Things could have turned out much different for Ali Brown had she not taken control of her life.

“Ten years ago, I was working as an employee in a tiny company in New York,” says Brown, founder and CEO of Ali International, a multimedia company that provides online marketing tools and strategies, coaching, seminars and instructional literature for more than 50,000 women entrepreneurs worldwide. “I was continually frustrated in all the jobs I had, which made me realize I was unemployable.”

Brown saw only two viable options: “I could be unemployed or self-employed, so I started a little freelance writing business, marketing myself online with an e-mail newsletter.”

That newsletter began to grow and Brown started to gain a following online.

“People started asking all kinds of questions about marketing and how I was growing my little business and asking for all this small business advice,” Brown explains. “So I started writing e-books and selling them to the people who were asking the questions.”

Today, that little business has become a multimillion-dollar operation and an Inc. 500 company. Brown publishes a high-end magazine, is regularly featured on TV and radio talk shows, and last year, she was named one of Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneurial Winning Women.

Smart Business sat down with Brown to discuss her passion for helping other women entrepreneurs reach their own goals.

Q: Ali, what drives you?

A: The best part is my job is helping other women succeed through starting their own businesses. I offer products, resources, coaching programs and a community that’s dedicated to helping women entrepreneurs. These range from online marketing basics to one called Business Building Blocks.

When people go to start a business, they don’t often know what they should be thinking about in the legal department, marketing department or financial department. So this is Business 101 in a box. You start thinking differently when you’re an entrepreneur, and if you want to be wealthy, you have to learn how to take risks and do it in a smart way.

Q: What makes Ali International’s value proposition unique?

A: My clients and customers say they love following me because they get business advice in a fun, real way. I talk with women who may be running a business from their kitchen table. They’ve got kids running around and they’re juggling their lives. Unfortunately, there are very few role models out there, so I’m able to fill a need in the marketplace.

Q: Speaking of role models, what’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

A: It came from one of my mentors:  Aim for the top because there’s more room. There’s actually less competition at the top, so I’ve not looked at the people around me in my industry but at the people who are at the top of the industry. Then, I ask how I can get there and position myself to stay there.

Q: As you’ve worked with women entrepreneurs, what are some of the different challenges you’ve found that they face?

A: There are two that stand out. One is the often-talked about family and work balance. For women who may traditionally be in the home, they feel pulled in different directions. But on a more personal and human level the other challenge is learning how to take risks and believe in themselves. Women are often programmed for safety. It’s in our DNA. We want to be safe and secure, and it’s really scary for women to put themselves out there. They’re often thinking, ‘What will people think of me? Can I really do this?’

So for many women, I see the personal journey even more rewarding than the financial journey because the person they become in the process is priceless. They become this incredible role model for their family and for the women around them. It’s a ripple effect, and it’s really going to change the world.

Q: What’s the first step toward learning how to take risks?

A: Surround yourself with risk takers. You’ll begin to realize that in order to become successful, you have to become comfortable at being uncomfortable. You are often the average of the people who you are around the most, so seek out a network, come to a conference or join a coaching group where people come together and exchange ideas. Figure out the level that you want to be at, and seek out people who are already there.

Q: Where do you find opportunities for your own growth?

One key to growing any business is listening to your customers and clients, but you also need to keep a long-term vision of what you want. I have my path, which is helping women entrepreneurs. But at the same time, I keep an ear to the ground and listen to the topics that they’re interested in and the needs they have. That’s where the coaching came from. I was publishing courses and books, and women still said, ‘I want to talk to you. Can you coach me one on one?’

My events started because they wanted to get together in person. Now, I have a conference every year called SHINE, which has become the premier conference for women entrepreneurs. This past year, it was in Las Vegas. In 2011, it will be in Dallas. It’s a three-day event, and we bring together hundreds of women entrepreneurs.

Even my magazine is about business, life and style for women entrepreneurs. I heard the things they were talking about and created something around it. That’s something you need to keep in mind when you’re looking for ways to grow a company: When you hear ideas respond to them, but you also have to figure out a way that those ideas will make money.

It’s a constant journey of evolving your business model. Match the path you want and the passion you want to get out to the world with what they will be willing to take out their wallets and pay for. You also must figure out how to provide value.

Q: What advice would you offer a woman who is unhappy with her current situation and looking for a change?

A: The first step for any woman who has an idea for a business or any woman who just wants to start a business is to start paying attention. Start paying attention to ideas that you have and write them down. Listen to ideas that people are talking about, then get out immediately to start networking to make it happen because that’s going to change your life.

Q: So what does the future hold for Ali Brown and Ali International?

A: In the next few years, you’ll see me doing a lot more media and television, expanding internationally and having more events, reaching women in developing countries and helping them develop how entrepreneurship can help them.

How to reach: Ali International, www.alibrown.com.

Published in Los Angeles

If someone told you that you could drop your operating costs by 40 percent, would you listen? If that same person said you could you save between $70 and $150 per user per year in energy savings alone if you tried something new, would you try it?

A lot of companies are listening, and those same businesses are trying something new — cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) — and reaping the many benefits, which start with the aforementioned cost savings.

“If you don’t have the money to invest in IT, in hardware, in software, in upgrades or you don’t have the expertise, then the cloud offerings are compelling,” says Philip Lieberman, founder, president and CEO of Lieberman Software Corp., which provides solutions used by large national defense and large corporations.

Jeff McNaught, chief marketing officer at Wyse Technology says that 80 percent of an IT budget, in many cases, is spent just to keep the lights on.

“It’s about saving money, and there’s a tremendous amount of money to be saved,” McNaught says.

McNaught’s company builds a device that replaces the PC, uses one-tenth the energy of a PC and connects you to the cloud. The device doesn’t make a lot of noise, but more importantly, it doesn’t cost a lot of money.

“When you look at cloud computing, operating expenses can drop by about 40 percent a year, and that’s real money,” McNaught says. “These devices use one-tenth of the energy of the PCs. Now you’re really talking about saving real money.”

How cloud works

So the idea of saving that much money has caught your attention, and now you may be asking, “What exactly is this whole cloud computing thing anyway?”

“The idea behind it is other companies would be able to achieve economies of scale by providing the services and capabilities that you would normally host in your own organization within your infrastructure,” Lieberman says. … “You’re outsourcing to another company some of the more fundamental things that may be better off done externally.”

Dave Hitz is the co-founder and executive vice president of NetApp, a company that sells enormous amounts of storage to people that need it. For example, Yahoo stores all of its e-mail accounts on his equipment, and the special effects for “Avatar” were stored on his equipment, as well. His company doesn’t offer cloud services, but many cloud environments are built on top of his storage. From his perspective, Hitz sees two different definitions of cloud computing.

“Definition No. 1 of cloud computing is you no longer buy a computer,” Hitz says. “You access computing service over the Internet to somebody else’s data centers, and they spend the capital and they hire the people to build them and they do everything, and all you do is pay a monthly bill and access the service over the Internet. Style No. 2 of cloud computing is a completely technical definition (that) has to do with if you’re going to build a data center, what does the architecture look like? And if the architecture has a lot of shared infrastructure, then people tend to call that kind of environment a cloud computing environment.”

His first definition is another benefit to cloud because it eliminates many IT headaches because, being honest, how often do you have an overly positive IT experience?

“I imagine people would say they’re experience with IT has been less than optimum,” says John Dillon, CEO of Engine Yard Inc., a company that delivers an environment for software developers to write programs that run inside the cloud. “The reason is you spend so much money building all this infrastructure, that going the last mile, which is where you write the application that interfaces with the human, the user, doesn’t get the attention, doesn’t get the money and doesn’t get the investment.”

The idea of the cloud is essentially that you plug into the wall, and you get a whole data center.

“It’s IT as a service, just as you get electricity or water,” Dillon says. “In business, you, in most cases, don’t have your own power plant, you didn’t dig your own well, you didn’t build your own building, you don’t have your own fire department or police department. So why on earth do we basically give power to a group to build something that has been built before in-house, and then hope it works?”

Dillon also points out that in the United States, capital expenditures are a huge expense. In fact, about 50 percent of capital expenditures in America are information technology.

“Unbelievable,” Dillon says. “How many people are getting the ROI on this? What’s happening with the cloud is some big companies are saying, ‘Look, I’ll build the data center.’ It’s changing who buys, why it’s bought, and it changes the capacity and the economic decision-making process around IT.”

Moving to cloud technologies can take some of the capital expenditures and turn them into operational expenditures instead.

“The advantages are no software loaded, the data is backed up automatically, when there are upgrades, the vendor does the upgrade,” Lieberman says. “It becomes less of what would be a (capital expenditure) and becomes a monthly (operating expenditure), so the cost is known, fixed and predictable, whereas the upgrade cycle of equipment and software and hiring IT can be significant and unpredictable.”

When you look at how much money most organizations spend on their IT systems, these cost savings are a big driver and will, ultimately, be a game changer for business.

“Amazon, who is a leader in cloud technology, told me that they think it’s a $1 trillion a year potential business,” Dillon says. “So if there’s a trillion dollars at stake, that means every company within 50 miles of here is going to make a really big bet, and it’s so disruptive because the buyers are going to change and the sellers are going to change.”

The other benefit aside from cost is that everything that is on your PC is now in one location that can be accessed from anywhere — not just from the PC itself — and that comes with numerous benefits.

“When you take your software and your applications and your data and you move it to the cloud, something’s happened,” McNaught says. “First off, the cloud is the data center of your company and you can always get to it. You’re connected to the Internet, so you can get there from home, from the conference center, from the airport. And guess what? Because it’s not on a PC with a hard drive failing and memory getting filled up, it’s protected. It’s backed up. It’s secure. So the cloud provides this real opportunity to take the things that make up our work life, and within five years our home life, as well, and move them to this one place where we can always find our stuff.”

Questions to ask when considering cloud

Now that the technologies have changed, and many of the previous issues have largely been addressed, it’s easy to jump right into the cloud, but Lieberman says you still have to ask smart questions when considering your options.

First, it’s important to carefully consider the security approach that a cloud provider takes before you sign on with them.

“The quality of security varies widely from one vendor to another,” he says. “Most of what they do is opaque. They don’t explain much other than they just say, ‘Trust us — we’re insert your name — Amazon, Microsoft, Google — and we know about security, so trust us.’ When it comes down to the gory details, it’s not as transparent as would be available for a large enterprise.”

Lieberman says you should ask a provider how its  security actually works and request a copy of its SAS 70 report and be willing to sign a nondisclosure agreement so you can look at how the security actually works.

“By God, you should actually read it and compare them from one company to another or find someone with a long attention span and a lot of coffee and expertise in understanding how to read it to read it and understand if you want to go all-in with this provider,” Lieberman says.

He also says to make sure that you are comparing services and don’t go with the first cloud provider you come across.

“The fundamental mistake that most small and medium-size businesses make when they outsource to cloud providers is they don’t read contracts,” Lieberman says. “They do not negotiate. They don’t try to get competitive bids. They simply take the first thing they see and do it.”

He says you can’t take this approach because some of the largest companies may not best fit your needs, and some of the smallest companies may not have the security you need — small and large businesses alike have been known to go under.

“You have to be careful, and you really have to have your eyes open,” Lieberman says. “It may, in fact, be a good idea to engage somebody in IT or with expertise who can help you get competitive bids and guide a better decision.”

Along that vein, if you decide to start using cloud technologies, you also have to recognize that you can’t rid all of your IT staff in doing so.

“Even if you have the cloud, you have to have someone to interface with them because they will ask technical questions, so you can’t rid of all your IT, but you will need someone to assist you with making this happen,” Lieberman says.

It’s also important that you don’t become so reliant on your cloud technology that you haven’t thought about what to do in case your provider doesn’t work out.

“What’s your Plan B if this doesn’t work out?” he asks. “You better have a Plan B. Always have a Plan B when it comes to this. Even if you’re going to host it yourself, what happens when that hard disk crashes? You have to have a Plan B — not, ‘Let’s call the IT guy.’”

Lastly, Lieberman says you ultimately have to make a decision based on your business and not on what’s cool. He uses the example of buying an iPad versus buying a laptop — the iPad may look really cool, but your needs may actually require you have a laptop.

“Sometimes cloud, in many technological solutions, are fashion decisions rather than business decisions meaning that you may pick technology that sounds sexy and compelling, but you really haven’t thought it through from your own business perspective,” he says.

How cloud can affect you

While Lieberman provided a lot of points to really ponder that some could view as negatives, it’s important to remember that cloud does have far more positive benefits.

“Cloud isn’t the solution to all problems,” he says. “It does represent a unique opportunity for small and medium-size shops that don’t have dedicated IT, in which case, they would find that the cloud solution providers can provide a compelling Op-X opportunity to offload many of the things that they have.”

Experts also agree that cloud technology is the way business of the future is moving, and that it really does need to be embraced on some level.

“I’ve had the opportunity to ask a lot of CIOs, ‘How is cloud computing affecting your business? How much cloud computing are you using?’” Hitz says. “The most common answer I get is, ‘It doesn’t affect our business at all yet, and we’re not using it at all yet.’ I will tell you that almost all those CIOs are wrong. They’re already using it but not thinking right.”

Hitz says that CIOs need to think differently and brings up the early days of the transition from the mainframe to the PC as an example. In those days, if you asked a CIO if he or she had a PC strategy, many said, “Oh no, that’s not part of what we’re doing,” but half the employees had PCs.

“When data started leaking out the door because somebody lost their PC, who do you think the CEO went to beat up?” Hitz says. “The CIO, and the CIO said, ‘Well, PCs aren’t really IT.’ Those are the CIOs that are gone. I predict the exact same thing is going to happen to the CIOs who think that cloud computing isn’t happening in their business. … There’s an enormous amount of work that CIOs need to start thinking about — how do I get my arms around all the cloud contracts that are being found in little places scattered around.

“It’s affecting a lot more than people are realizing because they’re not defining it broadly enough. If they look at that broader definition, the stuff they’re already sort of doing or in denial about, that stuff is a pretty good road map to where the future is headed, just more.”

Not only is it affecting how your business will run, but it’s also going to change the game for how new companies enter the market. Brian Jacobs is the founder and general partner of Emergence Capital Partners, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm.

“Silicon Valley is very much a startup culture — there’s always something starting up here, and it’s important to note that cloud computing also changes the economics of a startup,” Jacobs says. “A startup today doesn’t need as much capital to get going because of cloud computing. A developer, who could be an independent contractor, an engineer who’s working at a day job and at night has a new product he wants to develop — he can log in to a platform as a service like Engine Yard, and they can start developing their product without a single dollar of investment. They can work for free developing the product until they’re at the point they can introduce it to the market.”

As a result, the venture capital industry is much different than it was 20 years ago. In fact, Jacobs’ company started in 2003 with the idea that more and more technology would be delivered as a service as opposed to built by companies within their four walls.

“Cloud computing and software service has really hit technology like a giant wave and all of these business models are service providers — companies that are building technologies and not selling to their customers but operating it on behalf of their customers and charging their customers a monthly fee in exchange for that service,” he says. “That’s a different kind of venture capital and that’s the focus of Emergence Capital.”

Aside from all the ways that cloud computing will change business, it’s also changing how employees approach their jobs. While people can work from home in their pajamas, it’s often difficult, and in many cases, employees don’t have access to everything that they could if they were on their PC actually in the office.

“Cloud computing lets you access your work environment, and you’re on your couch — maybe in your pajamas — and you’re doing real e-mail and doing real work, and yeah, maybe your boss is getting a little more work out of you, but you’re doing it, quite honestly, voluntarily because you get to work in your environment, you’re not in the office, you’re not sitting in front of the computer in the office and you probably have better TV shows on,” McNaught says. “The technology that cloud computing provides is about saving cost and delivering additional benefits.”

To give you a real example, Hilton Hotels decided to close its physical reservation centers and send all of its reservationists home with these devices that connected them securely to the Hilton system.

“What Hilton found was they could close all those buildings and save those costs of real estate, and they saved all the energy costs of running the PCs in the buildings, and they found the employees were happier because they were working from home — maybe in their pajamas but nobody could tell, and they were working over secure devices, so Hilton didn’t lose any data, and they were working over a device that didn’t have the complexity of the PC, so they weren’t calling the IT staff out to their homes to fix this,” McNaught says. “Cloud computing allowed Hilton to save money in so many ways that satisfaction increased, and they found that people working at home would take a lower pay. They saved on all sorts of fronts. Cloud computing has a transformative effect on all kinds of business.”

Cloud computing is changing the way businesses start and operate, and if you recognize and embrace that, it can make all the difference in how successful your organization can be.

“The reality is, as companies try to find ways to grow and compete in an ever more challenging economy, you have to do something different to be different than your competitor,” McNaught says. “If everyone is using the same old client server architecture — the PC connecting to the server — you really don’t have many opportunities to compete.”

How to reach: NetApp, www.netapp.com; Engine Yard Inc., www.engineyard.com; Wyse Technology, www.wyse.com; Emergence Capital Partners, www.emergencecap.com, Lieberman Software Corp., (800) 829-6263 or www.liebsoft.com

Published in Los Angeles

Bill Mathews of Hurricane Labs is a self-described “gadget geek.”

“It’s one of my many flaws as a human being. If someone releases a gadget or some piece of cool, new technology, I’m usually the first one to buy it or sign up,” he says. “Sometimes it works out great and other times I have buyer’s remorse big time. I know that not everyone can or will do that so I try to balance my recommendations for new technology with something I heard several years ago from a client that stuck with me, ‘We don’t want to be on the cutting edge, the second mouse always gets the cheese.’”

Mathews admits that that’s probably as true now as it was 15 years ago, but also believes that this prevailing attitude has rotted IT from the inside out. Fear of new things is never good; cautious optimism, however, is good, as long as there is an emphasis on the optimism.

Smart Business spoke to Mathews about not letting needless obstacles stand in the way of adopting new technology that can benefit your business.

Why do business owners often encounter a disconnect with their IT department?

How many times have you heard this from your IT person when you’ve found something you really think could help the business?: “Well I dunno, I mean, we wouldn’t control it, and it could be down a lot.” Sound familiar? If not, you have yourself a pretty forward-thinking IT person there and should give him or her a big raise. If you’re like a lot of business owners though your IT people have devolved into a resounding chorus of no. “No you can’t use that online collaboration app, think of the security!” “No we can’t outsource e-mail, do you know what it is like when the ‘cloud’ goes down?”

Don’t you wish you could shake them sometimes? I know I do and I’ve been an IT person for years. I especially want to do this with IT departments that have a developed a “reputation for downtime,” as I call it. Basically, they’re down a lot for various reasons but worry that if you outsource something they will have no control over it. That might be a good thing in some cases.

How can business leaders overcome the 'wall of no' and keep things moving forward?

This is not to say you should go out and outsource everything with no forethought or without talking with your IT folks. However, you should be prepared for that wall of no and remember that IT people have feelings too and can be emotional about things. Appeal to their logical side, explain that you would like to pursue this new piece of technology and give reasons. If they have counters other than “think of the security” or “it might be down” then listen to them. While you should always weigh security and downtime issues they shouldn’t be the only considerations, which they often are when IT is left to make the decision. Here is how my thought process usually goes when considering a new technology (unless it’s just really cool, then I just have to have it):

1)    What will do for me? What does it enable that I can’t do now?

2)    Will it return its investment?

3)    Is it easy for others to pick up on?

4)    If it’s a service, does it have an SLA? What are its reimbursement terms?

5)    What happens if it goes down? What is the worst case scenario for an extended down time period?

6)    What happens if the service is breached and my data is leaked? What are my options if there is a breach?

Notice where downtime and security are on the list? Pretty far down. They’re down there because they’re very complicated issues that simply cannot be examined in a short period. If the product or service doesn’t get past steps one through three, then I don’t have to waste time on four through six. Unfortunately those are the two issues that quite a few IT folks want to start with. They forget that it’s IT’s job to enable the business, not bog it down needlessly. New things can be very good things so be a smart first mouse, do your homework and figure out where the traps are. This will lead to a better overall technology profile that will in turn help your business serve its clients. Then you can have some cheese too.

Bill Mathews is Lead Geek of Hurricane Labs, an IT security services firm founded in 2004. He has nearly 20 years experience in IT, 13 of that in information security, and has been interested in security ever since C3P0 told R2D2 to never trust a strange computer. He can be reached at @billford or @hurricanelabs on Twitter and other musings can be read on http://blog.hurricanelabs.com.

Published in Cleveland

The way to build an online strategy is to forget about your online strategy for a second.

Carmen DeLeo, the general manager of CDM Electronics Inc., made that his first step when he and his team were trying to formulate the best way to build a presence on the Internet for the $20 million logistics and software company, headquartered in Turnersville, N.J.

“We put ourselves in the position of engineers and technical buyers — our main customers,” DeLeo says. “They’re the ones who are going to fit the profile for us. We thought about the things they would come to us for — specification of part numbers, drawings and so forth. So we started to decide what our customers needed, and let’s try to get as much information on the site as we can, and we can make it a 24/7 part of our customer service.”

Once you have identified what your customers need, you have to develop your site to meet those needs. DeLeo and his team partnered with outside firms, including business IT support company ThomasNet, to start the development process.

“They educated us on things like (search engine optimization) and other terms we weren’t familiar with. In addition to that, we spent a lot of time online, just playing around and experimenting,” DeLeo says. “We spent a lot of time just reading and stumbling upon different websites, seeing what some other companies were doing. We looked outside our industry, because there weren’t a whole lot of people in our industry doing this yet.”

Above all else, DeLeo says the quality of your site content should rule your decisions about how you market your business online. It’s great to have an eye-catching sight with attractive graphics and sound, but if the substance isn’t there to back up the style, you’ll never be able to leverage your site to help grow your business.

“If you supply the site with as much content as possible, it is only going to help serve your customers,” DeLeo says. “We’re still very early in this era. The computers that are doing the rankings of your website’s value to customers are still very rudimentary. At sites like Google, it is obvious humans don’t review the results. But they still do a remarkable job of returning what is relevant. Even having an ugly site with content is still better than a website without an adequate amount of content. If all you have is an address and a little bit about the company, it’s not going to do you much good.”

Regardless of whether you use internal resources to build your online presence or acquire outside help, you need to partner with people who will engage you in a dialogue. You need to bring different perspectives to the table to get the right look and the right content onto your site.

“You need development people who understand the real goal,” DeLeo says. “Sometimes, we don’t ask for what we want all the time, or there might be a better solution out there. That type of communication has to be the key, so when you’re selecting vendors for this service, you want people who you know you can communicate with. Experience is the number one thing with regard to that.”

How to reach: CDM Electronics Inc., (856) 740-1200 or www.cdmtech.com

Take sales online

By Brooke Bates

You already know how to make your website more effective, if you ask Linda Rigano. You’re already doing it offline.

“A good Web strategy starts with … creating a Web experience that replicates the company’s sales process,” says the executive director of strategic services at Thomas Industrial Network, which connects buyers and sellers through offerings like the sourcing site

ThomasNet.com and a Web solutions group that improves website performance.

ThomasNet’s VSET strategy breaks that down:

• Verify. “The first step in the process is that a buyer wants to verify that you make what they (want),” Rigano says. “(If) I’m looking for a container and I see a big picture of the facility, I see a mission statement, but I don’t see a lot about containers, am I going to spend time there? No.”

• Search and evaluate. “That might be questions they’re asking that customer service person on the phone; it’ll be questions that customer service person is asking back: How many, what’s the material, what’s the size, what’s the quantity?”

• Take action. “This is what you want to do when you get off of the phone with somebody. Is customer service preparing a quotation? Are they sending more information? Are they taking an order? … It’s all about making it easier for that buyer to do business with you.”

How to reach: Thomas Industrial Network, (866) 585-1191 or www.thomasnet.com

Published in Philadelphia
Thursday, 31 March 2011 20:01

Sheng Liang

There has been a growing amount of buzz around the cloud and its benefits such as improved productivity, greater cost savings and increased efficiencies. Your company may already have deployed its own cloud. However, if you are like most, you are still considering the cloud from afar and unsure exactly how to turn a seemingly amorphous concept into a real business advantage. The trick is in figuring out how the cloud can work for your specific organization and how to best implement it.

For me, the cloud has become the “HP Garage,” the famed and humble birthplace of what is now the world’s largest IT company, Hewlett-Packard, and of Silicon Valley itself.

The cloud is the reason my company exists.

As evidenced by the company’s name, Cloud.com, the cloud is an integral part of the business: providing an open source software platform to enable enterprises to launch their own public or private clouds. But the cloud is not only important because of our value proposition and product; it’s played a crucial role in several aspects.

By using the cloud to manage our communications, e-mail, financial systems and development environments, we have kept the need for costly physical resources very low, something crucial for any growing company. As a result, we have been able to invest in the development of our intellectual property instead of worrying about expensive infrastructure. The cloud has helped us grow our business and spend money on smart services and other value-added resources.

Now make the cloud work for you.

If you are uncertain about using the cloud, begin with a pilot program. Start small, and along the way, you can pinpoint areas where you might extend your existing strategy with new technologies. The reality is that most business environments will be a mix of the physical and virtual, so here are four key points to consider when evaluating the cloud model that best suits your company:

Understand the cloud and its benefits to your business. Don’t force-fit your business strategy to suit technical capabilities. Instead, consider what type of cloud would best fit your current operations and enhance your IT strategy. The cloud comes in many shapes and sizes, such as hosted applications, hosted infrastructure, Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), on-premise or off, and more.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Build off your existing operational choices and be application-specific. The last thing you want to do is create confusion by transitioning something to the cloud that is already functioning well, whether it’s your CRM system or e-mail. The cloud can be ideal if you are implementing a service for the first time and can take advantage of the cloud’s cost savings and other benefits.

Evaluate all options, and stay agile. When determining whether to deploy a public or private cloud, consider your unique requirements for cost, security, availability and control, and weigh each deployment model’s pros and cons against each of these. Select a solution that works within your existing system but does not lock you into a specific environment; portability and flexibility are other important considerations. It will prove valuable to have a solution that allows you to migrate to public clouds in the future.

Recognize the cloud’s immaturity, and move forward any way. Despite the cloud’s relative newness in enterprise IT, advancements are constantly being made that push it to new levels of sophistication and reliability. More companies and developers are focused on advancing this segment than many traditional enterprise applications; therefore, moving now will ensure you don’t miss the wave of innovation and opportunity.

Sheng Liang is the CEO and founder of Cloud.com and is a recognized expert in virtualization technologies as the lead developer on the original Java Virtual Machine team at Sun Microsystems. He also was co-founder and CTO of Teros (acquired by Citrix) and has held technology leadership roles at SEVEN Networks and Openwave systems where he developed software products for leading service providers and operators around the globe. Reach him at (877) 349-7564 or info@cloud.com.

Published in Northern California

Robert Eves has been using a technology for 20 years that is still relevant today and has likely saved him millions of dollars in that same time period.

As founder and president of Venture Corp., a commercial real estate development firm, he began using content management software about 20 years ago as a way to keep all of his contacts, to-do lists and projects organized in one place. As the company grew, it became even more important to the business.

“This is Ground Zero — it’s the base of our operations,” he says. “Everything that we do is controlled by or metered by or recorded by Commence (the software Eves uses). It is, without a question, the most important program that we use in our company, by far. It’s far and away the most important software that we use all day, every day.”

To start, Eves uses it for to-do lists, notes on topics of interest to him, quotes he’d like to remember and other things along those lines. If he needs to schedule a lunch meeting with a co-worker, he can go into the software and put it on the calendar. A second later, it copies over to his Outlook, and a second after that, it copies over to his iPhone. At that same time, it sends a message to the person he’s having lunch with and puts the time on his or her Outlook calendar, as well. Everything is updated for everyone in real time.

It also reduces clutter because he keeps all files and records in the software instead of having manila folders everywhere — in fact, he has the equivalent of about 80,000 manila folders stored in the program.

Additionally, he uses it to target customers and manage the relationships with them. His target client isn’t necessarily someone who’s looking to buy his commercial spaces. Instead, it’s the commercial real estate brokers whom he’s trying to reach, and the software allows him to do just that. He now has more than 210,000 broker contacts in there to customize his searches.

“We can go into Commence and say, ‘Give us all the commercial real estate agents within these ZIP codes surrounding my new project,’” he says. “I enter those search parameters in Commence, and it takes me about 15 seconds, and there on the screen is every broker that fits those qualifications.”

He sends out about 100,000 e-mails a week, and because brokers want to know what’s available for their clients, they’re not going to delete these e-mails, so it’s highly effective marketing.

The program is also helpful for his website. He creates spreadsheets of all the available real estate centers that Venture has available, and these include asking price, square footage, property taxes, acres, how many phases there are and will be, and other numbers along these lines. Using SQL Server technology, the software is connected to the company’s website, so if he makes an update in the spreadsheet in Commence, it’s then updated to the website in real time, so customers always have current information. These updates can be done in real time like Eves does, or they can be programmed to update at a certain time on certain days.

“That kind of connectivity is great,” he says. “We don’t need a programmer, we don’t need anyone to go to change the price — it changes dynamically.”

And not needing a programmer saves big bucks on his IT budget, which can add up very quickly.

“We measure it more in increase in efficiency and productivity,” he says. “I would say that the savings are perhaps millions over the years and certainly many hundreds of thousands in payroll to make changes to it — there are changes to it every day. Just to have it, productivity goes so much higher.”

How to reach: Venture Corp., (415) 464-2000 or www.venturecorporation.com

Set it up

If you want to save money and efficiency by using content management software like Robert Eves, founder and president of Venture Corp., then it’s simple. First, find the software that fits your needs. If you don’t want to deal with IT people, then find one that has templates that can help you get started.

“Use the templates that come with it and then begin to customize them,” he says.

For example, you may have a contacts template, but you may add to it a column to put people’s spouses names, so when you see that person at a function, you can also greet his or her spouse — you remember the name because you had it in the program, which translates through to your smart phone, too. Or maybe you’re a car enthusiast and want to keep track of the type of car all your contacts drive — you can do that through customization.

“If you want your notes to get linked to your to-do list or your to-do list to be linked to your appointments, that’s what a relational database does.”

Published in Northern California

Craig Mundie sees science fiction becoming reality all the time. The holodeck, for example – that futuristic simulation room on Star Trek – isn’t so futuristic anymore for the chief research and strategy officer of Microsoft Corp.

“It isn’t that many years away where you’re going to find it quite natural to interact at a distance,” says Mundie, who spoke at the Cleveland Clinic Ideas for Tomorrow series on Jan. 5. “In fact, one of the things that I think you’ll see quite soon is the ability for people to, at least in small groups, go and have meetings together where none of them are actually physically in the same room but their ability to look at each other and talk and communicate is as if you were in the same place.”

Mundie presented Microsoft’s new innovations and shared how innovative technologies will change the game when it comes to long-distance interaction.

“Today we talk about collaboration as you make a phone call and talk; you can have a video conference,” he says. “But increasingly, we think this interaction at a distance is going to be really important. I generally tend to use the term tele-presence as a way to think about what it’s going to be like. … There was the telephone, which collapsed distance for people, but only with the spoken word. Then there was television, which allowed us to do that with images. And I think the next thing that we’re going to see is tele-presence, where more and more we’ll be able to interact with people in a very lifelike and realistic way that aren’t there.”

[VIDEO: See Mundie talk about tele-presence as the next step in interaction.]

Your kids are already using tele-presence – gaming systems like Xbox use avatars to represent players and help them communicate with opponents who aren’t sitting next to them on the couch. Mundie said those will become more realistic.

“The idea that you can have some very lifelike representation that you’re essentially projecting yourself through is not really science fiction,” he says.

Why is this important? Mundie closed his presentation with a video demonstration of a system Microsoft is currently developing based on these technologies. They created a “triage nurse” out of a computer kiosk with the knowledge and question-asking capacity to prioritize patients and make recommendations.

[See Cleveland Clinic’s video of Mundie presenting the triage nurse.]

“This is where I think all of these technologies have the promise to come together and be an amplification factor for the skilled, highly-trained people, whether they’re teachers or doctors, to be able to scale up our capabilities in a more cost-effective way on a planet that’s going to continue to see an increase of population,” Mundie says.

Or there’s the example from the University of Washington BioRobotics Lab, where researchers took an Xbox Kinect sensor into a new environment. In Mundie’s video, a man uses a force feedback system – similar to the joystick in a flying simulation – to “feel” objects in another room, perhaps a precursor for how surgeons will maintain tactile capacity during robotic surgeries.

[See Cleveland Clinic’s video of Mundie sharing the BioRobotics experiment.]

“Many of these things are very important in terms of moving people to comfort in dealing with computers or dealing with people interacting [across] distance,” he says. “Many people today get great value and utility out of computers, but they historically require a lot of training and acclimation to really get a lot of value out of it. As we move to these advanced graphical interfaces and direct manipulation interfaces where you can do things with your fingers or add voice commands, then the ease can get a lot better. The things that have frustrated people in using computers are going to be overcome by making them behave more like we do.”

In other words, why mess with tiny keyboards when your cell phone responds to voice commands? With new direct manipulation interfaces like voice and touch, we’re at a transition point with computers. Until now, they’ve primarily been tools. With those capabilities as good as they need to be, developers are turning to the next phase.

“The key to this is essentially to make it work less at your command and more on your behalf,” Mundie says. “More and more, we’re trying to get these computer systems to anticipate the type of things that you would want to do. In essence, it’s like having a great assistant. They know when you ask them something that they take all of the history and what your preferences are and they factor that into what they do for you.”

[VIDEO: See Mundie talk about the transition of technology from a tool to an assistant.]

Depending how many accounts, profiles and updates you have online, your computer might know you much more intimately than your real assistant. Mundie and his team are trying to use that to your advantage.

For example, they wanted Bing to do more work to satisfy your search, reducing your job to “one input, one click.” Now, when Mundie types in Denver, Bing thinks ahead to why he might be searching for that, and spits back real-time flight prices – kind of like an assistant would.

“We are at a point where computers are going to be more like us,” Mundie says. “From that, we can open up a completely new realm of what the computer can do for us and with us.”

How to reach: Microsoft Corp., http://www.microsoft.com/ or @Microsoft

Published in Akron/Canton
Monday, 28 February 2011 14:14

A WikiLeaks teachable moment

As business owners and operators, focusing your attention on that which is most immediate and pressing to your company is an important leadership skill. Items that are not front and center in your mind tend to get pushed to the back where they are dealt with later. The recent news stories concerning WikiLeaks may seem like the stuff high-tech spy thrillers are made of, but there are some "teachable moments" we can use from all these headlines.

1. Attacks can come from anywhere. At some point, the senior executives from MasterCard did not consider WikiLeaks any significant threat. Once MasterCard decided not to fund WikiLeaks’ transactions, the company website found itself disabled at the hands of a coordinated denial of service attack. Today, supporters of WikiLeaks are being encouraged to download computer programs that will help launch cyber attacks against specified targets like MasterCard. We have now officially entered the age of cyber warfare.

2. What if? Now that we all know what it feels like to have our government’s secret correspondence exposed for the world to see, imagine what your company would be going through if its electronic information ended up published on the Internet for all to see. Safeguarding your company’s intellectual property is important; having a plan is crucial.

3. It’s always those closest to you. The Army private who is suspected of being the person who divulged all the information to WikiLeaks is now a textbook example of the type of internal threat organizations face every day. Statistically, data breaches are more likely to occur from within your organization than from outside. Having simple HR, internal auditing and corporate IT security policies can go a long way towards fending off an embarrassing data breach.

A WikiLeaks event may never happen to your organization. But the threats of data breach and cyber warfare are undoubtedly becoming more frequent and real every day. Organizations with even the most basic IT environments are now potential targets. The days where executives could bury their heads in the sand are now over. The stakes are the integrity and validity of your business, and there are dedicated and experienced opponents out there who can inflict real harm. Taking simple precautions now could save you a lot of headache later.

Charles Weaver is the co-founder and president of the MSPAlliance, the world’s largest professional associationand accrediting body for the Managed Services Industry. He is also the founder and CEO of Weaver & Associates, a boutique M&A firm specializing in the managed IT services industry. Author of the book “The Art of Managed Services,” Weaver has spoken at numerous conferences around the world. Baseline Magazine recently named Weaver in the top 50 Most Influential People in Business IT.

Published in Los Angeles

One of the trends over the past five years has been an increasing use of Macs (or an interest in using Macs) in business. More and more, people want to know how to handle the increasing presence of Macs.

Smart Business sat down with Mike Landman, CEO of Ripple IT, to find out.

How is it that Macs have gone from being the computer of choice only for graphic designers to becoming a popular choice for mainstream computer users in business?

Well, Macs always had a reputation of being easy to use, but, for a variety of reasons, lost the business market to Microsoft after the release of Windows ’95. It really wasn't until after the iPod that things began to shift. Everyone started using iPods, then iPhones, and a ‘Halo Effect’ started making people curious about Macs. That led to an increasing use of Macs for people at home. For a lot of people, they started wondering why they couldn't use their Mac at work. So it was, in many ways, a home-user invasion of business.

So why would a business want to take a look at Apple? What are the advantages?

Right now, businesses are often not looking at Macs at all. They just come in the door. When the CEO starts using his Mac at work, things start to shift for IT people. They are often thrust into the world of Macs, and its trickier cousin — cross-platform networks — as the PC network has to begin accommodating the Macs.

I would suggest that a business is better served if it has a Mac strategy in place now, rather than having rogue Macs popping up in the office. The reasons people want to use them usually boil down to:

  • Macs are cool. This might seem like a silly reason, but there is value in the cool factor. People used to dismiss cool offices, casual work attire, flexible work schedules and other ‘squishy’ work things too. Increasingly, people want the computer they use to be something they like to work on. More and more, that’s Macs. Happy people is a high-value strategy.

  • Macs are less vulnerable to viruses and malware. There are basically no serious Mac viruses in the wild today. In the future, that probably won't be true. But the Mac world will start some 300,000 viruses behind, so it’s a safe bet that Macs will be less prone for the foreseeable future.

  • Lots of business software runs on Macs. With the release of Microsoft Office 2011, the last gross vestige of incompatibility (an Outlook client) is gone. So, The Office Suite, Adobe Creative Suite, Quickbooks and many others have Mac native versions. Cloud apps also run very well on Macs since Safari is one of the most Web-standards compliant browsers available (Macs can also run Chrome and Firefox).

What are the disadvantages of having Macs at work?

The disadvantages are generally compatibility issues. Those break down into two categories:

  • Some business software either doesn't exist for the Mac, or the Mac version is different. A lot of accounting packages, including Quickbooks, have different functionality. There are legacy apps that were written for PC that are not being actively developed. And there are a lot of apps out there for the PC that just don't exist on the Mac. So it's not for everyone.

  • There are issues of network compatibility. Network issues are nearly all non-issues with IT people that have a track record of experience integrating Macs and PCs. But for a system admin or an IT company that is new to Mac and PC support, there is no shortage of ‘gotchas.’ File naming conventions, file server configuration, e-mail setup and configuration, fonts and Active Directory authentication are the most common issues. That's generally why we think it's best to have your Mac strategy in place before the Macs come walking in the door.

What if someone wants to use a Mac but needs to access applications that are only available on PC?

There are a number of solutions for that, some more complex than others. Generally, there are two options though: Running PC virtualization software on your Mac (Parallels or VMware Fusion), or accessing PC applications using server-based solutions like Citrix XenApp or Microsoft Terminal Services. If it's a few people needing a handful of apps, local virtualization is probably most effective. If it's lots of users, then server-based needs to be considered.

One thing we hear is that Macs are more expensive. Are they worth the cost?

Macs are a little more expensive, but I think that issue is negligible. A few considerations:

  • Macs generally have no truly bare bones configurations. But for most business users, bare bones won't work anyway. So the purchase price is often much closer after the computer is configured the way a business will need it.

  • Macs hold their value. After using a Mac for three years, it has a decent value on places like eBay. PCs are usually depleted of their value, and we often find that businesses have to pay to have them taken away.

One thing to beware of is that Macs come with only a one-year warranty included. Most business-class PCs have a three-year warranty, which we would recommend. So it's usually best to buy an extra two years from Apple. That adds to the price.

In the end, a comparable Mac might be $200 more than its PC counterpart. Over three years, including interest, that's going to be about $8 a month per user. Probably less than a company spends on coffee. So my feeling is that if it will make an employee happy or more productive, it's probably worth the eight bucks. That said, costs will go up dramatically if you don't have a properly configured network or the support you need, so a proactive strategy for handling Mac users is the best bet for making a transition smooth and keeping costs down.

Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple IT, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with less than 100 employees.

Published in Atlanta

Over the past few years, enterprises have grown comfortable turning over certain IT functions to an outsourcing partner. This trend has more recently extended to the outsourcing of IT infrastructure (servers and the systems required for servers to run efficiently), to data center colocation, managed hosting and managed services providers.

In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2012, 20 percent of businesses will own virtually no IT assets, a testament to the potential cost and performance gains that firms can realize by leveraging an outsourcing partner with expertise and capabilities lacked in-house.

Smart Business learned more from Pete Stevenson, CEO at Latisys, about how IT infrastructure outsourcing (ITO) differs from the outsourcing of IT services, the primary benefits of ITO and where ITO is headed given the challenging economic and business climate.

Many firms outsource IT services, but what does it mean to outsource IT infrastructure?

Outsourcing IT infrastructure is a critical decision made by companies once they have concluded that a third-party provider can run the infrastructure more cost-effectively, with improved capital management, specifically defined service level agreements (SLAs) and increased flexibility. It means the decision-makers in a company want to stay focused on the core growth and management operations of their business, and want a supplier they can trust with the rest.

What are the benefits of outsourcing this type of IT infrastructure?

While there are many economic and business advantages that can be realized by outsourcing IT infrastructure, I’ll focus on three.

First, strategic outsourcing can deliver savings on capital expenses and a reduced total cost of ownership (TCO) for the organization. Instead of making heavy investments in power, cooling, security and network access, for example, a firm can leverage an outsourcing provider’s investments in technology, technical know-how and data center infrastructure for a best-of-breed solution without the burden of continuous capital investment.

Second, a firm can leverage SLAs to ensure that IT infrastructure availability and performance sync with the firm’s business objectives. These service level agreements help guarantee performance delivery by including economic penalties that hold the outsourcing provider financially accountable, which may vary from company to company if IT infrastructure is managed in-house.

The third benefit is the ability to augment internal skills with the expertise of the outsourcing provider. This can be a distinct advantage when it comes to managing service delivery across platforms providing load balancing, security, storage and backups. Benefiting from this expertise without having to purchase, own, operate or maintain data centers — or invest in training required to manage these systems — is of real value, particularly for firms with data center facilities unable to grow or accommodate increased power density and efficient cooling.

What economic and business factors are making it difficult for CFOs to meet growing IT infrastructure demands in-house?

Today, the CFO has a big say in IT infrastructure investments. Companies are faced with important choices on the best place to allocate money to grow or maintain their business. And whether that business is heavily based on IT infrastructure or not, the challenge for the CFO remains the same: How do I strike the right balance while investing wisely in IT, sales, marketing, customer service, product development, service delivery and other areas of the business?

As soaring capital expenditures and overwhelmed staffing resources start making in-house services less feasible, IT infrastructure outsourcing starts to become the smart alternative.

What IT infrastructure is most suitable to be outsourced to a data center?

Almost everything can be outsourced, but for a lot of companies, only certain elements make the most sense. We are seeing business customers outsource their data centers, the management of their servers, network connectivity (which can be secured in the outsourced data center), load balancing, security, storage systems — and even certain job functions.

The answer to what IT infrastructure is suitable for outsourcing comes down to whether or not its outsourcing will result in a better solution that delivers quantifiable cost improvements and improved service levels.

What traits should an organization look for in an ITO partner?

Data center colocation, managed hosting and managed services providers come in different flavors, with varied power and cooling capabilities. Regardless of your firm’s specific needs, you should always seek out ITO partners with an operations and services model that is well run and has sufficient growth capacity to meet your space, power and cooling needs — both now and into the future.

Beyond that, consider financial stability, physical and logical security in and around the data center facilities, geographic diversity to ensure redundancy, clearly defined SLAs and multiple connectivity options when identifying the capabilities you need your ITO partner to deliver.

Pete Stevenson is CEO of Latisys. Reach him at peter.stevenson@latisys.com.

Published in Orange County