No one is in business to break even or lose money. Very few people are technology experts and most business people know that technology can be an enabler in a successful business but that it’s not cheap and can be perceived to be a significant overhead.
In short, we want our tech to be reliable, cost as little as possible and make us as much money as possible. Easy, right?
The truth is that although Apple’s hardware has a higher entry cost than its Windows counterparts, the hardware is of a higher build quality than entry-level PCs. However, no computer on any platform is ready for you to turn on and run a business from.
Once you really get into it, there are dozens of pieces of technology that you need to run your business. Macworld Australia covers those essentials in our columns, Group Tests and reviews.But rather than look at products, we’re going to look at business operations and activities and provide you with the information you need to keep your business running at its best.
CORE SERVICES: SERVERS, STORAGE AND PRINTING
If you’ve got more than one computer on your network, then you need to think about a server. It will provide storage and other services to the computers on your network without requiring a specific person to be logged in. Also, if all your critical data is on the server, it’s much easier to back up as you don’t need to chase data that’s stored on individual home folders. Although servers sound complicated they don’t have to be.
Your options fall into two categories. You can go crazy and buy a Mac Pro that’s maxed out with plenty of storage and memory and will provide you with an all-in-one solution. However, if your budget is more modest we’d suggest a more modular solution. A Mac mini makes a nifty server and, with just a little configuration, can be set up as a Time Machine volume so that all the Macs on your network can be backed up.
Another alternative is to look at a decent NAS like the Synology DS411 we looked at in November 2011 that can act as both centralised storage and as a Time Machine location. Other alternatives include the Drobo Pro or Netgear ReadyNAS.
When shopping for a NAS, if data protection is a priority – and it ought to be – make sure you buy a unit that can hold at least three hard drives. That way you can designate one of the drives as a ‘hot spare’ using RAID5 so that, in the event of a disk failure, you don’t lose any data.
With printing, we’d strongly advise against single-user printers that only offer USB connections. For the cost of two USB printers, you can pick up a networked device that can be shared by lots of people. And being networked, they don’t rely on one of the Macs on your network being online for sharing.
Applications such as PaperCut and Print Manager make it possible to track printing costs per person, printer or department. This is a great way of ensuring that you aren’t leaking cash on consumables caused by users sending jobs to the dearest printer on the network.
The recent outbreak of the Flashback trojan and other malware that targets the Mac highlights why Mac users must get serious about security software. Flashback shows that the Mac has reached a point at which there are enough users to make attacking it worthwhile.
While it was the case that malware was written by developers that were little more than electronic vandals, the malware business is exactly that – a business. And it’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Your business relies on systems that are robust, secure and performing at their best. A malware infection will compromise all three of these. But there are a few things you can do to protect your systems.
Don’t install any unnecessary software. Flashback used an unpatched vulnerability in the Java runtime that Apple distributes through Software Update. It’s only installed if required. Similarly, other vulnerabilities in commonly used applications have been found before.
If you don’t need an application, remove it. Every application is a potential vector for vulnerabilities that malware can exploit.
Use security software. Although we agree that the antivirus software of last decade was a sure- fire way to slow your Mac down, two things have happened since then. Macs have much faster system performance and the software is much better. In many cases, Apple’s move to Intel a few years ago forced developers to completely rewrite their applications.
If you’re running virtualisation software ensure that you install security software in each virtual machine as well. Microsoft and AVG have solid products for Windows that are free. VMWare Fusion and Parallels both include free subscriptions to security software that are worth considering.
Keep your software up to date. If you’ve purchased software through the Mac App Store, it will alert you when an update is available. Set your Mac to visit Software Update regularly and check for updates and apply those updates – particularly if the notes indicate any security-related fixes.
Make sure your firewall is enabled and test that your Macs are invisible to the rest of the internet. Visit Shields Up! (www.grc.com) and test your system. If your computer is visible to all and sundry, turn your Firewall on and enable Stealth Mode in the Firewall Options.
One of the great things about modern networks is that just about any device that can communicate can be connected and accessed over an office network. Cameras are no exception.
For less than $150 you can connect a camera to your network that can detect motion and email you pictures or video. We looked at three different options.
D-Link DCS-930L Wireless N Home Network Camera.
Really part of a multipart package of hardware and software, the DCS-930L connects to your network by either Ethernet or Wi-Fi and pivots so you can set the viewing angle. It’s powered by connection to the mains, and records video in MJPEG at 640 x 480 resolution with sound.
An account at mydlink allows you to view the camera remotely. We set a camera up with the motion detection set so that it only activated the camera when the office door moved. It was able to quietly snap images and display them to a web browser or the free iOS app.
The images the DCS-930L captured could be emailed or sent to an FTP server.
Logitech Alert 750e.
This is an outdoor camera system with motion detection that does not require professional installation.
It does come with wall and ceiling mounts so you’ll need to know which ends of a drill and screwdriver are the pointy ones and you’ll need access to a power outlet.
In order to deter would-be thieves from easily disabling the camera you will need to conceal the cables. Installation requires access to a system running Windows – we installed the software using Parallels – but further configuration can be done via a web browser.
The Alert 750e communicates to your network using two adaptors that run the data through your electricity cabling. The process works well, though the adaptor that connects to your router is massive and will make a double power outlet into a single.
Image quality was excellent. In addition to the Windows-only control software, we could also view the camera using the browser version of the Logitech Alert software or download a free iOS app. We did find that there was some lag between the actual action captured by the camera and its transmission to the various applications.
This company started life making print servers but moved into security cameras and is now 100 percent focused on digital security cameras. Chances are that, if you’ve seen a security camera on a street or at a stadium, you’ve seen some of its gear.
In the past, these sorts of camera systems have not been affordable for small businesses but they’ve recently added some small business-friendly systems that are easy to install and monitor. Although the software requires a Windows machine to get running, they can be monitored using either a web browser or third-party iOS application.
Axis’s solutions come in several different configurations that can include a NAS for storing streamed content, cameras, network switches and other essentials. These come in kits that can be easily assembled so that the total cost can be kept low.
A two-camera set-up with enough storage to hold several days of video can be put together for less than $2500.
With all the great advances made in the past 20 years with communications, it’s important to realise that the telephone is still your business’s most important communication tool.
However, when it comes to telephony, the current buzz is all about Unified Communications – systems that bring together your fixed line, mobile, email and other comms to a single all-you-can-eat buffet.
For the Mac, a full UC suite is a tricky thing. The reality is that you’ll probably need to look at a couple of different solutions to put a decent communications system together.
Consider shifting your office phones away from traditional carriers and looking at dedicated VoIP services. With recent changes to how telephone numbers are allocated, it’s possible that you’ll be able to switch from fixed-line to VoIP and hold on to your existing phone numbers.
If you need multiple lines with hunt groups and other PABX-type functions, you can look at virtualised PABX services such as those offered by MyNetFone, My Business Voice or MVoice. As long as you have sufficient bandwidth on your internet connection, this can be a very cost-effective way to run your phones.
VoIP also offers the benefit of being able to use a softphone. This is software that runs on your Mac or iOS device that provides access to the office phone system even if you don’t have a handset.
For travellers, a softphone on your iPhone means you can use a Wi-Fi connection to connect to the office phone system and make calls to home without paying international rates. Even voicemail retrieval is easy as voicemail can be sent to you as audio files via email.
Enterprise unified communications systems also add a function called ‘presence’ – the ability to see
if someone is available. If you’ve used iChat or some other instant messaging system you’ll be familiar with this concept. They also include functions such as screen and file sharing.
So, a combination of iChat – or Messages – and a good VoIP service can help greatly with your business communications.
ACCOUNTS IN THE CLOUD
It’s been the bane of many small businesses – the ‘accounts’. Until recently, managing the company books was a tricky task made harder by the complexity of software that was not designed for business operators.
Look back at the accounting software most of us were using in the ’90s and ’00s and you’ll find applications that were difficult to navigate, with impenetrable jargon scattered throughout the user interface.
Since then several things have changed. The technology inside web browsers has improved markedly, online software has become ubiquitous and enterprising developers have created accounting software that’s made for business people and not accountants.
There are several advantages to a cloud-based accounting system. For a start, there’s no need to install and update software on each computer that requires access to the accounts.
When the ATO or other authorities change the tax rules – a seemingly annual occurrence – the software developers update the software without the need for you to pay extra or install an update.
And, if you shift between different computers, you can access your data from anywhere. For example, you can enter invoices or check customer information form a Mac, PC, iPad or iPhone. All you need is an internet connection.
However, there are few things to consider before you make the leap from traditional software to the cloud. Investigate what it will take to get your data out should you decide to change your mind and go to a different provider. Also, keep in mind that you are moving from a software ownership/licensing model to subscription. If you stop paying the subscription fee you may lose all or partial access to your data.
Xero provides a clear, one-screen snapshot of your business’s cash-flow and other activities. Entering transactions is easy as all of the forms are neatly laid out and setting up recurring transactions is a snap.
If you have clients that require regular statements, Xero makes it easy to create and send them with just a few clicks and there’s a simple pie chart that shows which clients owe the most money.
Regular tax reporting is very easy as Xero produces an activity statement report that lists the BAS form boxes and the amounts you need to fill in for the tax office. Other reports such as profit and loss and balance sheets are easy to produce.
You can use Xero to create pay-runs for your staff that are automatically processed if that’s what you need – complete with professional-looking payslips and the ability to create income statements that fulfill your annual obligations with the ATO.
Similarly, Saasu provides an intuitive interface with rich functionality that covers everything a small business does including automatic bank statement downloads so that you don’t have to manually enter every transaction. There are lots of inbuilt reports and you can get a snapshot of who your biggest clients are and what you’re spending your money on instantly from the home screen.
MYOB has been a stalwart when it comes to business accounting software so it’s no surprise that it’s also offering a cloud-based subscription service called Live Accounts.
Like Saasu and Xero, Live Accounts provides a snapshot of your bank balances. We like that it provides a running estimate of how much money we need to set aside for our GST payment as the reporting period progresses. Outstanding invoices, major expenses and other important data is readily available as well.
WHAT ABOUT THE NBN?
In case you’d missed it, the federal government has been rolling out an optical fibre network that will deliver internet connections of up to 100Mbps to almost all premises in the country. Does the NBN matter to your business?
Whether you agree with the government’s policy or not, the reality is that the NBN is coming and that means you need to keep an eye on things.
Start by visiting the NBN website and looking at the three-year rollout plan that’s been published. Even if your area is scheduled for installation in a couple of years, that can help with decisions about contract periods with your current ISP.
If you think that your business will benefit from the NBN – and it’s our view that there will be benefits for all businesses that rely on the internet – then it’s time to start thinking. If you’re planning to update any of your office’s network equipment it’s worth considering the fastest gear you can afford.
Currently, relatively few businesses have internet connections that are faster than their internal network but the NBN might start changing that.
The NBN will probably be a significant enabler for VoIP services. Although conventional telephone systems will continue to run, over time the old copper-wire network that was installed over the past few decades will be decommissioned and transferred to the new optical fibre network. In essence, all telephony becomes a data service.
So, as well as not locking yourself in to long-term ISP contracts, we’d suggest avoiding long-term phone service contracts.
One detail that’s often missed in the discussions about speeds and feeds is that the NBN will be a symmetrical service. That means uploads and downloads will be at equal speeds. ADSL is, by definition, asymmetrical which means that while download speeds are reasonable, upload speeds are throttled.
If you’re in a business that sends lots of photos, data, architectural or CAD images then the time you’ll save sending data will be a significant benefit with the NBN.
POINT OF SALE
The cash register is dead. Its place at the front of retail stores has been taken by point-of-sale systems that fill the gap between collecting money from your customers and providing intelligence about what’s happening in your business.
Three of the more popular point-of-sale options for Mac users are LightSpeed, Vend and Checkout POS.
LightSpeed takes many visual cues from iTunes. When an item is scanned or you browse the product catalogue, you see a CoverFlow interface that you can easily flick through.
Orders can be held, multiple people can share one terminal and there are lots of inventory management tools so you can track levels as well as report on orders, popular items and just about anything else you can think of.
New Zealand-based Vend is a cloud-based solution that supports an offline mode. That’s important as you’ll want sales to continue even if your web connection decides to take a coffee break. As Vend is cloud-based it doesn’t rely on software to be installed and the software can be purchased on subscription.
Checkout POS is a complete solution that works with a bespoke web- store, Enstore, to create a full point-of-sale solution. It integrates with barcode scanners, receipt printers and cash drawers so that you get the full store- counter experience.