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Amazon Web Services review: AWS packs in more features than any other cloud service provider

K.G. Orphanides
Andy Webb

2 Aug, 2019

Amazon's one cloud service provider to rule them all isn't always the most economical option for SMEs

Highly variable

AWS is the big daddy of cloud service providers. It provides the backend infrastructure for half the online services you’ve ever heard of, and it could do the same for your office.

It’s increasingly practical to move small and medium enterprise business networks and servers into the cloud as infrastructure as a service. Unusually – and conspicuously unlike rival platforms from Microsoft and Google – AWS can provide virtualised desktop workstations, as well as core infrastructure.

In this review, we’ll focus on infrastructure and services that can be readily migrated to the cloud – primarily core servers, directory services and a virtual private cloud to both handle virtual networking and provide a VPN endpoint to connect your business’s physical machines to your online infrastructure.

Amazon WorkSpaces cloud desktops could also be of particular value to firms with significant remote workforces. All of these options can represent significant savings on capital expenditure and, particularly with virtual desktops, provide a secure alternative to having staff work from their own PCs.

Amazon says it strives for 99.99% uptime in each AWS region and, if it does go down, provides credits that can be spent on affected services. You can choose which region to host your services in, which can potentially help with both legal compliance and performance for people connecting from that region.

Amazon Web Services review: Deployment

AWS has a frankly dizzying array of features, from machine learning testbeds to augmented reality application development and Internet of Things connection kits, but we’re interested in servers and networking to support a standard office.

For this, you’ll want to deploy a Virtual Private Cloud and, on that, deploy any servers to handle whatever single sign-on, storage and database needs your business has. VPCs are easy to manage if you’re already confident with network infrastructure, but to connect your office to your cloud-based network, you’ll need a fast internet connection and a firewall router powerful enough to handle a high-throughput VPN connection.

When deploying VMs, you can’t just upload an ISO of your choosing and install that – only a rather limited list of Windows and Linux versions are available to install. However, it is possible to upload a VMware, Citrix, Hyper-V or Azure virtual machine image via an Amazon S3 storage bucket or – easier still – via the AWS Server Migration Service and connector software installed on your existing platform.

Amazon Web Services review: Pricing

No matter which data centre region you’re based in, in the world of AWS, everything is in US dollars, right up until the point at which your final bill is calculated in your choice of currency, based on Amazon’s internal exchange rate.

This can be rather annoying, particularly when the pound undergoes major fluctuations due to political events, as it makes your month-to-month costs less consistent than they otherwise would be.

The default option for your AWS deployments is its On-Demand pay-as-you-go pricing. However, as with Microsoft Azure, you can save money if you deploy longer-term reserved instances for any virtual infrastructure that you plan on leaving in operation for an extended period.

Needless to say, the exact costs of any deployments will vary widely depending on your exact needs. To provide a basic example, we use the AWS Simple Monthly Calculator to cost up a single general-purpose virtual machine running Windows Server on a two-core, 8GB VM with a ‘moderate’ connection – estimated by various third party tests at around 300Mbit/sec – costs $152.26 per month, plus $36.60 for a 1024GB HDD.

The speed of that network connection makes a great difference to pricing: two cores and 8GB RAM on an up-to-10GB/sec connection cost $282.56 per month. A little less variably, an Active Directory connector starts at $43.92 and a Virtual PrivateCloud at $36.60 per month for a single connection from your office router.

Critically, the estimation tool – unlike Azure’s – won’t generate a baseline estimate of how much data in and out a business might use every month. You’ll have to estimate that manually: at an estimated 100GB per month in and out (only outbound traffic costs anything in this scenario), we’d pay $17.91 per month.

That adds up to $294.71 (£242.53) per month, including a small free tier discount. For Windows servers, Microsoft’s Azure platform is much more competitive at the moment: £196.68 per month will get you a similar setup.

A lot of that is to do with the cost of licencing Windows, which Microsoft can subsidise for Azure users. Switch that AWS server VM to Linux, and it’ll cost $84.92 per month, rather than $152.26.

Amazon WorkSpaces virtual desktop computers start at $7.25 per month plus $0.17 per hour of active use (or a flat $21 per month) for a Linux desktop system and $7.25 per month and $0.22 per hour (or a flat $25 per month) for a Windows desktop, with one core, 2GB RAM, an 80GB root volume and 10GB of user storage.

AWS can sometimes spring unexpected costs on you, for example by billing hourly for IP addresses that were once attached to a terminated VM. Similarly, leftover key pairs and storage drives associated with virtual machine instances incur charges if they’re not manually deleted when an instance is.

Data throughput and the sometimes arcane relationships between services can also add to the cost of AWS deployments, and you might miss out on its free intra-region data transfer fees if you don’t set everything up correctly.

In the case of a Virtual Private Cloud, you’ll have to create a specific subnet endpoint pointing at the AWS service you’re trying to connect to in order to benefit from free throughput: connecting to a public IP address provided by the service will result in data transfer being billed as though it was going to a location on the wider internet, rather than inside AWS.

Like Microsoft and Google, AWS provides a wide range of free services intended to allow administrators to extensively prototype and test cloud-based systems and services for their business, from short-term free trials to always-free services and free 12-month subscriptions for new AWS subscribers.

In the latter category, new users can run up to 750 hours a month of Linux and Windows EC2 Micro virtual machine instances, 5GB of S3 storage, various Amazon WorkSpaces cloud desktop and AppSteam always-available desktop application streaming bundles, 750 hours of database services and more.

In the Always Free category, you’ll get 10 CloudWatch resource monitoring deployments, 62,000 outbound email messages, 10GB of Glacier cold storage, key and licence management, 100GB of hybrid cloud storage, and Amazon’s Chime unified communications platform among other bits and pieces.

Amazon Web Services review: User interface

The AWS Management Console is a lot nicer to look at and carry out day-to-day management and deployment tasks with than Microsoft’s rival Azure platform. There’s more white space and fewer immediately visible options, which helps to make it feel less cluttered.

Your most recently visited services are front and centre, and you can open a full list of every single one of AWS’ vast catalogue of services. At the top of the page is a search interface, where you can search for services by name or function, so if you search for ‘virtual desktop’, you’ll be directed to WorkSpace and if you search for ‘cold storage’, S3 Glacier pops up.

Below, a range of wizards and tutorials are available to help you deploy and work with popular services such as virtual machines, virtual servers and hosted web apps. Each service has its own management interface which, again, are a little more comfortable to use than Azure’s.

However, there’s a distinct design language at work here that you’ll have to get used to, particularly if you’re primarily familiar with Microsoft’s Server and cloud products. We were pleased to find that free-tier eligible options were clearly marked when we used the VM deployment wizard, which also provides helpful guidance when it comes to keeping your deployments secure, such as locking access to specific IP addresses.

Amazon Web Services review: Verdict

Even compared to its closest competitors, AWS is complex, both in terms of features and pricing, although a well-designed interface does its best to make things simple. When working with AWS, it’s worth using Amazon’s quote generator and cost management tools to ensure that you aren’t running up unexpected expenses, and you’ll have to remember to include data throughput costs in your estimates, as they’re not typically bundled.

AWS’ ubiquity speaks for itself: although its layers upon layers of features are confusing, it’s reliable, highly flexible, can be immensely cost-effective and offers a wider range of services than any of its rivals. However, to make the most of it, your business will need a dedicated expert, either in-house or as contracted support.

By comparison, Microsoft’s Azure isn’t significantly easier to use, but its management interface will feel a bit more familiar to Windows sysadmins and its pricing for Windows-based services is cheaper than AWS’, making it a better option for most office infrastructure migrations.

Arcserve UDP Cloud Direct review: Capable but limited multi-site backup

Dave Mitchell

22 Jul, 2019

A cloud backup solution well suited to protecting distributed offices but spoilt by a lot of rough edges

£1,599 per year exc VAT

Arcserve’s UDP Cloud Direct is simple to deploy and easy to use – qualities that will immediately endear it to overworked IT departments. Two versions are available: we tested the Backup-as-a-Service (BaaS) edition, which promises pain-free cloud backup and recovery, but you can step up to the Disaster Recovery-as-a-Service (DRaaS) package, which adds in-the-cloud virtualised recovery of key systems.

Pricing for BaaS is based on your cloud storage requirements. The 1TB package costs £1,599 per year, or if you go for a 5TB subscription, you save over £300 per terabyte. DRaaS comes as a separate service, where you’ll pay around £350 per year for a VM with one CPU and 4GB of RAM.

After signing up, you get access to a personalised web portal, from which you can download backup agents for Windows, Mac and Linux – although the latter two are file-only. It took mere seconds to install the agent on our Windows servers and enter our account details, after which each one popped up in the portal. The ease with which clients can be registered and managed makes Arcserve ideal for companies with multiple sites.

All of your clients can be viewed in the portal’s Systems tab, and selecting one takes you to backup task creation. Oddly, you can schedule backups for selected days, but each task can only be run once a day at a specific time: if you want more frequent protection, you’ll have to run extra jobs manually.

File and folder backup is supported on all platforms, and on Windows you can also secure entire systems as images. SQL Server and Exchange databases can be optionally backed up too, and you don’t even have to specify the locations: the agent simply backs up all the databases it can find. You can even back up NetApp filers.

After installing the agent on our Hyper-V host, we were able to browse its VMs from the portal as well, and run agentless backups of selected ones. Installing the Cloud Direct virtual appliance on our VMware ESXi 6.7 lab host let us view its VMs from the portal, and choose which ones to protect with a single click.

Ongoing backup activity can also be monitored from the portal, and the agent has a System Tray popup that shows its progress. If bandwidth is an issue, bandwidth throttles can be applied in Kbits/sec to individual tasks.

Hybrid backups are simple to set up too because you can add a physical storage location to any task. This can be anything from a local disk or external USB drive to a NAS share or IP SAN; frustratingly, the sparse user manual doesn’t detail how to configure this, but a little experimentation confirms that you can declare disk locations by entering their paths, while NAS shares can be accessed using UNC syntax.

When it’s time to restore your data, you can just head to the web portal, choose a system, select the required recovery point and either restore it in its entirety back to the client or open the browser window and select individual files and folders to recover.

Unfortunately, Exchange item-level restores aren’t supported: you can only select the entire database and recover it back to the host, whereas VMware VMs can be recovered as raw image files or directly to vCenter. It’s not possible to restore files from local devices via the portal either, so if you want to quickly bring back a file from a NAS drive, you’ll need to open up Explorer and copy it across by hand.

Those limitations take some of the shine off Arcserve UDP Cloud Direct, as do the lack of support for hourly backup jobs and poor documentation. If you can live with those specific issues, though, this is a great cloud backup solution that’s ideal for SMEs looking to protect multiple systems and locations from one cloud portal.

Microsoft Azure review: Competitive cloud pricing takes a bite out of AWS

K.G. Orphanides

19 Jul, 2019

A clear and cost-effective path for deploying your Microsoft office network in the cloud

Highly variable

The purchase, roll-out and maintenance of servers for your business’s Microsoft-based network can be prohibitive. But now, if you have a fast enough internet connection, you can deploy Active Directory, file servers, database servers and more in the cloud, and Microsoft’s Azure platform provides a clear and cost-effective way to move server and network infrastructure online.

Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform is a clear favourite for a company that would otherwise use local Windows Server and Active Directory systems to support Windows PCs for staff. While it’s by no means a closed shop – a wide range of Linux distributions are also supported on Azure – Microsoft’s cloud service provides ready integration with your local network and the company’s desktop products.

There are potential disadvantages to using cloud infrastructure for your business: you’ll never have any kind of physical access to or control over your systems and you’re at the mercy of your host’s outages. But Azure provides a 99.99% uptime guarantee for its virtual machines and you won’t be responsible for maintaining and updating your hardware and licenses manually, which can save on both capital expenditure and time for your IT staff.

You can choose where your Azure servers are hosted, ensuring, for example, that relevant customer data is kept within the same geographic region as those customers and allowing you to get the best possible connection speeds by ensuring that you’re not sending data halfway around the world.

Microsoft Azure review: Deployment

There are almost unlimited potential uses for cloud computing and storage, which can be a barrier to entry in and of itself: it’s important to work out what’s most convenient and cost-effective to keep local and what would be most easily deployed in the cloud.

Active Directory, Windows Server VM and storage options can be used to roll out Infrastructure as a Service for your business on an Azure private virtual network. To make good use of such a setup, you’ll need a fast – and ideally symmetric – internet connection and a reasonably powerful firewall router capable of handling a VPN connection between your local network and the Azure cloud.

There are also plenty of options to cover your public-facing networking needs, from Ubuntu Server images already configured with Apache for web hosting to web app development platforms that make it easy to test and roll out apps in Java, Python, Node.js and more.

Secure cloud storage is available at a range of costs and access tiers (hot, cool and archive), from managed disks for your virtual machines to file shares and scalable containers for unstructured data.

Microsoft Azure review: Pricing

Opting for cloud services rather than physical infrastructure massively reduces your business’s initial outlay on hardware and licences, although you’ll have a higher monthly operational expenditure due to subscription fees and – potentially – support costs, either directly via an Azure support plan or from a specialist IT support firm if you don’t have in-house expertise.

Pricing for complex cloud services is by its nature highly variable: one company’s needs won’t be the same as the next, even if both fall within the SMB bracket.

The simplest subscriptions for most services are on a pay-as-you-go basis, with exact pricing depending on the product specification you opt for, such as virtual machine configuration or quantity of storage, but cost-saving reserved instances – for which you pay an upfront flat rate for a fixed period – are also available.

You’ll need to work out individual pricing based on what systems and infrastructure you need, and we strongly recommend using both Azure’s estimate calculator before you buy and its cost tracking tools afterwards to make sure you’re getting good value for your money. We’re fans of Azure’s costing tools, which are somewhat easier to work with than AWS’s calculator.

On PAYG, a general-purpose VM with 2 virtual CPUs and 8GB of memory, running Windows Server will cost £150.43 per month. A 1024GB HDD to go with that costs £33.58 per month, although a wide variety of larger and smaller HDD and SSD disk options are available. Storage transactions – reads and writes, typically billed in 4MB blocks – are an additional cost, priced at £37.27 per 100,000 transaction units. A variety of snapshotting and backup options for your disks are available at further cost, depending on how much data you need to back up at any given point.

A virtual network is free, but you’ll have to pay for inbound and outbound data transfer – that currently works out at 75p per 100GB. Azure Active Directory Basic costs £11.18 monthly plus 75p per user, per month and an extra £10.43 per ten users if you want multi-factor authentication.

This very basic setup works out at £196.68 per month. While making exact comparisons is challenging due to differing default configurations and terminology, an equivalent Amazon AWS estimate for a Windows Server VM, Active Directory services, Virtual Private Cloud and data throughput came to $276.27 (£248.25) a month, making Azure a slightly better deal for this particular scenario.

In the case of Windows Server and other Microsoft licenced products, software license fees are included in the cost of running the deployment, but the Azure Hybrid Benefit for Windows Server means that you can use any physical Windows Server licences you already have to reduce the cost of operating your cloud servers.

Microsoft is currently competing heavily against cloud-dominating rival AWS, with a price match promise for comparable services and a promise to undercut Amazon on Windows and Microsoft SQL databases and servers. There are also plenty of trial options to help you see whether Azure is the platform for you and, Microsoft clearly hopes, get you sufficiently invested.

When you sign up, you get £150 credit to spend on anything you like within 30 days, plus 12 months of basic services for free, including Linux or Windows virtual machines and a pair of 64GB SSDs to use with them, 5GB apiece of blob (unstructured data) and file storage, SQL and Azure Cosmos databases and enough bandwidth in and out of Microsoft’s data centres – 15GB – to take advantage of all that.

Azure’s always-free services include entry-level cloud apps, some Active Directory services, Azure Kubernetes Service container management and deployment, developer tools and free, unlimited private code repositories, push notification sending, 50 virtual networks and more.

Microsoft Azure review: User interface

Azure has departed from its Microsoft Server inspired interface choices in recent years, in favour of a more broadly accessible user interface design language that feels less cluttered than that of rivals Google and AWS. The Azure portal home screen provides an overview of the resources you currently have in use, links to monitoring and security tools and a quick access list of the most popular Azure services – a full, searchable list can be reached via the All services tab in the left-hand menu pane.

This pane also gives you access to all categories of Azure services, from your storage server and virtual machine lists to cost management and analysis tools to help you ensure that you’re not burning more money than you should be.

While it’s a bit of an acquired taste, the interface does an admirable job of making a mind-boggling array of services accessible and easily deployable within a few clicks. You can also create multiple, highly customisable Dashboard displays to track the status of your various hosted systems and services.

When it comes to virtual machine installations, like AWS, Azure expects you stick to using the operating system install images provided, though you can migrate existing on-premises VMs to Azure, assuming your images meet certain compatibility criteria. If you need greater flexibility on this front, such as the ability to upload and install operating systems from your own ISO images, you’ll have to use a more VM-focused cloud services provider such as Vultr, but be aware that this will also involve more manual configuration in general.

Microsoft Azure review: Verdict

There’s a lot of competition in cloud services, but Microsoft is being particularly aggressive when it comes to undercutting Amazon and Google, which makes it a very good option for small businesses right now. A variety of reserved and pay-as-you-go pricing options are available, with enough free credit and services to support a proof-of-concept project before you commit fully.

If you’re looking to deploy cloud-based infrastructure to connect your Windows systems, Azure probably represents one of the easiest routes to doing that, although you’ll still need traditional Windows network and server management expertise to get everything set up: this isn’t a ready-rolled and fully configured solution. However, if you’re looking to deploy Microsoft products in the cloud, Azure is exactly the right tool for the job.

Salesforce Essentials review: Stripped-back CRM wins on functionality

K.G. Orphanides

11 Jun, 2019

The SMB edition of one of the world's most popular sales tools dials down both cost and complexity

£24/£240 exc VAT

Salesforce is one of the industry leaders in online customer relationship management (CRM) software, with a key focus on enabling businesses to keep track of clients, potential clients, sales and support issues.

While its higher-tier Professional, Enterprise and Unlimited subscriptions are both expensive and complex due to the sheer number of advanced features they pack in, Salesforce Essentials is cheaper, at £24 per user, per month or £240 per user billed annually. You can have a maximum of 10 users and a minimum of one, which helps to keep costs down compared to its other tiers, which start at £720 per user, per year for Salesforce Lightning Professional.

While the Classic edition of Salesforce is still available to both new and existing customers, we’ve focused on its latest Lightning Experience, which presents a more polished and modern user interface but doesn’t have the traditional layout that longtime users will be familiar with. Although Salesforce hasn’t indicated when Classic will be retired, Lightning will ultimately supersede it.

Essentials also limits the number of extra features it includes. Although you get access to third-party extensions, it lacks advanced forecasting and lead automation tools. A 14-day free trial gives you enough time to work out if this is the CRM solution for you.

Salesforce keeps all user data in the US, with data protection covered by the EU-US Privacy Shield.

Salesforce Essentials review: Getting started

Salesforce Essentials’ Sales home screen opens with a healthy array of dummy data for you to play with and a genuinely helpful guided setup box, which takes users through basic tasks. These include connecting a Google or Office 365 account to easily track customer communications, as well as introducing you to the sales funnel classification system for prospective customers in a variety of industries, You can customise the information you store about contacts, import existing customer data, add your colleagues – if your budget extends to that – and, once you’ve learned your way around and tried a few things out, delete all the trial data so you can start using Salesforce for real.

The first time you log in, you’re asked what you want to get from Salesforce, such as keeping your contacts organised, closer collaboration with colleagues or closing more deals – to help it present you with a set of appropriate guided tours around the service’s features.

Essentials is much more approachable and far lighter on the business buzzwords than its sibling, Salesforce Professional, which makes it a far better choice for anyone who isn’t already fully initiated into the deeper secrets of specialist sales and CRM systems and terminology.

SalesForce’s key advantage is that it replaces the databases, contacts books and spreadsheets a business might use in concert to keep track of clients and sales, and instead provides a unified environment where tracking the status of bids and opportunities is as simple as dragging them from one column to the next, with detailed profiles for you and your colleagues to annotate, so you know exactly where you stand with every customer and project.

The guided tours are rigid and not terribly interactive, but they provide a useful introduction to the service’s terminology and systems. Other tutorials open Salesforce’s integrated help and documentation system, while extensive tutorials are available on Salesforce’s dedicated Trailhead site.

Very early on, you’re pointed towards material showing you how to use features like Leads to record and look up details about potential customers that you’ve not yet contacted or done business with. Although by default only the most recent data you’ve worked with is shown in each category, you can pin a number of different views to be shown by default. We particularly like being given a list of all our active leads and contacts.

Everyone who works with a lead can add notes to their entry so your entire business’s knowledge about and dealings with each client can be assembled in a single, easy-to-find location. Once you’re ready to take your business relationship to the next step and send them quotes and proposals – or at least regard them as someone likely to make a purchase – you can convert that lead into an Opportunity at the click of a button. This process already creates a contact and a customer account for their business.

Once you’ve got an existing relationship with a customer, Salesforce becomes home to your complete archive of data on that company and your contacts there, complete with tools to help remind you to check in and manage recurring business and customer support needs.

Everything’s searchable via a bar at the top of the screen and a powerful setup interface allows you to customise the appearance and behaviour of Essentials’ various modules.

Salesforce Essentials review: Apps, extensions and integrations

The Essentials app launcher is, once again, far less bewilderingly cluttered than that of Salesforce’s higher-cost tiers, limiting itself to three core web app interfaces for sales, customer support tickets and your sales and support usage metrics.

There are also shortcuts to useful tools such as a calendar for keeping track of appointments and targets, which you can configure to sync with Office 365 or Google Calendar; your master list of leads; note-taking tools and a social-media style Chatter tool to help communicate with your colleagues and keep track of their activities. Once open, each of these tools is given its own tab within the Salesforce web app interface, making it easy to navigate between them.

As well as lead tracking and conversion, the Sales interface allows you to assign tasks to yourself and your colleagues, see past and future tasks and client communication events on a calendar, upload and share files and generate reports.

We’re great fans of the Service Console, which lets you log, track and respond to customer service and support requests. You can forward email addresses and link Twitter and Facebook accounts so that all messages and mentions they receive are automatically added to your Salesforce Service Cloud queue for attention, making it incredibly easy to manage your customer support and communication channels.

You can email customers from within the console if you’ve linked a G Suite or Office 365 email address, view both the active ticket and your business’s full history with that customer, upload files, add notes and even link your corporate or staff Twitter profile to pull in social media posts by your customer.

There is, of course, a mobile app to help you do business on the move. Thankfully, rather than simply trying to cram the web browser experience into an app, it’s a genuinely optimised piece of design, opening by default on your business’ Chatter feed to keep you abreast of your colleagues and providing easy access to your organisation’s contacts, support cases, leads, opportunities and more via an expanding list at the right of the screen.

A number of third-party integrations are available, although Salesforce Essentials isn’t as well supported as higher subscription tiers – for example, the QuickBooks integration listed on Salesforce’s small business solutions site doesn’t work with it. However, integrations are available for services including DocuSign digital signing for contracts, Slack for office communication, MailChimp for external announcements, and Dropbox and G Suite for storage, among others.

Salesforce Essentials review: Verdict

Salesforce Essentials is powerful, but accessible enough not to be entirely overwhelming for small business users and its Service Console support ticketing system for customer support is outstanding. It’s also a good introduction to the Salesforce ecosystem for those who’d rather not jump straight into the significantly more complex Professional tier.

However, this is also among the most expensive CRM solutions for small enterprises. Those that just need basic sales tracking and relationship management may be better off with a more inexpensive rival, such as Zoho CRM, which is free for businesses with up to three users and costs just £10 per user, per month after that.

Linksys LAPAC2600C review: Easy cloud networking for small businesses

Dave Mitchell

31 May, 2019

An affordable Wave 2 AP that’s strong on performance and features

£183 exc VAT

Small businesses that want to move from standalone wireless networks to fully cloud-managed ones will love Linksys’ LAPAC2600C as it doesn’t get any easier. This Wave 2 wireless AP takes everything we like about the standard LAPAC2600 model and teams it up with Linksys’ Cloud Manager web portal. Its price even includes a 5-year subscription.

Signing up for a Cloud Manager account is easy: provide an email address for the designated owner, add a password, choose a domain name and create networks for each geographical location. Adding APs is equally swift. You provide their MAC address and serial number, which are found on the box, under the AP and, if you login to its local web interface, can be copied and pasted from its system status page.

Before going further, we recommend visiting the portal’s main settings page and changing the default local admin password for all managed APs. Most AP settings aren’t available locally, but you can still login and disable cloud management or change the AP’s LAN configuration.

Each AP takes 10 seconds to link up with Cloud Manager and you can change their names to more meaningful ones. The portal’s overview page for the selected network provides a real-time graph of upload and download traffic for all clients or the number of connections and can be swapped to the last hour, day or week.

You can see the busiest clients and APs, wireless channel usage and a Google map showing the AP’s physical location. You can create an unlimited number of SSID profiles and up to eight can be assigned to each AP as ‘slots’.

Along with enabling encryption and SSID masking, you can decide which APs will broadcast the SSID and apply a single limit in Mbits/sec to overall upstream and downstream bandwidth usage. Client isolation stops users on the same SSID from seeing each other, you can restrict the number of clients that can associate and enable 802.1lk for fast roaming as users move around.

Zero-touch provisioning is achieved by creating a new network for the remote site, entering the AP’s details from the box, pre-assigning SSIDs to it and sending it to the remote location. All the user needs do is unbox the AP, connect it to power and the internet and it’ll do the rest.

The LAPAC2600C is a good performer, with real world file copies using a 5GHz 11ac connection on a Windows 10 Pro desktop averaging 56MB/sec at close range dropping to 53MB/sec at 10 metres. Coverage is also good as the SweetSpots app on our iPad only registered a loss of signal after we got 44 metres down the main building corridor.

Each network in your account can have additional members added and allowed to manage all settings or merely view them. There are no options to permit access to specific functions but the account owner can add more users and grant them full portal access to all networks.

Guest wireless networks are swiftly created by enabling a captive portal (or ‘splash page’) on selected SSIDs, which is presented to users when they load a browser after associating. The page can be customised with a small company logo and AUP (acceptable use policy) of up to 1,024 characters, set to request a global password and used to redirect guests to a landing web page – possibly with a promotional message.

The LAPAC2600C delivers good wireless performance and features at a very reasonable price. Linksys’ cloud portal is basic but its extreme ease of use makes it ideal for small businesses that want hassle-free cloud managed wireless networks.

Microsoft Teams review: A no-brainer for Microsoft shops

K.G. Orphanides

23 May, 2019

Existing Office 365 subscribers will love this – others, not so much

Free/£3.80/£9.40 per user per month (exc VAT)

Microsoft Teams is a relative newcomer to the world of online business communications, but although the client interface is all-new, the underlying protocols and technology are really the latest evolution in Microsoft’s long legacy of communication suites.

It’s likely because of this that Teams provides far more comprehensive VoIP telephony support than most business chat clients. It even has internationally available direct phone number support: a feature that’s vanishingly rare among its rivals. Calling plans and integration options with a limited range of local VoIP telephony hardware and systems are available, but there are typically extra costs involved.

Teams is the replacement to Skype for Business, which itself replaced Lync in 2015. Existing Office 365 customers are being gradually moved from Skype for Business to Teams, with staggered automatic transitions having begun in 2018. Skype for Business Server 2019 will continue in parallel as Microsoft’s on-premises communications solution.

This surprisingly short life cycle of Microsoft’s unified communications products is actually one of the strongest points against using them: at this point it’s hard to be sure that you won’t have to retrain your users on yet another new system in three years’ time. However, it’s a core Microsoft Office product, which means that, if you already use Office 365, it won’t cost you anything extra.

Microsoft Teams review: Pricing and features

In the UK, you can sign up to Teams and create a workspace using its standalone free service, but its paid-for tiers are only available as part of a Microsoft Office 365 Business Premium, Business Essentials or enterprise E3 subscription. The positive side of this is that an entire Office 365 suite – and especially the service-only Essentials subscription – costs less per user than a Slack subscription and puts up reasonable competition against Google’s G Suite and its Hangouts communication service.

Office 365 Business Essentials costs £3.80 per user, per ​month (exc VAT) and provides Microsoft’s core online services – Exchange, OneDrive, SharePoint and Teams – for businesses that don’t need a subscription to its Office software suite. Office 365 Business Premium adds desktop licences for Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access on top of that service package and costs £9.40 per user, per month (exc VAT). Both of these are charged monthly with annual subscription commitment.

Free users get 2GB of file storage per user and 10GB shared, unlimited message history searching, screen sharing, one-to-one and up to 250-person group video calling, and up to 300 members. Upgrading to Office 365 from the free version of Teams gets you extra administration features including the ability to add more admins, 1TB of storage per user, scheduling and recording of video meetings, extra security features including multi-factor authentication, integration with Microsoft’s VoIP telephony calling plans if you subscribe to them, and one year’s free domain hosting.

If you upgrade to a paid tier, you’ll never again be able to downgrade. You also can’t merge Teams free into an existing Office 365 paid subscription, and you can’t have any free users in your paid-for organisation.

Both free and paid versions store your data in your local region, so UK businesses’ data will not be stored in the US.

Microsoft Teams review: Clients

Teams clients are available for Windows, macOS, Android, iOS and web browsers. Unlike rivals Slack, Google Hangouts, and Mattermost, Teams does not have a Linux desktop client. While that’s unlikely to concern most businesses, those in some development and industrial sectors may want to look elsewhere.

Web browser support is also limited. In contrast to its rivals, Teams’ web interface doesn’t work very well in Firefox. There’s no support for Meetings – group video, audio or screensharing sessions – and font and whitespace rendering is unflattering and a little difficult to view.

Its appearance in Edge and Chrome – as well as the desktop clients – is significantly better. We particularly appreciated the inclusion of dark and high-contrast modes, which Slack has yet to implement on web and desktop platforms.

The general layout of Teams is rather Slack-inspired, with a large message and content pane on the right that by default loads your team’s general group chat and a narrow left-hand pane with tabs that let you view your files, teams, private messages and notifications.

Between them is an index pane that lists your teams, files, message contacts or notifications, depending on which tab you’re in. This felt a little too broad on our 1,920 x 1,080 display, both at full screen and windowed modes. While the client interface feels like it could do with more polish and extra features such as topic hashtags, it does everything it’s supposed to – as long as you stick to fully supported browsers.

We’re fans of the ability to open up an advanced composition field that lets you add subject headers, use enter for carriage returns, add HTML formatting and insert code, lists, tables and other custom text features in a manner that’s reminiscent of Microsoft OneNote.

In this context, the decision to give each chat message its own box in the main pane, rather than have contiguous IRC-style discussions, suddenly makes sense. You can also share animated GIFs via Giphy and use a limited set of custom Microsoft emoji and stickers including a rather old-school DIY meme creator, because that’s absolutely what modern business users require from their communications tools. (These options can be disabled in the paid versions.)

Microsoft Teams review: Configuration

For both free and paid-for versions of Teams, you’ll have to create an organisation for your users to join. However, you’ll use different administration interfaces to configure them.

The free version of Teams has extremely limited management capabilities, accessible from the Manage org option in the pulldown that appears when you click on your own profile as the workspace’s sole administrator. You can see all your members, remove them if you want to and control whether or not they’re allowed to invite others. That’s it: you can’t even add an extra admin.

For that, and much more, you’ll have to upgrade to Office 365 Business Premium or Business Essentials. All your users will need a paid-for Office 365 email address and sign-in profile, but your existing data and conversation archives will be ported across seamlessly.

If you’re starting from an Office 365 subscription, you’ll similarly have to create a team for members of your organisation to join, and you can easily add individuals, groups or every member of your organisation to your team. Larger companies can have dedicated teams for every department.

Administration is carried out via the new dedicated Teams admin portal, although legacy settings for both Teams and Skype for Business can still be found via the main Office 365 admin pages. If you’re familiar with Office 365, Microsoft Server or Microsoft Azure interfaces, you’ll feel right at home with the Teams admin interface. For everyone else, it may take a bit of getting used to.

In stark contrast to the free tier, there are huge numbers of highly granular options here, allowing you to create policies controlling which features and apps users and teams can have access to, how meetings are handled down to email invitations and QoS traffic shaping for video, call handling for Microsoft Phone System integration, analytics and device management for webcams and IP phones registered to your users.

For both free and paying users, there’s a surprisingly wide range of extensions available in the Teams Store, allowing you to integrate third party services including GitHub, Trello, Google Analytics, Zendesk and Zoom. As you’d expect, there’s also an API that you can use to develop bespoke extensions for internal use.

Microsoft Teams review: Verdict

Teams is obviously going to be widely used, simply because it’s what you get bundled with Office 365 and provides an easy way to connect everyone in your organisation for instant group and one-to-one communication.

It does what it’s supposed to and shares the familiar user interface styling of other Office products. It has better telephony support than its rivals, stores data in your local region, includes some genuinely innovative message formatting tools and provides very useful meeting recording features.

The fact that its overall interface lacks polish is rather secondary to all that. It’s not the nicest or most comfortable business communications tool to use, but its interface does the job well enough and will hopefully be given the opportunity to improve to meet its full potential in the coming years.

If you subscribe to Office 365, Teams is the best and most obvious communications choice for your business. If you don’t need any of Microsoft’s other services, however, Teams isn’t worth getting into the Office 365 ecosystem for in its own right unless you specifically need a cloud-based, archiving communications system with UK data centres.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Drag and drop, straight to the top

Dave Mitchell

16 Apr, 2019

Protecting your virtual machines doesn’t get easier than this

£445 exc VAT

There may be a wealth of backup solutions aimed at securing virtualized environments but many offer this as an additional feature, so SMEs may find themselves paying through the nose for excess baggage. Not so with Altaro VM Backup: this software product is designed from the ground up to protect VMware and Hyper-V VMs (virtual machines).

Another bonus is its pricing structure, because unlike many products that use the number of sockets or CPUs, Altaro bases costs purely on the number of hosts. The Standard edition starts at a mere £445 per host and this allows you to schedule backups for up to five VMs per host.

The Unlimited edition begins at £545 and, unsurprisingly, supports unlimited VMs per host but also enables high-efficiency inline deduplication, cluster support, GFS (grandfather, father, son) archiving and Exchange item-level restore. Moving up to a still very affordable £685 per host, the Unlimited Plus edition brings Altaro’s cloud management console into play and adds WAN-optimised replication, CDP (continuous data protection) and support for offsite backups to Microsoft Azure.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Deployment

Altaro claims it’ll take you 15 minutes to install the software and get your first backup running and it’s not wrong. It took us 5 minutes to install it on a Windows Server 2016 host after which we declared our first Hyper-V host, added a Qnap NAS appliance network share as our primary backup location, picked a VM from the list presented and manually ran the job.

The console is very easy to use and we also declared the lab’s VMware ESXi host and another Hyper-V host running our Exchange 2013 and SQL Server 2014 services. Along with NAS appliance shares, Altaro supports a good choice of destinations including local storage, iSCSI targets, USB and eSATA external devices, UNC share paths and RDX cartridges.

For secondary off-site locations, you can copy data to Altaro’s free Offsite Server (AOS) app which supports Windows Server 2012 upwards. The OS and AOS app can also be hosted in the cloud using a range of providers including Microsoft Azure.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: User interface

Creating VM backup strategies doesn’t get any easier as most operations are drag and drop. We viewed all VMs presented by our Hyper-V and VMware hosts and simply dragged them across and dropped them on our primary backup location.

At this stage, you can run them manually with a single click, but applying a schedule is just another drag and drop procedure. Altaro provides two predefined schedules and we could create our own with custom start times plus weekly and monthly recurrences.

A set of default data retention policies are provided and you can easily create new ones for on-site and off-site backup locations. Choose how many versions you want to keep, decide whether older ones are deleted or archived and then just drop VMs onto them to apply the policy.

You can add off-site copies to a schedule at any time by – you’ve guessed it – dragging and dropping VMs onto the secondary backup location icon. CDP can be enabled on selected VMs and scheduled to run as often as every 5 minutes, while application consistent backups can be applied to VMs running VSS-aware apps such as Exchange and SQL Server.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Replication and restoration

Selected VMs can be replicated to the remote AOS host where CDP defaults to updating them every 5 minutes, or less frequently if you want. Depending on which type of VMs are being replicated, AOS requires access to local Hyper-V and VMware hosts, where it manages VM creation and handles all power up and shutdown commands.

Both the Altaro primary and AOS hosts must be running identical OSes and for the latter, we defined iSCSI storage for off-site copies and declared local Hyper-V and VMware hosts to provide VM replication. Initial off-site copies can be sped up as Altaro provides an option to copy the data to a removable device for seeding the remote vault.

General recovery features are excellent: you can restore a virtual hard disk, clone a VM or boot one straight from a backup to its original host or to another one. We tested the Boot from Backup feature and Altaro provisioned a SQL Server 2014 VM from its latest backup on a new Hyper-V host and had it running and waiting at the Windows login screen in one minute.

Altaro’s Sandbox feature takes the worry out of recovery by verifying the integrity of selected backups. Along with checking the data stored in backups, it clones VM backups to the same host to make sure they will boot when needed – and it does this all in the background.

GRT (granular recovery technology) restores are provided for recovering files, folders and Exchange items. Exchange GRT is undemanding; we selected this for our Exchange 2013 VM, chose a backup and its virtual hard disk, browsed for the EDB file and viewed our users and mailboxes plus items such as individual emails, contacts and calendars. The console creates a PST file containing the recovered items and we used the Exchange Admin Center web app to grab the file and import its contents into the relevant user’s mailbox.

Altaro VM Backup 8.3 review: Verdict

During testing, we were very impressed with Altaro VM Backup’s fast deployment and extreme ease of use. The clever console design makes it easy to create backup strategies for VMs plus it offers a wealth of valuable recovery and replication features. Protecting your Hyper-V and VMware virtualized environments really doesn’t get any easier or more affordable, making Altaro VM Backup a top choice for SMEs.

Google G Suite review: Suite like chocolate

James Morris

20 Mar, 2019

If you can make the leap to a cloud-centric usage model, G Suite provides seamless real-time document collaboration.

£3.30/£6.60/20 per user per month

Google has been a “disruptive” company on many levels since its inception. Gmail changed the way we used email by providing an inbox size that kept growing ahead of user needs. When the company began also offering competent office software via the browser, for free, it seemed like Microsoft Office had a real challenge on its hands.

Now, around a fifth of businesses use G Suite, which is less than a third of those that use Office 365. But this is still a significant figure, making G Suite the second most popular office suite, and the obvious one to consider instead of Microsoft’s. So to accompany our review of Microsoft Office 365, here we look at what G Suite has to offer in comparison.

Google G Suite review: Options

Everyone with a Google account can access Gmail, Calendar, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Drive (including 15GB of free storage), and numerous other Web-based Google applications. But if you want more cloud storage and a professional email address that doesn’t end in, then you will need one of the paid subscriptions, of which there are currently three. Unlike Microsoft’s subscriptions, these are true monthly prices that you don’t have to pay for annually upfront, and the number of users you can have on any of them is unlimited.

The Basic subscription costs £3.30 per user per month and increases the online storage to 30GB across mail and files. It also gives your company control over employee accounts, which you won’t have if they all use their own Gmail accounts. This means you can change their passwords when they leave, and take away access to their Google Drive storage at the same time. You can also restrict collaboration access to within your organisation, and create group email addresses, as well as have multiple email versions that end up in the same mailbox.

The Business edition of G Suite costs twice as much at £6.60 per user per month, but has significantly upgraded features. For fewer than five users, each one gets 1TB of cloud storage, but for five or more users the capacity is unlimited, which is a distinct advantage over Microsoft’s alternatives. There is also an easy environment for creating Web apps for your organisation, and much more sophisticated search, security and e-discovery features compared to the Basic version. Above this, there’s the Enterprise edition for £20 per user per month, which further enhances security management features and e-discovery.

However, it’s worth noting that in April 2019, Google plans to increase the prices of the Basic and Business accounts by $1 and $2 respectively, although the company hadn’t announced what this will translate to in the UK at the time of writing. There are also separate versions of G Suite for Education or Government clients.

Google G Suite review: Office Applications

One very clear distinction between G Suite and Microsoft Office 365 is that there are no installable desktop versions of the G Suite applications. However, a G Suite administrator can enable offline file and app access for their users within the Chrome browser. Similarly, Chromebooks already work in this way, so you can load locally stored documents into Docs, Sheets and Slides within the Web browser, whether or not you have a working Internet connection. Your edits will then synchronise back out to cloud storage when connectivity is available again.

For general document creation and editing, Google’s offering is very serviceable, and there are clear advantages from the native online nature of G Suite. The various applications also have the ability to import and save back to Office file formats, amongst others – although not always faultlessly, with the formatting compatibility of the Slides to PowerPoint translation being particularly suspect in some cases. In the last year or so, G Suite’s version control facilities were enhanced so that different versions can have different names. This also enabled the ability to suggest changes from the smartphone versions.

Gmail is the granddaddy of G Suite applications, and its biggest strength is its Google-powered search, which is as fast and capable as you would expect. A lot of extra features can be added with third-party augmentations. However, by default you can’t sort email or group it, which may lead users to turn to a standalone email client such as Thunderbird or (perish the thought) Microsoft Outlook, particularly if they need to access email offline.

The Google Docs word processor is perfectly capable at the core functions of document creation and formatting, but lacks special capabilities such as Word’s SmartArt insertion. Some people might prefer the cleaner, simpler interface compared to Word, although this is in large part thanks to having fewer features. There are also more subtle deficiencies that put it behind Microsoft Word. For example, whilst you can easily call up a word and character count, the rolling count in Word’s bottom left corner is more streamlined as it doesn’t require a menu click.

However, you can extend the capabilities of all the Google Apps via Add-ons, many of which are free. For example, Docs doesn’t come with a table of contents facility as standard, but you can add one via an Add-on. There are numerous free Add-ons for bibliographies and citations, which again aren’t included as standard. The sophisticated mail merge capabilities of Word don’t seem to be replicated, however, although there are Add-on options that will mail merge with an address database held in Sheets.

Whilst word processors reached the point years ago where few people cared which one they were using for basic writing, Google Sheets poses a viable challenge to Excel. It includes capable PivotTable features and lots of functions that parallel those in the Microsoft competitor, although not always with the same name, which will be a bit confusing if you’re already an Excel function whizz. The extremely useful VLOOKUP works in a very similar way, however. You can create a similar range of charts, including some of the recent Office additions like waterfall visualisations.

Sheets gains extra power thanks to being hosted online. You can connect other applications to a Google Sheet and draw data from it via an API to use elsewhere. Equally powerful is the ability to set up a Google Form that feeds straight into a Sheet, so you can get users to enter data and have it automatically appear in a handy spreadsheet format. This can allow Sheets to form the hub of a database-driven survey app that outputs dynamically to a web page, for example.

Google Slides is perhaps the weakest of the G Suite apps. It has all the basic needs and again has some benefits from its online nature with the ability to search YouTube directly and insert videos into your presentation. However, the theme and animation options are considerably more pedestrian than PowerPoint’s and Apple Keynote’s. However, it is now possible for third parties to add custom templates, which improve the design capabilities.

Google G Suite review: Cloud Services and Smartphone Apps

Google was obviously a search company to start with, and the enterprise iterations of G Suite include a Custom Search that places an Explore button at the bottom of application interfaces that provides useful tips but also searches across related documents in your Drive and the Web, allowing you to drag elements into the document you are working on.

There are site-building tools such as My Business that allow you to quickly create a web presence for your company. The Google App Maker, available with Business and Enterprise Editions, takes this further, letting you develop software to automate business processes. Again, Add-ons and extra apps integrate with the main software to provide extra functionality. For example, you can plug in Apogee Leave Management to stitch this conveniently into the Calendar, so any leave booked shows up automatically.

Google’s mobile apps provide easy options for working on documents offline and on the move. You will have to tag the files you want to work on offline, so they can be downloaded and stored locally, but after that you can work on them with your smartphone or tablet when there’s no Internet connection. The changes will be synchronised back to the cloud next time you have a connection. Like Microsoft’s smartphone apps, the features are reduced over the Web-based apps.

Google G Suite review: Verdict

The choice of Google G Suite really depends on how your organisation can work with the need to be online most of the time, and also how much you will need authentic Office-format documents. Switching to a model focused around the cloud is a big cultural change, which could be uncomfortable if your staff tends to work away from reliable network connections.

For some businesses, however, the online aspect has a bonus — your software is entirely managed, and your technical support needs thereby dramatically reduced. You can get a similar experience with the Business Essentials version of Office 365, which only provides the Web-based software, not desktop. With G Suite, however, all your users need is a working computer running any operating system with an Internet connection and a browser, (which can even be Internet Explorer 6) so there’s no software to install. This has made G Suite particularly attractive for education, where the low cost of entry of Chromebooks is an added bonus.

The live collaboration aspects of G Suite are mature and seamless, too. It’s very easy to set up a document and have umpteen users work on it together, with their changes reflected in real time as they work. This is something that won’t be anywhere near as easy to accomplish with the desktop editions of Microsoft Office applications, despite the recent cloud editing enhancements. However, not all companies need or want to work this way, and the majority are likely used to operating in a more standalone fashion, as they will have done for decades.

In summary, whilst Microsoft Office applications are unquestionably more powerful and fully featured than their G Suite equivalents, the Google alternative has the edge when it comes to uncomplicated cloud-based collaboration. So it’s really a matter of “horses for courses” as to which is best for your company. More traditional businesses pumping out Office-format documents regularly will want to stick with the Microsoft choice. But if your employees regularly work together on documents, and particularly if you have a lot of remote workers, G Suite makes this simple to achieve.

Xero review: Xero to (almost) hero

K.G. Orphanides

15 Mar, 2019

Comprehensive cloud accounting that's particularly well suited to sales-based businesses

£8.33/£18.33/£22.92 per month (exc VAT)

New Zealand-based cloud accounting specialist Xero is geared up to support HMRC’s new Making Tax Digital VAT payment scheme – which becomes mandatory for all UK businesses with turnover above the £85,000 VAT registration threshold from the 1 April 2019.

Xero is among the more expensive SaaS accounting suites around, with three tiers targeting businesses of various sizes. Xero Starter costs £10 per month as standard but severely limits the number of transactions you can process every month: you can send just 5 invoices, enter 5 bills and reconcile 20 bank transactions. This means that it’s only suitable for the very smallest of businesses.

Priced at £22 per month, Xero Standard removes those limits, while for £27.50 per month, Xero Premium adds multicurrency support for SMEs that do business overseas. New subscriber discounts are frequently available for all tiers.

Unlike some of Xero’s rivals, all three tiers support online VAT submission to HMRC. Bolt-on features are also available at levels, including Payroll at £1 per employee per month, Projects at £5 per user per month and Expenses at £2.50 a month for each user. Note that your accountant will have to be added to Xero, and any bolt-on service you want them to have access to, as an additional user.

Xero review: Getting started

When you sign up to Xero, you’re prompted to add a few details about your company and then taken to the main dashboard, where a guided setup wizard awaits you.

You’re asked a few simple questions to configure your financial year, whether you want to stick with Xero’s default chart of accounts categories or import your own from a previous accounting suite, and are invited to connect your bank to directly import transactions.

The Add Bank Accounts screen – also available via the Bank accounts screen in Xero’s Accounting menu – allows you to connect accounts from a large number of financial institutions that do business in the UK, including PayPal and both business and personal services from the usual high street banks.

However, although a number of online-only banks such as Revolut, TransferWise and HSBC’s well-established First Direct are represented, some of the current wave of digital challenger banks don’t appear. ING, Monzo, and Shine are among those currently missing, as are foreign banks.

If your account uses two-factor authentication, you’ll have to generate a login code every time you sync its transactions with Xero. Otherwise, they’ll be synced automatically every day. If your bank doesn’t come up when you search Xero’s list, you can just select “Add it anyway”, enter your sort code and account number, and manually upload your statements in CSV format.

If you have a foreign bank account, you’ll have to extract the account number and sort code from its IBAN to set it up, after which you can just upload statements as for any other non-connected account.

With your accounts added, you’re next prompted to enter your balances as they were on the date that you want Xero to work from – the beginning of the current month by default. For foreign currency accounts, you’ll have to – slightly obtusely – double-click on the balance field and then add both the balance and confirm the exchange rate you wish to use.

Once you’ve imported some bank transactions, Xero’s tutorial wizard sends you to reconcile them: match them up to your expenses and invoice payments. Unlike some rivals, such as QuickBooks, Xero doesn’t try to automatically classify transactions based on their description or the company involved, which means that your first reconciliation could be quite time-consuming.

Xero review: Invoicing

The next stop on the guided set-up process is particularly useful: adding unpaid invoices and bills to pay. This is an important step when moving your business to any new accounting suite, but it’s nice to have it made explicit. To complete the invoices, you’ll also need to enter your organisation’s contact details as prompted.

You can either enter all your outstanding invoices manually or download a CSV template to help you upload them en mass. To help balance your books, you should also add any invoices that have been paid within the period covered by the bank transactions you imported earlier.

Note that, when using the template, you have to enter a unit number and amount for each invoice rather than simply entering the total in order for the import to complete. While you can conveniently opt to save imported client details when doing a bulk invoice import, if you’re going to create your initial invoices manually, you should set up your Contacts and invoice template – in your Organisation settings – before.

Helpfully, Xero also provides a free portal that your customers can use to view and even pay their invoices immediately via PayPal.

Xero review: Staff, payroll and tax

If you have employees, you’ll be prompted to add them and set up your payroll accounts towards the end of the guided account configuration process – Xero Payroll costs £1 per employee with a minimum fee of £5 per month.

Once you’ve entered each staff member’s basic data – name, date of birth, address and binary gender – you’re prompted to fill out a standard range of information, from employee number, start date, NI number and national holiday group before you can go about setting up their tax and pension data.

Xero can help you calculate and submit PAYE tax, national insurance contributions and pension filings in the process of managing and paying your staff. There’s a full range of human resources options here, including a request system for time off, complete with support for statutory shared parental leave.

When it comes to VAT, Xero will automatically put together your return based on your month’s transactions and, at the click of a button, file it with HMRC.

Xero review: Time, inventory and expenses

Once you’ve created a payroll calendar for your employees, they can submit timesheets that can be used to calculate pay and integrated into optional project management systems. Xero also supports inventory tracking; you can monitor stock levels of items you buy and sell automatically as you enter bills for your purchases and invoice customers for your sales.

There’s a full expenses system – a bolt-on feature charged at £2.50 per user per month – which allows your staff to easily submit claims. You can set it up to use Xero’s receipt analysis, where staff take photos of receipts for their expenses and these are sent back to Xero for automatic analysis. Alternatively, if you’d rather not have the processing done on Xero’s end, you and your staff can enter the information manually.

As with most online services, there’s an app marketplace, featuring a range of free and paid-for tools to help you connect to third party services, including payment providers, CRM, timesheet and project management tools. You can also connect other Xero services, notably Projects and WorkFlowMax for project management.

Xero review: Interface

While Xero’s main dashboard and menus are clear, as are some of its overview pages such as the Payroll interface, many of its configuration pages look a little outdated due to tiny fonts and text entry areas. They’re not particularly comfortable to work with on a standard 1080p monitor, let alone higher-resolution displays.

Elsewhere, we found visible raw HTML code visible in an inventory tracking sheet. Another problem is the service’s use of Flash – long depreciated and disabled by default in most browsers – to produce graphs and charts for its sales summary reports.

By comparison, the Xero mobile app looks great and is really easy to use. It doesn’t give you access all the features of the web app, but provides you with key tools to monitor your business’s financial health, add contacts, record bills and receipts and create quotes and invoices on the move.

Xero also runs free webinar tutorial sessions that you can sign up for, covering everything from linking your bank accounts to HMRC’s new Making Tax Digital scheme and how it works with the software.

Xero review: Verdict

Xero is a solid and reliable accounting tool – if not always a particularly attractive one, largely due to inconsistent formatting that sometimes looks a little poor on modern displays. We liked the attention to detail in the guided setup process, as well as the integrated inventory system, although Payroll is a bolt-on extra.

Xero among the more expensive accounting tools you could subscribe to: it costs more than Sage and includes fewer quality-of-life flourishes than comparably-priced rival Quickbooks. The Starter plan is particularly limited by an improbably low allowance of monthly invoices.

Xero’s good at what it does, and is particularly well tailored to sales-oriented businesses that need basic stock management built in, but it’s not our favourite cloud-based accounting solution.

Zoho Books review: Everything but the kitchen sink

K.G. Orphanides

11 Mar, 2019

A relatively low-cost accounting suite with a huge range of features at all tiers, but lacking integrated payroll

$9 (£6.83)/$19 (£14.42)/$29 (£22.02) per month

Indian Software-as-a-Service giant Zoho is among the cloud-based accounting software firms working with HMRC to ensure that VAT registered companies are all set to use the new Making Tax Digital reporting process from the beginning of April 2019.

Zoho has European data centres in the Netherlands, rather than the US, so doesn’t have to rely on the sometimes controversial EU-US Privacy Shield data protection framework. Zoho’s European data centres are covered by the UK’s decision to regard all EEA member states as meeting adequate data protection requirements, even in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

Priced in dollars, no matter where you are in the world, Zoho Books is a very competitive option across its subscription tiers. There are three, scaled to fit micro, small and medium businesses respectively.

Priced at $9 (£6.83), Zoho Books Basic supports one user, with an extra account for inviting your accountant, with up to 50 contacts and five automated workflows. Workflows allow you to automate some features, for example sending email instructions to the relevant shipping and packing department when a sale is made, automatically applying discounts to large orders, or webhooks to send text messages to clients or suppliers when bills are paid.

It has a standard but useful set of core features: bank reconciliation, custom invoices, expense tracking, projects and timesheets – which are rare to find in entry-level accounting suites – plus recurring transactions and sale approval so staff sales can be double-checked if needed.

For $19 (£14.42), you get Zoho Books Standard, with support for 500 contacts, two users plus your accountant, and 10 automated workflows or modules. Extra features include the ability to log bills, issue vendor credits, use reporting tags, require purchase approval and receive SMS notifications.

The top Professional tier, which costs $29 (£22.02), has unlimited contacts,10 user seats, purchase and sales orders, an inventory for basic stock control and support for a custom domain name.

Unusually, all three support multiple currencies. You can also connect a variety of other Zoho cloud-based business tools for project management, analytics, CRM and more.

Zoho Books review: Setup and configuration

Once you’ve signed up for Zoho Books, you’re prompted to give your client portal a unique name, set your opening balances, edit the default Chart of Accounts or import your own, configure direct feed links to your bank accounts and invite staff and your accountant to access your books. This simple to-do list is clearly described and helps you transition your accounts into Zoho with a minimum of fuss.

Zoho has a particularly detailed set of fields for opening balances, which allow you to track specific expenses, assets, liabilities and equity, as well as the overall status of your accounts receivable and payable.

If you have a lot of invoices due when you set your starting balances, Zoho warns you that your total debits and credits don’t balance – this isn’t actually a problem for the software, although the exclamation-mark emblazoned alert pop-up makes it look like one. It is important to make sure that your opening balances are correct, though, and Zoho helpfully takes you through a confirmation screen to ensure this, while providing information on how to correct any errors in future.

Similarly, we appreciated being prompted to check over Zoho’s default Chart of Accounts. It’s simple by design, with just a few standard categories common to every business, but it’s easy to add more – for example, you may wish to create separate entries for the sale of goods and sale of services.

The final suggestions direct you to set up a bank feed and give others access to your accounts if they need it, and there’s where the Getting Started section leaves you to it. Users new to cloud-based accounting software would probably welcome a bit more hand-holding when it comes to configuring features like invoices, bills and time tracking for projects.

Zoho Books review: Banking

Like most cloud-based accounting suites, Zoho Books can link directly to your online banking service to import transactions. This worked smoothly, although to complete some bank connection we had to search for our bank, sign in, and then search again to be taken to a screen that allowed us to choose which of our accounts we wished to connect.

A wide range of British high street, business and international banks are supported, as well as PayPal. However, support for recent digital challenger banks is very thin on the ground, with no sign of TransferWise, Shine, ING or Revolut, among others.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to add banks and upload statements manually, whether that’s because your bank isn’t featured or because you simply prefer not to give your accounting suite read access to your bank accounts.

Just select Add bank or credit card from the Banking screen, then hit the big blue ‘Enter your account manually’ button. You’ll be prompted to give the account a name, select its currency and details such as account number or IBAN. You’re then prompted to upload a statement in CSV, TSV, OFX, QIF or CAMT.053 format.

With that done, you can reconcile your transactions, assigning them to clients, suppliers and expenses and matching them against bills and invoices – once you’ve created them. Small and micro business owners, in particular, will appreciate clearly defined categories for drawings, which not all accounting suits make so visible.

Zoho Books review: Invoicing, customers and bills

Although it’s not highlighted in the getting started guide to the extent that we’d expect, it’s hard to fault Zoho’s invoicing workflow. When you create an invoice for the first time, you’re asked to configure how you handle discounts. When you set an invoice number, a pop-up immediately asks you how you’d like to handle future invoice numbering – for example by continuing from a specific number.

And when you enter a customer name, a window pops up so you can add them as a contact, including details on the currency and payment terms for the specific customer. There are fields for their social media details, and you can even enable an online portal that customers can use to access and pay their invoices. A wide range of online payment providers, including PayPal, Stripe and Worldpay, are supported.

You can save invoices as drafts, although they’ll have to have at least one named item in them before you can do so. Quick invoice creation, along with fast add options for customers, vendors, bills, expenses, inventory, owner drawings and more, is instantly available via a small blue plus button at the top of the screen.

Bills and expenses work in much the same way, complete with support for attached images of receipts, and there are sample CSV and XLS forms to help you bulk upload invoice and bill data, which is helpful if you’re moving across from another accounting suite.

Zoho Books review: VAT returns and other tax support

Zoho Books fully supports HMRC’s electronic Making Tax Digital system, and also provides tools for tracking VAT MOSS for European sales.

For MTD, you’re taken through the process of connecting your HMRC account, after which a VAT Filing module will be available in the main left-hand navigation bar. From there, you’ll be able to generate VAT returns at the click of a button, check them over, make any necessary adjustments and submit them to HMRC.

Unfortunately, payroll support – and all related tax and deduction handling – is conspicuous by its absence. Zoho Payroll isn’t currently available outside the US and while the company is looking into integration with third-party payroll services, it can’t specify when this feature will be available. For now, you’ll have to use another service to handle payslips, PAYE and pensions and simply log those outgoings in Zoho Books.

Zoho Books review: Inventory, time tracking and integrations

Zoho Books is packed with features and also integrates with other Zoho cloud-based business tools, such as Expense, Subscriptions, Inventory and Checkout and CRM, plus document autoscanning that can automatically transcribe 50 items of paperwork a month. However, these cost extra.

But plenty more is built into the standard subscription and ready to go. For Professional subscribers, the Zoho Books Items tool can handle complex, illustrated price lists and inventory tracking, providing simple and effective stock management for sales-oriented businesses. Using its Time Tracking tools, available at all tiers, you can bill by staff, project or task hours and add multiple Zoho Books users to projects in order to track their time.

This is made easy by the Zoho Books mobile apps which, as well as real-time and post-dated time logging for users, provide handy shortcuts for adding expenses, invoices and contacts on the move, and a near-complete replica of the desktop browser features, from banking and reconciliation to reports, with the exception of VAT filing.

Zoho Books review: Interface

Zoho Books looks nice, is easy to read and presents all its information clearly, but it lacks the generous guidance and help of many other online accounting suites. We found that it took a little longer to learn our way around than in rival products from Xero, Sage and Quickbooks.

Its sidebar behaviour is also sometimes inconsistent. Click on Dashboard, Contacts, Banking or Reports, and a new screen opens with options or data to view. However, the Items, Sales, Purchases, Time Tracking and Accountant tabs all open up further sub-menus rather than an overview screen.

Fortunately, once you’ve learned the ropes, everything becomes second nature, even though we’d have appreciated an integrated help interface rather than being redirected to a separate support portal to search for answers.

Zoho Books review: Verdict

Zoho Books provides an excellent set of tools for managing your business’s incomings, outgoings and VAT. Its top tier is great for sales-oriented businesses that need inventory tracking. Small businesses with international clients will be pleased to note that multicurrency support, time tracking and integrated VAT returns are supported at all tiers. The only major downside is that it doesn’t have any kind of payroll facility.

However, a wealth of features at even lower subscription tiers, along with the current strength of the pound relative to Zoho’s US dollar pricing, makes this a very worthwhile choice for a small business on a budget, particularly if you already use an external payroll service.