Assessing Your Requirements: What Do You Need?
First and foremost it should be stated that there are many third-party providers of application software that can assist your business. This ranges from accounting software to inventory control, and much more. However,
in one of two basic situations:
A vertical market (such as a doctor's office) in which a third-party vendor
software (and perhaps hardware) as a
-key solution for a particular market solution.
An office for which no particular vertical market exists. Instead, the business is based on standard programs, such as word processors, databases, spreadsheets, and imaging software.
The third situation that could be added to this is one in which your SOHO business is large enough to hire a network employee (not likely in most cases) or a consultant to help you out (a better decision, provided that the rates are reasonable). The reason this last situation is not part of the
list is that a consultant (now usually called a contractor, as in other businesses) may recommend one of the two items discussed previously. The consultant may agree that the vertical-market approach is good for your situation, or that the second is a better idea. In either scenario, the consultant can help you configure the standard office programs you need.
There are several things to think about when using vertical-market software:
In a vertical-market situation you may be constrained by your contract to use only software installed by the vendor. This makes sense only when you consider that the last
the vendor needs is for you to install new software that may compromise its application. You may even be
from connecting the SOHO network it provides with other computers already in your office. It might even limit your access to the host operating system, giving you access only to run the application.
Another problem with using vertical-market software is that the support may or may not be what you expect. If you are evaluating a package like this for your office, be sure to ask about support options, additional assistance in training employees, and the costs these entail. You should make sure that both you and any employees (if any) are both allowed to look over the demos of the software to determine whether it is suitable for your environment. In general, a small office has fewer requirements than a larger office that must keep track of many items. Accounting rules, inventory data, customer databases, and other types of data stores are very important, and you don't want to overwhelm any
with software that takes a large number of steps to perform a simple task. If you are a sole proprietor, you don't want to bog yourself down trying to memorize complicated software! You'll
forever reading the documentation, and then
for a support call.
When it comes down to vertical-market software, you may have no choice. For a SOHO business you can't invest hundreds of thousands of dollars (or considerably more than that) developing applications that are specific to your needs. In this case, be sure to "shop around" and get information (and usually happily provided demos and a free
) from vendors of such software. In addition, always try to negotiate the price on these types of applications. Although you may not be able to call up Microsoft and ask to get $75 off the price of Office, vertical-market
are another matter. Generally, the development effort is already a sunk cost. The application exists, and duplicating usage documents and distribution media is the
portion of the cost.
If you are using off-the-shelf applications (such as Microsoft Office, other office suites, or accounting applications), you'll find that when your business expands, most temp agencies will be able to find someone to assist you during "boom" times as long as you are using standard packages. This can be a great benefit for a small business that ramps up during holiday seasons. For most of these standard applications, there are
that offer courses that teach the skills, and many educational software packages that do the same.
Training is very important when it comes to using a computer, or when introducing new systems to employees of a small business. If you do opt for a class on a particular software application, consider the following types of training and/or certification:
From a vendor of the application. Many companies, from Novell to Microsoft, offer classes and training certifications for their products.
who perform on-site training. Look for a competitive price, and references.
From a local community college. You would probably be surprised how many two-year colleges (tech schools, vocational schoolsthey're all similar) teach computer courses, many devoted to specific popular applications. This formal education may be useful in getting your
in the door for a job. You might just find it useful to take one or two classes that relate to commonly used applications instead of opting for a longer course of study.
Read the manual or Help files! This is the oldest technique, the history of which I won't go into here. However, many people buy an expensive book before even thinking about looking at the available documentation for the computer, network hardware, and software applications that they buy. That may be because you want to understand how this network you can easily create operates.
Of course, these days detailed manuals are mostly a thing of the past. However, most software applications include
Help files that are installed
the program. Failing that, check the developer's website to see if support information can be had online.
Even though there are plenty of good third-party
available at your local book shop, having documentation from the vendor can be of critical importance. After all, while even this book gives you an extensive overview of the topic of networking, when it comes down to it, you've got to read the documentation for your specific products to get the job done!
After all this discussion, sit back and think of the applications your small business needs in order to accomplish all
necessary, with the least amount of software. The problem with using multiple applications that store the same type of data is that you now have more than one application to update when customer or order changes occur.
Keep in mind, as pointed out earlier, that many temp agencies, which are a great support for a small business, have workers already trained in the basic office applications. Got a mess you need cleaned up? Call in a temp! Did an employee (or a friend who was helping you out) just leave? Call a temp! Are you under investigation for scandalous accounting practices and need assistance
evidentiary documents? Call a temp! These services are not to be
in the SOHO environment. Many times a small business needs help only for a particular issue, or to assist in peak-
times. In these sorts of situations, a temp agency can be worth the cost when you consider the
Applications Drive Hardware Purchases
A vertical-market application can come in two flavors: The vendor supplies the hardware in addition to the software, or the vendor supplies just the software. In the latter case, if you understand computers and their capacity, you can create your own network instead of paying much higher prices for vendor-supplied hardware.
Don't get me wrong when I suggest that you provide your own hardware over that of a particular vendor. The vendor
their application better than you do. And in a busy office environment, paying the extra cost to have someone else come in, install the hardware and software, and then train your staff can be well worth it. For example, in a SOHO you should never need a
network administratorpart-time, perhaps, or an on-call consultant. Instead, in cases in which the expertise is low, and the vendor-supplied features can take the place of an extra employee or a
one, then the vertical-market hardware/application/support solution might just be the thing for your network. Although the application needs to be able to suit your office and accounting needs, support is the key issue.
If you have the in-house expertise, you can design your own network. This is usually the case with many of you who have purchased the now-basic networking devices such as small hubs, switches, and routers. You are already familiar with these devices and the cables needed to connect them. It doesn't take a genius to figure out these things, because high schools are now turning out
employees who can do this
of simple networking. It's easy to set up a small network.
Since the release of Windows XP, switches and small routers have enabled users to connect several computers in a SOHO environment and allow them to make a single Internet connection and share it with their other computers. Using a router, and possibly a software firewall, you can do a lot to protect your private network from external attacks. This is not a perfect solution when compared to high-end firewalls, but due to the minor expense involved, simple things like regular
of data can be all that is required to recover data.
Some of the most popular vendors for routers for DSL/cable modem routers/switches for the SOHO market are D-Link, Linksys, and
. These are the major brand
you'll probably see at your local consumer electronics store. Yet as other manufacturers start to enter the market, it would benefit you to do a Web search to check the features of these and other companies' offerings for SOHO networks. You can visit D-Link at
, Linksys at
, and NETGEAR at
. Keep in mind that even discount stores offer their own brand names for these products. As long as they have a free return policy, you might investigate these less expensive products.
Even wireless routers (which typically include a 10/100 ethernet switch as well as the access point) and wireless network adapter cards are dropping
those that support the Wi-Fi 2.4GHz, 54Mbps (IEEE 802.11g) standard. Wireless routers with integrated Ethernet switches enable you to use a single device for both wired and wireless portions of your home or SOHO network. Connect the wireless router to a cable or DSL modem, and all
of the network have Internet access.
Keep in mind that although the older and less expensive Wi-Fi 2.4GHz 11Mbps (802.11b) standard has adequate speed for a small network, 802.11b hardware usually doesn't support WPA or WPA2 wireless security, which is critical to the security of your wireless network. Another problem with 802.11b hardware is that it usually
on the same network down to 11Mbps speeds. For these reasons, I recommend that you no longer use 802.11b hardware on your home network.
For more on wireless connections, which can be a great help in a SOHO environmentespecially because there are no wires to connect except to your broadband ISP, if you are connected to the Internetsee Part V of this book.
Typical Office Applications
Microsoft Office, throughout the range of supported versions, is the most widely sold and used office application suite today. At one time (over 10
the word processing domain. Yet, with features that rivaled some typesetting software, in the short run, Microsoft Word overcame WordPerfect. And because Microsoft Office was then
with a suite of applications, it became possible for Microsoft to take over the vast majority of this market.
can purchase Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition 2003, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, at a considerable savings over the Standard Edition, which contains the same applications. However, if you prefer a non-Microsoft office solution, there are several alternatives.
For example, Corel continues to produce and enhance WordPerfect Office, now available in version X3, to
with Microsoft's hold on the
. WordPerfect Office X3 is the first office suite to offier PDF import, enabling you to edit PDF documents without using a third-party converter, and offers Microsoft Office file compatibility. WordPerfect Office X3 is available in Professional, Standard, Home, Student, and Teacher editions, with prices starting at under $100.00 before rebates.
Besides Corel's entry, there are two variations on a theme: OpenOffice 2.0 and StarOffice 8. OpenOffice is a free, downloadable version of an office suite intended to be an alternative solution to Microsoft Office; SUN's StarOffice 8 Suite adds functionality but will cost you around $70US. The more user licenses you purchase for StarOffice, however, the lower the cost per
When you compare these costs to Microsoft Office, along with support costs and required upgrades, then WordPerfect Office, StarOffice, or OpenOffice might just be a good solution if all you want right now is to have basic office applications. This is not
to denigrate Linux, which already, in all flavors, comes with a large variety of other applications, from sound to graphics, and many others. The emphasis on OpenOffice is because one of the things that has kept larger corporations tied to Microsoft for so many years has been the applications, not the operating systems. WordPerfect Office, StarOffice, and OpenOffice have all had major enhancements in recent versions to improve compatibility with Microsoft Office. However, if you depend upon advanced features in Microsoft Office, you might not be satisfied with a different office suite. I recommend you try a trial version with the most complex existing files you use in your work to determine if you can safely switch away from Microsoft Office. Keep in mind that if the OS works, and requires minimal maintenance, then the applications will drive the marketplace in the long run. Note that while Microsoft Office supports only Windows and MacOS, and WordPerfect Office supports only Windows, StarOffice and OpenOffice support Linux and Solaris as well as Windows (OpenOffice also supports MacOS X).
Should You Use Freeware or Shareware Applications?
One of the biggest
of a large network manager is the installation by users of unapproved applications, and these applications usually are downloaded from the Internet. Although free software may sound too good to pass up, consider the following facts and considerations:
You get what you pay for. Support for freeware or shareware applications is usually available at a minimal cost, but the support you receive is not what you'd get from most major application vendors.
Can you rely on the application? Does it perform all the functions you need? Will it be a "
" in which you have to enter data more than once for separate applications? For example, if you use a shareware general ledger program, will it take automatic input from your accounts payable application from another vendor?
Does the application come with adequate documentation? Is it understandable?
Are there any undesirable capabilities of the application? Read the fine printthe licensing and privacy statements. Does the application gather any information about you and upload it to the vendor's site?
Perhaps the most important issue to discuss about freeware/shareware is the black-box/crystal-box argument. The black-box argument is that if you buy software from a reputable company, and the source code is known only to the company, then you are better protected against someone who has the code and might find and exploit
, or back-doors that can be a security issue.
The crystal-box argument is that if everyone has the source code, the application is scrutinized by a large number of people in the
source community, so the odds of finding and fixing bugs or other problems is greatly enhanced. With so many people evaluating the code, problems will, in theory, be found quicker and then be more easily
The other side of this argument is that the "bad guys" also have the code, and you never know what they'll be up to.
Should You Make Copies of Applications You Purchase or Obtain from Others?
If the software allows it, you should always make one or more backups of any CDs or floppy disks that come with an application you buy. However, you should read the end user licensing agreement (EULA) information to see whether it can be installed on more than one computer. In most cases this is a violation of the EULA.
Making backups of software you have purchased is a good idea and likely to be in line with the vendor's license agreement. However, using copies of your friend's software or downloading it from community shareware sites is piracy. Unfortunately, in the SOHO environment this seems to be, if not a common practice, one that does occur frequently. Keep in mind that while large companies are more likely to get
, that doesn't mean a small operator can't go to jail if they get caught using software they have no right to use. In addition, don't forget to register shareware if you plan to use it outside of the stated evaluation period. The vendor might be smaller, but the penalties are just as high. The bottom line is that you must make sure the software on your system is software
Operating Systems: Should You Choose Linux over Windows or Unix?
Using Unix or Linux in a SOHO environment is best implemented using a vendor-installed version, or having in-house Unix/Linux support, or at least a consultant. This assumes that the entrepreneur in a small business is acquainted with Unix/Linux. Most SOHO environments cannot afford a full-time employee to
to operating-system tweaking and such. This does not apply, however, if your business is oriented toward products for just this type of environment.
Although the preferred operating system is a Windows version for a SOHO network, if you are a computer professional yourself (whether or not your business involves computers), then you might find yourself more comfortable using Unix or Linux. Yet you may also find yourself consumed by business activities and need a consultant part-time, to do what you could
do yourself. Unless you or your staff are familiar with Linux, Windows is likely to be a better bet for self-support for the foreseeable future.
Windows Vista will be released in late 2006. It offers some exciting benefits for home and office networking, including a built-in peer to peer collaboration application called Windows Collaboration, an enhanced backup application (Windows Backup) that can back up to CD/DVD media or network shares and create a system image for disaster recovery, a new version of Internet Explorer that adds system protection and security features, truly effective
controls, a two-way firewall with IPsec support, support for preventing data transfers via USB keychain
, and automatic backup of previous document versions (also known as volume shadow copy). Windows Vista will be the most useful Windows network client yet.
If you are going to use Unix/Linux as your desktop operating system, consider that there are several popular vendors of each. The most popular vendor of inexpensive (free) Unix is FreeBSD. This operating system was created based on the BSD Unix operating system. That version of Unix was developed by the University of California, Berkeley. The FreeBSD version runs on Intel and AlphaServer hardware platforms.
FreeBSD is a very popular operating system. You can download it from
. Source code is also available from this site, along with other important links.
However, today it seems that the Linux operating system is making steady inroads into the business environment. Once used primarily for simple network firewall devices, Linux has grown to a large industry, and there are many applications (mostly open-source that you can get for no charge) being ported to this operating system. Another benefit that Linux offers is its capability to run on low-end hardware platforms. Thus, older computers that may be at the expected end-of-life for a Windows operating system might run Linux at a satisfactory speed for a desktop, if not a server, depending on the hardware.
If you decide to use Linux, perhaps the most widely used are these:
Red Hat Linux
This is probably the best seller today. Red Hat Linux has scaled from the lowest current Intel- or AMD-processor to high-end IBM mainframes. It is one of the few Linux vendors who are profitable today. Visit
. Red Hat also offers the Fedora distro, which is the version aimed at individuals and small businesses.
Mandriva (formerly Mandrake) Linux
Another very popular version of Linux. Visit its site at
This vendor has
to use the Linux operating-system kernel (the guts of the operating system that controls everything else) and add to it application packages from the GNU project. This is the reason for the
of this Linux version. Debian is free, so that's a bargain. You can download the OS or obtain other information at
If you need to support other hardware platforms, such as older AlphaServer computers, that are now becoming replaced by other computers, then SuSE might be simply a temporary solution to lower costs by using earlier Intel or AlphaServer systems that otherwise would go unused as they are
. Because SuSE, like Red Hat, runs on both small-end servers and high-end performers, it can be a scalable solution as your small business grows. Novell now owns SuSE, and offers products that enable NetWare and SuSE Linux to operate together on a single network. See Chapter 57 for details.
Linspire (previously known as Lindows) is designed to be the easier-to-use Linux for Windows users. If you want to try Linux but don't want to install it on a system, you can run Linspire directly from the CD. Many system vendors also offer low-cost computers that feature
Linspire. Learn more at
When it comes to other office-productivity applications, you should evaluate the choices between those products and your business. It may be that your choice works best on a Windows machine or a Linux computer.