One of the most satisfying indicators of business success is opening satellite offices. As many businesses grow, they open new locations to expand, but they still have to consolidate operations. For most businesses, that means centralizing computing resources while connecting remote offices to back-end business processes. What’s the best strategy to extend IT support across multiple locations?
According to the Small Business Administration, there are 5,707,941 small businesses with payroll employees and 56,062,893 people employed nationwide by small businesses. The Connecticut Business and Industry Association reports that 38 percent of Connecticut small businesses are expecting to grow. Many of these businesses, such as retailers, restaurants, and service companies, maintain multiple locations in the same market. However, rather than maintaining separate computer infrastructures, it is more efficient and cost-effective to centralize IT resources, which means providing secure connections to remote locations.
Consider the case of Boys & Girls Village, an organization serving Connecticut’s at-risk youth and their families from locations in Bridgeport, Milford, and Norwalk. To centralize its database and improve internal communications, Boys & Girls Village consolidated its IT infrastructure in the cloud. Now all three locations share a common database and applications, which improves data exchange, cuts costs, and makes planning for the future easier.
What’s your best strategy to create one consolidated network infrastructure? Here are the most common approaches:
Virtual Private Networking
There was a time when wide area networks (WANs) were the logical and most reliable way to connect remote locations. However, WANs require dedicated telecommunications links and networking services to maintain remote connections. For smaller businesses, a virtual private network (VPN) is usually more cost-effective.
VPNs provide secure connections between locations over the public internet. The site-to-site connection is secure and typically faster than WANs, and it’s less expensive. You can use a single leased line for each location to provide internet access, and the secure connection is then handled using software.
Using a VPN link, data can be transferred and stored on a single server for processing and backup. For example, the day’s receipts can be sent from a remote retail location to the home office to be used by the accounting software. Or orders placed at remote locations can be routed to the warehouse to generate a shipping order.
VPN security is provided by using virtual tunnels that encapsulate and encrypt data traffic at one end and then decrypt it at the other. Various security protocols and algorithms are used, and the good news is that a VPN can be managed from one side of the network connection. Once a VPN client is set up at a remote location, connectivity can be managed from the central location (i.e. you don’t need IT staff on site to manage remote links).
In Connecticut, there are various providers offering VPN services. Partners and customers may have their own VPN solutions. The Connecticut Department of Administrative Services, Bureau of Enterprise Systems and Technology, for example, provides internal VPN access for state-agency customers.
Centralizing Data Access
In addition to adopting a VPN strategy, consider using a centralized data repository for data that isn’t business-critical (e.g. used to close the books every day) or that has to be accessed remotely. More small-business users are adopting cloud-computing strategies, whether they are leasing their own private cloud services or using an open-cloud platform such as Google Docs.
The cloud offers a number of advantages for small businesses:
- It can be accessed from anywhere there is an open internet connection.
- Data can be accessed from any device, including a smartphone or tablet.
- Data storage is almost infinitely scalable, so you won’t run out of disk space.
- You pay for cloud resources as you need them, meaning you don’t have to buy additional server space you may never use.
- Cloud service providers handle their own service monitoring, including managing data access and providing anti-malware and anti-spam tools.
- Cloud resources are accessible immediately without additional hardware or software configuration.
For small to medium-sized Connecticut businesses, using cloud storage also offers other benefits. For example, in the event of a major power outage or services loss, the data are still secure and accessible. Even if services are down in one location, other locations can still access resources in the cloud.
Of course, there are risks in using cloud services as well. Data security and access can be an issue. If you are in a highly regulated business, such as financial services, it may be important to know the physical location of your data for regulatory compliance. Still, cloud computing simplifies IT management between locations.
Who You Gonna Call?
Of course, no network runs itself and, inevitably, something will go wrong. Every business needs to designate someone at each remote location to oversee IT systems, even if that person is not an IT expert. At the very least, that responsible employee should be able to handle routine tasks, such as replacing a toner cartridge, and he or she should know what to do in case of emergency. Even if the emergency procedure is to call IT at headquarters, someone on site needs to be responsible for the network at all times.
Making a 911 call to the IT department when something goes wrong is the first step. It’s also a good idea to have an outside service available to handle troubleshooting. If the IT department is preoccupied, or the regional office is too far to get to quickly, having a local managed IT service provider to provide “boots on the ground” can save time and money by getting the network back up quickly. As part of your remote office IT management strategy, be sure there are comprehensive, well-documented protocols and procedures in place to deal with routine emergencies. These procedures should include step-by-step instructions on how to deal with routine emergencies, as well as emergency contacts who will be ready to respond in case of a problem. When you hire a managed IT service to provide support, be sure that your service contract ensures that the provider is available when you need it.
Incorporating multiple locations into a single network infrastructure doesn’t have to be difficult, but you do need to take routine precautions to be sure data are accessible and secure and that you have the resources available to troubleshoot any networking problems. Once you have one or two remote locations linked to your centralized IT network, it will only be a simple matter to add more locations as your business grows.
What ways have you managed your IT among multiple offices?
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2015, and has since been updated for accuracy.