By Neil Poulton, the Managing Director of Conceptia Ltd

The digital age has transformed the way we communicate. Businesses can instantly exchange information and the need for reliable, robust and secure IT systems has never been greater. Yet, it is one of the most confusing and frustrating services to buy for businesses — particularly during the startup phase.

Many start-ups and SMEs will not have an internal IT resource to navigate this field and rely on external supplier recommendations and knowledge. It is often down to the MD to source and manage suppliers. However, when you have to split your time between expanding the business, running the office and managing a growing team, it is not always possible to dedicate the time and brainpower to understanding exactly what you are buying.

The IT industry is a master of concealing and protecting its knowledge, often to the misfortune of its customers who, in turn, have very little idea of what they’re buying and the relative benefits and pitfalls of the solutions they have been sold. There is a common piece of terminology used in our sector called ‘vendor lock-in’ which involves companies recommending products which make a customer reliant on one technology solution or provider. This reliance usually translates into higher costs and limits flexibility. More often than not, IT solutions are sold based on what cut or kick back is best for the provider, rather than the best solution for the customer’s business.

Many popular proprietary vendor products are a case in point. They are sold in mind-boggling volumes to companies around the world yet, in terms of security, cost effectiveness and functionality they may not be the best solution. For example, we offer Open Source software, which is predominantly available for free. This may sound too good to be true, but the publishers of these packages make money on supporting the large organisations that use it, such as Toyota, Cisco, NASA, the US Stock Exchange, Islington Council and Yell.com. Therefore, smaller companies can receive the benefits of technically superior packages with no purchase and ‘user license’ costs. What’s more, this software is usually Linux based, which means it is not vulnerable to the majority of viruses — making it a more secure solution too.

Andrew Dust, Managing Director of Andrew Dust Structural Engineers, comments: “As with most modern businesses, we rely on email and voice communications to stay in touch with our clients. As we can access our telephone calls, email and files from anywhere, it creates new possibilities, whether it is employees working from home or dealing with customer requirements while out on business. Most of our work is computer based and produces large volumes of data. We often store and send complex technical drawings. We have been using a non-Microsoft based IT package over the past four years and can say it has performed very well.”

Charlie Hobday, Sales Director of Premier Plants UK, reiterates: “We’re on the move a lot in our business, so it’s important our data can reach us on our Blackberrys. We’ve used a Zimbra mail server, Linux based software and Alfresco document management server for our business communications for nearly five years and the package has offered real value for money.”

When sourcing products and services of all types, it is by no means easy to ensure you’re speaking to trustworthy suppliers, but IT can be particularly difficult to understand. Potential suppliers should be able to explain their solutions to you in a way that you can grasp the benefits to your business, rather than using smoke and mirrors technical jargon. Our website provides a useful starting point of factors to consider when looking for IT solutions: www.serversandnetworks.co.uk and we’re happy to offer impartial advice at any stage.

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