Basic IT and Technology Planning for Small Business

One of the great advantages of using Macintosh technology is that the “computer for the rest of us” is simpler, more secure, easier to deploy and less expensive over the long term. This means that most people can make it work pretty well without expert help and that there is less money in supporting Apple technology and the Mac OS than other operating systems. Macintosh computer systems tend to grow organically and work pretty well without expert help, making for happier and more independent users. This doesn’t mean that basic IT planning can’t help to make those systems better, so below are some of the basics to consider in making an IT planning or hiring someone like me to help make your IT plan better.

Even if your IT plan is not much more complex than a single folder where you keep your installation discs, receipts and basic password information, it is a good idea periodically to gather and review a few general things. In approximate order of importance these include

  • A needs assessment of what works and what doesn’t
  • Inventory of current hardware
  • Inventory of current software
  • Network diagrams
  • Web registration and hosting information
  • Key configuration information (email, FTP, etc)
  • Acceptable use and data retention policies
  • Backup and disaster-recovery plan
  • Training, documentation and maintenance
  • Data archive and machine “refresh” plan
  • Visions for one month, one year and five years from now

Needs Assessment and Vision for the Future

The best place to begin changing and planning for the future is from where you are right now, as an organization, individual or small business. Some things are working and some are not. There are things folks would want if they “had a magic wand” to create anything, and niggling things that frustrate them or sap their will to live. Identifying those things is basic need assessment.

Almost every person and business has certain kinds of things that they need to do or manage. Almost everyone needs to track contacts or customers in some sort of address book, appointments and schedules on some sort of calendar, bills and receipts on some sort of ledger, tasks and commitments and notes or reference materials in one or dozens of places. Needs assessment is identifying those key needs so that the most important things are handled first and so that nothing escapes the system. It is easier to solve real problems productively when the most important tasks are clearly defined.

Inventory of Current Hardware and Software

It is hard to manage things you cannot find or identify, and difficult to make decisions without solid data. A simple list of all current hardware and software (as well as its location) is a crucial tool in all IT planning. Writing specific information about these on the outside of a manila folder may be enough, and a periodic inventory is a very useful thing to have. Technology folks will want to know about model numbers, peripherals, RAM and OS. Accounting folks will want to know serial numbers, when an item was purchased, its original cost and when it leaves service. Operations folks will want to know where it is and who is responsible, so that resources can be deployed efficiently. Managerial types and legal compliance officers will want to make sure that all software is legal and updated on a consistent basis. All of these require an inventory, even if it is only a set of index cards or one-page spreadsheet.

Software (including the installation discs that come with new computers) should be saved and stored in a designated place in case of audit and for reinstallation. Adding employees or moving things from one machine to another is much simpler when the software can be located quickly, and unused software is a colossal waste of money. Know what you have and where it is, so you can deploy it.

Network Diagrams, Hosting and Registration Information

Although it was unusual when I started consulting in 1998, today almost every business or sole proprietor has some sort of computer network and Internet presence, even if it is only an email address. Changes to save money, add capacity or streamline operations require knowing a few basic things about the network, how it is served and where key services are hosted. A good network diagram supplies those, and is increasingly important as the business becomes more complex.

When a machine goes down or there are communication problems, it helps to know which foot bone is connected to which leg bone, which leg bone to which hip bone and so on. Even a simple ball-and-stick diagram is very useful, so long as it is accurate. Groups or businesses with web sites should understand who their domain registrar is and how it is hosted as clearly as they understand their business licenses and lease information. With this information, dramatic changes are much simpler. Without it, tasks that should take hours can take days or weeks.

Key Configuration Information for Email, FTP, etc

If you have even one email account you have at least one server, one user name and one password. If you have dozens, plus other machine-specific accounts and web services, you probably have hundreds. Having these clearly documented in one place can save hours of time later and make simple configuration and trouble-shooting simpler across the organization. On your own machine, simply taking a screen shot of working configurations from a program’s preferences is a terrific idea. This provides a simple way to check if things are correct and fix them when they go wrong.

Having a single place to consolidate this information is very useful, whether it is a box of index cards or a simple spreadsheet. Password information might be stored this way as well, but in a secure manner such as a printed sheet kept in a locked drawer or a special envelope in a safe. Undocumented accounts that need to be reset have the potential to bring everything to a screaming halt, including dormant accounts or those long forgotten.

Acceptable Use and Data Retention Policies

As any employer knows, all employment arrangements are legal contracts, meaning that they are subject to lawsuits and management issues. Two key ways to avoid unpleasant personnel issues around computers is to clearly identify “acceptable use” policies and to consistently enforce them. Are folks allowed to make personal telephone calls at work? Under what conditions? May they shop from their web browser? Chat with friends? Download pornography? If there is no clear guideline or expectation, business and morale can easily suffer. Most such policies need not be much more complex than a dress code, but having one stated and acknowledged by signature can save hundreds of dollars and many hours later.

Similarly, what are the rules about data retention? What records are kept? Where and for how long? The IRS has clear rules for storage of tax data, and similar rules will make your business more efficient. A pizza parlor has different archival needs than a law firm, but every business should have some sort of data retention policy. Decide what is important, where it will be stored, and for how long.

Archive, Backup and Disaster-Recovery Plans

“The dog ate my homework” may have worked as an excuse in second grade, but is no way to run a railroad. Most data worth having is worth keeping, for a time. What data should you keep and for how long? How much data can you afford to lose or reconstruct from scratch?

A key concept in data management is identifying what is important and how to organize it. Folder structure and file naming conventions are part of this. As important, though, is protecting data against unwanted loss. For this reason I often use the mnemonic of “ABC” or “CBA” to identify different data types.

The ABC’s of Data Planning: Archive, Backup, and Current Copies

One copy of something is next door to no copy at all, and some things are simply not worth keeping. If the receptionist stepped away for forty seconds to make a photocopy, it is probably not worth writing down, let alone archiving. If the same receptionist recorded votes at a corporate board meeting, that is something different. Identifying at least three levels of importance helps appreciably in data planning. In increasing order of importance these are (C) current copies, (B) backup copies and (A) archives.

Archives are long-term storage, something that may be needed or referenced many years from now. Corporate minutes, lease agreements, tax records and accounting data are the sort of thing that almost always goes into an archive, whether physical, electronic or both. Archives should be organized very logically in technologically simple ways on accessible and durable media. I suggest that most businesses refresh and update their archives annually, organized at the top level by calendar year on physical hard drives, using interchange formats to be stored off-site, such as at a lawyer’s office or in a safety-deposit box. Archives help you reconstruct the business when a meteor hits or when someone is accused of embezzlement or criminal arson. They might also be useful for future historians.

Backups are short-term copies of data, designed to protect against loss of a single original or machine. Most backups are automated or routine, and take place at an interval that corresponds with the importance of the material. Important records that change often are usually backed up frequently, whether they “live” on a server or workstation. Less important records may be backed up less frequently, if at all. The Time Machine program built into Mac OS 10.5 and later makes it very easy to perform hourly backups on every Apple computer, slick as snot and good as gold, if properly configured.

Current copies are things that were worth writing once but which may or may not be worth saving for eternity. Emails about pizza preferences are probably not worth backing up, but destroying data later is easier than recreating it. Anything that you might need to receive money, track goods or avoid penalties for later is probably worth backing up, so plan accordingly.

Each of these ABC’s: archives, backups and current copies, are encompassed in the big D, data recovery. Data recovery is the plan (hopefully made in advance) to restore lost data when bad things happen. Data recovery strategies should be documented and practiced from time to time in “fire drills” to be sure that they work as planned. There are few things as demoralizing as thinking that one has a recovery plan and then discovering, too late, that your “current” backup is months or years out of date or unreadable by current machines.

Training, Documentation and Maintenance

No system is so perfect that it will maintain itself, no employee so capable that they can do everything, and no tool so keen that it need never be checked or sharpened. Any team performs better when all its members know the rules, understand the playbook, practice and appreciate where they fit. Once a system is developed, it should be documented, however roughly. Just as checking the oil is simpler than replacing an engine, so periodic review of your computer systems and documentation of best practices so that everyone understands them is time well spent. People who understand what they are doing, how and why, tend to do a better job.

Data Archive and Machine “Refresh” Plan

Businesses change, machinery ages and technology is eclipsed on a regular basis. Planning for this by having plans to replace machines before they fail saves money in the long run. Although I have some clients who are still using Macs that are ten or fifteen years old (for the tasks they were chosen for ten or fifteen years ago), I generally recommend that most businesses plan to replace every computer every five years or so. Some jobs and businesses (such as video production) will update more frequently, but the important thing is to have a plan so that costs are rationally planned for and unexpected surprises are minimized. Older machines can be “passed down” or kept in reserve for emergencies or as “organ donors,” if not sold or donated while the tax advantages are still worth noting.

The Vision Thing: Where Do You Want to Go?

Central to all technology planning is the idea of vision and intent. Technology planning figures into all aspects of operations, production, marketing and more. Given your current business and goals, how can equipment and systems be deployed to help your people and improve the bottom line? Can technology expand markets to serve current employees and customers better? Where does technology fit in your business and where do you want to be months or years from now? Odds are that technology can help you get there, and that I can help you.

Please consider phoning at (360) 666-7679 to begin moving all of your dreams forward today.

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