Small business network support: the coming revolution

vmware_virtualizationIn technology, you get used to constant change. Every year, month, week, day…new technology, new products, new ideas. Whatever. It’s the norm.

But in the last few years, my piece of this world – in particular, small business network support – has gone through radical changes. Anyone in our trade who’s doing things the same way they’ve always done them is missing out on huge opportunities to increase efficiency and provide more stable, reliable services for their clients.

Sorry to say, any of you business owners out there who are comfortable with the status quo are also missing out. You may want to ask your tech how he keeps current on industry trends.

We’re working hard to stay ahead of the curve, by investing in tools, training, and infrastructure. I’m part of an industry mastermind group with colleagues from all over the country, where we continually evaluate and share the latest best practices. As a result, we’re making the most of these opportunities, and our clients see the benefits. We receive alerts to problems so we can be proactive and prevent serious issues, we can handle about 90% of the work remotely, our tools allow us to make network-wide updates in a fraction of the time others can manage, we have sophisticated systems to track client history…I could go on but you get the idea.

It’s nothing compared to what’s coming.

Cloud computing, virtualization, data center as a service…these trends stand to revolutionize the industry even further, providing network infrastructure as a utility that’s paid for on a usage basis. In many cases this will eliminate the normal investments in hardware and software. The business ROI is enormous.

Whether it’s computing power, help desk support, application software, or storage space, major players in the industry want to bring you these services on a subscription basis. When I say major players, I’m talking about the likes of Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.

We’re seeing these services hit the mainstream already, although it will be a gradual transition over the next few years. The way you handle technology in your business will change radically as we all move ahead with these new choices.

We’re already looking towards the future to see how we can better serve our clients. So here’s my question to you: are you already falling behind, or are you ready for the coming revolution?

Instant gratification with instant downloads

Click nowPatience may be a virtue, but it’s not one of mine. I have little free time and I want to make the most of it. That means I keep errands to a minimum and do a lot of online shopping. When Amazon offered Prime service – free two-day shipping or pay $4 for overnight – I signed up even though it costs me $80 a year. The convenience is worth it, and I pay that extra $4 surprisingly often. Compared to a 30 minute trip to the store, it’s a no-brainer.

Of course, instant downloads are even faster than overnight delivery. Music downloads are practically old hat these days, but did you know you can download books and movies too?

Amazon offers a cool gadget called Kindle, a portable reading device, but you don’t need this to download books. Look for Amazon Upgrade, a service offered on many of their books. With this, you can read, highlight, and make notes on your books as you read them on your computer.

As for movies…check out the iTunes store, Amazon Unbox, and even Netflix. All offer downloadable movies and TV shows. In fact, recent TV episodes are often available to watch online at TV network websites. Watch them on your computer, or run a few wires and play them on your TV with full stereo sound.

Automating the mechanical turk

Amazon's mechanical turkAmazon has a unique service, Mechanical Turk, that they refer to as “artificial artificial intelligence.” The original mechanical turk, back in the 18th century, was a chess-playing machine that eventually turned out to have a real person inside. The secret was kept for years despite rampant speculation.

Amazon’s captured the essential concept on a much larger scale. Their service, providing ways for programs and websites to request human intervention for tasks where humans are simply better equipped to provide answers. These include things like image recognition and language transcription, where computers lack the nuance to do a high-quality job.

One of the many unique applications I’ve seen is a map company that has turk workers draw a line on a small satellite photo to identify exactly where the road lies. Their maps are tremendously accurate and they can make rapid updates thanks to this simple human intervention. Another service uses people to transcribe podcasts. They’ve even set up a second batch of tasks, where workers evaluate the accuracy of the transcriptions. In this way they can to ensure overall quality service to their customer with limited need for oversight. Basically, the oversight is already built into the process.

Tasks are known as “HITs,” which stands for “Human Intelligence Tasks.” Most HITs are quick and simple; pay is generally a few cents each. A few run $1 or more, but not many. Keep in mind this level of wage is more likely to draw third-world workers than domestic.

The absolute most creative use of Mechanical Turk: The Sheep Market, an interactive online art experiment. Hear more directly from artist Aaron Koblin:

Now that you are inspired with a dose of out-of-the-box creativity, what simple, repetitive tasks are required in your business? Do you need your own mechanical turk? Here are a few examples to get you started:

  • Online research (trivia, competitors, information-gathering)
  • Writing (reviews, website updates, articles, blog comments)
  • Photo evaluation (identification, selection, matching)

Find all the details on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Welcome page.

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