5 awesome free tools for small businesses

Sure, there are tons of free services on the Web. But these five picks are also free for small businesses, not just consumers.

These are frugal times for business, and an organization starting out might have very little money to spend on IT. Even if you're part of an established business, you're probably feeling the pinch.

Here are five extremely useful computing resources that are free of charge for small business users -- unlike some "free" services you might see that are only for home users. These choices have few if any restrictions, and are established services unlikely to shut up shop anytime soon.

1. Google Apps For Business

If your organization has under 50 employees, then Google Apps for Business (formerly called Google Apps for Domains) is for you. It offers free e-mail under the umbrella of your own organization's domain name (You can pay Google $10 to reserve a domain name, if you don't already have one). You can also have your own private Google Docs system along with your own Google Calendar system.

In use, the e-mail system looks and feels just like regular Gmail, except that your own organization's e-mail addresses are used rather than a Gmail one (such as, bob.smith@yourdomain.com, rather than something like bob.smith1964@gmail.com). One nice touch is that the e-mail address book is shared automatically amongst your users.

It's all hosted on Google's computers, so you won't need your own mail server computer. You'll benefit from almost zero configuration and maintenance, plus a promised 99.9 percent uptime guarantee. Put simply, Google takes care of everything for you. The spam filtering is the same excellent system as Gmail, which is to say your employees just won't be bothered by anything dodgy.

There are some limitations on the free version. As well as the 50 user limit, each user account can send e-mails to only 500 recipients per day. This won't be an issue for most of us, but it's easy to imagine an enthusiastic sales person hitting that ceiling now and again. You also can't send attachments larger than 25MB, although this will only be an issue for those working in the media industries who have to ship around large photographs or video files.

Even if you have to pay to upgrade to the Premier Edition, which allows unlimited users and a host of other benefits, it'll only cost $50 per year. Who can argue with that kind of value?

Some service providers, such as Dreamhost, offer free-of-charge one-click configuration of Google Apps for any domains you have registered with them.

2. Dropbox

Dropbox is a sync and backup tool that makes use of the cloud to remotely store files. Once the Dropbox software is installed, you'll find a new Dropbox folder on your hard disk. Anything stored in this folder is instantly transferred to Dropbox's cloud storage system. This is done invisibly, and using the Dropbox folder is just like using any other folder on your hard disk.

The benefits are that you can then install Dropbox on another computer and, using the same login details, recreate your Dropbox folder. Anything saved in the folder on computer A will automatically appear in computer B's Dropbox folder, and vice versa. Indeed, you can add-in computers C, D, E, and so on, and even mobile devices can get in on the action. There's a Web interface that allows access to files, too.

Perhaps the chief benefit for business is that, should a notebook get stolen or lost, restoring its files is as simple as installing Dropbox on a new computer, entering the username, and letting it sync the contents (provided your employees have been trained to always save their files in the Dropbox folder, of course).

Dropbox offers free 2GB of storage per user, which is enough for hundreds of modest office documents, and I couldn't find any restrictions on business users signing-up for free accounts. All you need is to download the client software and sign up during the installation process, using your e-mail address.

Before you ask, yes, it's massively secure. SSL connections are used to make the transfer of data to and from the cloud, and all data is stored using AES-256 encryption. Even if a stranger were to somehow pull your data from the cloud, it would be gibberish.

Each user can make the leap to 50GB of storage for $10 per month, or 100GB for $20. This isn't a huge amount of money, although it could add up once your organization starts to grow.

My colleague Rick Broida discussed a similar new service called SugarSync, which offers 5GB of free storage - 3GB more than Dropbox. However, my personal preference is to stick with the long-established Dropbox.

3. Microsoft Security Essentials

License fees for antivirus software are taxing for those who use Windows. We'd rather not pay, but there's no way of getting around it. Most free antivirus products, such as AVG, are free only for home users.

However, Microsoft has recently opened-up its Security Essentials software for free small business usage (It was previously free only for home users.). Alas, the license agreement states you can only use it on up to 10 computers in a corporate environment, but this is still better than nothing. If nothing else, it means that you'll have 10 fewer antivirus licenses to pay for. (For larger organizations, Microsoft offers its Forefront product range, which has various licensing systems.)

The new Security Essentials looks good. It's certainly good at spotting viruses, although it can be a little slow when scanning compared to competitors. However, considering the $0 price tag, I'm sure we can all live with this. Security Essentials is available for all recent versions of Windows, from XP up.

4. Linux

Don't worry. I'm not going to advise you switch to Linux on your desktop computers. From a purely financial standpoint this has rarely made much sense for smaller businesses, considering they usually pay for Windows licenses without any choice when they buy a new PC.

Instead, I'm going to recommend Linux for your file servers. This avoids the need to pay for expensive Windows Server licenses. If you go with something like Ubuntu, the most popular form of Linux, you'll pay nothing at all for an installation serving an unlimited number of client computers.

Ubuntu's other chief advantage is that, as a popular form of Linux, support is never far away. Googling any problem will almost certainly reveal somebody else who's had the issue, or you can head over the hugely popular Ubuntu Forums to ask for help.

In terms of technology, Ubuntu offers Samba, which can effectively recreate a modest Windows-like file and printer sharing setup. Both Macs and Windows computers will have no problems connecting, and will be unaware that they're not connecting to a Windows server.

If you have an old PC you can mess around on, try downloading Ubuntu Server and giving it a try. You might have to reach back into your memory to remember those Unix 101 classes, but there's a wealth of free documentation out there to help you get started.

5. Go-OO office suite

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few years, you probably already know about OpenOffice.org, the open source (and therefore free-of-charge) office suite. This keeps getting better with each release and is now a definite contender for lighter-weight office tasks. If you haven't looked at it recently, it's well worth a trial.

I find it very useful for those upgrading from an older version of Office and who are confused by the ribbon-based user interface, found on recent releases of Microsoft Office.

However, it's been a busy time in the world of OpenOffice.org, and Oracle's acquisition of Sun -- owners of OpenOffice.org -- has dropped a bomb from which the dust is still settling. The LibreOffice project has picked-up the reins but is still in beta testing stage, so at the moment I recommend the existing version of Go-OO as the best free-of-charge office suite around. Based on OpenOffice.org with some useful tweaks here and there, its chief advantage is support for Microsoft's newer XML-based file format (such as the DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX file extensions), which is the default in all recent releases of Microsoft Office.

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