The A-list: top technology for small businesses

Summary:Which products and technologies should small businesses be considering when investing in IT? We have some suggestions.

Servers and storage
If you've decided that, for the moment, you don't want to put your entire business in the cloud, you'll need to decide the level of in-house IT infrastructure that's required.

Synology's SME NAS boxes like the 4-bay DS-413 run the excellent DiskStation Manager software. Image: Synology

Small and micro-businesses requiring little more than basic file and print services may well get away with a modern NAS (Network Attached Storage) box rather than a fully featured tower, rack or blade server. These cost- and space-efficient appliances are essentially hard disk arrays with added — invariably Linux-based — software offering a variety of services. Leading NAS vendor Synology, for example, runs its extensive range of DiskStation and RackStation products on the excellent DSM (DiskStation Manager) software, now at version 4.2. This is a sophisticated application that not only handles the core file sharing, RAID configuration and backup/restore duties, but also supports virtualisation and has a thriving ecosystem of add-on packages delivering a wide range of extra backup, management, multimedia, productivity, security and data protection, and surveillance functionality. Other leading SME-focused NAS vendors include Netgear, Qnap, Buffalo, Iomega (an EMC company), Lacie and Thecus, among others.

Drobo B800i: an 8-bay iSCSI SAN aimed at SMEs. Image: Drobo

The next step up from NAS is SAN (Storage Attached Network), which supports the efficient block-level (as opposed to file-level) access that's required by databases, for example. A leading SME-focused vendor here is Drobo, whose eight-bay B800i iSCSI SAN earned an Editors' Choice award when we reviewed it back in 2011 (Drobo also does a more affordable NAS version of this product, the B800fs). Key factors underpinning our approval of Drobo's solutions are the company's flexible BeyondRAID technology and easy manageability via the Dashboard interface.

A recent storage development that should interest many an SME is Connected Data's Transporter — a company and product with the same founder, Geoff Barrall, as Drobo (with which it has recently merged ). Transporter is an intriguing cross between a NAS box and, when linked to others of its ilk, a private cloud storage solution. It's particularly suited to organisations like law and medical practices that require easily manageable file storage, sharing and backup but may be wary of keeping data in public cloud services such as Dropbox, Box or Egnyte.

HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen 8: an entry-level SME server. Image: HP

If it's full-blown servers you require, there's plenty of choice. All of the leading server vendors — IBM, HP, Dell, Fujitsu — have products aimed specifically at SMEs. HP, for example, has its entry-level small-footprint, single-processor ProLiant Microserver Gen 8 range, which can run Windows Server, Red Hat Enterprise Linux or SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and uses HP's iLO4 technology for quick and easy installation, setup and provisioning. Dell's equivalent is its range of single-processor PowerEdge tower systems, starting with the T110 and including the T320 , which we described as "a real SME power platform" when we reviewed it last year. As requirements are added (virtualisation, web serving, mail serving, application serving, for example), so servers with more processors and storage options, and denser form factors such as racks and blades, come into play.

Many small businesses will be tempted by the ease of deployment and increasing speed of wireless networks, and the latest standard — expected to be fully ratified next year — is 5GHz 802.11ac Wi-Fi. The existing 802.11n standard specifies up to four parallel 40MHz spatial channels, whereas 802.11ac specifies up to eight parallel channels of at least 80MHz, with 160MHz optional. Current 802.11ac kit , based on 3 spatial streams with 80MHz channels, delivers a maximum throughput of up to 1.3Mbps, while the standard supports a theoretical maximum speed of 6.9Gbps (8 spatial streams with 160MHz channels).

Xirrus's XR-4000 modular Wi-Fi array supports up to 8 upgradeable 2.4GHz or 5GHz integrated access points arranged around a central controller board. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

One of the more interesting Wi-Fi vendors is California-based Xirrus, which makes modular wireless arrays such as the XR-4000, with radio modules arranged in a distinctive circular chassis using directional antennas for efficient coverage. Xirrus has recently announced a software-programmable 802.11ac solution for its dual-band wireless arrays and radio modules, allowing businesses to upgrade from 2.4GHz and/or 5GHz to the faster standard as and when the need arises.

Despite still awaiting final ratification, next-generation 802.11ac Wi-Fi is now making its way into mainstream products including high-end smartphones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 and HTC One, and also Apple's AirPort Time Capsule, a useful combination of Wi-Fi router and up to 3TB of network storage.

Infrastructure as a Service
Small and medium-sized businesses are a major target market when it comes to outsourcing IT infrastructure to the public cloud, as they're likely to be tempted by the cost advantages of not having to equip and manage an in-house datacentre.

Parallels is one of the leading developers of cloud technology for service providers that cater for the SME market. According to the company's latest research, as of late 2012 IaaS contributes some $15.8 billion to a worldwide SME cloud service market of $45.2 billion (the other services are hosted communication and collaboration, web presence and web applications, and business applications). By late 2015, Parallels estimates that the market will have grown by 28 percent CAGR to $95.7 billion, with IaaS contributing $31.3 billion to that total.

Three types of small business will fuel this growth in cloud services, says Parallels: 'converters' that currently have in-house solutions but will move to hosted services when the time comes to upgrade their infrastructure; 'leapers' (including startups) with rudimentary or no in-house IT infrastructure that move straight to the cloud; and 'expanders' that already use some cloud services and are looking to take on more. IaaS, as far as Parallels in concerned, includes dedicated servers, virtual private servers, managed hosting and utility (or elastic) computing.

Topics: SMBs


Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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