Small Business Operational Efficiency

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Gears turningIn a recent conversation with someone who works to optimize business processes, I was asked a few questions about how ElectionsOnline works behind the scenes. I was more than happy to oblige and came away saying to myself, “Self, if someone whose job it is to optimize business processes finds it fascinating to peek behind ElectionsOnline’s curtain, there are likely plenty of others who do as well. Perhaps even readers of this blog!”

So I’m going to share in this article some of the tools that power the business behind the business. I’ll not go into every little detail, because much of it is specific to ElectionsOnline and not beneficial to a general reader. What I will do is list some of the tools and processes in use at ElectionsOnline that may be applicable to others who need a similar solution.

Nothing here is secret. All these tools have been on the market for quite some time and are used by plenty of other companies. They were also selected because they are good fits for ElectionsOnline. You should not construe that to mean they are good fits for everyone in every situation, but they are the companies and services ElectionsOnline depends on for its own operations and worthy of consideration for anyone needing a similar service.

Sign of the times

Businesses are fortunate to be businesses in the year 2015. These are exciting times and the reason for that can be captured in a single phrase—cloud computing. The term gets tossed around a lot, but in layman terms, what does it really mean? I’ll leave the full explanation up to Wikipedia, but in essence, it’s a computing architecture that permits the expansion of resources as demands increase. Today, a litany of core business services—email, web hosting, data storage, etc.—are offered on cloud platforms. The beauty of this is that as a business grows, you simply consume more of a cloud’s resources—paying only for what you need along the way—as opposed to migrating infrastructure to an entirely new environment that you forecast could support your business for another five years. Then when that five years passes, the cycle repeats.

There’s another advantage. Uptime. For years, keeping web-based services available resulted in the creation of some very clever technologies. (Think RAID arrays for example.) But cloud environments are inherently redundant and inherently stable, which means services supported by them are inherently available. Need proof? Check out ElectionsOnline’s live uptime statistics. Along with this new age of cloud computing has come what we call Software as a Service (SaaS). Instead of buying software, installing it on a workstation at a business location, and using that software only when sitting in front of the computer on which it is installed, we now purchase software as a service hosted on the Internet. The benefits?

  • We never need to ask ourselves if we have hardware to support the software. It runs on the provider’s systems.
  • We never need to worry about installing it. We simply access it across the Internet.
  • We never need to worry about upgrading to the latest version. The provider handles that.
  • Anywhere there’s a computer connected to the Internet, we have access to the software.

Software isn’t the only thing available as a service, there’s also Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). In fact, ElectionsOnline has never in its history actually owned its own web server. This might sound surprising, but remember the header above reads Sign of the times. It simply makes more sense to purchase virtual web servers through an IaaS model as the following case study demonstrates. A couple years ago, the ElectionsOnline web server was beginning to run low on storage space. In the old model, that would mean migrating to a new server with more storage. In the IaaS model, it meant simply logging into the account of the hosting provider (more on that later) and adding some additional storage to the server instance. The whole process took only a couple minutes. There was zero downtime and zero disruption in service. There wasn’t anything about it particularly technical; it was something any office administrator could do, and the same thing can be done with memory and processor capacity should the need ever arise.

The companies behind the company

So with the groundwork established that these are different times for business than we were in just a decade ago, the following are the companies that support ElectionsOnline.

Ruby Receptionists for receptionist service
I’ve used Ruby Receptionists since before they called themselves Ruby Receptionists. Call ElectionsOnline’s toll-free number, and it’s the staff at Ruby that answers, forwards the call, takes a message, whatever. In fact, they don’t just handle receptionist service, they actually provide the 800 number itself. Consider this: I have not logged into the Ruby website as a client in years, and that’s a good thing! It means I’ve had no problem or issue for which I needed to contact them—it just works. They actually offer services well beyond what I take advantage of and deserve a look from any business looking for a cost-effective receptionist service.

Hosting.com for website hosting
There are a slew of companies offering website hosting. I have first-hand experience with several and second-hand experience with several others, but the ElectionsOnline website is hosted by Hosting.com with no plans to change. They are very good at delivering on the technology side of their service, but really knock the ball out of the park when it comes to being responsive. Call their support number at any hour of the day or night and someone will answer quickly who is able to provide support without having to forward the call.

Amazon CloudFront for content delivery network
Yes, website hosting is supported by Hosting.com, but static website assets are served through Amazon’s CloudFront service. CloudFront is a global network of what’s called edge servers. These edge servers store cached copies of static assets, which includes things like images, style sheets, javascript files—all the things that need to come together in order for a web page to appear in your browser. By serving these types of files through a content delivery network (CDN), the website runs faster since the files are served from an edge location in relatively close geographic proximity to the person requesting the web page. Plenty of companies offer CDNs, but CloudFront has exceptionally quick and simple setup, and knowing it’s backed by the expertise of Amazon made it an easy choice.

Rackspace for email
It’s common when purchasing web hosting for email service to come bundled with it. That’s not the case with the particular web hosting solution provided by Hosting.com, but even if it were, I prefer having email provided on an entirely autonomous plan. This independence ensures there will be no disruption in email service regardless of what happens with the website, and vice versa. Rackspace offers a number of cloud-based services, but its email hosting affords very simple setup and competitive pricing. Unfortunately, I made the switch to Rackspace after dealing with another company I had high hopes for initially, but after a year of dealing with their buggy software, finally switched when they asked me to create an entirely new client account because they wanted to migrate some accounts to new machines. The point of purchasing infrastructure as a service is so a business can focus on its business and pay a specialist to maintain infrastructure. Them telling me I needed to essentially start over again in order to accommodate their migration effort is not how it’s supposed to work. That triggered the migration to Rackspace, which made the process of getting up and running very simple.

MigrationWhiz for email migration
In the course of migrating email to Rackspace I had the pleasure of using BitTitan’s MigrationWhiz to move email from the old email host to Rackspace. I spend a lot of time dealing with technology and it takes a lot to wow me. MigrationWhiz did. For only $5 per mailbox, its solution is both extremely useful and user-friendly. Other services provided by BitTitan can also handle migrating things other than email—for example, documents, folders or archives.

One special note. If migrating, say, 200 mailboxes, and those mailboxes are nearly full, this could be a very time consuming process. Conceivably a couple days. That doesn’t mean you need to sit in front of a computer during the whole process. You simply set it in motion, then walk away and allow the magic to happen while you’re off doing whatever. But they don’t provide an estimate on the completion time until after the process has begun, so just be aware of that as you’re setting it in motion.

SocketLabs for email relay
Many businesses might use a tool like MailChimp or ConstantContact for email marketing. Those are not to be confused with an SMTP relay. SMTP relays are for use with transactional emails like those sent by ElectionsOnline surrounding the announcement of an election, or a ballot confirmation. The reason to use an SMTP relay versus simply sending email directly from the web server is that a relay service like SocketLabs does everything possible to ensure legitimate email is seen as legitimate and not falsely regarded as spam by email service providers. In other words, delivery experts like SocketLabs get ElectionsOnline’s email into the inbox. While SocketLabs may be regarded as the best at what they do, they certainly are not the cheapest. I’m fine with that. ElectionsOnline also isn’t regarded as the cheapest, but some things are worth paying for.

Teamwork.com for project management
I love Teamwork.com. Most any project management tool supports the same basic functionality as Teamwork.com. That being the creation of projects, milestones, task lists, tasks, gantt charts, etc. It’s the elegance with which those things are done that draws me to Teamwork.com. I dare say you’ll almost never need to consult the help documentation because once logged into the interface, you’re likely to find yourself just intuitively knowing what to do. Don’t be fooled by what may initially appear to be a very simple interface. That’s part of the elegant thing I just mentioned. This is a full-featured project management tool capable of delivering on the requirements of much larger organizations with teams of people from across multiple companies.

The requisite Google stuff
You didn’t think we were going to finish this article with no mention of Google having a role to play did you? ElectionsOnline uses Google Search to accommodate site-wide keyword searching (that one’s obvious as it says so right on the site); Google Analytics for site analysis (doesn’t everybody?); and Google Docs for word processing. Yes, this article was originally created on the web using Google Docs before being shared online with the proofreader who was able to make edits and leave comments—all online. The point is, gone are the days of creating a document offline that needs to be attached to an email and distributed to others for edits and comments before circling back around to the original creator. If you’re still doing that, you’re well overdue an overhaul of that practice. There are many tools available for document collaboration, and Google Docs certainly isn’t going to be the right choice for every organization. Shop around if you need document collaboration in your business.

Conclusion

There’s more—like domain registrars, security scanners and SSL certificate providers—but those things begin to get into a more technical realm, and the point here was to share some everyday business tools from which anyone might benefit. If you have a favorite business tool or question about any of those listed above, please leave a comment below.

       

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