Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: IT Innovation for Small Businesses

The A-list: top technology for small businesses

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

It's generally accepted that IT is a key driver of business growth in small businesses. However, SMEs are not equally good at identifying and deploying the optimal mix of technologies. This can have important implications: a recent study by Symantec, for example, found that 'top-tier' SMEs typically spend 7 percent less on computing than 'bottom-tier' ones (Symantec's tiers are based on an index of IT confidence). This may reflect the fact that tech-savvy businesses tend to invest in the right technology, avoiding the costly need to 'rip and replace' their mistakes.

A January 2013 survey by the UK's Federation of Small Businesses, The Digital Imperative: small businesses, technology and growth, asked 2,200 members specifically about investment in new technology and its effect on business innovation. The average investment over the previous 12 months was just £3,500, although bigger companies (with 21-50 staff) spent over £10,000 on average. Software, laptops and website improvements headed the investment areas, with mobile computing (smartphones and tablets) and cloud services occupying a mid-table position:

SME investment in different technology categories. (Data and image: The Digital Imperative: small businesses, technology and growth; The Federation of Small Businesses, 2013)

SME sectors that credited their technology investments for business innovation were headed (not surprisingly) by IT, followed by education, real-estate and creative services:

SME sectors crediting technology investment for 'moderate or significant' innovation during the past year. (Data and image: The Digital Imperative: small businesses, technology and growth; The Federation of Small Businesses, 2013)

Software and online investments had the highest rating (83%) in terms of driving business innovation among SMEs, with cloud services (76%), e-commerce (74%), servers (72%), tablets (72%) and smartphones (68%) also figuring highly.

So, what does ZDNet reckon that SMEs should be looking at when investing in technology? Here's a selection of products and services worth considering.

Email/productivity/collaboration software
Every small business will require email and some sort of office productivity suite, and there are multiple options available. If you're a sole trader and don't want to pay anything, there are free online services from Microsoft (Outlook.com email with unlimited storage, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote web apps, plus 7GB of SkyDrive storage), Google (Gmail, Drive with Document, Spreadsheet, Presentation, Form and Drawing apps, plus 15GB of storage — which includes the email allocation) and Zoho (Mail with 5GB of storage for up to five mailboxes, Docs with word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool, plus 1GB of storage). If you prefer to use desktop productivity software rather web-based apps, free options include OpenOffice.org and the LibreOffice spin-off.

Most small businesses will want more functionality than these free products deliver, which brings us to the next level. Microsoft offers its Office 2013 productivity software in Home & Student (£109.99, without Outlook), Office Home & Business (£219.99) or Office Professional (389.99) versions for a single PC, or as an Office 365 subscription for — in the case of the recommended Small Business Premium version (£8.40/user/month or £100.80/user/year) — up to 25 users. Office 365 Small Business Premium gives you eight downloadable desktop applications (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Access, Publisher and Lync), access to mobile and web apps, hosted email with 25GB of storage per user and the ability to use your own domain name, 7GB of SkyDrive storage for documents, plus web conferencing, website hosting, security, support and a guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime.

Google's web-based business productivity suite is Google Apps for Business, which for £3.30/user/month (or £33/user/year) gives you 30GB of Gmail and Drive storage, unlimited users, 24/7 customer support and guaranteed 99.9 percent uptime. A 'with Vault' option (£6.60/user/year) adds extra security and data archiving/retrieval features.

Zoho's web-based business offering includes Zoho Mail with either 10GB or 15GB storage per user ($2.50/user/month or $3.50/user/month respectively) and Zoho Docs with either 10 workspaces and 2GB of storage or 50 workspaces and 5GB of storage ($3/user/month or $5/user/month respectively).

Many larger enterprises are effectively locked into a traditional Microsoft combination of in-house Exchange email, SharePoint document management and collaboration, and Office productivity applications. By contrast, small businesses — especially startups and micro businesses — have the legacy-free opportunity to explore alternative models, such as SaaS or renting desktop software via a subscription.

Line of business software
When it comes to the core applications required to run a business — accounting and payroll, business analytics, customer relationship management, human resources, resource planning, supply chain management and so on — there is again plenty of choice, ranging from integrated suites including some or all of these components, to individual desktop or SaaS applications, to packaged collections of SaaS apps from cloud service brokers (CSBs) with added migration, integration and management tooling.

UK-based Sage is a leading provider of accounting and payroll software for SMEs — both on-premise via Sage Instant and Sage 50, and online via Sage One. Sage also does SME-focused CRM software — both on-premise (ACT!, Sage CRM) and hosted (Sage CRM Cloud). Another well-known provider of desktop and online accounting/payroll software is Intuit, with its QuickBooks, QuickBooks Payroll and QuickBooks Online products.

Small businesses may not have the financial or human resources to deploy and curate a full ERP solution such as NetSuite — or even an SME-focused service like SAP Business One. However, there are a multitude of individual products, particularly SaaS offerings, that allow SMEs to mix and match the components they require — if they're prepared to handle the integration issues that arise. You'll find an extensive (if by no means comprehensive) listing of SaaS providers in various business categories in our special report on Cloud: How To Do SaaS Right.

Even this may prove a daunting task for many SMEs, in which case they're likely to turn to third-party cloud service brokerages such as Cloud Direct to ease their path to the cloud.

Creative software
Another large software company to adopt the subscription model is Adobe with its Creative Cloud (CC), which has now, somewhat controversially, replaced the perpetual-licence Creative Suite (CS). A full subscription for new CC members costs £46.88 a month, with alternative membership plans (some discounted) available for existing CS users, students and teachers, teams and enterprises. There's also a free membership that gives you access to 30-day trials of Adobe's rich portfolio of creative applications, plus 2GB of cloud storage. Most of Adobe's applications still run on the desktop as before; but now, if your subscription runs out, you lose access to the software — and files saved in the CC apps' proprietary format.

A subscription to Adobe's Creative Cloud gives you access to a rich portfolio of applications and services. (Screenshot: Charles McLellan/ZDNet)

If you're an SME with a strong creative requirement, a Creative Cloud subscription may be worth considering, as there are a lot of applications, tools and services included. However, although you can rent an individual desktop application such as Photoshop for £17.58 a month, with limited access to other CC services, there are no sector-specific membership plans apart from the Student & Teacher edition. It's all or next-to-nothing with Creative Cloud.

If you're uncertain about Creative Cloud, but still need image manipulation, vector drawing, video editing and other creative applications, there are plenty of alternatives, many of them free and open-source. Leading examples are Gimp (image editing),  Inkscape (illustration) Lightworks (video editing) and KompZer (website creation).


NComputing's M300 trio of thin clients Image: NComputing

Client devices
The desktop PC market may be in decline , but plenty of small businesses still require large-screen computers that don't need to be moved very often. If expansion isn't an issue, one of the many all-in-one devices from leading players like Dell, HP, Lenovo or Apple could fit the bill. Alternatively, an entry-level thin-client/virtual desktop system such as the N-Computing M300 is a very cost-effective and power-frugal solution: you can run up to low-power 45 M300 thin clients from a single host Windows Server system (the precise number depends on the server configuration).

The current flavour of the month for laptop vendors is the '2-in-1' Windows 8 tablet/ultrabook, with the latest models based around Intel's new low-power 4th-Generation Core (Haswell) processor. All of the leading laptop manufacturers have products in this sector, and a number of form factors are being experimented with, including fully detachable screen/tablets from a keyboard dock and screens that slide up and down over a keyboard section.

A high-end tablet/ultrabook: Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix. Image: Lenovo

At the top end, we like the design of Lenovo's ThinkPad Helix , although it reportedly runs hot and may benefit from an upgrade to the aforementioned Haswell chip. Asus is the manufacturer with the most heritage in the tablet/laptop hybrid sector with its Transformer and ViviTab devices; the company's most recent announcement is the Transformer Book Trio , which runs Android in undocked tablet mode and Windows 8 (by default) when docked with the keyboard section.

Samsung's Series 3 Chromebook costs just £229. Image: Google

If you're happy with the traditional clamshell form factor, there's a huge amount of choice available, from desirable high-end kit like the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display to Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch , to Google's premium 12.85in. Chromebook Pixel , which not only boasts a higher-than-Retina pixel density, but also a touchscreen (the Pixel's downsides are its high price and limited-functionality Chrome OS operating system). Chromebooks are available for much more affordable prices, in the shape of Samsung's Series 3 device, for example. And of course, there's any number of budget Windows 7 and 8 notebooks, with and without touchscreens, available from the likes of Dell, HP, Lenovo, Toshiba, Acer and Asus.

Apple remains the biggest player in the tablet market with its iPad, now on its 4th generation and joined by the small-screen iPad mini. However, things have been made more interesting by the recent entry of Microsoft into the tablet arena with its ARM/Windows RT-based Surface RT and Intel Core i5/Windows 8-based Surface Pro devices, and also by serious competition from Samsung's Galaxy Tab and pen-enabled Galaxy Note Android tablets. At the lower end of the price scale, Google's excellent Nexus tablets, which come in 10-inch and 7-inch form factors, have also made an impact.

Microsoft's Surface tablets have enlivened the tablet market, although Apple and Samsung remain the leading players. Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Which kind of tablet should an SME choose — iOS, Windows (RT or 8), Android, large-screen or small-screen? That depends, of course, on the budget and the use case: if you need to run Microsoft Office, for example, you're looking at a Windows RT tablet (which comes with Office Home & Student 2013 bundled), a Windows 8 tablet or at running Office web apps in a browser. Alternatively, you can create and edit Office documents on non-Windows platforms using third-party applications like QuickOffice.

As far as native apps are concerned, the iOS and Android app stores have the most choice (although a significant number will be optimised for smaller-screen smartphones), with 'modern' Windows Store apps a long way behind at present. A Windows 8 tablet will run a huge number of 'legacy' desktop Windows apps, but few of these are optimised for touchscreen operation. What's key here, of course, is not so much the total number of apps available on any particular platform, but whether the subset that your business needs is supported.

Other factors to consider: do you need an add-on keyboard (for creating longer documents than brief emails and notes); how much internal storage do you require, and is storage expansion supported; is pen input important; do you need mobile broadband or will Wi-Fi connectivity suffice?

The smartphone market has seen considerable change recently, with Apple's once-dominant iPhone challenged, and now overtaken, in market share by a flood of Android devices — led by the prolific Samsung. Apple's next iPhone (iPhone 6 or iPhone 5S), expected in the autumn, is awaited with great interest, as there's a lot riding on both it and the recently unveiled iOS 7 redesign/refresh.

ZDNet's current favourite high-end smartphone: the HTC One. Image: HTC

Samsung is the dominant manufacturer in the Android space, with its extravagantly-featured Galaxy S4 recently replacing the highly-regarded S III as its flagship device. There's an almost bewildering choice of Samsung Android smartphones, with the company's UK website listing no fewer than 34 models, so there's almost certainly something for every use case and budget. Nevertheless, our current favourite high-end Android smartphone (high-end smartphone, period, in fact) is the Editors' Choice-winning HTC One — an excellent effort from a company that has suffered badly from Samsung's rise.

Another once-mighty smartphone manufacturer to struggle recently is the company formerly known as RIM, which is pinning recovery hopes on its new BlackBerry 10 operating system and the (touchscreen-only) Z10 and (keyboard-equipped) Q10 handsets. One of BlackBerry's biggest draws is BlackBerry Enterprise Service (BES), now at version 10.1 , which can secure and manage not only BlackBerry devices but also iOS and Android handsets. It does this via a new module called Secure Work Space, which adds the company's native Balance functionality that separates work and personal data. Of particular interest to SMEs is the fact that BlackBerry has recently launched BES 10.1 as a cloud service — previously it only ran on in-house servers. For more on managing 'Bring Your Own Device' deployments, see our special feature on BYOD and the Consumerization of IT.

Windows is a minority platform in the smartphone space — something that Microsoft, in partnership with Nokia, is making a concerted effort to change. Although there's a lot of ground to catch up, Nokia's Windows Phone handsets — such as the Windows Phone 8-based  Lumia 920, 720 and 520 — have generally been well received, with HTC and Samsung the main third-party Windows Phone vendors.


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.