By Phil Robinson, Owner and Founder at i.t.NOW

1. Pay a Flat Monthly Rate
One of the best ways to control I.T. costs is to partner with a service provider that charges a flat monthly fee to maintain your I.T. systems. This performance-based approach motivates your I.T. provider to prevent problems and keep your systems running smoothly because if your system goes down they have to do more work and incur more costs. On the other hand, paying for I.T. repairs on an hourly basis rewards your service provider for letting things go and could tempt you to postpone preventive service calls. With a flat monthly rate, you can budget for most I.T. expenditures. Don’t work with someone who earns more when things break; reverse the game so you both feel the pain if your system goes down.

2. Back Up Your Data Offsite
Most businesses know that they should back up their data on a regular basis, but they may not realize that they can save thousands of dollars by hiring a trusted partner to manage their backups for them offsite instead of using onsite hardware, software, tapes, and storage. Offsite backups also increase data security and reduce data restoration times. Even when you outsource your data management, offsite backup solutions have the lowest total cost of ownership because they reduce overhead and do a better job of protecting and restoring valuable data, come what may. It’s easy to forget to check your backups to make sure they are working correctly. Find a partner to whom you can entrust this mission-critical task so you don’t have to wonder whether you’re really backed up.

3. Consider Subscribing to Software as a Service (SaaS)
You can either buy software one time and install and maintain it on every computer or you can subscribe to it as a hosted online service and do away with installs, maintenance and support. Subscribing to Software as a Service (SaaS) can help lighten your I.T. load and has the potential to reduce software start-up expenses through flexible on-demand pricing. However, it’s important to weigh the comparative cost of a continuous expense rather than a one-time purchase. You should also be aware that hosting configurations can vary. Some SaaS software vendors host applications on their own web servers while others may outsource their hosting needs to a third-party application service provider (ASP), which can help to further reduce server hardware costs.

4. Conduct Routine Maintenance
Nothing enhances the reliability and performance of a computer network more cost effectively than routine maintenance. Without it, your network’s performance can become sluggish and unstable over time and can ultimately jeopardize your company’s productivity, network security, and workflow. Preventive service and timely upgrades help to minimize downtime and reduce your exposure to ever-changing viruses and security threats. In today’s real-time world, even short-lived delays in responsiveness can erode hard-won customer confidence and loyalty, causing short-term savings from I.T. shortcuts to morph into long-term losses when inevitable I.T. incidents hit.

5. Proactively Manage and Filter Your Internet Bandwidth and Content
The line between personal time and work time continues to blur in unprecedented ways. According to MSN Money’s “Smart Spending” Blog, here’s a quick recap of how current usage patterns break down:

      • Research. 61% of workers use the Internet for non-work-related research and activities while they are at work. Among these workers, 37% said they spend an average of more than 30 minutes of their workday on non-work-related online activities, and 18% said they spend an average of an hour or more.
      • E-mail. When it comes to digital correspondence, 20% of workers send six or more non-work-related e-mails per day. Among this group, 22% spend more than 30 minutes during the typical workday doing so.
      • Blogging. 9% of workers surveyed have a personal blog, and while nearly a quarter (23%) of them spend time blogging at work, only 9% of them spend 15 minutes or more blogging during the typical workday.
      • Social networking. 41% of workers surveyed have a MySpace, Facebook or other social-networking page. More than one-third (35%) of them spend time on their social-networking page during the workday, with 8% spending 30 minutes or more.

It’s one thing to allow employees to receive some personal e-mails or look at the latest news headlines, and quite another to suffer employees who spend their days downloading music, installing free applications, or perusing adult Web sites. Even if employees manage to surf and download without infecting their machines, such usage can still negatively affect business networks.

Streaming audio or video requires a lot of bandwidth and if too many employees spend their days watching news clips or listening to a radio stream online, it could significantly slow down your business’s mission-critical network applications. Controlling and monitoring this access can increase employees’ capacity and productivity.

The good news is that affordable Internet filtering and bandwidth management solutions are readily available, including some, like the ContentProtect Security Appliance, that combine both functions in one box.

6.     Kill the Kilowatts
If you have multiple servers, all requiring proper cooling and electricity, you may be able to consolidate them onto less hardware. “Virtualizing” servers allows one server to act as many, sometimes with a ratio as high as 15:1. This is made possible by using products like VMWare and Microsoft’s Server 2008 products. With a virtualized server, a company can add new servers into their environment without purchasing new hardware. This lowers energy and maintenance costs, and reduces upgrade expenses. Even consolidating two servers into one can save more than $600 per year in energy costs. VMWare has a free starter edition, so server consolidation is easier and more cost effective than you think.

7.     Beware of the “Accidental Techie”: Focus on what you Do Best
A lot of small- to medium-sized companies have an unofficial “accidental techie,” who has somehow become the go-to person when computer problems come up. Maybe they made the mistake of being too curious or too helpful in tracking down answers to computer questions online, or they may just have had more technical experience than anyone else in the office. The problem with this approach is that it dilutes the contribution this individual can make by not allowing them to do the job they were hired to do—and it could compromise the security and productivity of your entire operation by not knowing what you don’t know.

If your car has a problem, you take it to a mechanic. If the drain is clogged, you call a plumber. If your computer has a problem, why try to fix it yourself? You, and each of your employees have a job to do that you alone are uniquely qualified to do. You have a company to build, sales to close and clients to serve. Let someone who specializes in computers make sure that all of your data is backed up, that all of your antivirus software is licensed and up to date, and that all of your critical I.T. services are being monitored and maintained properly. And if one of your employees has a computer problem, have her speak directly to the person that will fix the problem, not an office manager or a co-worker. That way, you can rest easy knowing that the problem will be correctly diagnosed and fixed right the first time.

8.     Conduct Regular Disaster Recovery Drills
An estimated 70% of small companies go out of business within one year of a major data loss. Disasters can happen, servers can crash, and data can be forever lost. Here are some interesting statistics reported by the University of North Carolina’s Information Technology Service:

  • A hard drive crashes every 15 seconds
  • 60% of all data is held on PC desktops and laptops
  • 2,000 laptops are stolen or lost every day
  • 32% of data loss is caused by human error
  • 31% of PC users have lost all of their PC files to events beyond their control.
  • 25% of lost data is due to the failure of a portable drive.
  • 44% of data loss is caused by mechanical failures
  • 15% or more of laptops are stolen or suffer hard drive failures
  • 1 in 5 computers suffer a fatal hard drive crash during their lifetime.
  • 40% of small and medium sized businesses don’t back up their data at all.

A disaster recovery plan is only as good as its execution. If you are one of the few companies that have a DR plan, put it to the test by conducting regular disaster recovery drills. Do a test restore of some key data. If possible, do a complete server restore to new hardware at least once a year or have someone do it for you. Imagine what would happen if your server completely died, or your building burned to the ground. Conducting this simple test on a regular basis could save your business.

9.     Lose Some Weight with Thin Clients
Remember the days of the dumb terminal: a computer that consisted of just a monitor and a keyboard? Well dumb terminals are back, only this time, they aren’t so dumb. Now they’re called “thin clients,” and they’re a lot less expensive to buy and maintain than putting a full-blown PC at every desk. The thin client approach allows you to virtualize the desktop and move it to a central server, so all a worker needs on their desk is an inexpensive box that connects them to a keyboard, mouse and monitor. You then store all data and programs on a central server that workers access through the network by way of the thin client, so you’ll have no more desktops to buy operating system licenses for, no more hardware upgrades to coordinate, no more hard drive crashes, and no more data to migrate when a user needs a new machine. Thin clients also create continuity for each user; whether they are working from home or someone else’s desk, they always connect to the same virtual desktop.

10.  Combine Your Phone Lines and Internet Access
Every business needs phone lines and Internet access. An integrated T1, also known as a Flex T1, combines local calling, long distance, and Internet service in one efficient package that could save you money. Ask your I.T. partner to find out what packages are available in your area.