StrandVision recently expanded, moving from a single office to multiple sites with a home office thrown in for good measure. Everything went smoothly. However, this process forced us to think about all of the technical aspects of our business in a very granular way.
The technologies, of course, are directly related to providing our SaaS digital signage service so you or your customers may have different issues to deal with when considering a multi-office expansion. Office sizes also dictate technologies. This scenario describes technologies for a 20-50-person company typical of resellers/system integrators and their customers.
Our new headquarters office also houses our development operation so we need robust Internet access, servers, etc. Our remote office primarily handles sales, which requires a different physical office build out and technology base. Some employees have the option to work out of a home office, which presents another set of technologies and, frankly, security issues.
One of the basic decisions that we made was to move away from a traditional telephone system to VoIP -- more on this next month. This decision had ramifications for both the design and the capacity of our network. We selected dedicated T1 lines for all of our offices except the home office.
Regardless of the final applications, any office expansion will require a pretty comprehensive technology plan and build out. This provides logistical challenges, especially when considered with all of the physical office renovations, such as cubical construction, moving, security, maintenance and upkeep for either leased or owned space.
Since our company provides hosted digital signage services directly to end users and through resellers, we deploy a server farm provided primarily by e3 Servers with video capacity served by Amazon. Between running development servers and servicing the VoIP system, we knew that we would need plenty of bandwidth and connection quality at all locations.
A further decision related to both cost and control was whether or not to purchase or lease our VoIP phone system and Internet gateway. We chose to purchase a router as the gateway for two reasons: first, it will cost less than the $50-plus per month lease over the long run; second, we wanted the flexibility to configure the gateways ourselves to better accommodate multiple IP addresses, our VPN and our VoIP system. The downside is that the T1 provider is responsible only to the gateway, so setup and troubleshooting can become more complex.
Typically, remote offices have many of the same specifications as the headquarters, yet require some differences in order to be optimized for their specific business functions. As mentioned above, our remote office is primarily focused on sales. Here again, a robust Internet gateway with a dedicated IP address facilitates both data (VPN) and VoIP communications between the offices. We went with T1 lines, but depending on your needs, a DSL or cable connection may be adequate for the remote office.
We also opted for a dedicated file server that synchronizes sales data with the headquarters server on an hourly basis. This reduces VPN traffic and increases application performance since the files are accessed at full speed instead of T1 speeds. Our web-based CRM application resides on another server that is accessed over the Internet from IP addresses that we allow.
Home offices are in some ways the simplest, and in others, the most complex remote office setup. They tend to be casually treated. Yet, I think that they present potential technology and security sales and service opportunities for system integrators. Although we rely on employees' cable or DSL connections, we use the VPN to access the corporate system to keep things secure. The VoIP is easily extended to the home office and is as reliable as the Internet connection. We think that it is best for the company to supply all of the computer/software/phone equipment and retain administrator-level control over the components.
All company files should remain on corporate servers with home office access through the VPN, which may affect performance a bit. In our case, most of the company files are stored on the headquarters server as the employee works in the contact manager. Since there may be family members in the household, password protection must be used, and a password management protocol is highly recommended.
The bottom line is that the company should be able to manage software, anti-virus, firewall updates and user settings, so that it retains the ability to immediately deny access to company files and monitor for unauthorized access.
Finally, employee non-disclosure agreements and other employment documents should be carefully reviewed and updated, and remote employees should sign enforceable agreements acknowledging company ownership of equipment and agreeing to return the equipment upon separation.
As a result of following these steps, for each of these specific situations, our move went smoothly and positions us for continued growth. Our staff is just now getting used to working with this multi-office setup, which requires some procedural and management adjustments -- but that's another story for another installment of this column.
Mike Strand is founder and CEO of StrandVision LLC (www.strandvision.com), an Internet-based subscription digital signage service that is distributed through resellers.