Avantifix teams up with i-Virtuals to move to the cloud


One of the problems facing any small firm is how much to invest in IT. After all, you’ve got a turnover measured in thousands rather than millions, even the purchase of a server and some PCs may seem like a step too far.

Mike McElhatton, the managing director of Avantifix, a distributor for fixing tools for the construction industry , was in that very position. Indeed, McElhatton, while appreciating the need for computers, is of the generation that is as happy with pen and paper. “I have very little interest in IT but it’s part and parcel of the business,” he says.

He didn’t how to progress with the IT system. “We had what I’d call a DIY system. We couldn’t afford to have someone dedicated to IT but we could run what we had. For example, would I be able to build a barbecue out of bricks, yes. Would I build a house, no? It would take 10 years,” he says.

Back then

Avantifix had a stock management system called Merlin– a DOS one no less, hosted on Windows 2003 server, which was clearly coming to the end of its natural life. The company did have a website but it didn’t enable its customers to make purchases on account – and for a firm that made most of its sales to account customers, billing them later, that was a serious omission – one that was losing them business to rival firms.

McElhatton realised the system had to be upgraded but didn’t really know how to proceed. The replacement of the company’s financial controller turned out to be the key to the process as that led to the introduction of a new service provider, i-Virtuals.

Ashoka Reddy, i-Virtuals managing director quickly ascertained that Avantifix would be a perfect candidate for a cloud-based system: the company had little or no internal IT expertise and was urgent need of a more flexible infrastructure.

However, McElhatton was also concerned that the company was not being pushed down a path of buying more than it actually needed. “It’s like the old-style Nokia phone. That was perfect for just making phone calls: it just worked. A computer system doesn’t need to have any more that we needs doing.”

Making way for change

The internal system has now been moved to an i-Virtuals cloud, with the on-premise server being used as backup to provide added resilience. That in itself is a new departure for the company. In the past, they didn’t get backed up but, drawing on one of the advantages of the cloud, everything is now backed up automatically.

The new system allows Avantifix to run a network of 10 PCs interconnected, providing access to the Merlin stock control system and Sage accounting. The company also uses the system to connect the employees' iPads.

The new system also means that it is easier for Avantifix to stay on top of software licensing, an area that's often tricky for small businesses.

One step that Avantifix is still to deal with is the issue of its website. While there's an acceptance that it needs upgrading, there is the thorny problem of bringing together information from a variety of different sources, all of which have their own individual formats.

Reddy says that upgrading the website would mean developing a completely integrated system that’s all linked to the same database, something that would be very time-consuming to implement.

As McElhatton explains this would be something that only he and his team could do as it's a task that requires human involvement.

Realising real business benefits today and tomorrow

The website is being moved incrementally ready for the wholesale deployment later in 2013.The i-Virtuals cloud is hosted in a data centre in Manchester, Reddy has rejected the idea of using an established cloud provider such as Amazon or Microsoft because he wanted ready access to the servers.”It's important to have customer data held in the UK,” says Reddy.

While having the system run by a third-party provider could have proved problematical, McElhatton says it hasn't worked that way. He doesn't think of Reddy as a supplier but as a valued member of the team. “He's added a lot to the business. I feel that I can trust him to do the right thing for us and that kind of trust doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. And there's the financial imperative too. “Having him around can save us money,” adds McElhatton. And, he points out, monthly bills means that IT is now an operating expense, meaning that his cap-ex budget has not taken a hit.

The implementation at Avantifix is a demonstration of the power of the cloud. A company that had little in the way of IT infrastructure and skills in-house now can run a range of applications and is in the process of developing a website that will be able to match its competitors' offerings. It's run on a mixture of (limited) internal know-how and external expertise – the best of both worlds.


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