Using a Wiki for Quick Documentation

If your business is anything like the businesses with which I normally deal one of the hardest items to tackle is documentation.  This can include all kinds of documentation from human resources processes to accounting practices to core business procedures to the information technology department’s system records.  Businesses need good documentation for many reasons.

Traditionally small businesses simply end up doing without key documentation and have to reinvent the wheel every time something comes up for which the people currently working have not had a chance to memorize the process.  Larger businesses often place their limited documentation into Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF files and store them away in an unsearchable file server or possibly even on paper – putting them into large, ringed binders that no one even knows exist let alone how to find necessary information within.  These are not effective processes, but there is a simple solution.

The solution is a web-based application known as a Wiki.  Most people get their first introduction to a Wiki through the ubiquitous online encyclopedia Wikipedia which is built on a Wiki platform (MediaWiki, to be specific), but this is hardly the only use for a Wiki.  Wikis are simple document repositories designed to allow many editors to easily create and modify online documentation.  The whole concept of the Wiki is about being simple and easy.  The full name, Wiki Wiki, means “quick” or “fast” in Hawaiian.

Wikis have now been around for several years and have begun to become popular in many businesses.  Wikis are generally very lightweight and there are many vendors making both open source and proprietary Wiki products in addition to several hosted services available online.  You can really pick out a Wiki based on your particular needs.  Most Wiki products are free and for the budget conscious business there is no reason to need to consider a Wiki to be a cost center.  This is a simple product that your IT department should be able to roll out for you quickly and easily giving you a documentation repository right away.

At first the idea of a Wiki is a bit foreign to most people.  On the Internet we often encounter Wikis in use for system documentation.  This is becoming increasingly popular. Wikis are often used to allow anyone to log in and make documentation changes.  This can be a good way to get started with your Wiki.  You can also start from the beginning with detailed user access controls allowing only certain individuals to post documentation in the system instead of allowing a documentation free-for-all.  Your needs will depend upon your type of organization.

What makes the Wiki concept powerful is the ease with which anyone can hop on, search for documents that they need and create or modify those documents if they cannot find the information for which they are looking.  The entire concept of the Wiki really encourages staff to make use of the format.  Lowering the barrier to creating useful documentation is the best possible way to get documentation created, and because the documentation is so easy to modify it makes it far more likely that that document will be kept up to date.

A common feature amongst Wiki systems is the idea of tracking changes to Wiki pages.  This means that if someone goes in and makes a change to a page that people using the Wiki system can view past versions of that document to see what changes have been made over time and by whom those changes were made.  This feature also makes it very simple for a system administrator to roll back bad changes if someone is not posting appropriately.

One of my personal favourite Wiki features is the idea of subscribing to a particular Wiki page either through email or an RSS feed.  The subscription model allows any staff members to be alerted to changes to documentation in which they take an interest.  These can be staff members for whom a particular Wiki page is critical to their job functions such as HR managers following changes to the corporate employment policies pages or just interested staff members who want to know when a page changes such as managers subscribing to the cafeteria’s lunch menu page or developers subscribing to a page about a particular software project’s status.

This method is a wonderful way to allow anyone to keep up with any publicly available knowledge without needing to interupt the actual process to view status.  Useful at every level of the organization and extremely simple.  So often organizations do a poor job of keeping everyone “in the loop” who needs to be and with the Wiki subscription model everyone has the opportunity to take responsibility for keeping themselves informed through whatever method is most useful to them.

As I mentioned before, there are many Wiki products available on the market today.  There are enough that choosing one is actually a rather formiddable task.  Some key differentiators between products include their use license, the data store architecture – typically filesystem based or database based, their platform dependence and their integration with other products and authentication systems.  Of course there is also the option of choosing a hosted Wiki service that hosts your Wiki online – mostly this is popular with companies using Wikis as a means of serving their customers rather than for private, internal documentation.  There are so many Wikis from which to choose that the site WikiMatrix is dedicated to helping you choose the Wiki that is best for you.

Before you dive into the world of exploring Wikis on your own I will mention a few that are rather popular and worth looking into early on in your Wiki decision making process.  Popular Wiki platforms include MediaWiki, DokuWiki, TWiki and pmWiki.  These are just the tip of the Wiki iceberg but provide a good look into the features that you should expect to see throughout your search for the best Wiki for your implementation.  The Wiki choosing wizard on the WikiMatrix web site is a great place to begin as well.  Each of these Wikis that I have mentioned thus far are available for free and rather than spending a lot of time studying their benefits you may wish to simply download one or more of them, install them on a spare server and give them a try.

In addition to stand-alone Wiki products like we have mentioned here there are also Wiki engines built into several enterprise content managment and portal systems such as Microsoft’s Sharepoint, Alfresco and Joomla.  For any businesses looking to make a larger investment in an enterprise content management system having a Wiki functionality built into that product can provide a single, unified Intranet web portal interface to serve many different internal documentation and document storage needs.

Wikis are powerful and affordable tools that small and medium businesses can leverage today, even in a climate of budget cuts and uncertainty, to document processes, ease documentation burdens and increase internal communications and efficiency.  It is unlikely that we will see the popularity of the Wiki concept wane but rather they are already beginning to take their place as a staple of the business documentation and communication process.

MicroBlogging for Business

If you mention microblogging to anyone today the first thing that you are going to get is an ear-full about the importance of social media and platforms for enabling the conversation and about customer interaction.  Okay, fine.  Over-hyped and poorly understood buzz that we can probably safely ignore for now.  Social media matters, yes, but spend some time on Twitter and, while a lot of people are talking, you will quickly learn that very few people are listening.  The platform is going somewhere, but right now most of the people talking in the microblogging space are talking about microblogging.  This will pass.  For now we have other concerns that are more immediate.

While I tend to quickly dismiss microblogging as the “next big thing in social media” as mostly hype from the marketing folks trying to convince people to look at them for another ten minutes I do think that the concept of a highly limited, easy to use, microblogging architecture to be one of great potential import to business.

When I talk about microblogging for business I am not talking about the popular notion of sending your intern out to post about your product on Twitter in order to garner market attention.  What I am talking about is using an internal microblogging infrastructure to deliver status about the people in your organization to your organization.  In the same way that companies have internal blogs delivering information to their own staff the microblogging platform can be an internal tool for our organization and not just something that we use to tell our friends across town what we are having for lunch.

Other social communications tools like traditional blogging, instant messaging, email, etc. started as over-hyped social media, even if the term did not exist yet, and ended up becoming standard, well understood business communication tools that are important pieces of the corporate communications toolkit today.  Microblogging will be the same.  And, like all of those communications tools that came before it, this tool is one that your company can start using today to get the benefits years before your competitors catch on.

Microblogging offers a potential boon to inter-team communications in companies of just about any size.  By providing an easily accessible microblogging platform for the use of your team you provide a simple way for individuals and teams to provide small, manageable amounts of status information to the rest of the company in a highly consumable format that is easily understood.  In the smallest organizations, those with less than five people who all sit in a single office, this may not matter, but start adding any additional number of people or start putting those people in disparate locations and suddenly microblogging matters.

Instead of hypothesizing about microblogging out of context let’s dive right into some sample scenarios and see how microblogging for internal use can help your company.  Remember that like many social media technologies, the leading microblogging platform,, is completely free and something that your IT staff can roll out for you today.

Scenario 1: The Saleman

John is a salesman.  He works for your company but is almost never in the office.  He spends his days on the road, often in other cities.  You are lucky if you have face time with John twice per month.  Several people would benefit from knowing John’s status, but John is incredibly busy and does not have time to manage any extra email traffic.  He carries a BlackBerry but only answers emails from his current and prospective clients during the day and is exhausted at night when he gets back to his hotel room.  He communicates the bare essentials to you, his boss, but allows you to provide the necessary information out to anyone in the company who might need to know what customers need or new accounts might be coming online.  This makes you both a bottleneck and a point of failure.  What if you don’t communicate the necessary information to the right people quickly enough?

The solution?  Microblogging.  If your firm had an internal microblogging platform you could have extended it to John’s BlackBerry (iPhone, Windows Mobile device, regular cell phone, whatever) so that instead of sending you a quick email John could have posted all relevant information to his own microblogging feed.  Then any interested party in your organization could look at that feed to get up to the minute data straight from the horse’s mouth rather than having it unintentionally filtered and delayed.  People who need immediate updates could be subscribed to John’s feed while people who just want casual sales updates from time to time would just visit his web page when they felt it necessary.  Everyone gets the right data at the right time and you have more time to worry about the business itself.

Scenario 2: Software Development Teams

Software development is famous for its extensive need for communication.  Developers are famous for being unable to communicate easily between individuals and between teams.  Software development often requires a great deal of granual status updates at both a team and at an individual developer or manager level.  Microblogging is hardly a panacea for this situation, but it may be a very powerful tool in the communications toolbelt for this situation.

By giving each individual developer their own internal microblogging account they can make quick and easy status updates whenever their current task changes.  Other developers, who need to know on which components work is currently being done, can just subscribe to the feeds of the appropriate developers to know what everyone is doing at the moment.  Managers can know on what each of their team members is working without needing to stop by their desks and interrupting them unnecessarily to do so.

In this model, communications happens more quickly, more thoroughly and with less disruption to staff who are extremely sensitive to disruption and task switching.  Training the developers to make regular status updates – probably just a few per day taking less than five total minutes – will take some time but once it is part of the usual workflow it will make everyone’s life much easier.  It is also a great opportunity for people to solicite and offer help on certain problems.  A developer might post “working on the foo widget and trying to figure out the bar interace” and someone subscribing to their feed might see that and, being the bar interface expert, can shoot an email or run over to their office to help them out before they waste an afternoon reinventing the wheel or looking helplessly for missing documentation.

Scenario 3: General Office Updates

Most offices are bigger than a single space in which everyone can sit down and have lunch together.  Even a relatively small business with two offices or even two home offices could likely benefit from the advantages of simple updates.  It is important for businesses to communicate.  Internal business communications is one of the ways in which companies are able to outperform individuals – by sharing knowledge and tasks between many people.  If each of those tasks is so discrete that you need no communications then you just might be better off working as individuals doing the same tasks.

By the use of microblogging even general office staff can post simple updates a few times per day so that all of the offices have a good idea of what is happening in the other locations.  Whether it is seeing when lunch or meetings are underway, when the office has left for the day, seeing what new projects or challenges have arisen or finding out what customer interactions have taken place that day that information can be used to keep the separate offices working in a unified manner rather than as two completely separate locations with a very poor understanding of what the other one is doing.

Scenario 4: Department Information

If your company is large enough to have separate departments then microblogging may be just the tool that you need to enable departmental status updates to the organization.  This is not an appropriate solution for human resources to publish their latest employee handbook updates but it could be the perfect spot for them to announce the company picnic or open enrollment for benefits.

Many departments’ core function is to supply a needed to service to the rest of the organization.  Human resources, information technology, finance, billing, purchasing, etc. all exist to service the internal business needs of the organization.  If each department had its own microblog feed then it would be easy for each of them to provide simple updates to the entire company.  People might subscribe to individual department feeds, look at the department website when they have an interest or possibly all department feeds would be aggregated onto an employee portal web page or other unified information location to make these updates obvious to everyone.

The information technology department might post a reminder about phishing attacks or social engineering dangers or could post a status update to the email system that is currently down allowing everyone to keep working without spending their time phoning the already overworked IT department and delaying them from fixing a problem on which they are already working full speed.  Purchasing might post a link to a page on new purchasing procedures that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.  Finance may send information regarding a change in the way that employees must file expenses.  Potential examples are numerous.  How often does your organization wish to make a policy or procedure change but find that informing the company of the change can be very difficult once employees have learned the old procedure.  Updating the employee handbook or financial web site do little good if people have memorized the process and no longer reference those materials.

Scenario 5: Mentoring and Employee Growth

One of the less obvious ways in which microblogging can benefit your organization is in the area of employee development.  Senior employees, while posting regular updates to their microblog feeds, provide an opportunity for more junior members of staff, especially new employees and interns, to follow their feeds in order to gain a deeper understanding into the tasks that they complete on a day to day basis.

By giving junior employees the chance to observe their “mentors” in an unobtrusive manner they may benefit from learning how they work, how their time is spent and how they prioritize their days in addition, perhaps, to learning about their interests, what relevant books or articles they have been reading, what websites are important to them and more.  This is hardly a replacement for traditional mentoring but allowing employees to seek out information about other employees that they admire or from whom they wish to learn can be very valuable.

I don’t know the specific communication needs of your business, but I would be surprised to find that it would not benefit from an increase in internal visibility.  Microblogging can facilitate communications between teams, between peers,  between managers and their staff and even between disconnected pieces of the organization.  Microblogging offers a simple, low-overhead, loosely-coupled process that allows every level of an organization to provide status and information to all interested parties within that organization.

Microblogging does, of course, offer additional benefits outside of internal status communications that we have discussed here.  Servers and other IT equipment can post alerts automatically via the microblogging architecture giving anyone interested a chance to see real time failures and alerts on the network that may affect them.  And then there is external microblogging offering status and information out to customers, vendors and interested parties outside of your organization.  But those topics are too broad for this article.

Special thanks to Andrew T. West for his help with this article.

Desktop and Laptop Purchasing

The first rule for any purchasing situation is, of course, plan.  Desktop and laptop purchasing is no different.  A good plan is the first step to good spending when it comes to your small business’ personal computer needs.  This plan should, quite obviously, be made in conjunction with your IT department or manager who will have valuable input not only to features that may be needed but also important information as to the IT staff’s readiness to support specific models and features.

The first piece of advice that I generally give to small businesses looking to purchase new computers is to not become religious about which vendor to choose.  There are many good vendors.  I, like all IT professionals, tend to be pretty biased towards one vendor over all others and have a few vendors which I specifically dislike.  I won’t mention any of them by name here.  But most anyone to whom you will speak looking for purchasing advice will be almost religiously zealous about one brand over another.  In reality, all of the serious players make very good equipment and you can get your needs met very well by any one of them.  Your key players in the desktop and laptop space include Lenovo, Dell, Acer, Toshiba, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu.  Apple, of course, is also an important vendor but is rarely, if ever, purchased in competition with other vendors.  Apple hardware is purchased to run Mac OSX.  There is rarely a buying decision made involving Apple that is not made simply through operating system support necessity so there is no point in including them here.

All of these vendors make great products so don’t worry if your pet vendor does not get picked in the end.  There are other, more important, considerations that demand your attention.  Picking the vendor to supply your needs will most likely be determined by factors that are often overlooked.  Here are a few factors which you should consider when picking your vendor:

  • Which vendor can provide a “holistic” supply of all of your desktop, laptop, netbook and server needs?  Working with a single vendor is often preferable to working with serveral when it can be avoided.  This leaves Dell and Hewlett-Packard as your true “stand outs” simply because of their broad and impressive portfolios.
  • Which vendor’s products are most able to be supported by your IT department or your IT service vendor?  If your IT provider has great expertise with certain makes and models then these may present an advantage not to be overlooked because your IT staff will already be prepared for hidden “gotchas”, common failures, repair tactics, documentation, driver issues, etc.
  • Which models support operating systems that you are using today and any that you expect that you may use during the lifespan of the product?
  • Which models have features which, on their own, are important to your business such as type of processor, power consumption, network options or management features such as Intel ATM?
  • Which products provide the warranty that makes you most comfortable?  I generally recommend getting units that come with a standard three-year warranty as this covers, by default, most of the life of the hardware.

The second piece of advice that I give to small businesses at the beginning of their purchasing process is to be sure to only deal with commercial products.  That means to avoid consumer-grade products at any cost.  There are many reasons why commercial-grade equipment is important to your business and I will just touch on some of the highlights.  I should point out that I also give this advice to individuals looking to purchase computers for home use for the exact same reasons.  In general, computer manufactures make consumer grade equipment for a less discerning audience and you never want to run your business on anything designed around a lower degree of discernment when you have the option.

  • Companies stake their reputations on their commercial products, not their consumer ones.  The bulk of sales go to businesses and this is where the real money is.  Large companies do not turn down large orders because of home-user complaints and so only issues with commercial products impact corporate buying decisions.
  • Commercial products are often purchased in large quantities to single purchasing managers with a great deal of control over the success of that particular model.  Vendors have a lot at stake with each order and work hard to make sure that the equipment is reliable and consistent.  Consumer gear is sold on an individual basis and so vendors have no reason to pursue consistency and rather than making systems reliable it is easier for them to replace them quickly when their fail.  So consumer parts are cheaper and have less testing.
  • Commercial products are produced in fewer, more useful, configurations in larger quantity.  This means that each model gets a high degree of scrutiny and testing both by the vendor and by highly skilled IT departments.  Consumer goods get a lesser degree of internal diligence and are purchased mostly by average home users who do not provide a great degree of detailed technical feedback to the vendor and to the community.
  • Corporate buyers demand that their systems be field repairable and modifiable using standard parts.  This causes commercial systems to be, almost always, extremely easy to repair and upgrade.  Consumer gear is often highly proprietary and made using non-standard parts making repair and upgrade processes less reliable.  This has decreased in recent years but is still prevalent.
  • Software vendors, like Microsoft or Red Hat, have a much larger interest in making sure that corporate machines are well tested and supported from a driver perspective.  Supporting hardware that may only exist in a relatively few consumer machines is of lesser importance.
  • Commercial hardware is almost always manufactured directly by the vendor directly or under contract to that vendor with heavy supervision.  Consumer systems are often manufactured by third parties, sometimes with no vendor interaction, and then simply labeled with the vendor’s brand name and sold as if the vendor had manufactured it themselves.  Often this results in system documentation and drivers available only from websites hosted in Taiwan with little or no support in English (which is important to my readers who only get SMB IT Journal in English.)
  • Warranty support for commercial systems is generally far superior to warranty support for consumer systems.  Vendors will often overnight parts and allow field repairs at the end-user’s request.  Consumer systems often have to be shipped back to the vendor and will be shipped back weeks later having been wiped clean while out for repairs.
  • Phone support for consumer gear usually involves off-shore call centers using staff that does not work for the vendor in question.  Commercial phone support, while still often off-shored, is usually handled by internal vendor staff with direct access to internal resources when necessary.
  • Most vendors have local partner firms who are available to help your business work with, modify and acquire their commercial gear.  Consumer gear is often available only via the web or from large consumer electronics chains.  One channel is designed for business users and one is clearly not.  Access to local partners can be a big advantage when you need warranty repairs but dare not ship your equipment away or when you need any number of custom services.
  • Commercial hardware generally ships with OEM (original equipment manufacturer) licensed copies of Microsoft Windows in “business” configurations (i.e. Windows Vista Business or Windows XP Pro) which are appropriate for businesses to use while consumer hardware almost always comes with “home” editions of the same operating systems which are not appropriate for business use.  I have known many businesses to mistakenly purchase consumer gear and then have to pay full price for an appropriate Windows license after having thought that they were saving money.
  • Commercial hardware is seldom more expensive than consumer gear by more than fifteen percent and often is comparable in price and sometimes less expensive.  Price is a rather nominal factor when other features are compared side by side.
  • Commercial hardware is generally built on far superior chipsets and with more reliable technologies while consumer gear often comes with “flashy” features designed to entice users looking to use this hardware for entertainment puroses.  In speed tests, commercial gear from major vendors tends to outperform consumer gear from the same vendors when all other specifications are the same.  There are many facets to computer system building that are not mentioned “on the box” and this is one place where consumer-grade equipment can skimp because the purchasing process does not take these things into consideration.
  • Commercial products generally have excellent online documentation while consumer gear often lacks in this area quite dramatically.
  • Commercial hardware is often warranties for much longer periods of time than is consumer gear and generally lasts for many times longer than its warranty period without incident.  It is not uncommon for commercial desktops to be in use after more than ten years.
  • Commercial hardware is often less noisy than consumer gear.  Good commercial computers are often nearly silent.
  • Commercial products look professional and uniform when outsiders, or even employees, come into your offices.  Consumer gear gives the impression that people have been bringing in computers from home to use at work and can give a bad impression to your clients and even to your own employees.

When purchasing your new computers keep in mind the importance of uniformity.  Your IT staff, especially if it is just one or two people, but even if you have a large staff, will appreciate the opportunity to get to know the hardware which they support.  This can do much to reduce support issues and downtime.  It is very comforting to know that when a desktop technician arrives at your desk to fix your computer that they know every screw, port, cable and part of that computer inside and out and that they can take it apart and put it back together without thinking twice.

This hardware familiarity means that upgrades are handles much better as well.  If each machine is unique in your environment and you decide to upgrade all machines to double their memory (RAM) then you may be in for one surprise after another as your desktop technicians open up the machines to discover that they have differing types of memory, different configurations and different limits from each other.  Each machine will be a new surprise on its own.  If all of the machines were the same then the technicians would already know that the current configuration was two sticks of one gigabyte each and that there were two open slots which could accomodate a total of four more gigabytes but that the existing sticks had to be moved to the empty slots before putting in the new memory in the currently used slots.  Simple upgrades that are almost a no-brainer in a uniform environment can become a maintenance nightmare when equipment varies dramatically.

Another important consideration for desktop and laptop purchasing is that of the operating system.  Small businesses, unlike large enterprises who get their operating systems through bulk volume licenses with Microsoft, generally get their software licenses through the OEM copies that are included with their purchases.  Small businesses may opt to work with a volume licensing program as well but this generally adds extra cost which only makes sense in the large scale of big enterprises.  Because of this small businesses need to be very aware of the included software license of the desktop and buy accordingly.  The cost of changing the operating system on a newly purchased computer should the wrong operating system be purchased with the system can easily be fifty-percent again the cost of the original computer.  A rather significant mistake to make.

In addition to considering the operating system that ships with the computer we should also consider if we will be changing operating systems during the life of the computer.  If this is the case then we need to be sure that the computer is able to accomodate the changes in the future.  Often this is a guessing game and cannot be determined up front but this is not always so.  Currently it is very common to purchase computers to run Windows XP with the intent of eventually, or at least potentially, moving to Windows Vista.  Many commercial machines today ship with both operating systems as options.  It is very easy for a business today to purchase a machine that is certified to run either operating system so that the business can upgrade when they are ready without needing to purchase new hardware in order to support the new operating system.  Even better is cases where the computer comes dual-licensed and the older operating system can be used until such time as the migration process is ready and then the newer operating system can be installed without any additional licensing costs.

Of course with any computer purchasing plan we also need to consider basic features.  For most businesses there are very few important features for a desktop model.  Almost any desktop unit will suffice from a raw feature perspective.  Occassionally special features like Intel AMT are required but this is rather uncommon and less common in smaller offices.  Laptops often have a few additional features of interest such as wireless connection technologies, availability of docking stations and port extenders, size, weight, etc.

Careful planning for these features can have a big impact on an office environment.  For example, purchasing ten laptops with expensive 802.11n wireless technology might be a great way to improve wireless productivity but it could all be worthless if you accidentally buy one cheap laptop that only has 802.11b causing your wireless system to degrade itself to support the lowest common denominator in your environment.  Or buying all of your gear with GigE connections just to discover there is no budget for a GigE switch or cabling.

Another important factor to consider when planning your buying decisions that applies exclusively to desktops is form factor.  Most major vendors provide commercial products in one of three basic sizes.  The largest size is the “mini-tower” which is the form factor with which most of us are most familiar today.  This form factor looks best when standing “upright” and is, as it sounds, a small tower.  It is able to accept full-sized expansion cards which may be an important consideration depending on what your users will be doing with their desktop computers.  Often mini towers can accomodate two or more hard drives.

The medium form factor is generally known as “small form factor”, SFF or “desktop form factor”.  This is the more traditional desktop style computers that we see mostly in office environments and less often at home.  This form factor is roughly the same size as the mini tower but is “thinner” making it work best when laying on the desk.  This makes it very stable and often it works very well as a stand on which to place your monitor.  This size also fits well under desks especially when mounted to the under side of the desk.  Many SFF models are also designed to be easy to stack so that they can be stacked on a desk when need be.  I often use then this way myself as I use several desktops at a time and have them stacked behind my monitor array.  Small form factor desktops generally can only accept “half height” expansion cards which limits their options significantly although it is not very common for businesses to need to expand their desktops in this way.  Small form factor desktops can often accomodate up to two hard drives although only being able to fit a single drive is quite common as well.  Many vendors provide stands that allow SFF desktops to stand on their sides.  Special stands are needed because they generally vent from their sides and cannot be sat directly on them.

The least common and smallest is the Ultra Small desktop.  Most commercial vendors only make a few special high volume models in this smallest form factor due to its increased cost and lack of popularity.  Often to keep the size small on these units they have only a single expansion slot, lack many standard ports and can only handle slower than standard processors because of heat dissipation issues.  It is not uncommon for them to have less memory growth options than their larger siblings.  These machines are very commonly mounted under desks as they are so small.  They are very easy to manage for companies that regularly need to move their computers around.  IT staff can easily carry them from desk to desk and transporting several by car is no problem.

Display output is another important consideration when choosing desktops and laptops.  It is becoming increasingly common for office workers to have multiple monitors and not all computers are prepared to handle this.  Many commercial machines support dual monitors out of the box but many require special expansion cards to handle this.  Planning to buy computers that provide this capability natively or planning to add on expansions should be considered from the onset of the purchasing project.  Laptops often have the ability to add a monitor built in either to the laptop itself or, at least, to a docking station.  This can make laptop users far more productive when they are sitting at their desks.  Many businesses opt to simply add high-end graphics cards to their desktop units that support multiple monitors in addition to providing increased GPU power to their users.  This can be a good option but can easily add as much as twenty-five percent to the cost of the hardware so should be considered carefully.  Common configurations appropriate for business machines will often be around ten percent of the initial hardware cost.

As you can see, there are many factors that should be considered when making a desktop or laptop purchase and in this discussion we have not even begun to discuss those factors that everyone discusses under normal circumstances such as cost, availability, performance, etc.  The point here is that cafeful planning should be employed and should not be a purely emotional or financial decision but should involve the staff who will be supporting and managing these devices as they will have a great deal of important insight into this process in your environment.  Be sure to have your IT strategist, whether this is an IT manager or your desktop support technician, play the key role in this process.

Buying Printers for Small Business

While some small businesses today have managed to ween themselves from the world of paper, the vast majority of small and medium businesses are still tied, to some degree, to their printers and faxes no matter how hard we all try to move away from them.  Everyone recognizes the cost of acquiring printers, maintaining them, networking them, stocking ink and toner, etc. and yet we just cannot quite manage to do away with them completely.  Given that printers remain a business necessity we should treat them as such and devise a well-planned printing strategy for our business whether it is for an office with two users and a single printer or several offices with dozens of printers or more.  Every business will benefit from planning before purchasing their printers.

One of the biggest mistakes that I have seen happen time and time again is with small businesses deciding that they need a printer and runing out to buy one at the local shop without any planning whatsoever including failing to determine if the printer being purchased will even meet the immediate need let alone fit into an ongoing printing strategy.  Printers are so common, lack significantly visible new features between generations, are low enough in cost and are so readily available in the consumer market that it is misleading to businesses making them think that buying any printer off of the shelf will meet their printing needs, but this simply is not the case.

Our first concern in printer purchasing is in appropriately sizing our printers.  Before buying a printer we need to decide what type of printing load it will need to handle over its lifetime.  Many small businesses today, as paper begins to phase out, will find that even a very small printer will provide more than enough capacity for an entire office.  If users can share a single printer then printing costs can be saved through centralized printing.  It is far cheaper to maintain a single printer and to stay stocked with supplies for one printer than for one printer on everyone’s individual desks.

If reliability is of concern you could place two printers in the office to be shared and have half of the staff print to one printer and the other half to the other but permission everyone to both printers so that, if one should fail, everyone would remain able to print.  You could take the opportunity to place the printers in different areas of the office to reduce time walking to the printer to pick up printed pages.

Most small offices have no problem sharing a single printer for most printing needs with a single, separate printer on the desk of whoever is doing personnel management to allow for “private” printing for times when the data coming out of the printer cannot be seen by just anyone in the office.  Although this type of printing is one of the areas where the company can go paperless the most easily and so this may not be a factor in your office.

Now that we are considering shared printers we must concern ourselves with making sure that the printer(s) that we are selecting has a duty cycle capable of handling the printing needs of the entire office.  In many cases any printer will be up to this task but for offices who print customer invoices throughout the day, for example, may want to step up to a slightly more heavy-duty model designed for the extra wear and tear.  Larger duty-cycle printers often use lower cost ink or toner supplies that reduce the per-page printing cost that is highest with smaller, lower-cost printers.  For an office with very heavy printing needs the cost savings of big printers can be significant just in the cost savings from the supplies before even considering other factors.  Larger printers will generally also hold more paper reducing time spent restocking the printer and will often have other cost saving features such as dual-sided printing and automatic collation.

Many business also need additional functions in addition to pure printing such as faxing, scanning and copying.  These functions are natural extensions of the printer and are available in office all-in-one multi-function printer models.  Often, though, low end all-in-one models are marketed heavily towards small businesses in the hopes that these businesses will buy on a whim without researching duty cycles and supply costs as these models often include a cheap-to-acquire, expensive-to-maintain printing element bundled with the unit.  In general, printer manufactures make their big money on printer supplies and almost nothing on the printers themselves so we must be acutely aware of the specifications of the printer portion of the all-in-one unit before making a purchase.  Often a single all-in-one multi-function printer will suffice for even a relatively large office and any additional printing needs could be met with high-volume printers that do not have additional functions included in them saving additional costs through careful planning.

We must also consider how our new printer or multifunction device will connect to our network.  Most low cost printers use USB connections to allow them to connect to a single workstation or server for printing.  This is fine for most home users and very small offices but larger offices (and many advanced home users) find this unsuitable as it means that all printing must go through someone’s workstation and that the computer must be in close proximity to the printer.  The computer must also be on at any time that the printer is being used and maintenance on the computer will impact the printer as well.  I know many small offices that only use this model and for them it works fine, but it does cause additional management overhead that is not necessary.

Networked printers have long been the norm in the office environment and they provide many advantages over direct-attached print devices.  Networked printers can be located anywhere on the network whether or not there is a computer close-at-hand.  Networked printers can be monitored and managed on the network just like any other network device making their management costs lower from an IT perspective.  Network printers can print even if no other computer is turned on.  Some network printers have wireless networking built in giving them additional flexibility.  Non-network enabled printers can be made into virtual network printers through the use of a print server such as HP’s DirectJet or the NetGear PS121.  Print servers are often built in to multi-function network appliances such as small business firewalls like the Apple AirPort Extreme.  These types of devices will allow you to attach any USB printer to the network if you did not buy this functionality built in to your printing device.

Often overlooked by small businesses is the differences between laser and other printer technologies such as ink jet.  Generally, laser printers cost more to purchase but have lower lifetime operational costs both from a hardware perspective as well as from a printing supply perspective.  Laser printers are more likely to be able to be fixed when parts wear out and their toner costs are almost always significantly lower than the cost of ink for ink jets and need to be changed out far less frequently making printers less of a manual burden as well.

The output of a laser printer is almost always more pleasing as well and looks more professional.  It is difficult to hide the use of an ink jet printer and even if the reader does not directly notice the quality of the printing subconsciously they will often register that the printing process was less than professional.  This may not matter for most of your office printing, but considering that laser printing is generally cheaper in the long run there is little reason to not also get the best looking prints possible.

Ink jet, bubble jet and other non-laser technologies generally come into serious consideration only when photo printing is required which is very rare in a business environment.  High quality colour printing requires additional printer management and very expensive paper and ink supplies.  For most businesses, if this type of printing is needed, it would be needed in addition to, not in place of, traditional monochromatic laser printing.  Colour laser is another consideration for presentation graphics but is generally not suitable for photographic printing.  Colour laser adds additional cost that is seldom warranted for the type of printing that most businesses need to do.

So, in conclusion, when making a printer buying decision for small business we must carefully consider our printer strategy.  We must size our environment, take into consideration our network design, scale our printer(s) appropriately, consider the cost not only of the printer but also of the printer supplies and consider the manner in which the final prints will be used.  A simple spreadsheet can be used to do some very useful and telling calculations about print volume, printer cost and the cost of supplies.  All of the information necessary to do these calculations should be available from printer vendor web sites.  Consider your printer to be an investment and research accordingly and, as always, use your IT department, whether internal or outsourced, as a resource in any IT purchasing decision – it is their job to understand the technical differences in these products and to provide you with the necessary information to discern between different models, vendors and technologies.

The Information Technology Resource for Small Business