The complexity and sophistication of computer and telecommunications systems deployed in small to medium sized businesses just keeps increasing. Unless your business is providing information technology (IT) or telecommunications services and you have all the expertise you need in-house, you’ll probably want to outsource at least some of the design, deployment, and maintenance of your information and telecom systems. Trying to do it all yourself quickly reaches a point of diminishing returns. And these days, most companies are migrating IT infrastructure to virtual storage on the Internet — the Cloud — to minimize in-house storage needs and maximize accessibility and redundancy.
Finding IT Resources
Entrepreneurs who have studied or worked in the RPI community have an advantage in accessing information technology assistance for their firms. RPI’s faculty, students, and alumni are a rich resource for technological talent, from systems design to websites and telecommunications. The Capital Region of New York is rich in technologists, thanks in no small part to the many technology-oriented academic programs at RPI and other area universities.
But wherever you are located, you can find service companies that will help you set up and maintain your internal information systems and serve as your company help desk.
The harder job is developing your information technology and telecommunications strategy. What kind of enterprise systems will provide the needed operational efficiencies and executive decision support tools you require? How will you provide secure access to a far-flung network of telecommuters or field sales and service reps? What integration is needed to seamlessly pass transactions through distributors and other channel partners? Do you need a customer relationship management system and sales support system integrated into your online sales operation? For questions such as these, most firms need a Chief Information Officer or Chief Technology officer on-staff or on contract.
In the earliest phases, startups deploy everything from personal cell phones to virtual telephone services such as Google Voice. But rapid growth quickly demands investment in more sophisticated systems to enable efficient workflows and professional call handling.
A popular option offered by all major telecommunications providers is Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service, which uses Broadband Internet to deliver voice service over the Internet, complete with call management services, such as call holding, call recording, call forwarding, conferencing, speed dialing, and paging. Lots of advanced features are also available, but are often overkill for the small business. VoIP is often bundled with other services, such as wireless data and security services.
VoIP service is offered by the companies that own the infrastructure — cable companies, traditional telephone service companies, and other telecommunications vendors. If you are leasing your office space, your choices may be limited to the vendors with whom your landlord has agreements. Alternatively, traditional hosted PBX systems are quite viable for many companies, and ensure phone service even if your Internet connection goes down. Regardless, once you have the telecom lines, you’re still going to need a telephone system capable of handling all of the lines and functions in your system.
Security can include everything from video surveillance and employee access systems to network security to protect against cyber threats. This latter area gained a lot more visibility in the last year. But surveys have shown that the majority of small business owners erroneously believe that they are safe from cyber-threats. Small businesses are actually at greater risk because they have information of interest to hackers but lack the defenses of large firms.
Computing Network vs. The Cloud
The traditional approach to setting up a computer network is a local area network and server supporting a mixed platform of desktop and laptop computers, printers, and scanners. But maintaining hardware updates and licenses is both costly and time-consuming. The growing availability of major software systems via remote access to the manufacturer’s server – Software as a Service (SaaS) – has led to growing acceptance of so-called “cloud computing” as an alternative to the physical business networking paradigm.
PC Magazine defines cloud computing as “storing and accessing data and programs over the Internet instead of your computer’s hard drive. The cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet. It goes back to the days of flowcharts and presentations that would represent the gigantic server-farm infrastructure of the Internet as nothing but a puffy, white cumulonimbus cloud, accepting connections and doling out information as it floats.” 
According to ZDnet.com writer Colin Baker, this trend, which spreads data and applications across virtual networks across the Internet, offers reduced complexity. But because it’s newer, many CIOs are approaching it cautiously, deploying the cloud for less mission-critical technology and keeping other resources in-house or with outsourced service firms. Security concerns are an issue. And for companies located in more rural areas, bandwidth can be a significant concern.
PC Magazine writer Samarah Lynn thinks the jury is still out on the cloud’s viability for smaller businesses. “While cloud adoption is ever-increasing in all segments of business,” she writes, “Small business owners are cautious and contemplative, as they should be, about cloud adoption. There’s not quite the frenzy to go full-on cloud, as market hype would lead us to believe, and small businesses will continue to hesitate until the cloud challenges—both real and perceived—are addressed.” 
REGISTERED EVE BUSINESS MENTORS
 Samara Lynn, “Small Business Cloud Myths: Busted!”, June 4, 2013, PCmag.com, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2419823,00.asp.