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Mon 2 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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Hunting Out Hardware

When setting up a Small Office/Home Office (SOHO), what constitutes essential hardware? How should you approach buying this kit and how much should you budget? Windows investigates in the first of two special SOHO guides…

|~|Hunting-out-hardware---m.jpg|~||~|If your hobby has grown so much that you've decided to turn it into your living, or your professional business experience is such that you believe your own firm could do a better job than that of your employer, then you've some serious planning to do.

If you're reading this, we'll assume you're pretty IT savvy to start with, but there is always the chance you might miss a crucial consideration, or be ill advised, which is why we spoke to three Gulf-based companies, charged with assisting SMB start-ups, on your behalf.

These firms - HP Middle East, CAD Gulf and CompuMe Business - each provide hardware solutions and varying support packages. In HP's case, it does this via its regional network of reseller partners, while CAD Gulf and CompuMe (both HP resellers themselves) deal direct with small and medium sized businesses. Here's what they had to say.

In the beginning…

If your start-up business will be based outside the home, then office space is obviously the first necessity. To this end, the decision of which location to go for should be taken with networking infrastructure in mind. For instance, offices with panel flooring - which can be lifted and network/phone cabling installed underneath - make for office space that is uncluttered by cabling - in turn good for both smooth aesthetics and safety at work.

A small company start-up with ten or twenty staff has, like any firm, two key networking options: wired or wireless. (For the uninitiated, HP.com includes a starter guide to wireless at www.hp.com/sbso/wireless/understanding).

“We recommend wired networks, as these offer the most bandwidth,” says Faisal Mohammed, CAD Gulf's head of corporate sales. “That said, there might often be a place for a wireless set-up within a larger wired network. For smaller businesses, we recommend one server and that the business go for a switch with a minimum of maybe two faster Gigabit ports; one to connect to the server and the other for either a key workstation or even the firm's next server if it grows.”

At the same time as considering its networking needs, a business needs to examine its telephony requirements. While companies such as Cisco and Avaya claim many SMBs are now interested in buying in IP telephony solutions, Mohammed for one thinks that this isn't quite the case yet with smaller start-ups. “Currently PBX systems are still very much the norm,” he explains. “Only the most IT savvy are currently going for IP kit.”

Although networking PCs in an ad-hoc fashion is of course quick and easy, if a small business plans to utilise more than two or three PCs (and thus create a reasonable amount of data), then the server route is the one recommended by all the providers we spoke to.

Here there are various questions an owner must look to answer, as Hanan Kamal, HP Middle East's PSG marketing and SMB manager, explains: “File and print capabilities are the basic requirements for any company. But more complex than that, a business should examine its backup and storage needs. Should backup be external or internal? Should you consider two servers to back up each other? How many users will connect to each server?”

CAD Gulf's Mohammed agrees on these basics and adds further thoughts. “Servers should - at the very least - be good for file and print use, and holding key business applications. They should also be as scalable as possible, as you don't know exactly how much your business will grow. Key considerations are redundant hard disks, RAID controllers, plenty of RAM and redundant power supplies. Also of course, a backup facility is important. Tape backup is always the last line of defense we recommend.”

When it comes to actual PCs for each user, the most cost-effective solution is still desktop systems, as although laptops might be essential for mobile managers to use on the go (and back in the office), these currently remain much more expensive than their workstation counterparts and - crucially - are much less scalable.

“There are, put simply, two types of PCs that businesses need,” Mohammed explains, “entry-level workstations for normal use and what we might term 'power systems' for advanced users. Generally speaking - and especially considering SMBs tend to be highly price conscious - it's best go for whatever specification PCs are at the best price/performance point at the time you're buying. For example, 3GHz processors are widely available in this market right now, so these machines are available at very attractive prices. Whereas the prices for 3.2GHz machines might be much higher.”

Print & Copy

Small companies' print requirements tend to vary the most. The new first question then, says Kamal, regards colour. “Is colour important to a business? If it will be doing its own marketing in-house, this will probably be the case. If speed is more important than colour though, monochrome machines have their place.”

Mohammed meanwhile outlines a business's choices this way: “Firstly, consider how many users will use a printer - a small team or two whole departments? Next, what will printers be used for - for example, is colour required or not? Or is that an option you might need? In which case you might consider going for one fast mono printer and one colour solution. Taking the answers to these questions, start by working out how many printers you will need.”

All-in-ones, or 'multifunction printers/devices' (MFP/Ds), have made great headway in the consumer market over recent years, but Mohammed reckons that from a business point of view, larger copiers that also happen to include print and scan functions are still a very popular choice. “Lots of new companies are going for copiers that also function as printers and scanners. For a start-up operation however we wouldn't recommend using a central all-in-one unit, because if the machine goes down completely, all that functionality goes down with it - it amplifies the problem,” Mohammed states. “The key in this case would be to have a fallback printer too. If a particular user, such as your firm's one marketing person, has colour printing and scanning to do, that's when an inkjet MFD might come in.”

SMB Support

No matter how high quality the hardware a business employs however, there will always be occasions during which this kit refuses to play ball. For large corporates with in-house teams of IT technicians, such problems are usually quickly solved, but in the case of smaller companies any issues can cause serious grief (in the form of ever-frustrating downtime). This is where full solutions providers such as CompuMe, CAD Gulf and other value added resellers (VARs) come in.

“SMBs don't usually have their own IT administrator,” explains CompuMe's corporate sales and technical manager, Vojislav 'Voyo' Ivos. “If such a firm has one of our annual maintenance contracts (AMCs) however, they will get reduced call-out fees and priority over customers that aren't on such a contract with us.”

Depending upon the provider, AMCs can cover call-outs (i.e. labour), or even spares, replacement kit and so on. CAD Gulf's Mohammed offers more details on the support his firm offers: “We recommend AMCs based firmly upon the size and type of the business in question. Generally, it's always a safe bet to go for a support package that is based upon a number of hours. For instance, a firm might opt for a 50-hour support package that runs over a six-month time period. As you'd expect, the great the number of hours agreed, the lower the overall cost per hour of support will be. If a business uses up its number of hours, we simply agree and start another contract.”

“At the smaller end of the SMB market however,” he adds, “for a 20-user company without an IT person on-board, we'd recommend a comprehensive support package that covers parts, labour, everything… because such firms often find it difficult to estimate how many support hours they might need.”


CompuMe Business (Dubai, UAE)
Tel: +9714 282 8555
Web: www.compume.com

HP Middle East
Tel: +9714 391 8988
Web: www.hp.com/me
Small business centres:

CAD Gulf
Tel: +9714 331 4445
Web: www.cadgulf.com.

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