features a server offers, such as the ability to set up and manage all your users' mailboxes from your own office instead of paying extra for the ISP to do it.

"VERY NEW MARKET." Even as small businesses begin to flock online, most still are unaware of these new devices. "It's a very, very new market," says Staten, who predicts that by yearend just 5,700 of these new server-type on-ramps will be shipped to small businesses. Some of these products are so new you can't even find them at computer retailers. Most are now being sold either directly by the vendors or through business-to-business channels, such as value-added resellers and, increasingly, by ISPs themselves. But, many vendors say, expect to see these boxes in the stores in the next six months.

Some of the new products work only with a server-based LAN, such as Novell Inc.'s widely installed NetWare system. But some low-end ones work without a network server. These will provide shared Internet access to the simplest type of network--a so-called peer-to-peer LAN, which is a group of PCs physically linked together with a cable. (They must be equipped with Internet-ready operating systems, such as Windows 95, Windows NT, and all Apple Macintoshes running System 7.5.3 or later.)

While it's hard to go wrong at these prices, consider both your budget and your company's needs. As you go into the costlier models, priced at $1,700 or more (table), you're likely to get better E-mail management. Below that, you'll be buying a system without an E-mail server--a poor idea if you've got 10 or more employees or send a lot of internal E-mail. As a bonus, some of the devices on the market will automatically configure all the PCs on your network to be Internet-ready.

Of course, all these new low-end, no-frills on-ramps have their drawbacks, and analysts expect cheaper prices and more options as big companies leap into the market. The firewalls in current models, while adequate for most small businesses, won't ward off a determined hacker, warns Mesquite (Tex.) networking consultant James E. Gaskin. Also, if you buy one of the higher-end models that lets you host your own Web site, you'll probably want a leased phone line to handle traffic to the site.

If you have an existing Web site residing on an ISP's server, moving it can be arduous. Alan Wasserman, a Detroit lawyer who also serves as de facto computer chief for his 15-attorney firm, Fink Zausmer, found he had to do major reprogramming of the firm's complex Web site when he shifted it to his new $3,500 InterJet 200 from Whistle Communications. Once the move was accomplished, however, he was more than happy with the arrangement.

Despite their limitations and the prospect of new products down the road, experts say there are plenty of reasons to buy an Internet on-ramp device now. "For small companies, it's a wonderful solution," says San Franciso computer consultant Dan Knox.

When it comes to Internet access, small business has suddenly been dealt a winning hand. Play it and get your office online and up-to-date in no time at all.

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