Small Business Line of Business Apps

Posted: January 23, 2009 in, SharePoint Services, Uncategorized

It’s the business, stupid.

When we get over all of the technical benefits, features and issues of installing a domain and deploying desktops, what remains is the essential reason for having done it all in the first place:  how does the business benefit?

There are two kinds of benefits for a business that result from IT.  Increasing worker productivity with software tools is the most common result, and often the easiest to implement and measure.  Obvious examples include office products, e-mail, electronic faxing, document storage and retrieval, and access to information and services available on the Internet.

The second benefit comes from Line of Business (LOB) applications. A LOB is software and its associated business procedures which automate and standardize essential activities of a business.  Some of the most common examples are accounting and payroll systems, sales, supply chain and inventory, and sales.  Specific applications, like membership, non-profit, appointment scheduling, are used by particular business types.  For a wide range of businesses,  tools become LOB applications: and SharePoint come to mind.

Once the excitement of setting up the domain is past, once users have become comfortable logging in and stopped asking more than fifty questions a day, it is time to get the domain infrastructure in place for business needs and to appropriately implement the LOBs.

Work Stations

If you have done this before, it will come as no surprise that the hardest things to overcome and get to work properly once a domain is set up is the variety of workstations that have been deployed.  The workstations have been managed much like small fiefdoms, each employing its own set of rules and methods, all without much general purpose or direction.

Data files are all over the place. Software updates have been hit or miss.  Backups may be in place, but that is unlikely.  Versions of software products   If multiple users share a desktop, the problem is even worse.  Each user may exert a difference influence on the system with each logon.

Planning Domain Policies and Infrastructures

While it is tempting to start in shoring up domain group policies, setting up shares, and moving files around, the real success will come from planning an infrastructure architecture that meets business needs and worker habits. Here are some things to consider in planning.

  1. What are the requirements for remote and mobile users?  They may need access to both data and to locally stored applications. In that case, workstations or terminal servers will be required to allow them to log onto local resources to execute applications.
  2. What are the kinds of business data, both shared and user-unique, that are necessary to support the business?  How much storage capacity should be allocated to the data, and how big do the pipes need to be to access it acceptably?
  3. What are the backup and disaster recovery methodologies for the domain?  How will those apply to business data?
  4. What are the access rights users and system resources need?  Are the security infrastructures of the domain sufficient, or do individual applications require additional security infrastructure?
  5. Will non-domain members need access to data or other resources? How will this data be proffered?

While these are not the only considerations, they are a good place to start.

Re-Establishing LOB Applications in the Domain

Many applications for small businesses are designed to run on a single workstation, or at best on a peer network.  As such, they may not be able to take advantage of domain facilities; in fact, they might require some extra work to function well within a domain.

Let’s take QuickBooks Pro or Enterprise as an example.  In a typical multi-user peer environment, Quickbooks would be installed on one workstation first, and the data files would be stored there.  Other workstations would access the data over the network.  However, once the domain is installed, it may make sense to put the data onto a shared volume on the server where backups are already going to be set up.   To make this work, a “server only” installation of QuickBooks needs to be installed to support remote access to the data files.  Firewalls may need to be opened and permissions set before the client machines will run properly.

QuickBooks Point of Sale is even more dramatic an example of peer vs. domain design and implementation.  In either multi-user or multi-store versions, the first workstation becomes the “server” where data files are stored locally in a fixed directory location.  Moving the data to a shared server volume is much more complex than just copying the files and opening them from individual workstations.

Set up and Configure Office and Similar Productivity Applications

  1. Where workstations have the applications installed locally, make sure that they are all running compatible versions and have updates installed.
  2. Decide on a storage strategy for data, documents, etc.  Set the workstation options so that users follow the storage strategy.
  3. Rely on global settings or common settings wherever possible.  As a for example, set template default locations to a common, shared folder.
  4. Verify that tool/application settings, when appropriate, are compatible with domain policies and settings; rely on group policy settings if they can be used.

SharePoint Services

Let me conclude this overview with a few comments about SharePoint.  It may be one of the most powerful yet overlooked products the business has once the domain is set up.  By using built-in features such as document libraries, shared calendars and lists, the business can not only control centralized storage and access to data but can also implement business processes and procedures with workflows.

One of the tragic mistakes of implementing SharePoint properly is because of one of its best features: so much is ready to do right out of the box.  The tendency for both IT consultants and business users is to quickly set up and start using SharePoint without any architecture and design and far too little attention paid to analysis of the business problems.
I will post later on ways to avoid these early use traps and offer some ideas for using SharePoint effectively in a small and medium size business environment.


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