Small businesses are continually bombarded with advertisements and mailers to sign up for the "fastest, cheapest and most reliable" way to connect to the Internet. For many businesses, it is not as simple as a one-computer, one dial-up system. A company's network of computers must often be linked and serviced. The following is a basic primer of what is available and how to determine the best network and online services for your company.

Before starting to price the available networks and Internet packages, conduct a "needs analysis" of your company. Ask yourself what kind of work you would like your company's computer and Internet system to perform. Would it be more efficient if electronic information is shared between offices, departments and employees? Can printers, company databases and backup systems be shared? Should you consider a file server to act as the central storage unit of information? In many cases, small businesses are still using standalone workstations while a network (allowing shared information between stations) would be more cost and time effective.

Another issue to consider is Internet downloading needs. Many companies especially printing, graphic, publishing and architecture companies must download large files containing images, graphs, artwork, drawings and other items that can take literally hours to transfer. High-speed Internet access, once only affordable to large businesses, is now available to small businesses at a reasonable price. A Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) greatly speeds up downloading and transferring of files because of the technology it utilizes.

Comparing costs

These days, traditional modem connections to the Internet cost as much as DSL. If you compare costs associated with a dedicated phone line and the lost productivity involved with slower Internet access, you could actually save money by subscribing to DSL, even with its typically higher per-month charge. Before purchasing DSL, however, you will want to determine how many of your employees will need to be online. When multiple employees use the Internet simultaneously, expect monthly online rates to increase.

Price is often the initial driving factor prompting small-business owners to place calls to DSL and network providers advertising the lowest prices. While a $39.95 a month price for Internet access (or some other low-ball figure) might induce small-businesses owners to think about DSL services, the reality is that for most businesses, the bare minimum service packages are not sufficient for their small business' needs.

Once the needs analysis is complete, the next step is to find a company that can provide the software, Internet access and network administrative services to fulfill those needs. Finding the right company can mean the difference between having a positive experience during the process and encountering your worst nightmare.

When selecting the right company to help you, use the same approach as you would when hiring a contractor, marketing company or other business providing a service or product. Contact and interview several companies before making a selection. Talk with companies that can identify and understand your business. Ask for a customer list containing businesses similar in size and needs as yours. Take the time to contact the references.

When obtaining quotes from the companies you select, make sure they quote on their advertised products. Some Internet and network service companies try to sell prospective customers items they do not need. You do, however, want your system to have the capability to accommodate growth over the next five years.

The company you select should be willing to walk you through its quote, to explain each item and its function, and why it is necessary for your business. Many companies will do a free needs analysis. It is part of their cost of doing business and they do not pass the cost on to potential clients. A company's responsiveness and willingness to educate you at this stage will tell you a lot about future dealings with the company.

Service guarantees

All computer systems experience trouble from time to time. These glitches are caused by either human or hardware/software errors. Software compatibility errors, especially when combining programs from different software companies, are not uncommon. The company you select should provide service and hardware guarantees, along with prompt technical support that results in minimum downtime for your computer systems. The company's technicians should be certified. Find out if the company provides emergency service and a 24-hour help desk. If your system crashes, you will want fast service to get your business up and running again. Also, ask when servicing takes place. Is the service company willing to repair the problem or conduct maintenance after hours so as not to interfere with your workday? After-hour repair rates should be the same or only slightly higher than regular-hour rates.

Ask perspective companies about their data back-up and security plans. If your system crashes, you should have the peace of mind of knowing that your data can be easily retrieved. Back-ups can take place monthly, weekly or daily either on tape or on disk. Some companies offer offsite backup and storage so, in case of earthquakes, fires or theft, the data remains safe. Online security is also important. While DSL may be a fast method of online access, users share Internet access with thousands of others who are using the same network. If security or "firewalls" are not in place, hackers can easily penetrate your business' computer system. Many companies that have been "hacked" have never recovered.

Security is also an issue if some of your employees telecommute or your business has multiple locations. If this is the case, systems must be in place to allow employees access to company data offsite or between locations without exposing the company to security risks.

Just as each business is different, the computing needs of each business are different. Setting up and maintaining a network of Internet-linked workstations and reliable back-up and security systems can be a daunting task. For most small businesses, it is no longer a question of if it should invest in a system, but when. Doing your homework before investing in the project can avoid needless spending and ensure that your new computer system improves overall productivity, increases sales or allows for communication that is more effective.

Ryan Blair is a vice president at 24x7 TECH, a technical support application service provider based in Camarillo. He can be reached at Rblair@247TECH.com.

Entrepreneur's Notebook is a regular column contributed by EC2, The Annenberg Incubator Project, a center for multimedia and electronic communications at the University of Southern California. Contact James Klein at (213) 743-1759 with feedback and topic suggestions.

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