Small Office Internet Access and E-mail Solutions that Won't Break the Bank

by Nick Richards

If you're a small office looking for Internet connectivity and e-mail, but don't have a Fortune 500 IT budget there is hope. For those just getting into the game or others who might be looking for an inexpensive solution for a small remote office there are several options out there that can get your office up and running in short order.

Anyone who has taken a look at the cost of implementing dedicated Internet access or an internal e-mail system knows that the costs can be astronomical. If the monthly charges don't get you, the maintenance costs surely will. As an alternative to these high priced options, outlined in this article are a few solutions that rely on standard phone lines and a minimal amount of equipment expense.

Low Cost Internet Connectivity

Talking the Internet connectivity talk can be as confusing as it is expensive. DSL, Router, ADSL, DHCP, Firewall, ISDN, VPN, Proxy, POP, T1, RIP, T3, SMTP, Hub, OC3, ATM, TCP/IP, Ethernet, CLID, ISP, PPTP, RAS, IPX, NetBEUI, and throw in POTS for good measure. If you can't make sense of all the jargon, here are two solutions that can get your office connected with no added telecommunications aggravation other than an additional phone line or two.

For small office Internet connectivity, Ramp Networks offers one of the most compelling solutions on the market with their WebRamp M3 product. The unit allows users on a network to share a pool of up to three modems to browse the Internet or send and receive e-mail. Because the modems and dial-up accounts are shared between users, the cost of maintaining individual dial-up accounts and modems is dramatically reduced.

The WebRamp M3 combines a 4-port hub with three modem ports and other goodies such as DHCP and Security all wrapped up in a single unit. For small office installations you can take advantage of the 4-port hub to network your computers. For larger office installations you can install the unit as a node on your Ethernet network for access by everyone on the network. Simply add modems to meet expanding bandwidth requirements. Since the unit bonds the bandwidth of the individual modems, with three 56K modems the speed rivals what you might get from an ISDN line. The modems use standard phone lines, so no special wiring is required. From the users perspective it's as seamless as launching their web browser. This solution scales effectively from 1 to approximately 25 users depending on use. Ramp Networks also offers a M3t and M3i model which support remote dial in and VPN capabilities.

If you are running a Novell Network 3com offers a comparable product called OfficeConnect Remote Dual Analog, which contains two U.S. Robotics internal 56K modems. In addition to most of the features offered by the WebRamp M3 this unit can be connected to a Novell Network (IPX).

Low Cost E-mail

Now that your office is connected to the Internet, what about Internet e-mail? As part of most hosting services you can purchase additional individual e-mail accounts for as little as $2 per month. There are a number of free e-mail clients such as Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Exchange (bundled with Windows 95) that provide a fairly complete set of features. Used in conjunction with one of the connectivity solutions mentioned earlier, this mail solution can provide both internal and Internet mail services without the unnecessary cost of purchasing and maintaining an internal e-mail server or gateway. Mail transfer times between internal rival that of an internal mail system. In addition, outside e-mail services are typically more reliable than most internal e-mail systems because of the level of expertise in administering the systems.

Case Study

Crest Coating, a Southern California based industrial applicator of powder and exotic liquid coatings for metal and wood products with approximately 140 employees, implemented a solution which provided Internet access and e-mail to their office staff.

Mike George, Information System Specialist for Crest Coating started by hosting the corporate web site through NRGSource. As the popularity of the web site grew and more customers were communicating through the site, Mike needed to open up the lines of communication to his office staff. Not having the budget to implement a dedicated Internet connection NRGSource recommended the Ramp Networks, Web Ramp M3. Combined with two Best Data 56K modems and dial-up accounts through a local provider, Mike was able to provide shared Internet access to his office of 20. To upgrade the current peer-to-peer mail system Mike purchased individual mail accounts through NRGSource as an add-on to the hosting service. This provided maintenance free Internet mail for all his users with no additional equipment required to install or maintain. Microsoft Exchange was used as the mail client and Microsoft Internet Explorer as the web browser.

All told, Crest Coating spent far less than they would have implementing and maintaining a dedicated Internet connection and internal mail system. "After reviewing our options this solution proved much less difficult to implement and required a lot less maintenance," said Mike George. "I would recommend this solution to anyone in a similar situation to ours." Total cost for equipment and installation was approximately $1400 with ongoing monthly charges of $140 plus the cost of the two phone lines. This was a dramatic savings over other options that involved expensive equipment and communications charges. In addition, the costly and often aggravating maintenance of an internal e-mail gateway and firewall was entirely eliminated.

If you don't want to spend big bucks right out of the gate to connect your office, try one of these solutions. The cost is low and the installation far less complicated than other options. You can always upgrade to a higher speed solution or internal mail system at a later date. As with any proposed technology solution talk to people that have implemented similar solutions and do your homework by reading product reviews and available case studies. Selecting an outside technology organization to help with the implementation can also provide a smooth transition with less aggravation.

Nick Richards is the Director of Business Development at NRGSource, Inc., a technology consulting firm specializing in helping small and medium-sized companies design and implement cutting edge Internet technology solutions. E-mail: nrichards@nrgsource.com

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