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Perfect fit.

Even on a budget, companies can make IT improvements that meet their needs--and please employees

You're running a CPA firm, or a small to midsize business, and know you need to invest in information technology, but you're concerned that your investment will be either too costly or too small to make substantial improvements.

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Welcome to the dilemma faced by many business managers.

Improving technology is neither cheap nor easy. And, it usually takes much longer than desired. Still, all is not lost for companies looking to upgrade their IT on a budget. It all starts with assembling an IT plan, a blueprint of a company's IT initiatives, in priority order, that are to be implemented over a period of time.

IT plans include a needs assessment and data reporting considerations, as well as the requisite hardware, software and maintenance services. The plans also must consider available human and financial resources, as well as the expenditure of funds for specific hardware, software and other products and services.

Unfortunately, most businesses don't take the time to do a plan, which usually results in dysfunctional and underperforming IT.

A SUCCESSFUL IT PLAN

Along with the above considerations, several other things must occur for an IT plan to be successful.

First, management must demonstrate its interest in developing and executing IT initiatives. Second, the IT plan should be aligned with the company's business plan, acting as a deliverer of IT functions and processes to enable the business plan to succeed. Third, the tactical information processing and reporting needs of all principal departments in a business should be considered when developing the plan. Fourth, a realistic IT budget should be determined and followed. This, of course, requires some balancing of needs, desires and resource or funding constraints.

IT planning is a process that takes time and is an on-going commitment. Frequently, it appears that too much time may elapse between the time the IT plan process starts, and the time that the first IT initiative is executed and tested.

To that end, can management make an effective IT splash, without spending too much, too soon? Of course. Companies can implement certain components of their IT plans that may not necessarily be of the highest priority, but are valuable and not particularly expensive.

What follows are four possible IT plan components for most any business--none of which are, in themselves, particularly costly or complicated--that will provide your IT users with a more productive and secure computing environment.

FOR YOUR ROAD WARRIORS

Imagine if your army of PDA users didn't need to connect to a PC or the Internet to update their calendar, e-mail, tasks or contact information. Welcome to the world of wireless live synchronization--a powerful technology that has become cost effective for smaller businesses.

The advantages of this technology include increased time that your staff can be away from their PCs, yet stay up-to-date on developments. No more excuses of "You must have scheduled that meeting after I left the office," or "The phone number was updated at the office, but I haven't updated my PDA yet."

Also, if you use Microsoft Exchange 2003 or the most current version of Microsoft Small Business Server for, among other things, your business e-mail, contacts and calendar, then wireless synchronization capabilities are built in. All you need are a few configurations and wireless PDAs or cell phones that use Windows Mobile software.

If you don't have these products, or you are not on current versions of Exchange, upgrading is simple and not particularly costly. PDAs running Windows Mobile software are easy to come by and available from many cell phone carriers.

For users of non-Windows Mobile devices, such as BlackBerry, and certain Treo devices, software such as Goodlink and BlackBerry Enterprise Sever provide similar functionality with a modest investment in software and configuration.

If you're not using any of the above, consider implementing Small Business Server, which, for about 25 users, costs about $2,500, plus a small amount of labor. The cost of Windows Mobile-based devices can run around several hundred dollars each.

WORK FROM ANYWHERE

For a number of years, people have been able to access their office computers and servers using a variety of tools, some of which were inexpensive, but not particularly secure. Now, the ability to work, reasonably securely, from any PC in the world at a modest investment is a reality.

Thanks to Citrix, best known for its remote connection software allowing users to securely login to their company network, and Microsoft, best known here as the publisher of Terminal Services software tools, you can transform a single location network into one that spans the globe.

Options for small and midsize businesses, such as Terminal Services and Citrix's GoToMyPC, allow users to connect to their networks or desktop from most Windows and Apple computers with little or no added configuration.

GoToMyPC, for example, is a software tool that operates in a web browser, and costs around $15 a month per user; Terminal Services typically costs less than $100 per user for an ongoing license, but often requires a separate server to accommodate larger numbers of users.

THAT SECURE FEELING

How many more stories will we hear about the business owner or manager who chose to not deploy a firewall or have current virus software installed, only to be the victim of a debilitating virus or hacker? The result is often an unnecessary business crisis, characterized by lost productivity and frustrated employees and customers.

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A most effective and not particularly costly way to avoid this crisis is to deploy a firewall. Firewalls, at their basic level, are pieces of hardware with varying processing speeds that are used predominantly to inspect data coming in and going out of networks. Their functionality has expanded to providing virtual private network (VPN) services for remote connections and users, and with the aid of integrated software, firewalls provide detection and denial of unwanted network intrusion, anti-virus and anti-spam services, and other proactive filtering services.

Until recently, the typical small business had trouble justifying the purchase price of a robust firewall or other security services software. The security blanket provided by a harmonic combination of security hardware and software traditionally has been enjoyed only by businesses investing tens of thousands of dollars--or more.

However, costs have declined and the capabilities offered for the same dollar of investment has increased dramatically. If your company has not deployed a comprehensive suite of security tools and devices to protect your data, now is a great opportunity to do so without substantial investment.

For example, for less than $5,000, including labor, a business can implement reasonably comprehensive security that includes firewall devices and software from any number of reputable companies, including Juniper Networks, Cisco and Symantec. For those on a really tight budget, a business with a few users can implement a subset of these products for even less, although functionality and overall security is typically less robust.

The reality is that data security requires a cost/benefit decision. A prudent manager should consider making at least a modest investment, in relation to the costs that would be incurred in the event of a data disaster. Also, consider the risk of not having reasonable security. California privacy laws are now requiring the maintenance of prudent data security practices for companies that house personal information about California residents, and some laws impose substantial fines and remediation requirements for breaches of security.

Finally, keep in mind that most of these products are not plug-and-play; they require some ongoing management.

YOU DON'T NEED TO BE WIRED

As you look around our business climate, you may notice the halls and conference rooms are full of staff members toting laptops, connecting to the internet, the network and each other--wirelessly.

At first glance, you might think of these activities as costly or complex. Actually, the financial investment for wireless networking today--which is safer and more secure than before--is almost negligible. The benefits of wireless computing are well-known.

Using your choice of access point locations in your office, staff members can stay current from almost anywhere with data that is server-accessible, or perform timely internet research during a meeting. And, people who visit your offices, such as vendors, customers or contractors, can check their e-mail, log into their own networks and feel right at home without your needing to find them a single network cable for their connection--and without giving them access to your information.

Also, the advent of wireless networking allows space planners, architects and their customers to work in less expensive build-out spaces, due to less cumbersome network cabling requirements, if desired.

Don't be lulled into a false sense of security, though, as there can be drawbacks. If you don't purchase brand name, current equipment, or if you don't configure your equipment competently, wireless networking can open your business network to unwanted intrusion and resultant damage.

Also, consider the negative impact that wireless networking can have on the productivity of your staff. It affords them the opportunity to be partially attentive during meetings, as they check e-mail, cruise the web or play on-line games without being noticed. E-mail can be an addiction that is easily satisfied while sitting in a meeting.

Consult your IT adviser to determine if wireless networking is appropriate for your company. Your data may be so critical that any wireless networking-originated risk to it is not appropriate; or you may be in a building that is too vulnerable to intrusion from passers-by or others in the building.

Also, consider certain facts about wireless networking. First, depending on the model, the range of wireless access points may provide up to several hundred feet of signal--possibly extending into the next suite. Also, the speed of wireless networking is adequate for most users, but not preferable for people downloading or uploading larger files, or performing graphical tasks.

A single wireless network access point can be installed, including labor, for well under $1,000. Additional access points can range from around $100 each, to substantially more, depending on signal strength requirements, and other factors.

KNOW WHAT YOU NEED

During the course of developing and executing an ever important IT plan, consider a higher priority for a few rapidly deployable IT initiatives that demonstrate you are serious about IT, and can act quickly to improve your employees' productivity, perhaps enhance security, and keep your company current in the technology marketplace.

BY ROBERT GREEN, CPA, SCOTT COOPER, CMC AND RICK MARK

Robert "Bob" Green, CPA, CITP, and Scott Cooper, CMC, are managing directors, and Rick Mark is chief infrastructure architect of INSYNC Consulting Group, Inc., which provides strategic and tactical IT advisory services and forensic computing consulting. You can reach them at bob@insyncusa.com, scott@insyncusa.com and rick@insyncusa.com.
COPYRIGHT 2006 California Society of Certified Public Accountants
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Mark, Rick
Publication:California CPA
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:May 1, 2006
Words:1797
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