By Daniel Beazer, Senior Consulting Analyst, Peer 1 Hosting

IT is a growing concern for many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). From new vulnerabilities to widespread security issues, IT challenges are by no means limited to large corporates. The evidence suggests that SMEs should be putting IT at the heart of their agendas.

The professional services industry provides an interesting microcosm of the IT concerns unique to smaller firms. In addition to ever-present security threats, there is a growing range of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) products available that can automate professional services such as bookkeeping, payroll and technical drawing – representing both a number of challenges and opportunities for growing businesses.

As a result, some SMEs may be contemplating outsourcing their entire IT operation. Why is this? Because outsourcing can free up time and resources, giving SMEs the flexibility to concentrate on adapting their own products and services as required. However, with this comes the need to look not only at outsourcing core business services, but also the infrastructure that underpins them.

The SME IT landscape

SMEs and larger firms face a number of common challenges in terms of their IT operations – from security threats to issues with maintaining legacy infrastructure. However, without the extensive budgets of their larger counterparts, many IT problems can potentially be amplified in smaller firms.

Security is one area in which relatively smaller budgets can become an issue. Over 30,000 websites are attacked every single day, many of which are SME websites. One recent survey indicated that a breach can cost as much as £115,000, a loss which would probably have a much greater financial impact on an SME than large company.

Other issues may arise around the relaxed corporate cultures of some SMEs, which can lead to staff being entrusted with sensitive business data and greater access levels to passwords, security measures and the like. This is particularly concerning when one considers that employees, not hackers, have been found to be the biggest security risk to any organisation.

Another relevant concern for many professional services SMEs is automation. As automation tools become more widely available, some businesses may look to outsource essential processes such as mail and storage to external providers in order to create a leaner operational structure, to drive efficiencies and profits.

That said, it’s important to also recognise that some professional services can be automated in their entirety, which can directly compete the core product of some SMEs. For example, there is little preventing a large SaaS provider from developing and distributing a bookkeeping software platform and driving a smaller bookkeeping firm out of the market.

Finding the right partner

To avoid this, SME directors may look to neutral technology vendors for business processes such as hosting and storage, confident in the assumption that the vendor is unlikely to enter the same market. SMEs have a wide range of IT infrastructure options open to them and may benefit from outsourcing these responsibilities to an external provider, reducing the administrative burden on their own employees.

The value of a trusted IT partner to smaller firms shouldn’t be overlooked. These suppliers often act as a technical and financial advisor to their customers, helping them to identify and implement suitable IT services without promoting additional products they don’t need. IT can be an incredibly complex landscape, so it’s particularly important for SMEs to have expert support.

Prioritising the infrastructure

Outsourcing can be as simple as moving email over to a service such as Office365 or Google Apps. Yet, while there is an extensive range of SaaS products available to automate core business functions, there is very little to protect SMEs from falling victim to new SaaS products that directly compete with their own products and/or service offerings.

To avoid these problems, SMEs would be wise to first concentrate on their underlying IT infrastructure needs including hosting and storage. By outsourcing these requirements, smaller firms can draw on the expertise of specialists that understand the IT industry to increase business revenue and efficiencies – while at the same time avoiding risks of direct competition with suppliers.