FORTUNE Small Business

Screen Your Server

A simple new means of protecting small-business computers has been designed so even a technophobe can install it.

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Fawn Fitter

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- FRANK LOBASCIO IS ON THE FRONT LINE OF THE battle for safe computing. The president of American Carriers Moving & Storage of Moorestown, N.J., Lobascio used to spend at least $20,000 a year to protect the systems that generate customer estimates, schedule trucks and drivers, send invoices, and process payroll for his $3-million-a-year company. Still, viruses, spyware, and spam kept creeping onto the network killing hard drives, destroying data, and knocking servers offline. To make matters worse, a handful of staffers were secretly visiting porn and gambling sites on company time. With no room in his budget for a full-time IT person, Lobascio tried to make do by calling in a part-time consultant. "You name the antispyware and antivirus package, and I bought it," he says.

Larger companies have been able to keep their networks clean and their employees out of the back alleys of cyberspace with all-in-one devices that combine multiple layers of security capable of screening every byte traveling between the internal network and the web. However, these unified threat management (UTM) appliances cost several thousand dollars and require a crack IT team to install and manage them properly. Small-business owners who can't afford them have often been forced to take a more piecemeal approach a spam filter here, an antivirus package there and hope they can keep up with the frequent updates those technologies require.

Now, however, vendors are beginning to offer UTM appliances simple and affordable enough for small-business owners with no IT background. One such gadget, from New Jersey startup TrustELI, is called the ELI (for Electronic Lifestyle Integration) for Small Business. It costs $250, plus a monthly subscription $20 to $40, depending on the number of users for updates of the spam, virus, and content filters. (A version for home users costs $199, plus $9.99 a month.) The small brushed-metal box, about the size of a hardback book, contains antivirus and antispyware protection, web-content filtering, e-mail screening, a firewall even VPN (virtual private network) capability, which allows authorized users to make an interception-proof connection to their company network from home, a hotel room, or any other remote site.

It's relatively easy to set up you make a few cable connections and then go to TrustELI.com, where you can select one of five preset configurations that cover the most common ways someone might use a computer at home or at work, from Telecommuter to Gaming, and that's it. You've just protected as many as 25 computers. If you want to add more or set up a different level of security for another group of computers, repeat the process with another ELI device.

"The setup was fill-in-the-blanks easy," says Lobascio, who installed an ELI for Small Business at the office of American Carriers with no help beyond a little phone support. "I just wrote it down and kept my notes, and now I have exactly what I want coming in and going out."

What makes it so simple? ELI for Small Business is a managed network appliance in other words, it doesn't run on your desktop but on servers at TrustELI's Mount Laurel, N.J., headquarters. In the same way that your cable company tells your set-top box that you've subscribed to HBO but not Showtime, TrustELI's servers tell your ELI for Small Business which security settings you've chosen on the company's website.

ELI for Small Business automatically "phones home" to TrustELI's servers at least 30 times a day, the company guarantees to download the latest updates for its content, spam, and virus filters. It also checks whether you've logged on to the TrustELI site to change your security settings, and updates them if you have. If its servers don't hear from your ELI device at least once in 24 hours, TrustELI assumes it's broken and ships a new one the next business day.

"We wanted to create something easy enough for an entrepreneur to use," says Susan Lutz, TrustELI founder and a longtime network security pro. "You set it and forget it." (It is possible to customize the device further, if you're comfortable geeking out a bit, she adds.)

Since he installed his ELI for Small Business in December 2005, Lobascio says, American Carriers has had no trouble with spyware or viruses, and incoming spam has dropped by about 90%. Employees are restricted to work-appropriate websites, which makes it easier for them to stay focused on the job and helps to keep the network infection-free.

Lobascio says he doesn't even have to call his IT consultant as often. "There's a substantial amount of work he's been cut out of," he says. "I'm not a tech guy, I just know what I was dealing with, and I'm not dealing with it now."

BOX OUT THE BAD GUYS

Two inexpensive tools to protect a small firm's computers.

If you don't need comprehensive network protection, the $150 SPAM CUBE (spamcube.com) weeds out junk e-mail for as many as four computers. An optional $52 annual subscription adds regularly updated protection against viruses and phishing (e-mail scams meant to trick you into revealing identifying information such as account numbers and passwords).

Another web-managed UTM appliance comes from Check Point Software Technologies (checkpoint.com). The CHECK POINT SAFE@OFFICE 500 includes a firewall, virus screening, and VPN capability over both wired and wireless connections. It costs about $600 for 25 users, plus a $99 annual subscription for upgrades.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.