What is Unified Communications, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, July 27, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Unified Communications.

What is Unified Communications?

Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax and e-mail. Many of us also other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.

Unified communication solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach and communicate with other people, and vice versa

It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.

UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).

Why Should You Care?

Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you and stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office or working from home.

Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.).  Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.

UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:

    * Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference.

    * Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is.  A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access.

UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money.  Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.

What to Consider

UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.

The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco and many others sell UC solutions — designed specifically for small businesses — that package up systems, software and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through its partner channel. 

What’s a Business App Appliance, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published June 18, 2009 in Small Business Computing)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Business Application Appliances.

What’s a Business App Appliance, and Why Should You Care?

As with other types of computing appliances, business-application appliances are “purpose-built” to address a specific type of computing requirement. Akin to a household appliance, the aim is to plug them in and use them, without spending a lot of time getting them up and running or taking care of them. Business application server appliances come pre-configured with all of the hardware and software components required to run a specific business application, such as accounting or CRM packaged together in one box.

Most vendors build their appliances with industry standard hardware and operating systems, such as Linux or Microsoft Windows, and they integrate databases, security, storage, virtualization and other technologies as necessary to provide a complete solution. As a result, users can set up an appliance in a matter of minutes, instead of the hours or days it would normally take to source, install, integrate and tune all of these component parts on a general purpose server.

As important, the appliance vendor (or a business partner) provides remote system management, monitoring, updates, patches, support and backup over the Internet. However, in contrast to earlier appliances, which were often limited to one solution, and one-size-fits-all, today’s business application appliances often feature open APIs, and use virtualization and other technologies to make them more flexible and scalable. This lets you add more users, tailor the solution, and add more applications to the appliance.

Some examples of new business application appliances designed for small and medium businesses include:

  • IBM-Intuit Smart Cube appliance, which features Intuit’s QuickBooks Enterprise accounting software, and is designed for companies with up to 250 employees. It can scale from five to 30 people, and users can integrate optional collaboration and database and solutions. This solution is one of many available in IBM’s Smart Market appliance community. 
  •  Sage’s Applianz solutions, which offer Sage MAS 90, 200, 500 and Sage SalesLogix as business application appliances. These solutions feature CompleteAssurance, which combines Applianz remote access, hardware maintenance and automated nightly backup service into one product. 
  • IBM Lotus Foundations Start, which bundles Lotus Notes/Domino collaboration solutions and Lotus Symphony and integrated backup into a plug-and-play appliance. Optionally, customers can also run Microsoft Windows and Windows-based solutions on the appliance using integrated virtual machine technology. 

Why Should You Care?

Business application appliances are analogous to consumer computing appliances, such as an iPod, Xbox or TiVo. The basic concept is the same; the vendor automates and integrates all of the necessary solution components into one simple-to-use system. This ensures that everything works together out-of-the-box, with little or no IT support. Appliances can also provide peace of mind for businesses with limited or no IT staff, as vendors and/or their business partners provide day-to-day systems support, maintenance and backups over the Web. Many take advantage of terminal services, so you can connect remote workers easily, and don’t need to worry about upgrading PCs.

Because appliances are purpose-built, they make more efficient use of technology and can minimize both acquisition and ongoing support costs. The appliance approach crosses the chasm between traditional, customer-premise deployments and cloud computing or software-as-a-service (SaaS) model, integrating on-premise, integrated appliance systems with cloud services. In some respects, this hybrid model provides the best of both worlds for companies that want something easy to use and maintain, but are still uncomfortable with putting their data and processing power in the cloud.

What to Consider

Business application appliances can provide a more affordable, efficient means to deploy and use business solutions than traditional customer premise solutions. But, as with any type of business software selection, you’ll want to read the fine print. What’s included in the purchase price of the business application appliance? For instance, what maintenance is included in the initial purchase price, and how much are ongoing maintenance fees? Does the vendor automatically backup the system, and if so, how frequently? How easy—or difficult—is it to add new users?

You’ll also want to evaluate flexibility. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to customize the solution at the source code level, it should let you tailor things such as templates and reports to your requirements. Also, consider whether you need to integrate the business application appliance with other applications that you’re currently running, or may need to add in the future, and how the vendor can help you to do this. Finally, what happens if your appliance breaks? How does the vendor provide service, and what is the replacement policy? The appliance vendor should be able to provide a roll back to a pre-failure image and quickly restore operation on a new appliance if necessary.

Companies looking for simplicity, ease-of-use and reduced cost will also want to evaluate the trade-offs between appliances and the SaaS model. For instance, you purchase and own an appliance. In a SaaS model, you pay for a monthly or annual subscription service, which lowers upfront costs and financial risks, making it easier to switch to another solution if you’re not satisfied.

Over time, as technologies such as virtualization and cloud computing mature, I expect more and more blurring between cloud computing and business application appliances—just like we see in the consumer space. Sooner rather than later, business application appliances should also be available in a subscription service, where you may purchase the box for a nominal fee, and subscribe to an application service that runs on the box. Until then, do your research, weigh the trade-offs and select the option that best fits your needs.

Did this help you understand business application appliances? Let me know, and send me any additional questions you have on the topic. Also, please send your suggestions for other technology terms and areas that you’d like explained in upcoming columns. 

What is Virtualization, and Why Should You Care?

 

 What is Virtualization, and Why Should You Care?
By Laurie McCabe
May 7, 2009
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Virtualization.
What is Virtualization?
When people talk about virtualization, they’re usually referring to server virtualization, which means partitioning one physical server into several virtual servers, or machines. Each virtual machine can interact independently with other devices, applications, data and users as though it were a separate physical resource.
Different virtual machines can run different operating systems and multiple applications while sharing the resources of a single physical computer. And, because each virtual machine is isolated from other virtualized machines, if one crashes, it doesn’t affect the others. 
Hypervisor software is the secret sauce that makes virtualization possible. This software, also known as a virtualization manager, sits between the hardware and the operating system, and decouples the operating system and applications from the hardware. The hypervisor assigns the amount of access that the operating systems and applications have with the processor and other hardware resources, such as memory and disk input/output.
In addition to using virtualization technology to partition one machine into several virtual machines, you can also use virtualization solutions to combine multiple physical resources into a single virtual resource. A good example of this is storage virtualization, where multiple network storage resources are pooled into what appears as a single storage device for easier and more efficient management of these resources. Other types of virtualization you may hear about include:  
    * Network virtualization splits available bandwidth in a network into independent channels that can be assigned to specific servers or devices.
    * Application virtualization separates applications from the hardware and the operating system, putting them in a container that can be relocated without disrupting other systems.
    * Desktop virtualization enables a centralized server to deliver and manage individualized desktops remotely. This gives users a full client experience, but lets IT staff provision, manage, upgrade and patch them virtually, instead of physically. 
Virtualization was first introduced in the 1960s by IBM to boost utilization of large, expensive mainframe systems by partitioning them into logical, separate virtual machines that could run multiple applications and processes at the same time. In the 1980s and 1990s, this centrally shared mainframe model gave way to a distributed, client-server computing model, in which many low-cost x86 servers and desktops independently run specific applications.
While virtualization faded from the limelight for a while, it is now one of the hottest trends in the industry again, as organizations aim to increase the utilization, flexibility and cost-effectiveness in a distributed computing environment. VMWare, Citrix, Microsoft, IBM, RedHat and many other vendors offer virtualization solutions.
Why Should You Care?
Virtualization can help you shift your IT focus from managing boxes to improving the services you provide to the organization. If you are managing multiple servers and desktops, virtualization can help you to:
    * Save money. Companies often run just one application per server because they don’t want to risk the possibility that one application will crash and bring down another on the same machine. Estimates indicate that most x86 servers are running at an average of only 10 to 15 percent of total capacity. With virtualization, you can turn a single purpose server into a multi-tasking one, and turn multiple servers into a computing pool that can adapt more flexibly to changing workloads.
    * Save energy. Businesses spend a lot of money powering unused server capacity. Virtualization reduces the number of physical servers, reducing the energy required to power and cool them.
    * Save time. With fewer servers, you can spend less time on the manual tasks required for server maintenance. On the flip side, pooling many storage devices into a single virtual storage device, you can perform tasks such as backup, archiving and recovery more easily and more quickly. It’s also much faster to deploy a virtual machine than it is to deploy a new physical server.
    * Reduce desktop management headaches. Managing, securing and upgrading desktops and notebooks can be a hassle. Desktop virtualization solutions let you manage user desktops centrally, making it easier to keep desktops updated and secure. 
What to Consider
Since virtualization makes it easy to set up new virtual servers, you may end up with a lot of servers to manage. Each server needs to be managed just as if it was a physical server. Keeping track of where everything —  and how your virtual resources are using physical resources — is vital, so shop for solutions that have easy-to-use tools that help you monitor and measure use. 
Virtualization isn’t a magic bullet for everything. While many solutions are great candidates for running virtually, applications that need a lot of memory, processing power or input/output may be best left on a dedicated server.
For all of the upside virtualization isn’t magic, and it can introduce some new challenges.  But in most cases the many cost and efficiency advantages will outweigh any issues, and virtualization will continue to grow gain popularity.

 (Originally published in Small Business Computing, May 7, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Virtualization.

What is Virtualization?

When people talk about virtualization, they’re usually referring to server virtualization, which means partitioning one physical server into several virtual servers, or machines. Each virtual machine can interact independently with other devices, applications, data and users as though it were a separate physical resource.

Different virtual machines can run different operating systems and multiple applications while sharing the resources of a single physical computer. And, because each virtual machine is isolated from other virtualized machines, if one crashes, it doesn’t affect the others.

Hypervisor software is the secret sauce that makes virtualization possible. This software, also known as a virtualization manager, sits between the hardware and the operating system, and decouples the operating system and applications from the hardware. The hypervisor assigns the amount of access that the operating systems and applications have with the processor and other hardware resources, such as memory and disk input/output.

In addition to using virtualization technology to partition one machine into several virtual machines, you can also use virtualization solutions to combine multiple physical resources into a single virtual resource. A good example of this is storage virtualization, where multiple network storage resources are pooled into what appears as a single storage device for easier and more efficient management of these resources. Other types of virtualization you may hear about include: 

    * Network virtualization splits available bandwidth in a network into independent channels that can be assigned to specific servers or devices.

    * Application virtualization separates applications from the hardware and the operating system, putting them in a container that can be relocated without disrupting other systems.

    * Desktop virtualization enables a centralized server to deliver and manage individualized desktops remotely. This gives users a full client experience, but lets IT staff provision, manage, upgrade and patch them virtually, instead of physically.

Virtualization was first introduced in the 1960s by IBM to boost utilization of large, expensive mainframe systems by partitioning them into logical, separate virtual machines that could run multiple applications and processes at the same time. In the 1980s and 1990s, this centrally shared mainframe model gave way to a distributed, client-server computing model, in which many low-cost x86 servers and desktops independently run specific applications.

While virtualization faded from the limelight for a while, it is now one of the hottest trends in the industry again, as organizations aim to increase the utilization, flexibility and cost-effectiveness in a distributed computing environment. VMWare, Citrix, Microsoft, IBM, RedHat and many other vendors offer virtualization solutions.

Why Should You Care?

Virtualization can help you shift your IT focus from managing boxes to improving the services you provide to the organization. If you are managing multiple servers and desktops, virtualization can help you to:

    * Save money. Companies often run just one application per server because they don’t want to risk the possibility that one application will crash and bring down another on the same machine. Estimates indicate that most x86 servers are running at an average of only 10 to 15 percent of total capacity. With virtualization, you can turn a single purpose server into a multi-tasking one, and turn multiple servers into a computing pool that can adapt more flexibly to changing workloads.

    * Save energy. Businesses spend a lot of money powering unused server capacity. Virtualization reduces the number of physical servers, reducing the energy required to power and cool them.

    * Save time. With fewer servers, you can spend less time on the manual tasks required for server maintenance. On the flip side, pooling many storage devices into a single virtual storage device, you can perform tasks such as backup, archiving and recovery more easily and more quickly. It’s also much faster to deploy a virtual machine than it is to deploy a new physical server.

    * Reduce desktop management headaches. Managing, securing and upgrading desktops and notebooks can be a hassle. Desktop virtualization solutions let you manage user desktops centrally, making it easier to keep desktops updated and secure.

What to Consider

Since virtualization makes it easy to set up new virtual servers, you may end up with a lot of servers to manage. Each server needs to be managed just as if it was a physical server. Keeping track of where everything —  and how your virtual resources are using physical resources — is vital, so shop for solutions that have easy-to-use tools that help you monitor and measure use.

Virtualization isn’t a magic bullet for everything. While many solutions are great candidates for running virtually, applications that need a lot of memory, processing power or input/output may be best left on a dedicated server. And, virtualization can also introduce some new challenges.  But in most cases the many cost and efficiency advantages will outweigh any issues, and virtualization will continue to grow gain popularity.

What is Social Networking, and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, April 7, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Huzitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Social Networking.

What is Social Networking?

Social networking, also referred to as social media, encompasses many Internet-based tools that make it easier for people to listen, interact, engage and collaborate with each other. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, message boards, Wikipedia and countless others are catching on like wildfire.

People use social networking to share recipes, photos, ideas and to keep friends updated on our lives. In many cases, you can use social networking tools from mobile devices, such as Blackberries and iPhones, as easily as from a PC or Mac.

By its very nature, social networking is interactive. You can tell anyone (that you want to talk to, and that wants to listen to you) anything about your opinions and experiences—and vice versa–through blogs, Facebook pages, videos and even 140 character messages called tweets. You can also build communities based on common interests, causes and concerns.

While we don’t have room to discuss all of the social networking sites, here’s a sampler to help you get your head around today’s most popular social networking tools:

    * Blogs are sites that people set up to provide information and opinions about events, ideas or anything else they want to discuss. Blogs can include links to other related sites, photos, videos and sound as well as text. The number of bloggers is growing exponentially; eMarketer estimates that in 2007 there were almost 23 million U.S. bloggers and more than 94 million blog readers.

    * Twitter is a micro-blogging site. Twitter members post text messages called “tweets” of 140 characters or less, using either a computer or a cell phone. Other Twitter users can “follow”” your posts, but you can decide if you want to let them follow you or not. Compete.com, a Web-traffic analysis service, says that Twitter had 6 million unique visits in February 2009.

    * Facebook is a social networking site where you can set up a profile, join different communities, and connect with friends. More than 175 million people currently use Facebook—and the fastest growing demographic is people over the age of 35.

    * LinkedIn is a social networking site with about 38 million members. While it shares a lot of the same features and capabilities you’ll find on Facebook, LinkedIn focuses specifically on helping people build career and business communities.

    * Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Articles provide links to related information. In 2008, Wikipedia had 684 million visitors, and 75,000 contributors working on more than 10 million articles.

    * YouTube is a site to share and watch videos. Anyone can record a video and then upload and share it via the YouTube site. Everyone can watch the videos on YouTube.  In January, The U.S. Congress and YouTube announced the launch of official Congressional YouTube channels, which gives each member of the House and Senate the opportunity to create his or her own YouTube channel.  

The world of blogs, tweets and wikis can be confusing for many people. Even if you are comfortable using Facebook, YouTube and other services in your personal life, you may be wondering if social networking can be a useful tool for your business.

The answer is a resounding yes. Small businesses can use social networking for many practical purposes. You can use these tools (which are usually free) to locate experts and find information, pose questions and get answers. Thoughtful use of social networking services can help you move beyond conventional, one-way marketing, such as advertising, and tap into a more interactive marketing approach. For instance, you use social networking tools to:

    * Research ideas, and learn more about what customers and prospects are saying about their needs and experiences, and about your products and related areas.

    * Gain new market and competitive insights to improve your products and services.

    * Create and join conversations with customers, prospects, partners and other constituents about key issues and concerns.

    * Create positive word-of-mouth about your products and services.

    * Grow your company’s reputation as a thought leader. 

What to Consider

Navigating through the social media maze can be overwhelming at first. If you’re just starting out, remember you can start small. In fact, I’d recommend taking smaller steps first, before you tackle writing your own blog or creating an online community. Here are a couple of easy ways to get started.

    * Monitor relevant online conversations in social media. Tuning into online conversations can provide you with insights for marketing and new products and services. Google Blog Search and other tools can help you find relevant blogs, and you can set up an RSS reader, like Google Reader, to get content delivered to you automatically.

    * Join conversations. You don’t have to write you own blog—you can comment and respond or answer questions in other blog posts, or on Twitter. Follow the same rules of etiquette you’d use in the physical world—make your comments relevant, behave ethically and be authentic—and remember to identify yourself and your company.

    * Use relevant communities for market research. On LinkedIn, for instance, you can join relevant professional communities to discuss what’s going on in your industry and ask questions. Or try Facebook Polls to poll targeted Facebook users, based on demographic data. With this tool, you can field a single-question poll in a few minutes, and get responses from hundreds of people in less than hour. 

As you get more involved, you’ll learn as you go about the different types of social media, how other small businesses use them, and approaches you can use to launch your own online community, blog or YouTube video. So get in and join the conversation!

By Laurie McCabe
July 27, 2009
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. This month Laurie looks at Unified Communications.
What is Unified Communications?
Most of us use several different tools and devices to communicate. At a minimum, you probably use a cell phone, a landline phone, fax and e-mail. Many of us also other tools as well, such as instant messaging, texting and Web conferencing.  Unified communications (UC) solutions incorporate these different modes of communications into one system.
Unified communication solutions take advantage of new technologies to integrate and streamline messages from many sources. For instance, a unified messaging system lets you access multiple phone lines, e-mail, fax and instant messaging from one place. These solutions break down communications barriers so that it’s easier and faster for you to find, reach and communicate with other people, and vice versa.
It’s important to remember that UC isn’t one tool, but a solution that pulls together all of the communication and collaboration tools that you’re already using (plus some new ones you may want to add) so you can communicate through a consistent interface and experience. For instance, with a UC solution, you give your customers just your office phone number, and calls to that number will also ring simultaneously on your cell phone.
UC solutions can integrate both non-real-time communications tools, such as traditional phone lines, e-mail, fax and voice-mail, with real-time communications tools such as instant messaging (IM) and Web conferencing. They can also incorporate many other communication tools, too, such as and voice over IP (VoIP) telephony solutions, text messaging, screen sharing and video conferencing—just to name a few. Many use presence awareness technology that locates where people to see if they’re available, (think IM buddy list).
Why Should You Care?
Whether you’re a sales person, a construction worker or an attorney, you’re likely to be on the go, or working from different locations throughout the week. UC solutions can help you get more done more quickly. They help you and stay connected to your co-workers and customers, whether you’re on the road, in the office or working from home.
Depending on where you are and what the situation requires, your preference for the device you use (cell phone, PDA, notebook desktop computer, fax machine) is likely to change, as is the mode of communicating (traditional phone service, IP telephony, cell phone, text message, IM, etc.).  Everyone else is in the same boat. So, while it’s nice to have all these handy tools, it’s a chore to remember different numbers, and to constantly check different services for messages.
UC can help you be more productive and save you time by letting you move seamlessly from one device and mode of communication to another. For example, using a UC solution, you could:
    * Have your calls follow you. For instance, say you dial into a conference call from your home phone at 6:00 a.m. When you walk out the door, the call transfers automatically to your cell phone—without interruption. When you get to the office, the call transfers to your office phone, which has the capability to also initiate a Web conference. 
    * Find people you need more quickly. Let’s say you and your sales manager both have busy schedules. You will both be in and out of the office in between sales calls. You’re in the last throes of negotiating a deal, and you need to get his buy-in on a discount—but you have no idea where he is.  A UC solutions tracks down your boss for you. It knows the phone number where your boss is located, and automatically forward the call to the phone line he can access. 
UC can also help you operate more flexibly and save money.  Say, for instance, you hire five more employees; the solution will easily accommodate remote workers. With a UC solution that includes IP telephony, it’s easy and fast to add new phone lines for new workers, wherever they’re located. Instead of having to move to a bigger office and pay higher rent, the new employees can work from home with just an Internet connection.
What to Consider
UC can be a confusing area to evaluate because different vendors design and build their solutions with different assortments of communications and collaboration tools. If you’re considering UC, start by putting together a list of communication pain points and problems that your company faces. Depending on the nature of your business, its size, and how people work, you may want very different capabilities than the business next door. You’ll also want to look for a solution that is flexible enough to let you add new capabilities as you need them.
The other area you’ll want to consider is how you want to deploy the solution. Companies such as Avaya, Cisco and many others sell UC solutions — designed specifically for small businesses — that package up systems, software and phones. IBM just announced that it will add a real-time communication version to its Lotus Foundations line, which is designed for small businesses that want one appliance to support communications and collaboration. Finally, vendors such as PanTerra provide software-as-a-service (SaaS) UC solutions through its partner channel. 

What is Cloud Computing, and Why Should You Care?

 

Whais Cloud Computing — and Why Should You Care?
By Laurie McCabe
March 11, 2009
Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. Laurie kicks off her new column with a look at cloud computing.
What Is Cloud Computing?
Cloud computing is a computing model that lets you access software, server and storage resources over the Internet, in a self-service manner. Instead of having to buy, install, maintain and manage these resources on your own computer or device, you access and use them through a Web browser. Sometimes you might need to download a small piece of client code (i.e., software you install on your PC), but we’d still categorize that as cloud computing, because, for the most part, the real horsepower is supplied from the cloud.
At this point, many of you may be asking, I still don’t get why they call this “cloud” computing — why not Internet computing? The answer is that techies have long used cloud icons to represent the data centers, technologies, infrastructure and services that comprise the Internet — and the metaphor has stuck.
You can perform just about any computing task in the cloud. It’s likely that you already use several cloud solutions. For example, software-as-a-service (SaaS) or on demand business applications, such as salesforce.com, Intuit QuickBooks Online or Citrix GoToMeeting are cloud applications; you access them from your Web browser, but the software, processing power and storage reside in the cloud.
Free Web services — such as Google Gmail or Microsoft Hotmail, or FaceBook and Twitter, for that matter — are also examples of cloud computing. Likewise, if you use online backup solutions, you’re storing your files in the cloud. And many managed services providers supply services such as network and security monitoring over the Internet. Another example is Amazon.com, which sells access to CPU cycles and storage as a service of its cloud infrastructure.
Why Should You Care?
Most small businesses simply don’t have the time, expertise or money necessary to buy, deploy and manage the computing infrastructure needed to run these solutions on their own. Cloud computing shields you from these complexities. As a user, you see only the self-service interface to the computing resources you need. And, you can expand or shrink services as your needs change.
Instead of laying out capital to buy hardware and software, you rent what you need, usually either on a subscription basis, or on a utility pay-as-you go model. Many cloud computing vendors offer free services. Some, like Google and Yahoo, monetize free offerings through ad revenues. Other vendors make money by selling optional, integrated fee-based services alongside the freebies — a model that is gaining momentum. A couple to check out in this category include the following:
    * SmartRecruiters (www.smartrecruiters.com), which offers a free applicant tracking system for recruiters in small and medium businesses.
    * FreshBooks (www.freshbooks.com), which has free invoicing, expense reporting and time tracking solutions for freelancers and small businesses.
    * Demandbase’s (www.demandbase.com) freebie service is Demandbase Stream, which provides information about who’s visiting your Web site, search terms they use, and pages they looked at.
What to Consider
Behind the scenes, cloud computing vendors have to do a lot of work to manage all of the infrastructure, technology and people that make this possible. To provide services easily, flexibly and profitably to thousands or even millions of users, they invest heavily in hardware, virtualization technologies, networking infrastructure and automation capabilities (any one of which would need its own article to fully explain).
There are thousands of cloud computing vendors and solutions out there. But they are not all are created equal — and neither are your needs in any given solution area. Think about how critical a particular function is to your business? What would happen if you couldn’t access data or use the application for a period of time? For instance, a small business needs higher service levels for an accounting solution than a freelancer requires for expense tracking. Before moving beyond a trial service, consider your needs for reliability, security, performance and support — and then at how well a vendor can meet them.
Cloud computing providers should provide details about how they protect data and ensure regulatory compliance, and they should explain their policies to provide you with your data if you decide to terminate the service or if they go out of business. If you pay for a service, you should also get a service level agreement (SLA) from the cloud vendor. The SLA documents service requirements, supplies ongoing metrics to ensure these requirements are met, and provides remuneration should the vendor fail to deliver on the agreed metrics.What is Cloud Computing — and Why Should You Care?

(Originally published in Small Business Computing, March 11, 2009)

Technology insiders tend to throw around technical terms and business jargon, assuming people outside the industry understand what it all means. By its nature, technology vocabulary is often confusing and complicated, and insiders often add to the confusion by over-complicating things. To help add a sense of clarity to the confusion, each month, Laurie McCabe, a partner at Hurwitz & Associates (a business consulting firm), will pick a technology term, explain what it means in plain English, and then discuss why it may be important to you. Laurie kicks off her new column with a look at cloud computing.

What Is Cloud Computing?

Cloud computing is a computing model that lets you access software, server and storage resources over the Internet, in a self-service manner. Instead of having to buy, install, maintain and manage these resources on your own computer or device, you access and use them through a Web browser. Sometimes you might need to download a small piece of client code (i.e., software you install on your PC), but we’d still categorize that as cloud computing, because, for the most part, the real horsepower is supplied from the cloud.

At this point, many of you may be asking, I still don’t get why they call this “cloud” computing — why not Internet computing? The answer is that techies have long used cloud icons to represent the data centers, technologies, infrastructure and services that comprise the Internet — and the metaphor has stuck.

You can perform just about any computing task in the cloud. It’s likely that you already use several cloud solutions. For example, software-as-a-service (SaaS) or on demand business applications, such as salesforce.com, Intuit QuickBooks Online or Citrix GoToMeeting are cloud applications; you access them from your Web browser, but the software, processing power and storage reside in the cloud.

Free Web services — such as Google Gmail or Microsoft Hotmail, or FaceBook and Twitter, for that matter — are also examples of cloud computing. Likewise, if you use online backup solutions, you’re storing your files in the cloud. And many managed services providers supply services such as network and security monitoring over the Internet. Another example is Amazon.com, which sells access to CPU cycles and storage as a service of its cloud infrastructure.

Why Should You Care?

Most small businesses simply don’t have the time, expertise or money necessary to buy, deploy and manage the computing infrastructure needed to run these solutions on their own. Cloud computing shields you from these complexities. As a user, you see only the self-service interface to the computing resources you need. And, you can expand or shrink services as your needs change.

Instead of laying out capital to buy hardware and software, you rent what you need, usually either on a subscription basis, or on a utility pay-as-you go model. Many cloud computing vendors offer free services. Some, like Google and Yahoo, monetize free offerings through ad revenues. Other vendors make money by selling optional, integrated fee-based services alongside the freebies — a model that is gaining momentum. A couple to check out in this category include the following:

    * SmartRecruiters (www.smartrecruiters.com), which offers a free applicant tracking system for recruiters in small and medium businesses.

    * FreshBooks (www.freshbooks.com), which has free invoicing, expense reporting and time tracking solutions for freelancers and small businesses.

    * Demandbase’s (www.demandbase.com) freebie service is Demandbase Stream, which provides information about who’s visiting your Web site, search terms they use, and pages they looked at.

What to Consider

Behind the scenes, cloud computing vendors have to do a lot of work to manage all of the infrastructure, technology and people that make this possible. To provide services easily, flexibly and profitably to thousands or even millions of users, they invest heavily in hardware, virtualization technologies, networking infrastructure and automation capabilities (any one of which would need its own article to fully explain).

There are thousands of cloud computing vendors and solutions out there. But they are not all are created equal — and neither are your needs in any given solution area. Think about how critical a particular function is to your business? What would happen if you couldn’t access data or use the application for a period of time? For instance, a small business needs higher service levels for an accounting solution than a freelancer requires for expense tracking. Before moving beyond a trial service, consider your needs for reliability, security, performance and support — and then at how well a vendor can meet them.

Cloud computing providers should provide details about how they protect data and ensure regulatory compliance, and they should explain their policies to provide you with your data if you decide to terminate the service or if they go out of business. If you pay for a service, you should also get a service level agreement (SLA) from the cloud vendor. The SLA documents service requirements, supplies ongoing metrics to ensure these requirements are met, and provides remuneration should the vendor fail to deliver on the agreed metrics. 

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