Do you really want a server?

SERVER

The received wisdom for years, for the small business was: if you want to be a proper business, buy a server. Does that advice still hold true? The question really isn’t so much, about buying a server as about the services on offer. After all, a server is only there to serve up services that you, as a business need.

Way back, when, what you needed of a server was local file storage for all those Word documents, email, accounts and some line of business application that had to be installed on a ‘proper’ server. The wisdom of buying a server was that this was the only way to access the tools that you needed as a business.

The question today is, has that wisdom changed? The answer lies in the dramatic change in the business IT landscape. The internet has radically changed how business services can be offered. Today you can buy a server, install an email server, such as Exchange Server and run your business email from your own premises, or you can purchase the exact same software as a service through Microsoft’s Office 365 offering. Both do the same job, but with different pros and cons.

If you run your own server you are responsible for the hardware purchase, the licensing, the maintenance of both hardware and software, backup of everything that resides on the server. You probably aren’t an expert in any of this. If you license Office 365 or Google for Work or some other cloud hosted email service you pay monthly and don’t have the upfront hardware costs. You don’t have to think about backup or disaster recovery, you don’t have to maintain hardware or upgrade software – all this is done by the providers with more resources and expertise than you ever will have locally.

The million dollar question then is: can all my services be offered through the cloud? Think through the various services that are done locally:

  • Word processing
  • Accounts
  • Email
  • Line of business application

Can all of these be handled well outside of your office? Is your connectivity up to the job?

We are still in a period of rapid change and of transition. More business people are running at least part of that business through their smart phone or a tablet, on the move, at home, in the office. As the services become more and more sophisticated and delivered more and more efficiently through the cloud the need for a real, physical server in your own office will decrease but we do advice to get atleast a Cheap VPS for you office.

If you are a start up, or don’t yet have a server, my advice is: aim for the cloud, even if you have to make some adjustments to how you do business. The days of the monolithic server solution are numbered. Be at the leading edge and leverage cloud based services. They allow you, your business and your workers to be more agile and more secure.

If you already have invested in a local server solution. Don’t throw it away, but use the time until your next server refresh to investigate each service that you consume and see if there’s a cloud based alternative. Your line of business application is likely to be the most difficult to transition, but most providers are now offering cloud hosted alternatives, and will usually facilitate the move of your data to the new offering.

Remember, at the end of the day, it’s the services that matter, not the server.

When all you have is a hammer

hammer

The old adage is that when the only tool you have is a hammer, you see everything as a nail! The idea is that you tend to use the tools you have and tend to see everything you do in terms of the tool(s) you have available. Bring that principle into the 21st century and web design.

Graphic designers see everything as a design issue; coders break out their editor of choice to fix any problem; those using WordPress see plugins as the panacea to every problem. The reality is that web design is both complex and multi-faceted. It requires graphic design, coding and third party help to make a killer web site. The problems come when you only have a subset of the skills/tools required – then the natural inclination is to use what you have to fix what you need. But hammers tend to mangle screws and the wrong tool can at the least make your web site more cumbersome than it should, at worst it can make an unholy mess of what should be a sleek and elegant design both on the surface and under the hood.

What do we need?

The greatest requirement with web design is to have someone who understands all the methodologies required and can objectively decide what is the best tool for each part of the job. As with IT in general, web design is fragmenting into ever more niche disciplines – and experts in those disciplines can struggle to see the bigger picture.

Talking to a young graphic designer recently his inclination was to find a graphical tool within WordPress to do the bits he couldn’t. He was looking for an ecosystem within an ecosystem. The fact that these exist in abundance proves the point. The problem is that the all encompassing theme or plugin becomes the cuckoo in the nest that overtakes the WordPress framework. The downside is that there is still a huge amount of work involved in learning the ecosystem, with much less benefit in that investment.

My advice? Start by understanding HTML, CSS, server side coding and databases. Then a grasp of graphic design principles and the use of CMS ecosystems such as WordPress can be employed to build an effective web site. Understand the principles before choosing your tools.

Remember that clean code behind the scenes is as important as that slick interface that everyone can see.

So, keep that hammer to hand, but you might also like to consider acquiring some screwdrivers, spanners, torque wrenches etc., or at least be aware of what they are and what they can do for you…

Web Design – How long is a piece of string?

Web Design

“I want a web site.” There’s never been so much, or so little encapsulated in such an innocent phrase. When used without any further qualification it has web designers and IT consultants in despair! Why? Let me elaborate….

A web site can contain a single page or several thousand pages. A web site can do nothing apart from show you images and words or it can be a fully fledged application with interactivity and many, many man hours of coding of the bits you see and the bits that you don’t see. In fact to ask for a piece of string without specifying its length seems positively simple in comparison.

So, how does an IT expert respond so such a nebulous 5 words? My response is to ask: “What do you want the web site to do?” Usually this is followed by a long moment of stunned silence as the business owner is faced for the first time with the concept of purpose. The bottom line is, if you don’t know what you want your web site to do for you, then why spend a significant amount of money on one. And how are you going to be satisfied that the web designer has done what you ask if you don’t know yourself?

So, if you’re considering investing in your first web site, or considering changing what you already have the first question to ask yourself is this: what do I want my web site to achieve?

Which direction to take?

WHICH DIRECTION

There’s never been more choice in how we do business, and there have never been more directions to take in order to make business IT work for you. So, how do you make those important decisions? For the startup it’s perhaps simpler, but for established businesses there come crunch points where an investment is needed or a step up is required to take the business to the next level. At these points it’s wise to re-evaluate all your options.

At it’s most basic the choice is between IT ecosystems or best business backpacks. For decades the choice was no choice, and therefore simple. Every business user had a PC with MS Windows and Office – it was essential. Today even the decision to have an Blockchain Centre office and a desk is up for grabs.

So, how do you make the decision on which ecosystem to choose. Today it’s not just about the choice of line of business software that you need to run. Often it’s about how portable the ecosystem is, how accessible it is out of the office, how easy it is to respond from a phone or a tablet or a web page. For many the choice will end up involving a mixture of both old style tech and new. But this will increasingly disappear as more and more line of business applications go online.

You can do most things online now, from email to invoicing. For the small business this puts the risk in terms of data security with an organisation that can do it properly, for the large business the economies of scale work in your favour, along with the ability to scale up or down quickly.

Whatever the size of your business – it’s worth asking the question: Which direction do you take?

For my business I took the decision several years ago to move away from the Microsoft platform to Google for Work. Initially I still used Outlook along with Google’s excellent sync tool, but within a very short space of time I found that Google’s interface offered more. I’ve never looked back. I confess that the link with Android was part of the charm. More business is done over a variety of devices these days. I use a Windows PC or a Chromebook or an Android device – and all of them have all my main business tools available.

I do have a preference, but both Google’s and Microsoft’s online products are now mature, stable and usable – which one will you use?

What if the box changes?

THE BOX

The conversation that sparked this was about Google Drive and how it syncs back to a desktop PC. I’ve always been impressed with Google’s sync tools, they have worked flawlessly for me for years, both with Outlook and Drive. What was new to me was that Google Drive, as with the Outlook sync tool for Google Mail uses tags, not folders. As a point of interest, I’ve long since stopped using Outlook, but the sync tool allowed me to make that transition naturally over a couple of months.

The problem that was the subject of the conversation was that a round trip of syncing a Google Drive folder from a PC to Drive and then downloading again to a freshly installed PC left some items not where the user expected them to be. The root cause appears to be the fact that although Drive presents files in folders, the folder names are in fact just tags, as you might expect from a company such as Google, the question is: why make the tags into pseudo folders? The answer to the question seems to be that folders are the box!

Let me just explain what I mean. We’re told to think outside the box, to be creative, to envisage things that aren’t normally done, or aren’t yet done. You would think that in the world of IT this would be the norm, not the exception. But, the IT business, just like every other business has vested interests in keeping you purchasing their products. The IBM PC was ground breaking, but would you have thought that nearly 37 years later we’d still be using the same file storage concept? The physical analogy of a file cabinet with folders is still at the heart of our PC file system. The PC has become so ubiquitous that it has actually begun to stifle innovation, it has become the box.

But what if the box changes? What if something else comes along to challenge that ubiquity? That happened with two things: the internet and the smartphone. The first made the stand alone PC a thing of the past and the second allowed new, innovative ways of working. Now we live in a world of tags or #hashtags. It seems absurd that we should only be able to classify a file as one thing rather than tagging it with all the relevant information.

As time has gone on I’ve learned with email to tag and search, not file. I’m beginning to do the same with files. The advent of internet storage and the myriad of devices that can connect to and work with those files means that the PC way of doing things is the anachronism, the constraint, the box.

As we consider our options for business IT we need not only to think outside the box, but we need to consider how the box is changing. IT doesn’t and shouldn’t stand still – it should grow and change, and as business users we should embrace this change – consumers certainly are! We need to be thinkers, watchers, embracers of change. One of the things that impresses me about Google as a company, and its products is that they will try new ideas, sometimes for a significant period of time, but, if it doesn’t work, or technology moves past it, they will drop the product and move on (anyone remember Google Reader?). This is how it should be.

As we move more and more to an online world, where our business and personal technology assets are separate from the tools used to access them we should embrace the changing box. Can you see a business user without a full Windows PC? Would you have thought that possible 10 years ago?

Getting back to the original conversation – it was the old fashioned file storage system on the PC that was the fly in the ointment. If all the files had been stored in the cloud and nowhere else the problem wouldn’t have arisen. If cloud tools had been used to access all the files, the problem wouldn’t have arisen. Often it’s the familiar that keeps us from moving to a better way of doing things. As business users it makes sense to ask ourselves if the box has changed from the one we are familiar with, and to ask how we will embrace the new.

 

If you’re interested to know more about Google for Work, take a look at my Google for Work page.