The most important piece of general IT advice for business:
Schedule your IT upgrades.
Waiting for an IT failure before upgrading is risky, disruptive, expensive, and reduces credibility with clients.
An IT upgrade is not just a replacement, the new IT should be better and improve the business.
Scheduling IT upgrades provides the time to find the best replacement.
The performance of hardware continues to improve at an exponential rate, and new classes of hardware have been created such as RFID tags, tablet computers, GPS tagging devices, and femtocells. The divide between personal and business equipment is blurring, creating new work practice possibilities. The most rapid growth in recent years is in solid state storage. This is almost universally much better than storage with moving parts, but it is currently still expensive - although prices are falling precipitously. A range of near term new data storage technologies are about to further accelerate that shift and create important new opportunities. The latest class of hardware set to create new opportunities in business is the tablet-phone hybrid. These hybrids enable mobile management of IT resources and more effective mobile use of data. For example, they simplify engagement with clients through social media, and their relatively large screen areas make visualising the subject of a conversation easier with pictures and video footage. The 'internet of things' very looks likely to start an explosive new wave of opportunities enabled by maturing wireless personal area network standards.
The diversity, sophistication, and connectivity of software are growing at a prodigious rate. Some classes of software such as file indexing have matured into cost effective tools that improve the way we work. Social media applications are rapidly creating new interaction possibilities. The increasing range of sensors, especially in mobile devices, is being exploited, for example QR codes in advertising can be scanned with cameras to provide quick access to resources. Bespoke programming remains an expensive but sometimes essential option. To get the best value from such projects it is important to produce narrow well defined requirements. After the rise in popularity of services enabled by standardisation of communication protocols, we are now experiencing a renaissance of local computing enabled by the ‘app’ concept and the availability of powerful mobile computing devices. Some of these ‘apps’ are interacting, but we can expect to see more interconnectivity as standardisation of their roles emerges. The 'app' concept is about to come full circle and emerge as a force in the desktop computer. New kinds of software will begin to appear that exploit the increasingly dynamic connectivity of devices. More software will emerge that utilises the growing pool of under used computing power.
There has been a big increase in the number of channels available to interact with customers, suppliers, and other entities. Connectivity is vital to a business because it can drive awareness and that brings opportunity. Due to increasing standardisation and competition, services such as website ordering systems are now cheap to setup, and email became a commodity long ago. RSS feeds, YouTube channels, and blogs are now mature techniques that allow information to be delivered to interested parties at very low cost. Forums and internet relay chat simplify and reduce the cost of interacting on specific topics, such as is required when providing product support. Social networks are still developing their suite of techniques that allow people to easily share their knowledge, contacts, and experiences publicly and privately. They have been developed enough for a while now to provide useful services to businesses. For example, they are increasingly being used to advertise, as people often include useful information in their profile that helps target advertising. Location based services are still fairly new and will be augmented by extra information from new classes of sensor and social networks to enable new opportunities.
Some important new hardware and software data sharing mechanisms have been developed that reduce costs and simplify data sharing in a way that is now affordable for small businesses. Data search products are now mature and available at very reasonable prices and so businesses now need a good reason not to be using them. There is a long overdue shift taking place in database techniques, such as NoSQL, that will result in substantially reduced costs and simplification of service that will level the field with larger organisations. This shift has yet to mature, but careful early adopters can start to compete on large scale data management in ways that advantage them over bigger rivals with expensive commitments to older less flexible solutions. The recent cloud and ecosystems concepts are not mature and stable, with many organisations rebranding their proprietary techniques using this terminology. They do offer a lower cost way of delivering IT, but are competing with continual progress in traditional IT provision, so that currently their advantages are in specific areas and are mostly balanced by their disadvantages. A careful case needs to be made for their use by small businesses.
Data security issues can result from storage problems, human error, disclosure, and intrusion. In each case it is important that copies of the data are easy to recover so that business can continue, and where copies of it are with those they should not be with, that it is unintelligible to them. The solutions to these problems broadly resolve to data backup and data encryption. There a number of data backup techniques using hardware, software, and remote services. Whichever techniques are employed, it is essential to identify critical data to ensure it is secure. Some data is sensitive and should be encrypted to guard against misuse. As with backup there are a range of options, but they typically make access and control of data a lot more onerous, so it is usually best to limit how widely they are applied. They should be applied first to the most sensitive data that is on portable equipment. A number of new hardware devices and software have been created to address this concern. Although the field is fairly mature, care is still needed as techniques are not rapidly converging and data security is part of an on-going battle.
Unfortunately it is impossible to completely secure an internet connection, because new methods of attack are always being created and the means to prevent them follows. However, attackers are generally looking for easy targets, so unless they specifically want access to your resources it is usually enough to be more difficult to attack than the easy targets. The classes of provision are by now well-known and stable, so there should be no excuse for not implementing something in each of the following areas. Firstly, ensure correctly configured internet gateway firewalls prevent direct intrusions. Secondly, use anti-virus and related software to find and neutralise problems. Thirdly, ensure that software is often updated to prevent attackers from exploiting weaknesses discovered in it. Next, secure the network internally by limiting the equipment allowed to be connected directly to it, and requiring it to be scanned for compromises. Lastly, educate users to know how to avoid risks and human directed attacks – often referred to as social engineering. Much can be said about each of these concerns, but it is important to ensure that some effort has been made to address each. Treat internet security like insurance; it is a cost that should be minimised, but too little spend significantly raises risks.