Soft Where?

Published Date
01 - Sep - 2008
| Last Updated
01 - Sep - 2008
 
Soft Where?

Agent 001

Last month I took you through the process of buying hardware for a small office, but without the right software installed, all that hardware is useless. In this article, I will take you through the processes involved in buying software for a small office setup.

Piracy is rampant, and India is no exception—9 out of 10 people in India have pirated software installed on their machine. Worst, most of them are not even aware of this fact. With cyber laws in place, it would be prudent not to be on the wrong side of the law. That’s not the only reason why one should buy genuine software though. Legal obligation aside, if you are using pirated software, critical updates and patches required to bolster security against viruses, worms and other malware are not made available to you, which leaves your entire computer network open—a situation which should be avoided at all costs, especially in a business environment.

Buying legal software also entitles you to technical help from the vendor. Initially, this might seem unimportant, but as your business grows and dependence on IT increases technical help becomes a critical factor. For example, you might want to customise the accounting software to your needs, or might want to merge two different databases, or want your old database made available on a newer version, in such situations vendors are your best bet and buying original software from them automatically gives you bargaining power.

 

Proprietary Or Open Source?

Once you have made up your mind to invest in software, the immediate question that arises is, “Should I opt for Free, Open Source software, or pay and buy proprietary software?” The answer to this question depends on the kind on infrastructure you want to put up, and whether you will have a resident technical person looking after it. Both Open Source and proprietary software have their distinct advantages, and hence a healthy mix of both should be used to maximise return on investments (ROI). In a client/server model, which will be used in most organisations, Open source can be deployed on the server side and Windows can (should) be used on the client side. Such an approach will return good ROI and on a technical level will offer a robust platform.

For an office with more than 10 computers it’s better to have a technical administrator overseeing matters. If he is competent in Open Source Software (OSS) then deploying OSS might be an option. Even if you have a consulting Open Source Software expert, deploying OSS can be considered. The key in deploying OSS is the availability of technical competence.

Can’t Linux be deployed on the desktop too? Technically, yes, there are many opportunities to deploy Linux on desktops. If you are running a technical firm, for example, software development, where there is no dearth of technical people, you can deploy Linux on the desktop. Also, if you’re looking at a customer service and data entry department, where only data read/write happens from databases, Linux can be deployed. However, in the case of an Accounts department, the Marketing, creative department, etc., Linux on the desktop isn’t recommended. People from such departments are generally accustomed to the Windows environment, and expecting them to unlearn it and learn Linux can be a serious challenge. In order to improve bottom-line and ROI, don’t blindly push Linux as it might prove counter-productive.

 

First Things First

An operating systems (OS) is the first software you need to install on all machines. Microsoft’s Windows is widely used and is very popular. Windows XP and Windows Vista are the two versions which you will come across most often, as they are pre-loaded by PC and laptop vendors. Windows is not the only OS available though, Mac OSX by Apple and various flavours of Linux are also available. In a business environment, you need two types of OSes; desktop or client OS and server OS. Windows XP and Windows Vista are client operating systems whereas Windows Server 2003 is a server operating system.

Before any software is purchased, pay close attention to its licensing policy. A license is nothing but terms and agreements related to the use of that particular software. Let’s take some examples here to clear the mysteries surrounding Windows products. Microsoft’s software can be bought in three ways namely, OEM, Buying online and Dial-a-software. Vendors such as Dell, Lenovo, Wipro, etc., offer pre-loaded operating systems with their PCs and laptops—these fall under the OEM bracket.

At times, you may come across OEM OSes being offered in the grey market at lower rates. Though they appear to be genuine software with proper license keys, they have to be used with the hardware they were originally meant for. If you buy a PC or a laptop without an OS, then you can buy it online or get it from your local Microsoft partner by simply calling them. In either case you will get a license for your personal use. For e.g. typically when only a single copy is ordered you get the software packed in a box and hence it is termed as Box license. This license is valid for only a single machine which means you can only install it on one computer.

But most offices have more than one computer, for such scenarios, volume licensing should be considered. Most vendors specify the minimum amount of licenses one needs to order before their request is considered for volume licensing. Under volume licensing, you can just buy a single copy of that particular software and install in on as many computers you have. For every computer you install it on your vendor provides you a paper license. If you have 100 computers then you need to possess 100 paper licenses but you need not buy 100 software boxes just a single box would do. When you buy any software it is often validated by entering a code often known as serial key. Under volume licensing you only get one serial key to be used across 100 computers; this saves lot of administrative trouble.

When opting for volume licensing, always think forwards. Today, your office might have just 20 computers, but if you expect it to grow to say 50, it is advisable to buy 50 licenses before hand. This is because the more licenses you buy at once, the better your bargaining power. Also, keep a look out for combo deals. If you are buying OSes, it’s likely that you will need to buy office productivity suites such as MS Office as well. If this is so, ask for combo deals. Getting deals on software purchases are very easy in India, because we are so used to not paying for software in India, that vendors and dealers are eager to sell, even at lower prices. Bargain hard, they will give in.

When it comes to server operating systems, there is yet another type of license, often known as Client Access License (CAL). Here the licenses depend on the number of clients that would connect to the server. So, in our case we need 100 CAL to be on the safe side. For small offices, this could mean heavy investment, and Open Source alternatives are welcome.

Alternatives, such as Linux as server operating system workout great in the longer run. Not only will you save money but Linux on a server is a more robust solution. RedHat, SuSE, Mandrake, Ubuntu etc are some of the distribution you can get for the server side. Ubuntu, which is a rage nowadays, also has a special server edition called LTS (Long Term Support), which, as the name suggests, are kept alive for longer periods before a new version is released thus ensuring stability over longer period.

 

Productivity

At some point in time, everyone uses word processors, spreadsheets, presentation applications and some database application. Microsoft’s Office is the most widely used office productivity suite in the world, and it completely deserves the credit. Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access are often used, but not everyone may use all these applications in their profession—hence Microsoft offers eight editions of its favourite suite.

If you only need Word, Excel and Outlook (e-mail client) then MS Office Basic 2007 is the way to go. Microsoft Office Standard 2007 comes with all the three in Basic plus PowerPoint and that should be enough for most offices. These two editions are more than enough for any small office; you need not look into the remaining six editions. Licensing is similar to Microsoft’s Operating system as described earlier, and volume licensing is also available for Office products.

If you have limited budget, then MS Office might not work out in your favour. In such a case, you can definitely opt for Open Source office applications such as OpenOffice.org. This open source office is very similar to MS office in terms of user interface and has nearly all the features you need. People who swear by Excel initially may have some difficulties working with Calc (Excel alternative), but persistence pays rich dividend. My advice would be to begin with OpenOffice, if things don’t work out get Microsoft office.

Accounting department needs more than just office application for keeping track of daily expenses and I would recommend investing in proper accounting software. Tally is well known in the accounting circle and I would recommend it for two reasons; first, it is good and second every fresh commerce graduate coming out of college ensures to learn Tally and hence competent work force is available easily. There is other good Accounting software available too, for example from Wingsinfo.net, who has wider range of products to choose from but then staff training will be required. Most of these accounting software are available as single user license but if you want to deploy it across your accounting team then Multi-user license will be required. A single user license copy can be bought for no more than 10K—no really expensive for something which will help manage assets worth lacs.

Every office creates some kind of database be it customers, clients, subscribers or just simple inventory. Every office needs a good database to ensure business runs smoothly. Microsoft’s Access can be used to good effect for creating small but powerful databases and it wouldn’t cost you a bomb to buy it. Oracle, MySQL are other database applications which should be considered if your database will eventually run into thousands of records. For a small office, Access would be more than enough to get the work done.

 

Security

Each computer on your business network should be properly secured against viruses, worms, Trojans and malicious spywares. The general trend is to install a copy of an Anti-virus on each machine, and further bolster it by having personal firewalls and spyware removal tools running in the background. Well, that’s passé; I will suggest a better way.

It’s not enough to have an Anti-virus running on all PCs, as they need to be periodically updated with recent virus signatures. Most people often forget to do so, or the update fails due to numerous reasons. Instead of opting for individual anti-virus licenses, you should consider deploying an anti-virus server. In such a system, the anti-virus is running on a server and its client runs on individual machines. The advantage is better manageability, higher efficiency and total control. Only the anti-virus server connects to the Internet and gets the new virus signatures, and then it automatically updates all the client machines without human intervention. This not only saves time and effort, but also minimises the use of Internet bandwidth, since the signature file is downloaded just once. The anti-virus server should be hosted on proper server hardware though, or at least on a powerful PC to ensure smooth operation.

In terms of manageability, a system administrator can check the status of each client from his desk, and can mend problems without getting up from his seat. He can also force check any machine on the network for viruses and other malicious content, thus ensuring a virus free network. Anti-virus applications are more affordable these days, and they are a must if you’re ever going to protect your data—so make sure to budget for them. You will easily earn back the investment in terms of man hours by keeping your network virus-free.

installing a firewall on or between the gateway and your network, spyware problems can be tackled. This, in conjunction with a proper proxy server will save you a lot of headaches in the long run.

There are many types of firewalls available, individual machines can have personal firewalls, and some examples are ZoneAlarm, Comodo, etc., but these are not as effective as network level firewalls. An old Linux box (PC) with correctly configured IP Tables can be turned into an excellent network firewall. Proprietary hardware firewall devices are also available, but they are expensive, and you have a large network, these can be ignored.

 

Network

The Internet plays a pivotal role in all offices today, and as a resource, it needs to be shared amongst all computers on the network. A decent speed Internet connection won’t come cheap, and hence every effort has to be made to ensure as a resource it is properly shared and utilised. Setting up a proxy server is the best way to do this. Linux can be put to good use here, as one of the best proxy servers, Squid, is available for free. Squid is an excellent proxy server, and to be effective, it needs to be configured properly. Also, it is a caching proxy server, so you should pay attention to utilising and exploiting this to its maximum. Though Squid is deployed by many, the caching part is often left out, which is not advisable. Implement it properly, and you will tell the difference in terms of Internet speeds. On the hardware front, even an old machine will do. So long as you upgrade the RAM and put in a new hard disk, there’s not much that can go wrong here.

The Internet plays a pivotal role in all offices today, and as a resource, it needs to be shared amongst all computers on the network. A decent speed Internet connection won’t come cheap, and hence every effort has to be made to ensure as a resource it is properly shared and utilised. Setting up a proxy server is the best way to do this. Linux can be put to good use here, as one of the best proxy servers, Squid, is available for free. Squid is an excellent proxy server, and to be effective, it needs to be configured properly. Also, it is a caching proxy server, so you should pay attention to utilising and exploiting this to its maximum. Though Squid is deployed by many, the caching part is often left out, which is not advisable. Implement it properly, and you will tell the difference in terms of Internet speeds. On the hardware front, even an old machine will do. So long as you upgrade the RAM and put in a new hard disk, there’s not much that can go wrong here.

In all probability, have at least one Linux machine on your network running. This machine can be used to administrate the proxy server, file server, and firewall, or it can also be used to diagnose network related problems. Get a good network analyser such as WireShark (formerly Ethereal) to detect network problems. Such a machine can also be used for remote administration of Servers, FTP transfers, etc.

I hope this guide helps you to grasp the basics involved in selecting the right kind of software for your small organisation. If you have any suggestions, queries, questions or need any help, drop us a mail and I will be glad to listen and help you.

agent001@thinkdigit.com

 

 

Agent 001Agent 001

I have a keyboard and I'm not afraid to use it, because I have a license to quill.