Top 10 tips: Online services for small business


Services available via the Internet such as YouTube for video sharing and Skype for video calling are classic examples of online services.

Online service options for small business cover everything from accounting systems, customer relationship management systems, document storage, and even telephone systems.

Online services shift the responsibility for the I.T. infrastructure to the service provider. In addition, rather than investing in buying I.T. infrastructure, you buy a service. These points can be very attractive to a small business, however it is prudent to understand the limitations this may create when compared to hosting your own I.T. infrastructure onsite. With this in mind, our top 10 tips for online services for small business are:

1. Check that your Internet connection has enough bandwidth.

Bandwidth can quickly be overused for data intensive online services such as file storage. This especially applies if you have an office with multiple staff sharing a single broadband connection. Indeed, bandwidth overuse not be apparent on day 1, rather it may only become an issue over time. As such, if access to your online service is critical, make sure those responsible for your I.T. keep you informed on your bandwidth capacity.

2. Understand the impact if your Internet connection is not available.

If your Internet connection fails and your customer relationship management database is unavailable, how long can you do business before serious impact? You may want to consider a “business grade” Internet connection, as these have better availability and support commitments. In addition, you may even want to have two Internet connections so that you have redundancy.

3. Understand how your data is secured.

The best online services provide detailed statements on how their technical operations teams can access your data. For example, they will state if there are protections in place to avoid inappropriate access. There are some useful standards available that you can use as a proxy to gain confidence that your data is securely stored: to read more on there standards see this post.

4. Confirm if your regulatory requirements will be met.

Do you have regulatory requirements that your company data must meet? For example, if you are managing credit card data you will need to comply with PCI DSS standards. If you plan to use online services with individual health information covered by US law, then you will need to make sure your online services are HIPAA compliant.

5. Do you have one primary office? Avoid online services for realtime access to big files.

By definition, online services will only be as fast as your broadband connection speed. Network speed is measured in Megabits per second, or Mbps. It is not unusual to have a broadband connection of 10Mbps and a local office wired network of 1,000Mbps, yep, 100 times faster. In this example, when considering large data transfers between computers in your office, your online service will be much slower than a locally housed service. This will be important for any business that needs realtime access to large volumes of data locally.

6. Understand how backup and disaster recovery is provided.

It is expensive to keep backups, and it is expensive to have arrangements for disaster recovery. This is one reason why using online service providers can be convenient, as they will look after this for you. Or will they? Make sure you verify the backups routine and how/if you can access backups if need be. Also understand if the provider loses their primary data centre, what would happen to your data.

7. Understand how easily you can change plans.

If your requirements change, and you need to increase or reduce your consumption of your online services, can this be accomodated? For example, if your capacity requirements increase, can these requirements be met, and is the process and cost of meeting those requirements acceptable? (as a case in point, Microsoft provides various small business plans for their online services called Office 365, some of these plan cannot be expanded once specific user limits are reached).

8. Ask how you can leave the service and take your data.

The future is uncertain, and there are many reasons why you need the ability to leave your online service provider. Understand the process for doing this, including how long it takes, and if the process is automatic or manual.

9. Check how simple it is to administer the service.

For an online service to be effective there has to be an interface that allows administration of users and their permissions. You will need the help of an expert if the interface is too complex, and this will add to the total cost of the service. For example, until recently, Microsoft required the use of a coding language called “PowerShell” to allow business owners to stop password expiries on their online email service!

10. Determine if you will need support setting it up.

Adopting an online service may require changes to existing I.T. infrastructure, such as your Internet capacity. There may also be existing data that you need to migrate from your existing system to your chosen online service. Both the existing system remediation and system migration can quickly become complicated. Thus determine if you need expert assistance, and build this into your cost evaluation.


Please see our other free guides,, or our training courses, to learn more about the I.T. components identified in this guide.