Globalizing the SMB    

Through ever increasing globalization and the use of the public Internet, many small and medium businesses are looking to move beyond their home countries to tap into globally available markets. And they look to compete with the big guys, wanting to support enterprise-level services for their staff and customers. After reading this paper you will better understand the Information Communication Technology (ICT) challenges you will face and points you must consider if you are looking to run your business globally.

What to Consider
Taking your company global is more then just hanging a shingle up in a second or third time zone. It means providing globally accessible IT services such as email and file storage to all staff and managing geographically dispersed data. The issues include providing upgraded connectivity and availability and of course speed of access. You will need to consider the regionally local laws and regulations concerning data you hold on a country’s citizens. And your industry may have specific compliancy concerns to take into consideration as well.

I am not going to delve into the any legal or compliancy considerations in this article, but I strongly encourage you to look into them.

The Plan – How Not To
The plan is to have a plan, a comprehensive plan which is to be shared and understood by all stakeholders.

The biggest issue I have seen when a company decides to go global is their lack of foresight, of strategic planning. Typically, in the SMB space, when a new office is set up, the ICT plan, or lack there of, goes like this:
  1. Purchase PCs, software, perhaps a server, and needed connectivity gear.
  2. Order access to the Internet.
  3. Hire a local IT professional to set up the new network and office.
Once everything is up and running then and only then do the stakeholders wonder about how to connect the new office network with other locations. Since the default settings for network devices are typically left as is, invariably one of the networks has to be renumbered. Occasionally the original purchases aren’t adequate, and new hardware needs to be acquired to support the required functionality between locations.

Do you see how additional up-front planning could have saved headaches, time, and money?

The Plan – How To
Here is a plan on how not to waste these business-precious resources. By having a well thought out plan in advance, the new office can be properly equipped the first time around. IP address allocation is controlled up front. Configurations are done right the first time and don’t require changes. Additionally, once the plan is available, opening third and fourth and fifth locations is much easier, almost cookie-cutter. The essential elements of such a plan are:
  • Assigning a global IP addressing scheme.
  • Specifying a list of standard equipment & approved manufacturers.
  • Specifying standard connectivity requirements.
  • Documenting the standard settings.
Multiple Location Data Management
Moving on, we know that business-critical information stored in documents and databases must be preserved, or backed up. In single location ICT deployments this is usually done using disk-to-tape storage or disk-to-disk replication. Access to all organizational data is simple in a single location since it is available on the network. When going global, access to the data of the entire organization is restricted by the speed and availability of connectivity between locations.

To alleviate the risk of data loss and loss of access to data, a central repository for all files and other data is strongly recommended. The centrality allows easy back-up and recovery of data, and redundancy allows for failover recovery from failure. The requirements for this central repository are:
  • Multiple connections to the Internet
  • Server redundancy
  • Hard drive redundancy
  • Power and HVAC redundancy
  • A documented and used back-up strategy
It is feasible to host the central repository on-site at one of the locations if the above criteria are met. Note that it may be required that each location have a server for local access management.

When using a directory-based environment such as Microsoft Windows environment the local servers are part of the same domain tree as the central repository servers. This configuration allows staff members to roam locations with ease assuring full access to all resources. User accounts are managed from the central repository servers providing a single point to manage the entire organization thus reducing complexity and administrative overhead.

Email management is also done from the central repository servers. Since multiple Internet connections are specified for the servers, this assures email availability. Additionally by having a single repository for all email any back-up strategies are simplified.

Accessing data relies on connection types and their associated connectivity speeds. Fiber optic or other symmetric connectivity is best for this type of network deployment. ADSL and other broadband technologies have slow upload speeds by design. Where symmetric connectivity is unavailable or out of budget, terminal services such as Microsoft Terminal Server or Citrix are recommended. This may concern your budget and growth planning. A one-time purchase of licenses may be cheaper than the recurring cost of high bandwidth access over the life cycle of the office location.

There are good and reliable solutions for multiple location and global access to reliably stored data. Planning ahead to deploy these is part of thinking like a global business.

Securing Communications
Connectivity provided to staff for remote access to the central repository servers needs to be protected by VPN whether site-to-site or client-access when transporting sensitive information. Internet access also gets routed through the central server facility. This is recommended for the following reasons:
  • Point-to-point links are considerably cheaper then links with Internet access.
  • A single firewall installation simplifies organization-wide policy enforcement.
  • A single firewall installation has a lower overall cost then deploying per site firewalls.
A single transfer point for all Internet traffic also allows for management and monitoring of all communications into and out of the organization. Email and instant message proxies can be deployed to capture all communications.

Networks generally start out small and grow as technology developed to solve business problems becomes available. In the last decade, 2 technologies have greatly influenced how businesses treat data; these are storage and bandwidth. In both cases what once was expensive has become cheap and readily available. By smartly interconnecting the offices of an organization at speeds which can affordably provide all staff ready access, even small organizations can enjoy the economies of scale previously reserved for only the largest of enterprises.

Orginally published May, 2011

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