June 26, 2017

Royal Blue in the Cloud

Flickr Creative Commons: Charlie

Flickr Creative Commons: Charlie

Since the entire city of Kansas City is decked out today in Royal Blue to celebrate our World Series Champion Royals, and since, according to Wikipedia, Royal blue describes both a bright shade and a dark shade of azure blue, this seemed like the perfect day for a Tech Talk Tuesday on Microsoft Azure.

Microsoft has created two over-arching brand names for their cloud services. Office 365 is the brand that contains all of the cloud based applications such as Word, Excel, Dynamics, Exchange, etc. Azure is the brand name for cloud based infrastructure such as domain servers, application servers, storage, routing, firewalls, etc.

Most of Onsite Logic’s client have servers, however, almost none of our clients started their businesses because they really wanted their own server closet. Just as web hosting and Exchange hosting have taken away the need to own your own web server or Exchange (email) server, Microsoft Azure seeks to do that for the rest of your infrastructure.

The concept is simple. You lease a virtual office network space in the cloud. You connect to a virtual computer in that virtual office which, in turn, is connected to virtual servers, storage, switches, routers, and firewalls. The servers and everything else work just like the servers you might own today, except they are not physically in a little room in your office.

The benefits include everything from less capital expense and less equipment to maintain to the ability to work from any location as if you are sitting in the office from virtually any device (desktop or mobile).

Microsoft Azure is not (yet) the thing for every small business, but for others it makes a lot of sense to have on the radar screen. Next week’s Tech Talk Tuesday will discuss some key questions to help identify if this is something you should consider for your company.

What is the Cloud?

Cloud computing on blackboard Discussions about the cloud have been going on for several years. However, even though it is a term many use, there also seems to be a lot of confusion about what it actually means, both in terms of trying to define it too narrowly or too nebulously.

In the simplest sense, the cloud is a collection of networking and server infrastructure that is “out there” as opposed to the “in here” like an organization’s local area network. One of the key characteristics of the cloud is that you can’t physically put your hands on it. However, just like clouds, the fact that you can’t touch them does not mean they are not real or have great purpose and value.

Anything you can do on an “in here” network you can do on the “out there” network of the cloud. You can store files and folders and databases. You can run servers and desktop computers. You can launch and run programs/applications and interact with them. You can secure and encrypt and backup and protect things the exact same way you would on an “in here” network.

The two biggest drivers of the cloud are:

  1. You only pay for exactly what you need and use. With a physical network, you make decisions and buy hardware and software based on 5-7 year projections. With cloud networks, you can size the resources (space, servers, processing, memory, etc) up or down in less than 2 hours.
  2. Operation and maintenance are included. I’m yet to meet the business owner who will say they got into business because they really wanted to own a server closet. It has been a necessary component, but, for most owners, not an enjoyable expense or worry.

We’ll have more TechTalkTuesdays over the coming weeks discussing some of the terminology and providers of cloud services. We’ll also be discussing how small businesses are using cloud to improve their operations, expand business and save money.

We welcome your thoughts and questions.

You Need Dual Monitors

dual two monitor screen stocks programming coding web deskOver the past few years the price of computer monitors have continued to drop while their quality has risen. At the same time it has become standard on computer towers and laptop docking stations to include 2 video ports and operating system software has built in capacity to manage multiple monitors. Plugging in a second monitor is as easy as, well, plugging in a second monitor.

There are also a number of University studies that show a productivity increase between 29% and 74% from multiple monitor use. Granted, these studies were funded by monitor and computer manufacturers. However, you will be hard pressed to find anyone using multiple monitors who would switch back to a single monitor.

The key to the productivity boost is in the applications that you commonly use. If there is a main program you use, such as a business dashboard or accounting program (Quickbooks) or key website (stock prices) that you use throughout the day, dedicating a monitor to the application significantly reduces the time and effort of maximizing and minimizing windows.

What program that you use throughout your day would it make sense to dedicate a monitor to? If you need assistance, please call Onsite Logic.

Should we stop using Internet Explorer?

Spy GamesThe latest Zero-Day exploit of Internet Explorer, Operation Clandestine Fox, has been in the news and raising questions for many small business owners. In today’s Tech Talk Tuesday we’ll attempt to explain the concerns and actions required and the bigger underlying security patch management need.

Operation Clandestine Fox sounds like the type of thing you would read about in a spy novel because it is. This latest exploit follows a pattern of exploits originating from foreign operatives to gain access to sensitive information that would be beneficial to their government or business interests. In it they plant a compromised flash file onto a website likely to be visited by someone using a computer that has access to information they desire. When they lure the user to the infected page, it uses a vulnerability in Adobe Flash to gain access to a vulnerability in Internet Explorer to download and launch the flash file which then can be used in tandem with other tools to gain access to information available through that computer.

While it may be unlikely that your computer has access to the type of information they are attempting to retrieve, the bigger concern for small business is how other thieves may now use this exploit for other purposes. Microsoft and Adobe are working to release patches to close the vulnerabilities.

So what should you do to protect yourself and your business?

  1. Have a patch management system. While this exploit is in the news, there are hundreds of others that are more relevant to small businesses that have been in the wild and patches are already available. Our Onsite Logic 24/7 service for desktop computers includes remote patch management to keep your computers up-to-date on patches for Windows, Office, Adobe, Oracle, Firefox, Chrome, etc. There are simply too many patches from too many different software companies for most small businesses to do this on their own and ensure it is happening on every company owned computer. That is why we include it in the Onsite Logic 24/7 service plan.
  2. Practice Safe-Computing. Limit your web-surfing to trusted sites. Don’t open links in emails from sources you don’t know. If you run across something suspicious, report it immediately. These common-sense things are the most important steps you can take both at work and at home.
  3. If you have access to classified government information, you should stop using Internet Explorer until a patch is released. If you would like to switch, you can use Firefox, Chrome or Safari. The attack targeted Internet Explorer because it is on every Windows computer. It does not mean vulnerabilities may not exist in other software programs that could be exploited in the future. Regardless of what program you use, the most important step is to ensure it is the most current version with all patches and updates installed.
  4. Accelerate plans to replace Windows XP computers. When Microsoft issues a patch for this vulnerability it will not be available to Win XP computers. The concern here is that other attackers will use these newly publicized vulnerabilities to craft other exploits that could target information you have.

If you have specific questions or would like to discuss patch management for your systems, please call Onsite Logic at 913-851-7483 for a personal consultation.

Little Savings Add Up

Save Money button keyOne of our partners recently sent me an article discussing a 14 year old student’s research project that found businesses and other organizations could save as much 24%-30% in ink expenses by switching to the Garamond typeface, a thinner and ink-saving font.  Given that ink costs more per ounce than French perfume, that small change equated to an annual savings of $21,000 for his school district and could equal $136 Million per year by the US Federal Government.

I think Garamond is a fine font, but I think the bigger message is that small savings add up.  For most small businesses, the single largest expense is labor and one of the main time wasters for employees is technology that is not running at peek efficiency.  The amount of time employees spend messing with and working around inefficient systems is significant and it is also frustrating for the employees.

We have found that Onsite Logic clients who have a regularly scheduled onsite service call, e.g., the afternoon of the third Wednesday of each month, have far fewer computer issues and much happier and productive employees.  With a set time, employees can screen shot or post-it note the little issues that come up between scheduled service calls and put them in a centralized place for the technician (example: one client tapes them to the inside of the server closet door).  At the appointed time, the technician will convert those items into tickets, prioritize them with you or your manager, and very efficiently work through the issues.  Many times these are small issues that would not justify a specific service call, but when combined with others and regular maintenance they can all quickly be resolved.

Instead of focusing on how much it would cost to have a regularly scheduled technician visit, the bigger question is how much would it save in lost productivity, emergency issues and employee morale.  There are no long-term contracts required and discounts for prepaid block-time are available.  Why not try it for two or three months and see if you can see the difference?

3 Steps for Backup & Recovery

Back Up And Restore Keys For Data SecurityLast week included World Backup Day, a reminder that it is never wise to have only one copy of any important electronic data.  But data backup is really only one component toward the real goal of data recovery.  The very worse day to test the ability to restore is on the day you need to restore the data.

A Wall Street Journal article on March 31 included these important 3 steps from Jennifer Walzer, CEO of BUMI (Back Up My Info).

  1. Develop a backup AND recovery plan.  This primarily involves planning, documentation and organization.  What do we need the ability to restore?  Where will it be stored?  Who has responsibility for maintaining it?
  2. Determine your RTO (Recovery Time Objective).  This is different for each business but revolves around the questions of what system access is most critical to ongoing business operations and how long can we survive without it.  This drives the tools and strategy.  In general, the more you say “everything at once” the more expensive it will be.
  3. Test your plan: According to Walzer, “I’ve been in the industry for 20 years now and I can’t get over how many people say, ‘we have a backup plan, we’re okay,’ but they aren’t testing it to make sure what they think they’re doing will help them get up and running faster.”  Things change.  People come and go.  Applications get updated.  If recovery testing is not part of your ongoing technology planning your plan is incomplete.

Because recovery needs vary, Onsite Logic works with a number of different backup tools to fit these different needs.  These range from simple data-only backups to fully redundant fail-over systems including the ability to run the business from the cloud in a catastrophic event.

Let our IT consulting team work with your team to help develop your company’s Backup and Recovery Plan.  The time to plan is when things are working.

Drive Failure

hard-disk-attritionCloud backup provider BackBlaze provided some very interesting statistics this week in regard to their independent testing of hard drives.

Hard drive manufacturers provide a measurement called MTBF (mean time between failures) for their hard drives.  Based on manufacturer information drives should last on average, somewhere between 11 years and 110 years, following what is known (scientifically) as a bathtub curve.  A bathtub curve says there will be a very high number of failures almost immediately (because of manufacturer defects) and then a second high number of failures toward the end of life (like the walls of a bathtub).  This says drive failures are expected to be, according to the manufacturers, most common within the first few weeks or after a few years.

We all recognize that the moving parts of a computer are the most likely to fail, but assuming, as manufacturers advertise, the average life is somewhere between 11 and 110 years, we don’t worry about it.

However, BackBlaze found, from their experience, that these estimates are incredibly optimistic.  From their experience the failure rate of hard drives after 3 years ranged between 5% and 25%.  Translated: somewhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 20 drives crashed and burned within 36 months.

According to Wikipedia, there are currently less than 8 hard drive manufacturers in the world and we continue to undergo mergers and acquisitions.  There are simply not that many options and no manufacturers that seem to lead the more or less likely to fail predictability.  According to the BackBlaze study, Hitachi drives proved best by a small margin, but Hitachi recently sold their drive manufacturing to Western Digital.

Given these failure rates, what should a small business do?

  1. Have a backup.  Anytime your data is on a single hard drive, you should have cause to loose sleep!
  2. Do not trust backup to a single backup drive, always have a local and off-site back.  Cloud storage options are now between $1 and $2 per gig per year, it is worth the investment.
  3. Centralize data.  Having important company files spread across various workstations magnifies your risk of loss.  Centralize company data to a server, either hosted onsite or in the cloud.
  4. Invest in system images.  If your employees use a number of specialized applications that take time to install and configure, invest in the few extra minutes to create a system image of their computer.  This is basically a “manufacturer reset” image, but instead of coming from the manufacturer, it is the image with all your key settings.  These images can be stored on a server or NAS for easy retrieval.

As prices of drives come down and size of storage goes up, the quality and reliability is sliding.  Hard drive reliability is something many of us have taken for granted, but as this study shows, failures are becoming more and more the norm.

Virtualized Office Environment

amazon-workspacesAmazon rolled out a new service this week that provides an insight into what the future of small business computing may look like.

Many of us think of Amazon as an online retailer.  Behind that electronic storefront is a massive computing infrastructure, and, for several years, Amazon has also been in the business of renting virtual slices of their network.

Amazon Web Service (AWS) and Amazon Elastic Cloud Computing (EC2) provide the backbone storage and server operations behind many major organizations.  As they have ventured into the small business market their server pricing is beginning to approach a comparable level to buying the server, but without the up-front costs and with significantly better redundancy and security than most small businesses can afford on their own.

This past week Amazon rolled out Amazon WorkSpaces.  WorkSpaces provides a local area network (LAN) in the cloud.  Basically, a user remotes in to their WorkSpaces computer running a Windows 7 like operating system and they conduct all of their business on that WorkSpaces computer.  The WorkSpaces computers of multiple employees are networked together and can be connected to an Amazon virtual server or servers through EC2.  Programs such as Quickbooks, MS Office and other business apps can be installed/licensed into the server and WorkSpaces.  Users can share files and folders, access shared databases, and run client/server applications.  Basically, it provides the ability to create an entire business office that is virtual and scalable and accessible from anywhere.

This ties into a BYOD (bring your own device) work environment.  Employees can remote in to their WorkSpaces computer from any device, PC, Mac, tablet, iPad, smartphone and have full access, as if they were sitting at a business computer.  From a business security and proprietary information standpoint, all information stays on the WorkSpaces computers and EC2 servers, not on the employees’ personal devices.  It also corresponds with the virtual employee and “laptop lifestyle” approach where a team of workers can work together from anywhere in the world at any time.

Prices are heading in the right direction.  Before this new announcement, creating this type of environment would have cost about $80-$120 per month per employee.  Starting price for Amazon WorkSpaces is $35 per virtual computer per month.  It also removes capital expenses allowing for much greater flexibility in scaling up or down.

For example, an entrepreneur is considering launching a new business venture.  Previously, they would have needed to rent office space, purchase or lease furniture, buy computers, servers, software, networking equipment all to be able to hire their team.  With this option, that all can go away.  They contract or hire workers, equipping them with voice-over-IP phones or cloud based PBX hosting to their cell phone and providing them with a virtual WorkSpace computer that they remote into from their personal PC or mac.  The team has the ability to do everything they could do if seated together in cubicles, but without any of the purchased infrastructure.

We expect pricing to continue to decrease.  If you would like more information, please contact your friendly computing experts at Onsite Logic.

Keyboard Shortcuts

5609005485_41f1eb8082One of the things that separates the hunt and peck computer user from the power user is the use of shortcuts.  Since its beginning, Microsoft Windows and Windows programs have been ripe with key combinations that speed things along.  While the most recent versions of the program are built around touch or mouse click graphics, the underlying shortcuts are alive and well and growing.

Here are links to a few of our favorite printable lists of shortcuts:

Windows 8 Keyboard Shortcuts

Windows 7 Keyboard Shortcuts w/ Word, Excel, Outlook

Windows 7 Little-Known Shortcuts

Mac OS-X Keyboard Shortcuts

If you have others you know and love, pass them along to us so we can share them.

 

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons BFIShadow

Accountability Program

2905410970_35fd115e3bSmall Business owners tend to give their employees a lot of freedom.  They hire people they trust and they do not want to put unnecessary restraints in place that might interfere with their ability to work.  That, however, does not mean they quit managing their employees and the work performed on the tools and equipment the owner provides.  It is often the case that minor controls, reminders and systems help encourage positive behavior by bringing to light negative behaviors quickly and clearly.

Onsite Logic has partnered with Awareness Technologies to install tools at a number of our clients.  One of these solutions is Interguard Web Filtering.  The program has three main advantages:

  1. It works whether the device (e.g. laptop/tablet) is on the company network, at home or in a hotel.
  2. It provides not only the ability to block, by category or keyword on a webpage, but it also records all visited webpages and searches and includes not only the URL address, but also an actual screenshot of pages visited.
  3. All of this information rolls up to a management website console so the business owner does not need to access the employee computer to review or print reports.

Few business owners want to “monitor” their employees’ web use and no one wants to be seen as “big brother.”  But, the knowledge that web usage is being recorded is often enough of a deterrent to keep work tools for work purposes.

Business owners should care about this because:

  1. Non-business related web usage is the #1 source of virus and malware.
  2. Inadvertent revelation of an accidentally stored webpage or graphic can give a negative impression to a client or lead to a lawsuit in the workplace.
  3. Web activity can be a sign of addiction problems and other issues that can drastically impact employee performance and well-being.
  4. The business owner may be responsible for any illegal or inappropriate activity done on company equipment or company accounts (e.g., an inappropriate post on a website from an employee account).

Interguard Web Filtering is priced per device and can be installed on one or all company computers.  It takes less than 15 minutes to install and runs invisibly in the background.  For more information and/or a demo, call or email Onsite Logic.

 

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons: Chispita_666