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Techaisle Blog

Insightful research, flexible data, and deep analysis by a global SMB IT Market Research and Industry Analyst organization dedicated to tracking the Future of SMBs and Channels.

We do not sell, customers purchase - Raju Vegesna reflects on 25 years of Zoho

Zoho was founded in 1996, twenty-five years ago, with a mission to deliver easy-to-use and deploy CRM solutions to the SOHO market segment (Small Office, Home Office). Even the Zoho name was a spin from SOHO. In the last 25 years, Zoho has transformed from a fledgling startup to an enterprise serving small, midsized, large, and public sector organizations. In contrast, Salesforce was founded 22 years ago. It is a similar timeframe as Zoho, but each is at different levels – revenue, awareness, customers, and employees. How does Zoho keep itself grounded with such a lopsided competition? Today's business world admires Unicorns, applauds valuations, overlooks SaaS suppliers' profitability. Not that there is anything detrimental about chasing unicorn status with little to show profitability, Zoho founders have been tracking employee empowerment and customer success. In the last 25 years, Zoho has become well-known for its easily deployable, easy to use, full-featured applications. Recently Zoho is being recognized for its top-down driven, empathetic culture.

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture? Each organization goes through several essential points of decision in its journey. What were some of those decision points? Would a different decision have changed the trajectory of Zoho and on a collision course with Salesforce? Did Zoho ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage? Many questions had been swirling in my mind, which I decided to address to Raju Vegesna, Chief Strategy Officer, Zoho.

True to the initial mission of empowering employees, Raju has no regrets. Instead, he describes Zoho's achievements as fulfilling. He has great admiration for Salesforce but quips that Zoho does not sell, customers purchase, and he is thrilled to be on the path Zoho has chosen.

Read on, excerpts from my very detailed interview with Raju Vegesna.

Fulfillment is the name for Zoho's 25-year journey

Can you describe Zoho's 25-year journey in one word? What is that word?
It's tough to describe our journey in one word. There is an internal perspective which is fulfillment. If we do not have that, we cannot have confidence in what we are doing and satisfaction with what we are doing. The feeling of fulfillment started early on and has continued. Even on Zoho's website's homepage, we showcase it as a life's work which is only possible if we inner fulfillment.

Customer success vs. organizational culture

What is more critical to Zoho, delivering customer success or empowering organizational culture?
We cannot separate customer success and organizational culture. They are two sides of the same coin. If we do not have organizational empathy and that culture right, then it will show up on the customer side. And if we do not have one side right then, the other side is not going to work. We often say, when you have a customer problem, it means you also have an employee problem. These are interlinked - one is external facing, and the other is internal facing. And if you have that inner empathy to humility, it will show up as a positive impact when servicing a customer. And this is ingrained and built into the organization. It is a simple mandate. If it is an employee's responsibility to keep the customer happy, the employee should have the freedom to think and act, and so it has to be built into the organization's DNA.

Chasing Unicorns

How do you keep yourself grounded?
We do not pay too much attention to valuations. We do not think about it. We have been through multiple bubbles, up and down cycles, so they do not bother as much. Then we also realize that the market, to some extent, is biased towards public companies. How often do you hear about private companies? For example, Tableau versus SAS, which is a private company. Or Walmart versus Aldi. There is an inherent bias in the market. Bias puts private companies at a disadvantage because they don't have the mindshare. Why didn't someone hear about Zoho earlier, partly because private companies do not get enough exposure? They are not talked about it because there's no inherent gain for other people. But then there are also a few things that are on our side that public companies don't. So, what, how do we play the advantages. For example, we don't have a timeline and a time horizon to operate. Now we can plan out a decade in advance. Some projects have been in the last 6-9 years in Zoho that haven't seen the light of the day. And when you have a public company running on a quarter-by-quarter basis, they don't have the advantage to plan it out. We try to focus on the process and what is in our control and do it the right way.

Critical decision points

What were critical decision points? Do you think those decisions changed the trajectory of Zoho? What would have happened if you did not make those decisions?
I'd say some early lessons helped a lot. Initially, our primary customers were optical companies. When the telecom bubble burst. We had about 305 customers, of which 300 or 301 of them died. Over a year or two, imagine that when 99% of your customers vanish, you might as well. We had zero debt, and we had some savings. And we had very hungry engineers. We took all the savings and invested in the engineers, and pivoted. Even from the beginning, we always believed in zero debt, which is a crucial reason for survival. Another lesson we learned was that diversification becomes vital for the product. Now we are fully diversified - product portfolio, regions, countries. We don't have a customer that is contributing to more than 1% of our revenue. The exciting thing is that not all the products we created back then exist today, but most of the employees who made the products still exist and are just creating new products. One hundred people have been with the company for at least 20 years, and they are just creating new things.

Deciding product roadmap

How did you decide to develop which apps and in which order?
It's one of the extremely simplest ways to decide. What are the apps that we do not use to run our business? What are the apps that we need to run our own business? And, and if there is a missing piece, we build it. So we believe that if we run our entire business on our own products and benefit from it, other companies will have the same benefits. We have 50 apps now, but I look at the road ahead and say we still have a long way to go. More importantly, can we make the boundaries between these applications disappear and appear as a single application? Why should users pick and choose the apps they want? Why can't everything contextually tie together? Why are there walls? A business may not have segregation between a front office or a back office. Why should there be a separation in software, support, sales system, marketing system, and several vendors that serve the needs? As simple as that. And that segregation has to, and separation has to go away. And that is one of the walls. So, it's a journey, but our tools and the missing pieces define our roadmap.

Surviving and thriving

Did you ever reach a crossroad, break-it, or make-it stage?
Survival instinct comes immediately after the break or make moment. I vividly remember when we pivoted, we created a product to address the IP market. And we demonstrated the product at a Vegas show. We were so tense because our future was dependent on that product. As we kept on demoing the product, more and more people started liking it. And that is when we said; now we have a future. Survival was a priority. And then, later, we started focusing on expansion and thriving.

Mentors and learnings

Who do you turn to for learning and mentoring?
We have a tightly-knit team. The management team has been sitting next to each other for a couple of decades. We go through the journey together. We also learn a lot from external companies. We study companies. How did all the private companies become one of the top leaders, for example, Aldi? Or the makers of M&Ms, which have been around for 100 years. Or how has Marvin Window been successful for the last 115 years? Or take a company like Bata. If you grew up in India, it is ingrained in you but is not an Indian company. It is a company out of the Czech Republic.

Salesforce admiration – purchasing vs. selling, small and enterprise customers

Salesforce started with a focus on small businesses but pivoted to enterprise customers. Now it is re-engaging with SMBs. Did you ever want to become a Salesforce?
There is one area that I admire in Salesforce. It educated the market about SaS. I have respect for the Salesforce platform on the technology front because they lead the way. But on the sales and distribution model, we decided to take a different approach. We are primarily an engineering-centric company, so and won't be a sales and marketing-centric company—money matters. We instead re-invest the money in our engineers than on sales and marketing. We like the bottom-up approach, where we started selling to small businesses. We named Zoho itself after Soho, small office, home office market. Slowly, we started serving larger companies. It is the customers pulling us into their organizations and not Zoho selling to those organizations. It's a subtle but essential difference. In other words, in a lot of cases, our products are chased, not sold. And that changes the dynamics. We see lately an increase in mid to large size customers adopting Zoho. If you look at our sister division ManageEngine the target market is mid-sized to large enterprises, and 60% of fortune 500 companies are our customers.

Respect for competition

Do we ever want to become a Salesforce or SAP? We are not sales-focused. We have a good number of salespeople, but it is a tiny percentage of the total workforce. We will continue to be an R&D company. We understand that there is competition, and we respect them. But then we respect our customers a lot more. We will build products, focus on R&D, and have these local, transnational teams, which will be on the ground, looking at customers developing solutions to meet their needs. Our business model is relatively simple, mainly because we are a private company. We only worry about two sets of people – customers and employees - because the third set, investors, are no longer at play.

Next 25 year changes – transnational localism

What will you change in your evolution for the next 25 years?
There are a few things that won't change - culture, values, people, and the investment in R&D. What will change is what we call transnational localism, which means we will have local teams available in multiple countries, geographically. We are strengthening our local presence in every country we are present in to serve the local customers. And that's an important strategy. We are present in about 20 countries, and we will see our team expanding in each of these countries, and that team will be solving the local customer's problems.

 raju vegesna headshot

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Culture is the strongest foundation of Zoho and applications are its biggest strength

Five years ago, I flew in from Newark into Mineta San Jose International Airport. At the baggage claim carousel, I noticed a massive advertisement of Zoho with the tag line – operating system for the business. I was both intrigued and non-committal. It was my first introduction to the company. Before that day, I had either not paid attention or had not come across the name. When I reached home, I sent an email to my team with a question, does Zoho appear in any of the surveys as a cloud business application that SMBs and midmarket firms are using. Two hours later, nearly midnight, I was pinged by my overseas team with an answer. Zoho's penetration had been increasing since 2009. I still did not give Zoho the serious consideration that it deserved. In 2019, during my several visits to Dell Technologies' events, I began noticing the remarkably colorful Zoho banners at the Austin, TX airport. During the same timeframe, the number of inquiries from our SMB panel of respondents seeking our take on Zoho increased. I knew I had to call Zoho's analyst relations, and I did. It was a turning point. I contacted a company where customers come for the products and get enriched by Zoho's ethos.

I first met Sridhar Vembu, CEO, Zoho, in January 2020. Unassuming, unpretentious, and unassertive, he was standing in his "chappals" and "bush shirt." He poured out his passion for building a company that cares for the underserved communities, hires, educates, and develops talent from underprivileged families. He is committed to keeping Zoho private and debt-free, fiercely protect its customers' privacy and security, and spread its offices in the rural areas of India, the US, Europe, and Japan. I knew I had to learn more. Soon enough, I also got swept up into Zoho's product portfolio. A collection of 50+ apps running on single database architecture and purpose-built on Zoho technology stack consisting of services, software infrastructure, network infrastructure, and hardware infrastructure deployed on Zoho's data centers to ensure performance availability, security, and privacy. It is not for small businesses only. Zoho's fastest-growing market segment is the midmarket. Salesforce, Microsoft, and SAP are the established brands within the midmarket; Zoho is the challenger, not by deliberate design but by a sheer and silent commitment to customer success. I have interacted with many Zoho senior executives, product evangelists, and customers in the last year. The pervasiveness of genuine fondness to learn, desire to challenge the status quo, develop themselves as great human beings and develop solutions that exceed customer expectations is palpable. Zoho has as many micro-cultures as there are apps, fifty.

Zoho has been 25 years in the making. With 9000+ employees, 60+ million users in 180+ countries, annualized 5-year revenue growth of 34%, and a 97% customer retention rate, Zoho seems to be just getting started. Using a hub and spoke model – major city and adjacent rural areas – Zoho has opened 15+ small offices in the past six months to support local economies and partnerships. Sridhar Vembu, the recipient of Padma Shri, one of India's highest civilian honors, calls the model a cloud-enabled rural revival. He returned to India from the US in September 2019 and has settled in a small rural village, Tenkasi, where even the street lights are non-existent.

Sridhar is setting the tone for the next 25 years. He aims to continue enhancing a vertically integrated technology stack (from the data center to applications) and building horizontal integration where different groups, micro-cultures, and departments feel empowered and collaborate seamlessly. The deep-seated culture is evident in the enthusiasm of Zoho's empathy and responsiveness to the pandemic. It instituted a 6-month subscription waiver for small businesses. To meet remote workers' needs, it launched Remotely, a suite of 11 free productivity tools. To enable workplace re-opening, it has announced the BackToWork app, free for a year. For Zoho, free does not mean using customer data for monetization. Zoho does not run on public clouds, has removed all adjunct surveillance, and does not collect or store any customer data.

Zoho's latest versions of Zoho Projects and Zoho Analytics (with 1500 built-in dashboards) are comprehensive, customizable, secure, scalable, and intelligent. Zoho's universal NLP (Natural Language Processing) search – across all apps and data pillars - provides contextual answers, processes 16 million search requests a day, and performs 150 million indexing jobs a day. Zoho's offering is the Low-code platform to empower citizen developers with last-mile customizations. It incorporates many new functionalities, including Zia (Zoho's AI platform), assisted development, and sandboxing. Zoho's other recent notable offerings include the Employee experience platform and Marketing platform.

Agility is essential to managing business uncertainties. It also translates into business process automation and rapid deployment, and enhancements to business applications. Specifically, the smaller a business is, the less likely it is to have dedicated staff developing custom applications to support unique processes. From pro-code to low code to no-code, Zoho Creator Platform can appeal to a broad swath of citizen and professional developers. For citizen developers, it reduces complex functions to one-click or drag-and-drop actions. For experienced developers, Zoho has added controls to build customized applications and services from the ground up. Like everything Zoho, the platform has been 15 years in development, rendering the learning from organizations of all sizes to better user experience and scalability. For specific vertical industries for whom governance is a vital issue, the platform is SOC2 Type II and GDPR compliant. It also provides authentication, encrypted data storage, and full lifecycle management. Zoho's low code platform, Zoho Creator Platform, currently has 13,000+ paying customers, which is up by approximately 30% during the pandemic year. A testament to how the platform empowered businesses to pivot with agility to respond to employee and customer needs.

Although Zoho is known for its focus on the small business segment, which continues to grow, it also gains traction within the enterprise segment. Zoho's largest customer is IIFL, with 28,000 employees using 45 of the 50 apps. Zoho is a genuine one-of-a-kind visionary firm. It is the complete CRM platform and has the most comprehensive toolsets for hybrid, co-modal work. Its flagship, Zoho One, has over 50 products designed for multiple business needs across productivity, finance, marketing, HR solutions, etc. I am glad I made the call to Zoho analyst relations. Zoho will continue to be within Techaisle's vendor research radar for a long time. It should be on the evaluation map for SMBs, mid-market firms, and enterprise customers.

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Top 5 technologies where small businesses are increasing investment

Techaisle worldwide survey of 2427 SMBs shows that collaboration, cloud, security, mobility and PCs are the top five areas where small businesses are increasing technology investments. Each of these address current business challenges and lay the foundation for the five pillars of small business digital transformation: 1/ achieve cost efficiencies, 2/ initiative innovation, 3/ enable operational efficiency, 4/ drive business growth, and 5/ empower organizational productivity.

techaisle top 5 technology areas small business

Collaboration: 66% of small businesses are increasing investments in collaboration solution as compared to 19% who are either decreasing or delaying investments. Collaboration is a critical solution priority. The enormous reliance on mobility, the trend towards flexible work within small businesses and the general trend of including customers within the framework of collaboration solutions have all contributed to much broader demand for collaboration solutions. Use of collaboration solutions within small businesses started as file-first but has quickly transitioned to person-first. The central requirement for a collaboration solution is the ability to share files from desktop or mobile devices, the second is to enable online interaction, and the third is to provide richer media and media escalation for person-to-person communications.

Cloud: 64% of small businesses are increasing investments in cloud. Cloud is no longer a trend that is discrete from mainstream IT. This shift in cloud’s positioning has brought with it a shift in the kinds of insights needed to help connect suppliers and buyers to address common interests in deployment, integration and expansion strategies. Small business buyers are needing help in moving past initial cloud pilots and applications to integrated cloud systems that provide support for mission-critical processes. Vendor suppliers need to adjust their messaging to address the needs of early mass market rather than early adopter customers.

Security: 61% of small businesses are increasing investments in security solutions. Although data shows that small businesses are more optimistic than they ought to be about their current security profiles, security is an important constraint on mobility within the small business segment. Vendor suppliers need to help small businesses to establish frameworks that protect against both external and employee threats to information security.

Mobility: 59% of small businesses are increasing investments in mobility solutions. If the “office” is defined by devices, so too is “workplace” defined by the ability to work from wherever those devices (and their users) are located. Small businesses are investing in mobility because it contributes to both cost savings and increased market reach, with “improved productivity” and related answers connected to establishing “better ways of working” viewed as the greatest benefit of mobility within SMBs. Techaisle’s data shows that there are inherent challenges in supporting the mobile workforce: struggle with the “on ramps” to mobility (such as finding appropriate suppliers and solutions) and concerned with security/data protection and mobile management.

PCs: 56% of small businesses are increasing investments in PCs. PC is where work gets done. PC is still the centerpiece of business productivity and buying a new PC is likely to have a more significant impact on productivity than any other technology. Modern PCs deliver more than an incremental improvement in performance, manageability and security features and even price conscious small businesses benefit significantly from replacing older PCs with modern PCs.

There is a strong connection between cloud, mobility, collaboration. Mobility, cloud and collaboration are all important trends in today’s IT market, and Techaisle data indicates that they are tightly interconnected. Mobility is a key driver of collaboration demand, with worldwide total of 292 million small business mobile workers looking for framework technologies enabling them to connect with suppliers, customers and each other. At the same time, collaboration is seen as a key attribute of successful cloud solutions, with more than one-third of small businesses citing “the ability to provide or support collaboration” as a key success factor in cloud solutions.

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HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen 10 Plus focuses on SMB Digital Transformation

On 11th March 2020, HPE announced its latest Small Business Solutions, leading with its next-generation HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus featuring remote management and security capabilities, with a choice of Intel® Pentium or Intel Xeon E processors. Solutions tailored for small businesses includes Office in a Box, Scalable File and Backup as well as Edge to Cloud for simplified access to cloud services.

Tough economic times bring investment decisions into sharp focus. The result is typically lower investment levels. It also sharpens medium- and longer-term priorities. That leads to smart investments. But also, investments made at this time become longer term drivers of investment for adjacent areas. Techaisle believes that the recent economic implosion acts as a catalyst for such action and change among SMBs. In a digital economy, SMBs are able to expand reach and engagement with customers and prospects, while also locating and integrating with suppliers to improve scale-out options. 79% of SMBs are on the road to digital transformation. The roadmap to successful digital transformation begins with the creation of a sound physical infrastructure - the ‘building blocks’ or ‘foundations’ of business infrastructure. Core infrastructure devices need to be kept in sync with the requirements of digital transformation initiatives; servers, storage, networking and security need to advance with the needs of the organization. The most advanced and transformative SMB firms are looking to improve IT sustainability – their ability to effectively manage IT delivery into the future – customer intimacy, operational excellence and IT’s speed and agility. And they are seeing better business outcomes than those which are not fully committed to the core physical infrastructure modernization.

HPE solutions lay the foundation for effective, agile and secure modernization.

First Impression

HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen 10 Plus and companion offerings should be no-brainer for small businesses and channel partners. Techaisle data shows that 83% of SMBs consider technology contributing to business success but they also find technology to be kinetic, complex and risky. Regardless, 31% of small businesses want to modernize IT infrastructure and HPE offerings help in overcoming cost of implementation (34%) and security concern (32%) inhibitors of embarking on IT modernization initiative. Techaisle data also shows that a growing percent pf SMBs are using both on-prem and cloud servers, but hybrid is where they are headed. Workloads from public clouds are transitioning to hybrid clouds with 70% of small businesses are either implementing or planning to use basic hybrid cloud with workloads assigned to different cloud/on-prem environments. Techaisle segmentation data reveals that there is a higher demand for on-prem solutions within SMBs that are intermediate and mature cloud adopters as well as those who are in the basic and advanced IT maturity segments. HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus and Office in a box can also be easily adopted and deployed by the Pre-IT maturity segments and passive cloud followers.

HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus

About the size of a typical hardcover book (4.6-inch x 9.65-inch x 9.65-inch) and as quiet as a library (36db) the server packs enough power and storage for a small business prompting HPE to call it “small and Mighty”. The form factor size is volumetrically 3X less than that of Dell PowerEdge R240. As-a-service server pricing starts from at less than US$20 per month. The list price varies from US$$709 to US$899, for Entry to Performance level configurations.

Three key features of HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen 10 Plus worth calling out are:

  1. HPE-exclusive silicon root of trust that provides 360-degree protection, detection and recovery from malicious cyberattacks. Techaisle SMB security adoption survey data shows that for 53% of SMBs cyberattack security is either the most critical or among the top three critical issues facing their organizations but 78% are not confident that they can recover from a cybersecurity incident. With HPE silicon root of trust they may have one less issue to worry about.
  2. HPE ILO 5 that delivers server health and operations insights with secure remote monitoring and management. With an average of 3.8 IT staff within upper-small businesses, SMBs need help in remote monitoring of IT infrastructure. Manageability is an important solution selection criterion for SMBs which typically have relatively small IT workforce but expansive IT/digital transformation goals. In this environment, it is essential that solutions work seamlessly and without a great deal of hands-on management.
  3. HPE InfoSight for Server that predicts and prevents IT disruptions before business operations are impacted. In the context of growth, cloud is seen as a means of facilitating expanded reach. And SMB cloud adopters are looking for capabilities that contribute to growth: 79% report that cloud enables them to be more agile in their business operations. Cloud built on a strong core technology is not only an essential IT infrastructure but it is also an imperative business infrastructure.

Pre-configured small business solutions on HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen10 Plus

Office in a box: is a pre-configured solution that includes HPE ProLiant MicroSever Gen10 Plus with built-in security, Aruba Instant On (wireless access point), and HPE RDX removable disk system which can be scaled when required. It is ideal for very small businesses, small offices, small workgroups for up to 10 users. Office in a box also comes with Windows ROK (Reseller Option Kit) and storage controller. Pricing starts at US$125 per month. As per Techaisle’s SMB buyers’ journey and technology research data, nearly 2/3rd of small businesses use existing IT budgets and about 1/5th use CAPEX dollars for IT purchases. For these small businesses, HPE has a list prices for Office in a box. For example, a configuration consisting of MicroServer Gen10+, 4 1TB drives, iLO enablement, Next Business Day support, one Aruba WAP (wireless access point), the list price is approximately US$3,500 before discounts. Only 3% of small businesses have full-time IT staff (Source: Techaisle SMB and Midmarket research) and very small businesses manage workloads with a much smaller staff, typically comprised of IT generalists, and have limited infrastructure resources available for exploration. There is a very short line between acquisition and deployment of new technology and they have fewer chips to place on the table, and need to quickly reap return from their investments. Office in a Box is suitable for both segments of small business – with internally-managed-IT and un-managed-IT.

Scalable file and backup: is a pre-configured solution for centralized access to files for easy and secure collaboration. Scalable up to 16TB the solution enables secure onsite backup and recovery. Businesses are heavily invested in IT, with IT-dependent processes throughout their operations. This ubiquitous dependence on technology means that any systems failure will reverberate throughout all of a company’s daily operations. There is no way to disaster-proof against IT failure with insurance. Appropriate investment in IT backup/DRS, security processes, technologies and management strategies are the only ways to capitalize on the productivity benefits of IT without creating exposure to organizational paralysis in the event of a malware invasion, a hacker attack or an employee’s negligence or malfeasance. Techaisle’s SMB and midmarket security adoption trends research shows that 53% of small business and 48% of midmarket firms prefer less than 1 hour of backup recovery time. Not all SMBs have a backup/DRS strategy because they find it either too expensive or worry about security in the cloud or even find a solution too complex. HPE’s pre-configured solution addresses the needs and objections.

Edge to Cloud: is a pre-configured solution for remote office, branch office (ROBO) deployments. The solution includes optional cloud services for connectivity to the core data center.

Techaisle Take

Techaisle believes that the 34% of SMBs that are prioritizing growth are much more likely to thrive in today’s unpredictable economy than those that focus primarily on cost reduction or other ‘business as usual’ objectives. In the digital world, growth is more than simply increasing the top line. Today, growth is important to both expansion and to maintaining viability. Techaisle’s SMB research has found that the need to be more efficient in operations is the single most compelling reason for SMBs to embrace digital transformation. But there have to be points in the system where the capabilities of core infrastructure connect to the promised benefits of digital transformation solutions. The days of using lengthy, detailed cost analyses to justify new IT systems are disappearing in favor of a more agile approach in which businesses are encouraged to try new approaches and to rapidly wind down these initiatives if they do not deliver anticipated benefits. This may sound like a recipe for an out-of-control spending, but there are options that can protect the cost line. HPE ProLiant MicroServer Gen 10 Plus is one such options which is mind-blowing and should be a no-brainer.

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