ARE YOU BEING SERVED?

Now that desktop PC sales and profit margins are shrinking, computer hardware and software makers are setting their sights on you, the small-business owner. “But I already own more computers than I can handle,” you might protest.

That’s just their point. They believe it’s time for you to invest in a real network rather than the peer-to-peer system you’ve been running for the past few years. They think it’s time you centralized and protected your data. Well, we think they’re right on several counts …and we think it’s time to integrate the power of the Internet with your business.

The big computer vendors such as Dell, Compaq, Hewlett Packard, and others all have strengthened their line of small-business server hardware. Microsoft has strengthened its position in the networking operating system arena with Windows 2000 Professional (really the latest release of Windows NT). Other operating systems such as Linux (used extensively for Internet servers) are claiming a portion of that same pie.

In the latter part of last year, Microsoft set forth its vision of our computing future with the .NET (“Dot Net”) initiative. The full ramifications of .NET for small-business jewelers is a subject for another column. However, in a recent interview, Jeff Raikes, Group VP for the Productivity and Business Services Group at Microsoft, stated that “the Microsoft .NET platform represents a transformation from individual Web sites and devices to an array of devices and services that work together to give customers access to information anytime, anyplace, and on any device.”

Further proof that the “big boys” are interested in you lies in Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Great Plains Software, a provider of small-business accounting software and services. Analysts say that business application software and services total more than $30 billion worldwide, and a significant portion is directed to small and medium-size companies. That defines you—whether you have three employees or 50. You are their new frontier!

So, are you ready for a true network? Do you need a dedicated server? The following questions provided by www.itcnet.co.uk might help you decide.

  • Do multiple people in your organization need access to real-time information (such as a point-of-sale system or an inventory database) at the same time?

  • Does your business depend on key applications and databases being up 24 hours a day?

  • Are you in a growth mode, hiring employees and adding PCs?

  • In your business operations and customer service areas, are you so busy reacting to crises that you don’t have time to figure out how to prevent them?

  • Do you want to expand your market share or customer reach through the Web?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” you’re probably ready to move up to a server.

What’s the difference between a server and the PC you have sitting on your desk? Your desktop PC is optimized for a single user with a user-friendly interface and such features as sound and fast graphics. A server is optimized for fast data throughput and dependability with mass storage and multiple network interfaces. It centralizes your data to give employees real-time information, lets you create dependable backups, and makes possible affordable implementation of Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS).

The appropriate server and network design will depend on your specific needs. Most servers, however, will have some of the following features:

  • Reasonably fast Pentium processor (maybe even two);

  • 256 MB RAM or more;

  • ECC (Error Correcting Code);

  • Proactive monitoring of critical system components (fans, power supply, system temperature);

  • At least one very big, very fast hard drive (a SCSI interface is preferable for throughput and speed);

  • A reliable method of backup (tape is most common).

Also, be sure to specify a server board as opposed to a standard PC motherboard. Mirroring Data or RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) features also should be considered.

Want to make this easier on yourself? The Web sites for Compaq (www.compaq.com), Gateway (www.gatewayatwork.com), and Dell (www.dell.com) are informative, and all offer a full spectrum of server products. IBM (www.ibm.com) was the first to offer entry-level servers for as little as $970. These servers were specifically designed for small businesses, and they have the “Intel chip inside.” But don’t hesitate to seek a local solution for your server and network needs.

Moving to servers, a more sophisticated networking option, will enhance your business. It will protect your data and make working easier than “sneaker net” (manually transferring files) or your current peer-to-peer network. Just think about how long it takes for several of your staff to access your peer-to-peer on a busy day. Got it? Then get on with it.

Thom Underwood is the owner of San Diego Gemological Laboratory. He has more than 23 years of jewelry industry experience as a goldsmith, storeowner, and appraiser. He holds a BA in chemistry from North Carolina Wesleyan College and is a graduate of the Gemological Institute of America with the Graduate Gemologist diploma. He has been writing about technology for the past 10 years.