The new lightweight service models: A no-brainer for SMB

Google and Amazon are two of the companies offering Web-based services that let your enterprise focus on its strongest value-added layer

Last week I had an experience that drove home the giant leaps IT is making, particularly with Web-based service models. In my spare time, I’ve been developing a niche-content Web site (more on this in a future column). I’m user-testing it now, and the biggest user request has been for a search box. Developing on a shoestring, I’d written off search for version 1, thinking it would take months to build.

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Imagine my delight to find that Google just began offering a "business edition" of its custom search product, ad-free and with results delivered via XML into your pages, for as little as $100 per year for up to a 5,000-page site. Within five hours of my own tinkering time, I was up and running with site search.

This is the future, ladies and gentlemen. Tap into the expertise and resources of larger, more specialized organizations and focus on the layer where you really add value.

Here’s an even better example: A friend of mine, Avery Lyford, has a company called Digisense, which provides secure data management (backup, archiving, recovery, and search) services to SMB customers through the managed service provider channel.

Rather than building a gigantic datacenter and writing man-centuries of code to deliver this service, Digisense developed on top of best-of-breed resources and open source modules so that the company could focus its own brainpower on the key value-added security and management layers.

Here’s how it works: Say you’re a optometrist’s office with confidential billing records and several terabytes of digital eye scans you currently back up to a laptop or heaven knows where. You need the data locally and want it securely and professionally backed up, but can’t afford an enterprise-class system such as an EMC Centera.

The Digisense service, offered as a subscription through your managed service provider, consists of a small on-site appliance that encrypts and indexes the data locally before sending it out over a regular broadband connection for archiving to the Digisense back end.

But where is the Digisense back end? It’s at Amazon, that’s where! Digisense uses Amazon’s S3 Simple Storage Service for the encrypted data. So as a customer, I don’t have to worry about whether Digisense has the chops to run a datacenter -- I already know that Amazon does.

And Digisense can focus on the crucial piece, which is the software to secure, index, manage, and remotely archive this data to deliver the peace of mind the customer needs at a low cost. As Digisense’s Lyford explains, the management is the hardest part to get right. “There are 1.7 million copies of Microsoft Small Business Server out there, and one of the circles of hell is reserved for people who have to remotely manage Microsoft Exchange. There’s a big opportunity for value-add here beyond just moving files around.”

For managed service providers, this opens up a whole new world of competitiveness. Instead of having to constantly scramble to the client’s site to resolve an issue, they can remotely manage this service, enabling them to offer a flat rate per site or server rather than bill time and materials. And if the customer has a data loss on-site (even if the Digisense appliance is also destroyed), it’s a straightforward matter to plug in another appliance and quickly reconstitute the data.

For customers, it means they can make nagging data worries and potential legal liabilities go away with an on-demand, dial-tone-like service previously only available to much larger companies. As I discovered with the new Google search offering, we little guys have more IT capability at our beck and call these days, and more affordably, than we ever imagined.

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