Techie In A Box

How to outsource your high-tech headaches

If managing your computers is a constant headache, here's a thought: Forget about it. Let someone else fiddle with memory and fuss with bandwidth while you and your staff focus on something you actually understand--your business. Believe it or not, it just may be possible.

Now there are two significant companies--CenterBeam Inc. and Everdream Corp.--that aim to make life easier by transforming technology from a product to a service. Their pitch: Outsource your computer system. All of it--every terminal, keyboard, connection, and patch of software--at once. Instead of buying, upgrading, and maintaining your own system, simply pay a monthly fee for a bundle that includes top-of-the-line hardware, Microsoft Office software, networking, Web access, and support, most of it delivered right to hard drives over the Net.

CenterBeam and Everdream, known as IT service providers, could be on to something. Only about 16% of small businesses with PCs employ someone full-time to manage their systems, according to research firm International Data Corp. That's the job IT service providers promise to perform. "I think they're here to stay," says Mary Porter, an analyst for Framingham (Mass.)-based IDC. "I think they'll be the solution to a lot of small-business problems."

The key problem? "What you want is stuff that works," says Sheldon Laube, CEO of Santa Clara (Calif.)-based CenterBeam and former head tech honcho at Novell Inc.

While CenterBeam won't disclose how many systems it has installed, Fremont, (Calif.)-based Everdream, led by Gary Griffiths, former CEO of SegaSoft Networks Inc., claims about 500 customers across 18 states.

Whatever the numbers, the offer of hassle-free computing is catching on with people like Rosemary Anderson of West Coast Office Interiors, a Santa Clara-based office furniture supplier with 42 employees. As the tech-savviest person in the office, Anderson, the company's accounting manager, found herself in a losing battle to maintain the company's 21 PCs. When West Coast decided to overhaul its technology, Anderson threw in the towel. In December, West Coast turned to CenterBeam. The hardware arrived in the mail, and Anderson says the color-coded plugs and cords made setup easy. The company now runs on a network of eight laptops, ten desktops, and three high-end machines. There's e-mail for everybody and a high-speed DSL connection, with CenterBeam as the company's Internet service provider. Anderson says CenterBeam usually responds within 10 minutes to any report of trouble and can fix most problems remotely. And all for just $45,600 a year--well under the cost of hiring a tech-support pro to keep such a system running.

Is an IT service provider right for you? If it's time for a major upgrade, or if you now need someone just to keep your system healthy, it might be a good idea. If your IT infrastructure runs well but needs a boost--say, you need help getting online--you might try a service that doesn't try to be all things to all people, such as IBM's WebConnections or Micron Technology Inc.'s NetNow. Consultants catering to small businesses, such as All Bases Covered and TechPlanet, are another option.

Speed Bumps If you decide to go with an IT service provider, be aware that CenterBeam will only support its own equipment. Everdream, which also installs Windows-based PCs, offers to integrate its machines into your existing network. Their networking technology differs, too. CenterBeam uses wireless equipment from Lucent Technologies Inc., which makes setup easier. (You'll be doing it yourself, remember.) It also allows employees to roam with their laptops. Everdream sticks with wires but offers removable hard drives that can be inserted at any workstation. Both companies' PCs run Microsoft Office on the Windows 2000 operating system.

Geography makes a big difference as well. Everdream is available nationwide, but high-speed service isn't. That means that in some areas you'll be reaching Everdream through a slower dial-up connection. CenterBeam offers service only in areas with high-speed service.

If your office is in Minnesota, Missouri, or Nebraska, there's one other option--eFrame Technology Solutions, a tiny regional startup based in Omaha. eFrame is the only company that will help you get a high-speed line installed--even if no other carrier serves your area. Launched in March, eFrame had only three customers as of July, and, compared with CenterBeam and Everdream, it is operating on a shoestring--just $1 million in angel funding.

All three companies perform daily backups of every computer to their own data centers. CenterBeam and Everdream will ship you a new piece of hardware within 24 hours if you need it--and the data from the old piece will be ready to download. Should things really go wrong, they'll send a live technology expert to your office within 24 hours, says Everdream. (CenterBeam promises to come as fast as possible but won't give an actual limit.)

As with all technology, expect a few glitches. Anderson says CenterBeam initially sent her laptops running on Celeron processors, which she thought were too slow to handle computer-assisted-drawing software. She has requested a test on a faster laptop, but if she opts for the faster machine it will probably add $50 to $100 to her monthly bill. Anderson also found that the wireless network can reach only two of her company's three buildings. And since CenterBeam supports only Microsoft Office, Anderson is still calling a separate help line for MAS 90, an accounting software program she's not willing to give up.

Even more important is the quality of DSL service, the umbilical cord between your company and your IT service provider. And none of these companies supports Apple Computer Inc. products, which could be a dealbreaker for anyone involved in design or graphics.

Bigger May Be Better Ultimately, before you sign up, you've gotta believe. CenterBeam and Everdream are the early leaders among IT service providers. There are bound to be more, and not every one will survive. If that's your criteria, CenterBeam seems like the safest bet: The company has raised $60 million from venture backers, including Microsoft Corp. and Dell Computer Corp. Everdream had $18 million in venture backing as of July.

You'd better hope that's enough. In the event that an IT service provider goes belly-up and no buyer steps in, its creditors will raise money by selling the company's hard assets--including your PCs (remember, you don't own them). But if your IT service provider is successful, you won't own the headaches that go with them, either.

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