Specify and buy your first IT system

In recent decades, information technology (IT) has made a huge impact on the world of business. Almost every company now uses some form of IT system to perform a range of functions.

At its most simple, an IT system offers you the capability to create letters, manage your accounts, communicate with suppliers and customers and connect with the outside world via email and the internet. More sophisticated uses include managing customer databases, designing products and controlling stock.

Every business will have different IT requirements. The key to successfully investing in a system is being clear about what you want it to achieve for your business, now and in the near future. Once these elements are clear, armed with a little basic knowledge about computers, you can move with confidence towards buying your IT system.

Keeping your system secure protects your business interests. You can also get valuable peace of mind by finding the right technical support and maintenance deals.

Those new to computers need not worry, either. Most commonly available IT hardware and software is remarkably easy to use. However, there are a range of options open to those who need training.

1 Assess your business needs

1.1 Identify the business functions that you want to carry out electronically.

There are many aspects of your day-to-day business that can be managed with an IT system. The most common include:

  • accounting and book-keeping
  • contact with customers and suppliers via email
  • word processing (for correspondence and basic marketing materials)
  • creating sales presentations and running a company website
  • stock control
  • customer database management

1.2 Consider other business functions that you could carry out electronically.

As you will be making an investment in an IT system, it makes sense to get as much benefit from it as possible.

  • Are there any other tasks that might benefit from being part of your IT infrastructure? For example, would a contact management system be useful to your business? Do you want to manage your banking and tax online? Would it be useful to access your suppliers' IT systems? Could you send and receive faxes with your computer?

1.3 Think about what you might want to do 12-36 months into the future.

It is a good idea to think ahead so you can easily add to your system, rather than having to start again when your business develops.

Remember that you don't have to be exact with these requirements - but they are worth bearing in mind from the start.

  • For example, you may need to connect a single personal computer (PC) to others if you take on employees. Or you may want your system to be portable.

1.4 Create a list of functions that you want your IT system to handle.

This will form the basis for your specification and budgeting.

Ideally you should have:

  • a list of things that you want to use your IT system for on a day-to-day basis
  • some functions that you might like to have if possible
  • a rough list of things you might want to do in the future

1.5 Consider how important portability is to your business.

If you are going to be out on the road a lot and need access to your data, you might need to consider buying a tablet or laptop computer.

2 Identify the software you need

2.1 Bear in mind that your system will only be effective with the right software.

Whatever PC you buy, you will need software to enable to it do what you want it to do.

There are thousands of software packages available - each designed to carry out a specific task. Spend some time assessing the best software option for your business to make your IT system as efficient as possible.

2.2 If you are not sure, ask around.

Word of mouth is often the best way to find the right software. Ask your customers and suppliers - they will be able to give you an honest assessment of the software they use. It is also important that you will be able to communicate with their systems.

Check with your accountant for accounting software. Accountants usually deal with a variety of programs and can make recommendations.

2.3 Remember that you might get free software with a PC.

Most PCs come with software pre-installed on a trial basis. If your needs are not complex, this might be sufficient for you.

2.4 Check the operating system.

Most computers use Microsoft's Windows operating system. But check if your industry uses other platforms (such as Apple or Linux) to make sure you will be compatible.

2.5 Get mainstream software if possible.

If yours is the only business using a particular piece of software, it is likely that you will find it difficult to share your data with customers or suppliers.

  • For example, if you use Microsoft's Office software for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations, it will be easier for you to communicate electronically, because most of your contacts will have these programs too.

3 Add extras

3.1 Consider any extras you will need for your system.

Most businesses will need more than just a PC and a monitor. Common additional requirements include:

Each business will have its own requirements, but a back-up method is essential to safeguard your business data (see section 8.1).

  • a printer
  • a scanner to get images or documents onto your system
  • a router and cabling to connect multiple machines
  • a central server to create a network of linked machines
  • equipment to back up data in case of crashes or IT disasters

3.2 Add these items to your list of requirements as appropriate.

4 Join it all up

4.1 Make sure that all the elements will connect to each other.

There are many ways that the components of your IT system can communicate with each other.

When specifying your computer and add-ons, make sure they have the same kind of connections.

USB is standard for keyboards, mice, scanners and low-end printers.

Ethernet is usually used to connect computers and printers shared by many users.

Also consider wireless connections. These will add to the cost, because you will probably require extra equipment such as wireless adaptors and a router. Newer laptop computers tend to come with built-in wireless adaptors as standard, although it is rare for desktop PCs.

  • For example, if you want to connect your PC to a simple printer, a scanner and another PC, you will need at least two USB ports and one Ethernet port on your PC.

4.2 Consider a server-based system if you have employees.

You will probably need a server if most or all of your employees use a computer. A server is a central computer that stores all of your data in one place.

Dedicated servers typically cost from £500 upwards, depending on your data processing power and storage requirements.

  • This should mean that your system will be more efficient, because all your data will be stored in one place and will be accessible by everyone.
  • You may be able to make some savings on each individual PC because the server will handle much of the work.
  • Ethernet connections are usually the most suitable for server-based systems.

5 Set a budget

5.1 Let your requirements dictate your budget.

If your needs are simple - such as a system that can handle basic accounts, occasional letters and managing a small database - set aside between £500 and £1,000 for a low-end PC, monitor and scanner/printer.

A more powerful system - for example, to handle web and print design or a large database - will cost from £500 upwards.

If you are in a field that processes complex data - such as computer-aided design, data analysis or scientific research - you will need as powerful a system as possible. Set aside at least £1,300 for a PC and monitor, or £1,750 for a Mac.

5.2 Work out how much your software will cost.

It is likely that you will need to buy additional software, unless your needs are very basic.

Most 'off-the-shelf' PCs include word processing and spreadsheet software installed on a trial basis. You might also be able to buy packages that include basic accountancy functions.

  • Shop around to find the best prices for the specialist software you need.

5.3 Work out your printing requirements.

If you need to print large volumes, budget for a laser printer. These cost between £80 and £200 for a smallers printer for light use, and up to £1,000-£1,500 for a heavy-duty unit.

If you need to print occasionally, an inkjet printer will handle small amounts. These cost between £50 and £300.

5.4 Combine your requirements with your budget.

Before you start the buying process it is a good idea to have your requirements and what you are prepared to spend presented together

If you want your system to be portable, bear in mind it will probably cost around 30% more than an equivalent system that stays in your place of work.

  • For example, a basic PC that can handle simple accounts and word processing, email and internet access and occasional printing. You might want to connect it to a network in the future, so you set a budget of £600.

6 Buy your hardware and software

6.1 Shop around.

The IT retail market is very competitive, so it pays to explore all of your options.

  • Many suppliers offer short-term discounts or add free software or other extras.
  • Check IT suppliers' websites and advertisements for the latest deals.

6.2 Do some research.

Check IT websites for reviews and buying advice. Trade publications will often review specialist hardware and software for your sector.

Ask around - your suppliers' and customers' experience could be useful.

6.3 Use your list of requirements and budget.

Make sure that the systems that you are looking at can handle all of your requirements and that they are within your budget.

  • You will be wasting your money if the system you buy is not capable of meeting your needs.

6.4 Ask as much as you need so that you feel confident before you buy.

If you are not comfortable buying IT, do not be afraid to ask potential suppliers as many questions as necessary. While the supplier will want to make a sale, it should also be in their interests to help you buy the best system for your business. They will be used to dealing with people who are not particularly technically minded.

Ask for a demonstration, so you can see the system in action before you buy.

6.5 Do not get distracted by 'techno babble'.

Stay focused on what you want to use your system for. There is little benefit in your buying a top-of-the-range PC that can process billions of calculations per second if you are only going to use it for writing letters.

6.6 Bear in mind how you will connect your system.

There is a variety of connection types used by IT equipment, so make sure all the elements you are going to buy can be easily connected to each other (see section 4).

6.7 If you are confident, consider buying online.

Online IT retailers can often offer lower prices in return for lower levels of customer service. If you know what you want and what you are doing, you can make significant savings.

Check the level of post-sale support the supplier is prepared to offer you in case you run into difficulty.

6.8 If you are not confident about buying online, buy face-to-face from a dealer.

7 Get connected to the web

7.1 Decide what type of connection suits you best.

To use email and access the internet, get a broadband web connection.

Broadband is at least ten times faster than a 'dial-up' connection.

A cable connection is very fast and reliable, but is not available in all areas. Check with your broadband supplier.

  • A broadband connection works through your normal phone connection (without tying up the phone line), but you will need a special modem to use it.
  • For users who plan to use emails and the internet infrequently, limited use connections are available at a reduced cost.
  • For more frequent use, consider an unlimited or high usage connection.
  • There are many internet service providers (ISP) providing broadband, so shop around for good deals.

8 Keep it secure

8.1 Protect your business from an IT disaster.

If your system fails, is damaged or stolen, it can have disastrous effects on your business.

Make sure you have some way of backing up all your data and storing it safely.

Get into a regular back-up routine - daily or weekly is best, depending on how critical the data is to your business.

You may want to consider buying software that can make back-ups automatically.

  • This could be on another disk drive that you take off your premises each night.
  • You can back up to external computers via an internet connection. Some companies offer this as a paid-for service.
  • If you don't have a large amount of data, you could copy it to a CD or DVD and store it somewhere safe.

8.2 Install anti-virus software.

Viruses can be transferred from computer to computer without your knowledge. They can damage your data irreparably or steal sensitive data such as passwords and security details without your knowledge.

Anti-virus software is cheap and can monitor your system in the background, stopping a virus before it can cause any harm.

There is a variety of anti-virus software and much of it is inexpensive or available free via the internet.

8.3 Avoid damage and disruption spread across the internet.

There are many malicious people and programs that use the internet to gain access to other people's systems.

  • A firewall helps stop unauthorised access to your system from the outside. This can either be a piece of software or something built into the hardware you use to connect to the internet. Check that you have either (or both) before you buy.
  • Anti-virus software helps stop unauthorised programs being downloaded onto your PC from the internet.

8.4 Consider physical security.

Make sure your premises are secure.

You can buy security equipment to make it more difficult for your hardware to be stolen.

Security marking your equipment can also act as a deterrent.

9 Get the right training

9.1 Assess what training you need.

Your IT system will only be as effective as the person who operates it.

 

9.2 Get training from software suppliers

Many software manufacturers organise training courses on using their software. Some are free, while you will have to pay for others.

9.3 Use professional trainers.

Often these can be expensive, but the cost can be more than recouped through the greater efficiency that results.

  • Try to find a professional trainer who specialises in your industry sector and your specific software package.
  • Many software manufacturers run accreditation schemes for trainers - check if your potential trainer is accredited.

9.4 Find a general course if you are not confident.

Consider general computer training run by local authorities and government agencies. This training is usually basic, but it can provide a cost-effective introduction. Increasingly, specialist courses are offered too.

9.5 Consider teaching yourself.

If your budget is tight and you are reasonably proficient, you could teach yourself. Many commercial publishers offer self-teaching books and manuals. Software manufacturers often provide training resources for a fee. Distance learning courses are also available.

Make sure the books or courses you choose address your needs.

Unless you are technically confident, it may make more sense to invest in professional training for yourself and any employees who need it.

10 Get technical support and maintenance

10.1 Check with your supplier.

Many IT suppliers offer technical support and maintenance contracts when you buy equipment from them.

  • Ask if there is a free period of technical support when you buy.
  • Make sure you have some kind of guarantee on the equipment you purchase. One year should be the minimum.

10.2 Consider using a specialist.

This will often be a more costly option, but you can develop a long-term relationship with a support specialist.

  • Find a specialist in your sector and your specific software if you can.
  • Check if the specialist is accredited by the manufacturer of your hardware and software.

Signpost

  • Get details of government-supported IT training courses from the learndirect website
  • Find advice on keeping your computer system secure on the Information Commissioner’s Office website at www.ico.orggov.uk/for_organisations.aspx
  • Visit a bookshop. You will find a wide range of excellent publications to suit all levels of knowledge and skill, from basic introductions to IT, email and the internet to in-depth user guides for specific software programs