Like big corporations, small businesses need a robust IT infrastructure, but until now they have not had an adequate solution tailored to their specific requirements. That barrier has been lifted with the introduction of IBM Lotus Foundations™, a new family of software appliances. Lotus Foundations Start™, released in July 2008, is the first product in the IBM Smart Business initiative to serve the $500 billion global small business market, currently the fastest growing IT segment. IBM is entering this market to simplify IT delivery and consumption by small businesses.
Lotus Foundations Start is designed from the ground up for companies of five to 500 employees. This is a distinct demographic encompassing dentists’ and doctors’ offices, real estate agents, local home builders and the like. Many of these businesses do not have an IT staff, and owners are often stretched for time and resources as they struggle to manage complex IT systems themselves.
Big hassles for businesses with other things to do
Like their bigger counterparts, small businesses need firewalls, anti-virus and anti-spam protection, backup and restore capabilities, and system reliability. These things are important even to a five person company but in the past have not been easy to put in place. Similarly, many small organizations that would benefit from the advantages of business-grade e-mail, such as being able to possess their own secure e-mail domains, opt instead for free e-mail servers despite the inadequacies and hazards. That’s because a better, affordable and manageable solution has not been available.
Setting up and running an IT environment can involve a lot of cost and complexity, with the necessity of purchasing, configuring, integrating, managing and maintaining many software components. Further, traditional solutions today are subject to frequent stability and maintenance issues. This is a lot for the overtaxed business owner to manage!
Caleb Barlow, the IBM executive leading the Lotus Foundations initiative, sums up the problem: "If you are a dentist you want to be fixing teeth — that’s where you generate revenue. If you’re spending time trying to get a virus off computers, or installing the latest fixes and patches and security updates which seem to occur with alarming frequency, or worse yet if you can’t get these things installed and you’re down — your business is down, you have to revert back to paper or you can’t get access to your scheduling system — these are serious pains!"
Lotus Foundations Start provides a hassle-free environment
Lotus Foundations Start represents breakthrough innovation that addresses all these issues. Based on a different provisioning and maintenance approach than anything previously available, it provides not only a comprehensive solution but one specifically designed to run in an environment where there is no IT help on site. Marrying high functionality with simplicity, shrinking maintenance requirements almost to the vanishing point, and deployed in 30 minutes, Lotus Foundations Start offers business continuity and peace of mind with fast return on investment. These benefits arise from several factors.
- A complete infrastructure in an all-in-one appliance. Lotus Foundations Start is an appliance, not just a server. Similar to a cable box, it contains all the software needed to carry out its mission within a unit that shields the user from the inner workings. Instead of many pieces of software you have to install, configure and integrate, the appliance comes with pre-integrated collaboration tools such as email, file sharing, and remote access in addition to integrated security, data protection, backup and recovery. As for the hardware, instead of a number of extraneous pieces to worry about, everything needed is integrated within a single unit. With just one thing to plug in, it is simplicity itself.
- Built on Linux so more stable. As an open source platform, the Linux operating system (OS) is less targeted by hackers than traditional operating systems, and it is reportedly a more stable platform in itself. Because it is Linux-based, Lotus Foundations Start is an inherently stable platform that provides high system reliability, all but eliminating interruptions to business.
- Autonomic and managed remotely. Like a cable box, which maintains itself through automated downloads of new software and updates, Lotus Foundations Start can go out and get what it needs to run. Once the appliance is plugged into a company network, it calls "home," and in effect, says: "Here I am, send me what I need." A business’ IT consultant can then very easily manage updates and any required maintence remotely. Lotus Foundations Start automates much of the critical day-to-day IT maintenance activity, freeing owners to stay focused on their business.
- No updates, just instant replace. When it is time for updates to the OS, it can just be replaced because it is so small. Unlike existing solutions on the market which often require on-site installs and extensive planning and consulting to upgrade or patch a server, it takes just a few seconds for the IT consultant to send the whole 100 mb updated OS down the wire. And a copy of the old file can be kept so that if anything goes wrong the system can automatically revert back to that.
- No fuss backup and restore. Traditional backup procedures that require the rotation of storage media and a lot of human intervention are hard on businesses that don’t have a dedicated IT staff to attend to this. Rotations must be kept in order, because if anything gets out of sequence there is no recourse. But of course, rotation mixups do occur. For this and other reasons, a high percentage of backups don’t actually work.
Instead of relying on a rotating storage medium, Lotus Foundations Start comes equipped with an intelligent disk backup system. With a copy of the entire system, including all data, stored on a removable hard drive, all the owner has to do to ensure having a copy of everything needed to recreate his IT infrastructure is pull out the drive to store off-site as backup, and replace it with another one.
Because the OS is less than 100 megabytes, it can be burned on a chip set in the device, and copies of the OS are spread throughout on every drive. In the event of a system failure, the system will still boot. And in the event of a catastrophic occurrence such as a flood or fire, there is the backup drive with the entire infrastructure on it stored offsite. The IT consultant shows up with replacement Lotus Foundations Start appliance hardware, inserts the backup drive with the customer’s data, presses a button to restore, and a few minutes later there is the customer’s whole business back online like nothing ever happened.
Customer experiences many advantages
Though the Lotus Foundations Start product just became available in July, it is based on a precursor product from Net Integration Technologies, a company acquired by IBM in February, 2008. Anvil Steel Corporation of Gardena, California has been a customer since February after having been an all Microsoft shop. Ethan Stipp of Anvil Steel tells how advantageous the switch from the Microsoft Windows Server has been.
"The Windows environment is buggy," he says. "The Windows Server 2003 crashes all the time. It needs to be rebooted just about weekly and scanned for malware constantly. We have none of this with [Lotus Foundations Start]. Since we’ve had it we have only rebooted it once and that was just for routine maintenance, not because the server was having problems. It has run solidly since February (9 months), with no issues."
Apart from stability, there are other advantages. The Anvil environment has both PC and Macintosh computers running, and Lotus Foundations Start supports both. Stipp appreciates the solution for backups: "The way you can just swap out backup drives makes it quick and easy. We just rotate our drives between the appliance and a firesafe." Additionally, "the virus scan is great — it scans constantly and finds stuff right away if anything is amiss. And there is no need for a graphical user interface (GUI) like the Windows server has, which requires a lot of computing space and time. So the server runs a lot faster." Finally, the Lotus Foundations Start software appliance has larger storage capacity than the Windows server. This will accommodate growth. "We’re growing fast," says Stipp, "so if we need to get a bigger drive we can."
There are advantages for the IT consultant as well
Lotus Foundations Start is sold exclusively through IBM Business Partners. It enables them to approach the market with an all-in-one solution uniquely designed to meet the specific IT and productivity challenges of small businesses, the fastest growing IT market segment. The low touch characteristics of the product translate into short sales cycles for a quick return on investment and fast time to value. And remote management of client systems reduces the need for on-site visits with their associated time and expense, improving the bottom line with strong margins.
IBM warrants the software for Lotus Foundations Start, and any problems are simple to fix. There are only two field-replaceable parts - the backup hard drives, and the whole appliance. Unless replacing hardware, there will seldom be reason for a consultant to travel to a client site because most problems can be addressed remotely. This will free up a lot of the consultant’s time for doing other things, like growing the client base, or establishing new revenue streams by providing managed and hosted services.
Business owners will still need their IT consultants, but the help given can be more immediate and cost-effective, therefore increasing client satisfaction. Given the ease of maintaining the client’s environment, the consultant might build a contractual model based on an annual fee: "For x dollars a year, I’ve got you covered. If anything happens to your machine, I’ll take care of it. If the software has a problem, I’ll fix it." Imagine the client’s comfort level based on this kind of assurance that if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be fixed fast and is already paid for.
Alan Shaffer, the Principal at Shaffer Computer Solutions in Hawthorne, California, sees a lot of business potential. "People out there want another solution," he says, "one that is more stable and better supported than traditional solutions." Based on Shaffer’s work with Net Integration Technologies and the NitixBlue solution, the product that provided the base technology behind Lotus Foundations, Shaffer has seen the tremendous benefits for his clients. He echoes the comments of Ethan Stipp.
"The product is so stable," he says. "When we install it we don’t hear from the clients for weeks because they don’t have any problems. These servers don’t have to be rebooted all the time. We don’t see all the patches. Plus the backup and restore is so tightly integrated with the hardware; it’s pretty much built in at no extra cost. Whereas when you buy backups for other vendors’ servers, you may be talking about thousands of dollars by the time you buy all the software."
A special advantage for the consultant is better support. "Dealing with some vendors," Shaffer says, "you’re pretty much an island out there trying to solve problems. We can be stuck and get absolutely no support. It’s been just the opposite with this product. It is just a phone call and we’ve got experts solving any problems we may come across."
Most importantly, the Lotus Foundations Start software appliance reflects positively on Shaffer Computer Solutions. Shaffer explains: "All the problems that come along with traditional solutions reflect back on us in the minds of our clients, like the instability, which we have no control over. But that equates to downtime and extra dollars the clients have to spend, and since they’re spending it with us and we’re responsible for the uptime, we often get the blame."
Shaffer is pleased to note the effort and money IBM is investing to promote Lotus Foundations Start. "We appreciate the marketing dollars and air time to open up people’s eyes that there is now another solution out there," he says. "Once people know about this and start going to Web sites or yellow pages looking for companies that install and support it, they will be flocking to our door."
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