Businesses think nothing of using outside help to look after their accountancy, design or printing requirements. So why should IT be any different? Jay Korde, technical director, Extrasys investigates.

Keeping a firm running successfully is an arduous task with numerous priorities competing for attention - winning new customers, keeping existing customers happy, maintaining the standard of service levels, and effectively marketing the business are just a handful of the demands on time and resources.

Over the last fifteen years or so, IT has played an important role in enabling growing businesses to better manage these competing challenges. Indeed, email, the internet and mobile technology have in many cases levelled the playing field for smaller businesses against larger competitors.

But it takes time and money to make technology effectively support the business - time and money that could be put to better use elsewhere.

You could say it's the entrepreneurial Catch-22. While technology makes it easier to get things done, buying and then running all of the kit can be an expensive and time-consuming distraction. Business managers have more important things to do than, say, ensure software licenses are legal and up-to-date.

Managed IT services offer a way out of this conundrum by hosting a business's corporate network at state-of-the-art data centres - users no longer need to invest in, maintain and upgrade servers and software.

With a managed or hosted IT service, the network, files and programmes staff use on a daily basis, such as email or Word, can be accessed anywhere there is an internet connection. The provider sorts the technology and makes it all available, freeing you to concentrate on those activities which actually make the business money.

There are other benefits too. Hosted IT providers charge a fixed cost per seat per month, which simplifies cash flow projections and budgeting.

A business can also switch software licenses on and off as required. So if you need additional copies of Excel or Outlook in the run-up to Christmas or year end, the provider can activate extra licenses for just that period of time, rather than shelling out for full-year licenses which become redundant once the busy period ends.

Removing some of the worries around business continuity and disaster recovery is another advantage of the hosted approach.

While companies that keep their technology in a room on-site remain vulnerable to floods, fires, heatwaves and power surges, having your technology hosted by an IT expert means important company data is mirrored across several data centres, so workers always have access to the files and programs they need.

Protection against the ever-increasing range of security threats - viruses, Trojans, spyware, and so on - will also be taken care of by a quality service provider.

One of the downsides to technology is that it tends not to stay new for very long, and keeping abreast of the latest software versions (and knowing whether you actually need them or not) takes time to sort.

Letting a service provider worry about this means the business always has access to the latest software as part of the service and at no extra cost. Not only that, upgrading is simply a matter of informing the provider that you want the business to move to the latest version, and they'll carry out this work for you.

Managed IT services can also help staff with their work/life balance as they have access from home through the internet to exactly the same computing environment as they have in the office.

Technology should be a help, not a headache. Whether it's basic office software like email or Word; or more advanced accounting and Web site tools, growing companies need to be smart about the way they bring technology into the business. Allowing an expert to host and manage it for you in a secure data centre means you can remain focused on the things that really matter.