Recommendations on Hardware and Software

This is a living document – meaning its contents will change according to the current state of things.

When procuring computer equipment and services for your business, its easy to get the basic stuff to just get started. The basic stuff will work for some time….and then you grow and your needs change in your business.
Your staff needs to work together, get onto the internet, use special software, be protected from viruses and malware etc etc – the more complexity, the more factors that can easily bring work to a standstill in a short space of time.

Downtime means revenue lost, no matter the cause.

Every small business needs the following:

  1. PC’s and laptops
  2. Servers(only in special circumstances)
  3. UPS
  4. Printers
  5. Networking equipment and configuration
  6. Reliable and regulated internet
  7. Software and Services
  8. IT support(at some level)

The following recommendations are based on industry experience, small business requirements and reliability of provider. Bias is intended – because its based on years of use and experience!

PC’s and Laptops:

At this point in time, it is best to get the following minimum specification:

  1. An SSD Drive instead of a normal hard drive – The normally dramatic increase in speed of your computer is more than worth it!
  2. At least about 256GB of Hard Drive space should you choose SSD – for the average business user. Traditional hard drives usual come in capacity of 500GB and upwards which is good enough.
  3. 4GB of Ram. I still see some equipment configured with 2GB. The problem with this is that nowadays, just surfing the web on your browser with just a few pages open eats up memory and its not uncommon that your browser takes more than 2GB to operate – let alone opening Word and Excel which can be gluttonous in themselves!

Order of preference –
dell
Laptops: Quality of the Dell Latitude(Business) range is close to bulletproof. You can literally drop the laptop from a small(!) height and still work as before – done that a few times and washed the T-shirt. What is most important though, is their after sales. The latitude range normally comes with a 3 year next business day onsite warranty. What this means is that for 3 years from purchase, short of throwing the equipment against the wall, any defects or failure in hardware will be fixed by Dell at your location – within reason. Major metropolitans and town suburbs are covered but if you are in the middle of the Karoo, the onsite part becomes an issue. What this means however is that if you are travelling anywhere in the country, one of the keys on your keyboard pops out, call the call center and they schedule a technician to come out to your location by the next day to fix! No extra costs. The catch here however is that the battery is not covered by this warranty -there is a limited warranty and more cost effective to buy a battery if issues after a year.

Docking stations:

dell-ergo-laptop-stand
Dell sells docking stations for the Latitude range which essential turns your laptop into a PC for when you get to the office – dock the laptop and the connected full keyboard, fancy mouse and the HUGE screen you deserve turns on for you to work on.

The midrange and entry level models of Dell are good quality and can last you a good amount of time – 3 year onsite warranties can be purchased separately for some models – however as a business owner, reliability and ensured uptime is normally a strong preference. The latitude range gives you this.

PC –
Now I have to add a proviso here. Lately, laptop configurations have become just as powerful as desktops. I therefore see no reason why laptops aren’t used instead of PC’s – especially when they can be docked. There are a few good reasons for this:

  1. Eskom……ya neh. All of us anticipate issues in future – it will happen over a sustained period and affect our bottom line significantly. A laptop, especially the latest ones, can last up to 8 hours on a single charge!
  2. The added benefit of a battery is that you don’t need a UPS that should normally power a PC. By the way – a UPS is good standard practice as they computer needs time to shutdown gracefully and be protected from minor power fluctuations etc.
    A laptop battery saves you this hassle and the need for extra expense here.
  3. Mobility – the ability to take your equipment anywhere to work – now some of you may think this invites the equipment growing legs and going walkies never to come back. This can easily be remedied by fitting a proper kensington type lock to something that cannot go walkies.
  4. Wifi is normally built in to a laptop – you have to get this separately on a traditional PC.

However! Should you need to have a desktop for whatever reason, the next best option is an all-in-one computer.

all-in-one

Saves space, just neater and can be just as powerful as a traditional computer – most of them also come with WiFi as well. You will still need a UPS as good practice though.

Lenovo

LenovoLogo
I’ve been a serious fanboy of the old Lenovo Thinkpads(used to be IBM). These beauties(pun intended as they were anything but beautiful – functional yes!) would outlive most others. You could drop from a much higher height, spill water and generally abuse the thing and it will just carry on giving you service! Heck NASA standardised on them for their missions and stations! I have a couple clients still running theirs over the past 6 years! Real thought went into the functionality of components and it.just.worked! No fuss – lift your lid and get to work on a brilliantly designed business machine.  However Lenovo got it into their heads to modernise with the latest ones…..the fallout of this is that the touch pads on the latest Thinkpads belong in the deepest pits of hell. Mind you this is probably a preference on my part – some people actual prefer the design of this touch pad. The modern look and feel of the new Thinkpads don’t quite give the same feeling of solidness as the old ones but Lenovo assures us its better and other techie comrades have dropped as usual with no adverse effects.

This techie has a unique but valid perspective on why the old Lenovo’s worked so well and their recent design blunder – WARNING – he uses colourful language aplenty!

Review on old vs new Thinkpad design

So – if you can afford a Lenovo Thinkpad, and don’t mind that touch pad, it is a better buy.

Ditto for computers as above.

UPS for PC’s and Servers

There are two types of UPS’s.

Offline:
Offline is more common of the two and much cheaper. I would discourage you from getting this kind of UPS as the essential way it works is as follows:
Power goes directly to the computer via the UPS. It does not regulate the power as in keep the frequency of the electricity constant. If there is a drop in power, within a few milliseconds, the UPS then switches to its own battery to power the computer – ie it monitors the power and only switches over after cutoff. The point here is there is that drop though you won’t notice it. Most personal computers function ok with this setup, however do this often enough and I’ve seen weird stuff happening. In a business environment, it does not make sense to take this chance.

Online:
Whatever is connected to the UPS runs solely off the battery. This means there is no drop in power, and more importantly, there are no dips and surges. Your electronic equipment therefore are better protected using this type of UPS. Typically used on Server equipment and the like.

As your equipment count gets higher than a few, a better option is to have one UPS that centrally distributes power from your Server room.

UPS equipment come with software which need to be loaded on the computers. This software is in contact with the UPS and will signal the computer to shutdown once the UPS determines that it is about to run out of power. The computer can safely shutdown until power is back up.

Servers:

Dell is recommended.

The landscape has changed significantly from a few years back. I can safely say that small business should actively look at NOT having servers onsite but rather look for cloud for services or local data centres housing their equipment. The cost and benefits using this model far outweigh any downside to this kind of set up. Of course there are exceptions. Some companies run bespoke(custom made) software which is not built for a cloud platform. However must small businesses require common software – all of which can be provided by the cloud platform eg. Google mail, Office 365, Pastel and Quickbooks accounting – you can even fill your tax form online!

Should you require a server onsite, it normally has to be maintained, in a proper server room with air-conditioning and higher end IT support – expenses which you don’t normally measure but can be significant.

Networking and equipment:

I’ve seen scores of businesses grow organically and as a result, suffer from legacy network design and issues. Networking cable that is exposed, near a power cord and near florescent lights can cause weird and wonderful issues for your computers! When you start networking your equipment, it pays to consult a qualified networking technician to design and set-up your network. It is also important to monitor this network – tools have been available for awhile which monitor and can warn your IT partner that a certain computer is dropping connections or another is flooding the network and slowing everyone down.

Equipment:
We employ DLINK and HP-Procurve managed switches, depending on your budget. Managed means that each port on the switch provides feedback on statistics and any issues and settings can be changed. When monitored properly, we can solve problems before they become bigger problems for your business.
DLink has a limited warranty, however are generally very reliable and fit the budgets of businesses requiring a cheaper option.
HP-Procurve switches are the next level – come with a limited lifetime warranty – so will last you ‘forever’.

WiFi
This can be the bane of many users – normally in a work environment. Especially when using the common variety of Wifi equipment which are meant for home use. As a general rule, it is best to use a network cable when using your network in earnest. WiFi should only be used when you are mobile and need to do something general for the moment. When I get to the office, I automatically dock my laptop or connect a network cable if available before I start working. I use Skype for Business a lot and it is best practice to have a constant connection when on a call – a network cable is required for this. In a business setup, depending on the requirements, we go with one of the following:

Engenius
Mikrotik
Ubiquiti

These are bulletproof! Many clients have had these installed and have not complained about dropped connections which normally plague businesses with traditional setup and equipment. These are regarded as being industrial type of hardware – without breaking the bank account. They also allow us to monitor them to detect any interference or issues that commonly plague wireless traffic. Many of these issues can be resolved without physically being at the equipment!

Reliable and Regulated internet:

ADSL is the defacto standard for small business internet connectivity. This is rapidly changing in your metropolitans. Business LTE and fibre are now becoming very prevalent – these are preferred over ADSL depending on your requirements.
Since your speed of internet is getting a lot more decent now, you are more vulnerable. A firewall gives you basic protection against hackers and malware. You can’t do much without reliable internet now – email, banking, VOIP and cloud services are dependant on a reliable and speedy service. As such, no matter how fast your line is, it still has to be managed. Youtube and Facebook video are great distractions for your staff – productivity is affected in many ways including other people trying to send that email but are struggling since the internet line is being flooded by some employees watching that youtube video. Or downloading a movie….which is VERY easy to do nowadays!
In order to ensure the internet is being used for what its meant for, the line has to be managed by a firewall appliance that can block websites for some people and provide reporting on what took the most traffic and sites visited.

If your business is investing in cloud solutions, it is therefore important to build in redundancy for your internet links. What we normally do is attach an LTE/3G modem to this firewall so that if your primary link goes down, the LTE/3G takes over and provides access for your most critical services.

We use Untangle firewalls for Small Business.

Software and Services:

Antivirus
I can’t stress this enough – this is a non-negotiable requirement! Before your computer even hits your desk for first use, you need to have your Antivirus installed, updated and done its first scan. Please don’t rely on the free antivirus packages you find on the internet – you get what you pay for! All Antivirus Vendors are not created equal – there are literally dozens to choose from! However there is little to distinguish from the top Vendors such as Kapersky, Bitdefender, E-SET etc. What is most important for a small business is that your Antivirus is monitored and managed properly. This needs to be done by your IT support to be effective.
As a side note – it should be company practice to avoid using USB, external Hard-drives from outside company sources. Though convenient for information dispersion, they are the easiest means of spreading very nasty viruses! There are methods you can deploy to facilitate the need to change information.

Patch Management
This needs to be done as regularly as possible. The frequency and size of patch management has increased significantly! Vendors have realised that software that is buggy and can be compromised, is bad for business – competition is stiff. Therefore patches and updates are released regularly to address these issues. Due to the complexity of what is involved, again proper management by your IT support is required.

Email
Defacto standard is Microsoft Outlook. Everyone is familiar with this software for their email.
Office Package – Microsoft Office. Again defacto standard.
We recommend Microsoft Office 365 as a complete solution for Email and Document Management.

Backup
Depending on your internet connection speed and capacity, it is recommended to do cloud backups as it addresses a number of requirements for backup policies. Note that when Office 365 is set-up properly, your documents and emails are automatically backed up.

VOIP
This is the alternative to running a traditional PABX telephony system.  This is preferable means of telephony however ONLY as long as it has been set-up and designed properly. The benefits of VOIP significantly outweigh traditional phone systems. There are significant savings on your call costs, and you have a lot of control and flexibility on how your system works. Typically, since VOIP is so flexible, you can move office anywhere in the country, keep your number, have local extensions at satellite offices and so forth. It is the future of telephony – BUT – only if done right!

Printers

For a decent size business that depends on printing as a strategic part of its business, it is best to rent/lease. Ensure that your support contract is solid and make sure you shop around for the best cost per copy and terms. As printing can rack up quite a bill, most of the recognised brands provide auditing and secure printing features which give you some control over who is printing what. It is advisable to have these features provided to you.

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