Information systems should make conducting business easier, more efficient, and accurate. Scanning prescriptions and maintaining patient records in electronic form eliminates paper files and facilitates faster submission of insurance claims. It should also improve patient safety by alerting the pharmacist to potential drug interactions and allergies. This, however, assumes that the computers work properly when the pharmacy staff need them.
The unfortunate reality today is that far too often the information systems that businesses rely on are not available when needed. Problems are often magnified in small businesses; they often do not have in-house IT expertise and make critical mistakes when choosing and installing their IT systems.
Many small businesses underestimate the importance of proper environmental controls. Power sags and spikes, high temperatures, and dust take a toll on computer equipment. Crashes, system restarts, and transient Internet outages may be symptoms of environmental issues. It is astounding how many small and home businesses do not have a UPS protecting their computers, switches, routers, and modems.
Small business often run mission-critical software on desktop PC hardware instead of proper servers. Servers contain different components including motherboards, processors, memory, cooling systems, and power supplies. Servers are designed for constant heavy use and are generally more reliable.
The absence of environmental controls and poor hardware choices create a weak foundation for business computing. It is understandable that small businesses may seek to reduce expenses, but direct and indirect costs of downtime must be careful considered.
Storage is another critical area for small business. Desktop-class hardware usually has a single hard drive. Even if backups are made on a regular basis, the downtime involved in procuring and replacing the hard drive and restoring from the latest backup may be unacceptable. Even small businesses should consider mirrored drives (RAID 1) or a three-disk RAID 5 array a minimum for any critical information.
Small businesses should seriously consider cloud-based services. In addition to providing a business-class operating environment, redundant hardware is usually available immediately and backups are simplified. There may also be financial advantages in avoiding capital hardware acquisitions.
Single points of failure are another availability concern. While failure in equipment such as modems and switches are rare, the cost of being unable to conduct business until the device is replaced often significantly outweighs the cost of spare or redundant equipment.
The choice of operating system also impacts system availability. Desktop operating systems like Windows XP, 7, and 8 are not suitable platforms for mission-critical business applications. Windows Server 2012 and Linux distributions with long-term support are more appropriate.
A significant challenge facing small businesses is choosing software. Sadly, a lot of software designed for the small business market suffers from poor design and inadequate error handling.
Designing good-looking, easy to use software is only half the battle. Business software must be designed to gracefully handle issues that occur mid-transaction. For example, if a communication failure occurs while pharmacy software is processing an insurance transaction, it should not simply hang —it should respond gracefully and allow the transaction to be retried or bypassed. Similarly, if the PC’s power source is interrupted at any point while processing a prescription, software should resume where it left off, especially if an insurance payment has already been secured.
Designing robust software that can deal with unforeseen errors requires a level of discipline that many software developers lack. Small business owners need to ask tough questions prior to purchasing software and take advantage of trial periods to simulate error scenarios.
Choosing the right hardware and software can make a significant difference to the success of a small business. However, if the system fails, it is important to have a contingency plan and manual processes so that customers are still promptly served.
Have a security question you’d like answered in a future column? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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