Monday, 30 June 2008

SBSC Qualified

Today Sirona Solutions became part of the Microsoft Small Business Specialist Community, this was because I passed my SBSC exam. It’s fair to say I’m far from a fan of exams and I thought I’d put them well behind me when I left formal education many years ago. However, I’ve taken a long list of exams in my IT career and today’s was the latest and also the one I’m most proud of. I’m most proud of it because it’s not just for me, it’s for our company and it shows current and future customers that we excel at what we do.

Microsoft SMBS Logo 2008

The certification also shows Microsoft that we are serious at what we’re doing and allows them to better help as they know what we specialise in.

Some developments at Sirona have been put on hold while I’ve been concentrating on this qualification. Now it’s done things can start moving again, all of which will help Sirona grow.  Stay tuned for more information ;-)

Friday, 27 June 2008

VoIP for Business

When you mention VoIP, the first thing that usually springs to mind is Skype.  Now Skype is a fantastic piece of software and millions of people use it every day.  I’ve used it on occasion myself, on a trip to the US I used Skype on the free hotel Wifi to speak to Mrs Nick back in the UK.  The call quality was fantastic, especially compared to a mobile.  I’ve also used it to talk to a good friend in Hong Kong, again brilliant call quality and who could argue at an hour long phone call half-way round the world costing zero pence?

VoIP for Business, on the other hand, is a whole different ball park.  The idea is to bring corporate phone system features and functionality to small businesses at an affordable cost.  There are also savings to be made in call costs, in my experience these are particularly evident when calling abroad.  One sixty minute call to the States recently, came in at just over £1!

We use VoIP here at Sirona House and we make use of a lot of the advanced features.  When you call Sirona you are presented with a voice-menu, don’t hate me just yet though we have kept it nice and short – only two button presses get you through to the right person.  Our voice-menu was professionally recorded, but you can also record your own.  The advantage for us is when the call gets put through to the office we know what buttons you have pressed.  So we know if you’re calling for tech support, to log a call, whether you’re a business or home user, etc.  As we grow we’ll be able to route calls more effectively and ensure our customer’s calls are always answered by the correct person.

Voice-mail is now a feature we’re all very used to with mobile phones and this comes bundled with VoIP.  You can either have individual voice-mail and/or a group voice-mail depending on how your calls are routed.  That’s another feature, call routing.  You can ensure that at 9am your calls are all forwarded to the office, then at 5pm they’re routed to the person on-call and at 8pm they switch to voice-mail.  Call routing can also be tied into a voice-menu to be routed to a particular department.  You can also arrange how phones ring, you can have a group of phones ring at the same time, have one ring and then another or even have a call automatically routed to a mobile if no-one picks up in the office.

So you may be asking what the catch is, why are BT still making money?  Well the reason all these features are affordable is they are delivered over a standard broadband connection.  A lot of users of business VoIP will share one broadband connection for both web browsing and VoIP.  This isn’t the recommended solution and at Sirona House we have a dedicated broadband connection just for VoIP.

So with business VoIP you are putting your entire phone network over a single broadband connection and most people will have experienced a failure of their broadband connection.  However, broadband has become a lot more reliable in the last couple of years and I actually struggle to remember the last time either our business or home connections failed.  On top of this business VoIP providers are now providing their own broadband connections to their customers that come with guarantees of service.  This gives you call quality guarantees and dedicated support behind the connections so if there are problems they are rectified quickly.

Overall we’re very happy with our VoIP service and there’s no way we could afford to have all the features we have by going straight to BT.  We’re also not tied into a long agreement, so if weren’t happy with it we could easily go somewhere else.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Open Letter to Dell Premier

Dell Premier is Dell’s latest offering to the Channel community to help us prepare quotes for customers.  While I liked having an account manager I could actually speak to, the web site is easy to use and I can get prices very quickly. 

The Channel relationship is supposed to give us, as resellers, as a discount to persuade customers to do business through us, rather than going direct to Dell.  However, on my latest quote Premier has made us look like rip-off merchants…  Hence my letter to Olivia Hughes, UKI PAD eBusiness Manager:

Hi Olivia,

We have been a Dell partner for a little under a year and generally we have had a very positive experience working with Dell.  On Friday I prepared a quote for a potential customer and included in that quote was a Dell PowerConnect 2716.  The price to us as a partner, on Dell Premier, was and still is £159 and this is what we duly quoted to the customer.  Today the customer has come back to me and has asked me to explain why he can buy the same PowerConnect switch for £60 less than our quote.  Looking on the consumer website I can indeed see the PowerConnect 2716 for £97!

During our initial meeting with this customer we had championed our relationship with Dell and the discounts we were able to make available for him.  I hope you can understand the difficult position this price conflict now puts our company in and the possible damage it has done to our relationship with this customer in such a strategic point in our relationship.

Could you offer any explanation as to why this huge price difference is evident?  Could you also offer any reassurance as to why I don’t have to start comparing all products between Dell Premier and Dell Consumer, before putting quotes forward to customers?

Please note I have copied in a number of SMB community groups and I will also be publishing this email on my personal blog.

I look forward to your response.



I look forward to what response, if any, that I get from Dell.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Manchester SBS Meeting

Last night I went to my second Manchester SBS Meeting hosted by Ceri Thomas of 168Tech with Chris Parkes and Danny Ovens from Microsoft.  After getting a lot out of the last meeting back in April, I dragged my business partner Alex along to this one.  I assured him that it was a good mixture of technical content and marketing (his speciality) so he was happy to come.

Chris gave a quick demo of SBS 2008, which he’d only just installed himself earlier that day.  It was really good to see it running, rather than just the screen shots I’ve seen so far.  It did get a bit bogged down running in Hyper-V on a 64bit laptop, I’ll have to see how well it runs on our VMware ESX box.

By the end of that Alex was wondering what the hell I’d brought him to!  However, a combination of pizza and Ceri’s SharePoint presentation saved the day.  I’ve been wondering about SharePoint over the last few weeks and posted over at UKSBSG asking how people were using it.  It ships with every SBS server, so it’s been bugging me that I haven’t been making use of it.

Ceri showed off some great looking and very functional SharePoint v3.0 sites and really opened my eyes as to what can be done.  Chris then took the floor and extended on the technical side, I had no idea about most of what was presented.  Both Alex and I came away suitable impressed and determined to start testing it in our own environment with the view to presenting to customers ASAP.

Thanks to everyone involved in last night’s meeting, already looking forward to the next one.  If you haven’t been along, I’d highly recommend it, just drop me a line if you’re interested.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Managed Services

Managed Services is now the core business at Sirona Solutions and we’re pleased to offer this service to a number of small businesses in and around Manchester.

When we started Sirona we knew the key to a successful business was to find customers who saw value in having an IT partner.  At first we saw that role as responding to faults and maintaining servers on a daily basis.  As we discovered the term ‘Managed Services’ we found there was lot more we can offer that will help us stand out from other IT suppliers.

On a day to day basis we may still just be responding to faults, but under the surface we’ve been adding more and more value to our contracts.  A key tool that has helped us expand what we do, without drastically affecting the bottom line, is Kaseya.  Kaseya is an automation tool which allows us to manage our client’s infrastructure, servers and desktops.  I like the way our supplier put it; ‘Kaseya can basically do anything to a PC that doesn’t require a screwdriver’.

There are various ways to use Kaseya and for a company of our size a hosted solution was the best option.  We considered a few suppliers and quickly settled on Bull Terrier Systems.  Ian from Bull Terrier made the journey to come and see us and demonstrate what the service can do.  This shows a level of commitment from the start that you don’t find from many suppliers.  Of course it’s something that Sirona does when we’re engaging potential new customers, but our journeys are generally less than 20 miles round trip, not 200.

We’ve now been using Kaseya for just over a month and it’s really allowed us to become a 24/7 operation.  System patching is built in and ready to go, so all the machines we manage always have the latest MS patches installed.  Beyond that we’ve been able to roll out new software packages outside core business hours, reboot servers without having to get up in the middle of the night to do it and be alerted as soon as a key service fails.

We see Managed Services as redefining our role as a business partner, rather than just a supplier.  Kaseya is one step on the road to becoming this, by taking complete control of the infrastructure and offering great value for money.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


Podcasts have obviously been around for quite a while now, but even as a self confessed geek, at first I never quite saw their purpose.  This changed a couple of years ago when I found myself in a job that left me with a lot of spare time. 

Considering how vast the Internet is, it’s amazing how quickly you run out of things to entertain you when you have too much spare time (within the confines of an office mind you).  So on one of those long afternoons I stumbled across TWiT.TV, not sure how I got there, but these days I couldn’t imagine a long car journey without them.  In fact it doesn’t even need to be a long car journey, these days I don’t spend much time in the car so I listen on my five or ten minute commute to and from work.

So TWiT is a network of over 10 podcasts, or netcasts as host Leo likes to call them.  TWiT stands for This Week in Tech and is their lead show.  As the name suggests it’s a weekly show with a varying panel of guests discussing tech news from the preceding week.  Most of the guests are American, with the likes of John C Dvorak, Patrick Norton and Jason Calacanis being a few of the regulars.  There are a few exceptions to all the Americans and one of those is Brit Wil Harris.  Previously Editor in Chief of the enthusiast site bit-tech, Wil has now started his own on-line video channel ChannelFlip.

Anyway, back to the post at hand – podcasts. TWiT is a very entertaining show and generally very informative to boot.  You tend to get some pretty decent debates about various news items and I haven’t missed a show in ages.  I guess there’s no particular reason to miss a podcast though…

The host of TWiT and all the other shows at TWiT.TV is Leo Laporte.  Leo is pretty well known in tech circles, in particular due to his role on The Screen Savers.  Leo hosted this TV show from 1998 to 2004 and a number of the panelists on This Week in Tech were there with him.

Another show of note at TWiT is Windows Weekly with Paul Thurrott, news editor for Windows IT Pro Magazine.  Also Security Now with Steve Gibson, of ShieldsUp fame, remember when we first found out the Internet was dangerous?!?

Well this was supposed to be a post about podcasts in general, but it seems to be all about TWiT. Those are my podcasts of choice, I guess, but there are others. I’ll do another post to include those and also throw in some online video that keeps me entertained when Mrs Nick is watching Eastenders!

Thursday, 12 June 2008

New Gadget

Being a small business owner who’s yet to make his first million, new gadgets don’t come around that often ;)  So I was very pleased when my phone contract was up for renewal and I could start browsing the available devices.

My last phone was the T-Mobile MDA Vario II, otherwise known as the HTC Tytn.  The Tytn II was released not long after I got my phone last year and I was pretty gutted that I missed the boat on it. The Tytn was very functional, but was pretty hefty.  The Tytn II was a bit sleeker, had a much nicer keyboard, built in GPS and ran Windows Mobile 6, rather than 5.  At the time I did ring T-Mobile to see whether I could upgrade, but almost fell off my chair when they gave me a price…

So upgrade time finally came round and I still had my sites set on the Tytn II. There were smaller devices available, but I really liked have the full keyboard and had got up to a pretty decent WPM on it.  The only thing that was initially standing in its way was the beautiful Apple iPhone. The next revision of the iPhone software was round the corner with supposed support for Exchange ActiveSync.

I wasn’t totally convinced about the iPhone and decided to check out T-Mobile’s site to see if anything else took my fancy.  That’s when I stumbled across the T-Mobile Touch Plus.  The device certainly looks the part, but initially I thought it was purely a touch device with no keyboard. I then started to look around and found this great review over at Trusted Reviews.  They gave it a glowing report and an impressive 8 out of 10 rating.  I’ve always liked the reviews by the guys at Trusted Reviews and on an aside, what a great job they have!  A quick Google turned up a number of other positive reviews and soon the Tytn II was a distant memory.

T-Mobile Touch Plus 

So it was now the Touch Plus vs the iPhone.  As much bashing as it gets, I actually don’t mind the Windows Mobile OS and the reviews seemed to suggest this was currently the best phone running WM6.  While the iPhone is beautiful, I still don’t think it’s really business class, maybe the new software revision will change that, but only time will tell. 

There’s also a key feature of WM6 that myself and my business partner use on a regular basis and that’s the Internet Connection Sharing software.  Being a HSDPA phone the connection speeds are pretty impressive, hook it up via USB or Bluetooth to a laptop and you’ve got broadband on the go.  In fact when we first moved into our offices before BT installed their lines, we used our phones as our primary broadband connection and we got speeds in excess of 1Mb!

So I was pretty sure the iPhone wasn’t going to offer this key feature and then T-Mobile helped make up my mind once and for all.  We spend a fair amount with them each month so a few minutes on the phone with them and they confirmed we could have two phones free of charge.  Comparing this to the hassle of moving to O2, a charge of £100 per phone and no Internet Connection Sharing and I was sold! T-Mobile even threw in a copy of CoPilot Live 7 each and two Bluetooth GPS units.

The phones arrived the next day and I’m pleased as punch!  It’s actually the size of a phone, rather than a small brick.  So it’s a lot smaller than the Tytn and while there’s no QWERTY keyboard, I’m getting used to T9 again pretty quickly. There are some nice additions to WM6 which is HTC trying to imitate the iPhone.  When you slide your finger up the screen an application launches with shortcuts to programs.  Then sliding your finger left or right shows a nice animation of a cube and switches to contact shortcuts.  Slide again and there’s another page of shortcuts.  I’m not sure how much I’ll use this feature, but it’s pretty cool and nice to show off with now and again ;)

So if you’re happy with WM6 and in line for a new phone, I’d certainly recommend the Touch Plus.  There’s also a version available with a full QWERTY keyboard, but I’m not sure how this affects the size.  For me though, the normal keypad is enough.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

SMB and SBS Blogs

I thought I should post all the blogs that gave me inspiration to start my own. They're obviously all different, most lean towards the SBS side of things, but a few could be used for any small business owner.

  • Ask the SBS Team - Microsoft Enterprise Support SBS EMEA Team technet blog.
  • Davesbs Blog - "...focussed on the SMB IT ‘Community’ through the rambling thoughts of a Microsoft Small Business Specialist IT Consultant."
  • UK SBS Guy - Dave is a UK based Microsoft employee and shares information about MS solutions, ISVs and small business issues.
  • Girish's Graffiti - Another Technet blog, with thoughts on SBS and other MS technologies.
  • Paulie’s Technical Memoirs - More SBS tech info.
  • Small Biz Thoughts by Karl Palachuk - A fantastic place for anyone wanting to develop their IT business, especially down the Managed Services route.
  • SMB Dude - More SMB info.
  • SBS Diva - Plenty of technical info about SBS.
  • The WSSG Community Lead Blog - The official blog for the SBS, Windows Essential Business Server, Windows Home Server.
  • TubbBlog - Only found this one yesterday, another UK small IT business owner like myself.
  • UK SMB Girl - A very active blog until Susanne moved down under. However, she recently blipped back onto the scene, so there may be more to come!
  • Vladville Blog - The owner of OwnWebNow, a US based hosting company. Very SMB friendly, with some great products, vlad always has something interesting to say.
  • You Had Me At EHLO - The official MS blog for the MS Exchange team.
For those of you interested I use Google's RSS client 'Reader' to keep track of all of these. It keeps track of what I have and haven't read and I can access it from any web client including my T-Mobile Touch Plus.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Now Is The Time

After a few months finding more and more great blogs in the SMB and SBS community, I've decided it's time to start my own. I'm not sure exactly what the content is going to be, but I guess it'll be based around my roles as both a techy and a small business owner.

I am co-owner of Sirona Solutions, an IT company based in Stockport, south Manchester. We incorporated a year ago and we've gone from strength to strength since then. My business partner has owned his own business for five years now and his experience has been a driving force in getting Sirona off the ground.

I've been blown away with the community I've found behind small IT companies from all over the world. I've learnt so much from this community and learn more and more on a daily basis. I now hope to be able to give something back to it and at the same time maybe help some non-IT companies too.