Outside Geeks

Round-the-clock tech support

With no networking capabilities and not even a Web site, Sol Weiss' medical billing company was a serious technology laggard. Millin Associates, based in Cedarhurst, N.Y., needed a tech makeover, but a full-time IT specialist wouldn't have enough to do at the 18-person, $1.4 million company. "Why hire a full-time person to twiddle his thumbs?" asks Weiss. And paying someone on an hourly basis would add up fast.

Weiss found his answer in outsourcing. An acquaintance referred him to Sandwire Corp., an Old Bethpage (N.Y.) company that offers round-the-clock tech support. Sandwire now handles Millin's software and hardware installations, as well as ongoing system maintenance and backup. Weiss pays a flat fee of $750 a month for the service. "Now my emphasis is totally on the business," he says. "I don't have to worry about IT anymore."

For entrepreneurs flummoxed by rapid-fire tech changes, or acting as ctos themselves, outsourcing can take off the pressure. "We're seeing an increased interest in outsourcing in general," says Mindy Blodgett, an analyst at the Yankee Group. "Businesses don't have to spend all that time trying to keep up." Although hardware and software vendors offer support, and many tech firms sell troubleshooting services at an hourly rate, companies such as Sandwire are soup-to-nuts operations that will do everything from installing the latest antivirus software to reviving a crashed system. They charge flat fees, so there are no financial surprises. Adam Schwam, president of Sandwire, says most of his customers—companies with 5 to 25 employees—pay from$250 to $6,500 a month.

Round-the-clock tech support may not make sense for every company. "Do you really want to pay for 24 hours of support if you're a restaurant chain open from noon to midnight?" asks Ron Silliman, an analyst for Gartner. And before any company hires a firm to handle existing tech equipment, it needs to understand how that might affect warranties it has on its system.

Before you choose a 24/7 firm, you'll want to speak to several of its current customers, especially those that have used the service during a crisis. Analyzing the contract is also critical. "Make sure it spells out specific service-level agreements," says David Kelly, president of Upside Research in Boston. Those include how quickly the company will respond to problems, and what happens if its services don't meet your standards or if you don't use all those offered.

A+I Design, a New York architecture firm, went from 10 computers to 35 in a few years—a big burden for Todd Stodolski, an associate architect who, with a couple of other tech-savvy employees, handled the company's computer needs. "We no longer could devote the time of valuable people to it," says Stodolski.

A+I signed with Sinu, a local 24/7 company with a flat-fee structure. "They deal with things before they become problems," says Stodolski. For about $125 a month per user, Sinu provides A+I with a server that includes a firewall, general system software, unlimited help-desk support, e-mail, a calendar program, data backup, PDA support, and mobile access. E-mail is handled via a remote server at Sinu, so even if A+I loses its Internet connection, employees still can get their messages and get back to work.

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