Technology Lessons from Hurricane Harvey

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The following was published in today’s Foster’s and Seacoast Sunday.

The devastation to Texas and Louisiana from Hurricane Harvey is truly heartbreaking. The news reports continue to tell a story that is unfolding moment by moment. I have colleagues, family and friends in harm’s way and I am so grateful to know that they are all safe.

My cousin, Jonathan Siger is a rabbi in the Houston area and a chaplain to the local sheriff’s department. Watching his videos from the rescue boats and hearing the scene’s he has been on, brings a very different perspective to what we see and hear on the news. I hope by the time this article is published on Sunday Texas and Louisiana will have emerged from the storm and that things will be improving. They will need a lot of patience and support as they work to rebuild their communities.

The outpouring of support and inflow of donations is showing the best of what this nation can muster. I’ve seen so many initiatives, even within my own IT industry. CompTIA, the global IT trade association, has launched an initiative encouraging all of its corporate and individual members to make a donation to hurricane relief and CompTIA will match $2 for every $1 donated up to $200,000. You can participate by going to http://bit.ly/CompTIACares and entering CompTIA as the company to match.

HarveyOpsLeading up the arrival of Hurricane Harvey, technology companies across Texas were issuing recommendations to safeguard the digital assets of an organization. Cloud computing has played a major part in ensuring business continuity throughout the storm. This was mainly accomplished through having company data safely backed up to the Cloud. However, as more and more companies move applications and in some cases, entire infrastructures to the Cloud, these businesses are able to maintain complete operational effectiveness through something as catastrophic as a hurricane.

This does not mean there were not challenges. Certainly, the widespread loss of power and the heavy flooding impacted people’s ability to work. The cellular networks were stretched to their breaking point, but held in most cases. I have been in touch with colleagues in the greater Houston area and they have all made it through thus far. Most have suffered water in their homes and needed to evacuate. Fortunately, of the people I have been able to contact or get updates on, their businesses have not experienced any catastrophic losses of data.

The key to being able to bring your business through an event like this is planning. The last thing you want to do is figure out a plan while the storm is bearing down on you. As I already mentioned, backing up your data to the Cloud is a must. When you can leverage the Cloud to actually run your business applications and even your critical infrastructure, you are that much better prepared. Be sure your most critical infrastructure components are attached to Uninterruptable Power Supplies (UPS), which will provide backup power should the power go out and most importantly, properly shut those infrastructure items down should the battery run low. All other computing devices should be connected to surge suppressors. Many people do not realize the restoration of power can be as much of a threat as the loss of power. I have seen situations where building and individual pieces of equipment have caught fire when power was restored after a sudden power loss. UPS and proper surge suppression will protect against this in almost all cases.

Obviously, if you are facing the risk of flooding, you want to secure as many of your electronics away from likely locations susceptible to flooding. This isn’t always possible, but sometimes even just moving computers away from window areas can make a big difference.

Even though I am focusing on technology, don’t forget about your low-tech assets too. If you are maintaining paper files of any value, be sure you have a plan for them. While I would recommend you scan all important documents and store them electronically, I know nearly all businesses still keep some of their critical data in paper form. Be sure you have a plan to secure those files before a storm hits. Consider watertight storage containers, even if just to see them through the storm.

While you may have your data and your critical applications covered, don’t forget that you need to think about how your team will function if they are not able to get to the office and also, if they have to leave their homes. In some cases, it just won’t be possible to work for several days. I experienced that this week, with one of my clients who has an office in Houston. They were able to get back in to their office and all of the preparation steps we recommended, including shutting everything down, paid off. We were able to help them remotely bring everything back online and they are fully functional.

Throughout the storm, they maintained communication with their entire team, so staff knew when it was safe to return to the office and get back to work. Hopefully, you have a plan like this for your business. If you don’t, put one together now.

What About VoIP – a Podcast

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I was recently interviewed by Jonathan Blackwood, managing editor of TechDecisions, for his most recent podcast on Voice over IP, VoIP.  Jonathan is the Managing Editor at TechDecisions and I truly appreciated the opportunity to speak with him.  He’s as passionate about the IT industry as I am and his podcasts are very well regarded throughout the industry.

TechDecisions is a division of EH Media, the company behind Commercial Integrator, Security Sales & Integration and ChannelPro magazines.  TechDecisions is also the new site that brings them all together, to make it easier for technology professionals and decision makers to get the information they need to ensure project success across these evolving technology segments.

In this podcast interview, Jonathan and I discuss VoIP and what opportunities it presents for companies of all sizes and the technology partners the work with.  We talked about understanding what VoIP really means and the different ways organizations may implement it.  We also talk about some of the newer offerings maturing in the market and how to write an RFP for VoIP services.TD-podcast-logo-r.jpg

You may listen to the podcast here.

Are You Taking Advantage of Office 365

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The following was published in the August 20, 2017 editions of Seacoast Sunday and Foster’s.

Most small and mid-size businesses have or are moving to Office 365 for various reasons. Mostly, this is to deliver more reliable email, but Microsoft continues to bundle more software and features into the subscriptions, yet most people think it’s just email.

Microsoft offers a range of subscriptions from as low as $5 per month per user to $35 per month per user.

Office 365The most basic business subscription, Office 365 Business Essentials, offers a complete online experience for email and collaboration. If you already own Microsoft Office software for your computer, you can connect your desktop software to some of the services included in this subscription. What you get for $5 a month is impressive. A 50-gigabyte email box and web versions of Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint, allow you to work with and create files using the popular Office applications in your web browser. You also receive 1 terabyte of storage in OneDrive, Microsoft’s online file storage and sharing service. You also get SharePoint Online, a web-based collaboration platform you can use to create a private Intranet site for your business.

You also have a subscription to Skype for Business, which may be used for internal and external instant messaging and hosting online meetings. You even have access to team-based services like Microsoft Planner and Yammer, which allow you to manage team tasks and cross departmental collaboration. All this comes with 24/7 phone and online support.

This subscription level is valid for companies with up to 300 users.

The Office 365 Enterprise E5 subscription includes everything in the basic level, plus the following. The most noticeable addition is the inclusion of the Microsoft Office software for up to five devices per person. This includes PCs, Macs, smartphones and tablets. You get the latest versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Access. The available OneDrive storage is unlimited at this level. Skype adds Skype Meeting Broadcast, which allows you to host online meetings for up to 10,000 participants. Email gains advanced eDiscovery with search, legal hold, export and analytics.

Also added are retention and deletion policies for email and advanced threat detection. Advanced Security Management provides insight into potential threats to your data, including data leakage. Another major benefit of this subscription is Skype calling via a Cloud PBX, which allows you to use Skype to replace your existing phone system. You have the option to use Microsoft for your local, long distance and international calling or use your existing services with Skype.

Finally, there is Microsoft Power BI, a robust analytics tool that allows the average user to create meaningful dashboards to track metrics that matter for them. There is no limit to the number of users. For $35 a month per user, this is absolutely the best value. Most businesses will pay significantly more to come up with this powerful a set of benefits through any other means.

There are several subscription options between these two that offer more and more features on top of the basics. If one subscription doesn’t offer quite enough and another too much, I’m sure there is a subscription between that will be right for your business. Challenge your company to take full advantage of Office 365, whichever subscription you may have. Chances are you are not.

One final item: You will notice I have a new title and company name this week. In late May, Internet & Telephone, LLC was acquired by Onepath. This past week, we completed our rebranding and are now known as Onepath and I have a new role that provides me with increased opportunities to work directly with our clients. We have the same local New England-based team with our New England base of operations in North Andover, Massachusetts, and our offices and data centers in Boston and Portsmouth. We add our corporate headquarters and other offices in the Southeast. It’s an exciting time for our clients and our dedicated team of technology professionals.

MJ Shoer is director, client engagement and vCIO at Onepath, with offices in New England and the Southeast. Onepath is the one source for all things to do with designing, deploying and supporting technology – from cable to Cloud. He maintains a blog about IT at www.mjshoer.com and may be reached at mshoer@1path.com.

Have You Considered Skype for Business?

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The following was published in the Sunday, July 9, 2017 Seacoast Sunday and Foster’s.

If you have not, you should. Skype for Business is the business version of the popular Skype service that many individuals use for chat and calling over the Internet. With Microsoft’s ongoing enhancement of the Office 365 platform, Skype for Business has been bundled into most of the business class subscriptions.
Skype_for_Business_Standard_Blue_CMYK1Skype for Business has become a very powerful collaboration platform for businesses. This is for both internal use within the company as well as collaborating with external business partners and customers. It is tightly integrated into the Office 365 platform and Office software applications, providing instant messaging, online meetings, meeting recording, screen sharing, Voice over IP (VoIP) calling, phone system functionality and recording.

In terms of collaboration features, Skype for Business is a powerful meeting platform, allowing you to share anything on your screen, collaborate on documents and presentations, conduct interactive polls, collaborate in real-time using whiteboard functions, manage questions throughout the meeting and facilitate public and private chat with meeting participants. During these online meetings, you are also able to make other participants presenters so that more than one person is able to present content to the meeting participants.

Security is forefront in Skype for Business. All communications, both audio and video, are encrypted. Skype uses both Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to encrypt its audio and video traffic to ensure that if a Skype stream were to be intercepted, that they hacker would only see encrypted text and not the actual audio, data or video. Keep in mind, regarding calls that this only applies to VoIP calls. Calls made over the traditional phone network, often called the PSTN network, that part is not encrypted.

If your business is not yet using Skype for Business, especially if you are already using Office 365, you should really look into it. I see more and more organizations using Skype for increased collaboration and productivity and it has a very positive impact for those who use it.

The instant messaging features make it easy to see if a colleague is available or not. This is called presence and it’s tightly integrated into calendaring, so that Skype will let you know if someone is in a meeting, offline, available or on a call (if you are using the calling features). It’s helps to avoid phone and email tag, trying to connect with someone. This also works between organizations, so if you have a Skype contact that is at a customer of yours, for example, you can see if they are available when you wish to speak or message with them.

Another key benefit is that Skype for Business is a truly cross platform product. You can run it on a PC, Mac, iPhone, iPad, Android smartphone or tablet and even through a web browser. It truly facilitates communication between parties, no matter what each person is working on. When it comes to using the phone system features of Skype for Business, this also lets you make phone calls from the app on your smartphone, making it appear that you are calling from your office.

With most computers having built in webcams these days, video calls and meetings are becoming more common. Skype for Business fully supports video calls and meetings, so if you walk by an office and see someone on a video call, it’s quite likely it may be Skype for Business. There are several other tools that support this as well, but the key with Skype for Business is that it is all integrated into a single platform and subscription. This makes integration more efficient, so that people are more productive and also holds cost down. The infrastructure can be entirely Cloud hosted and features added to existing Office 365 subscriptions for as little as $2 more per month, for basic services.

As I mentioned earlier, if you are not currently using Skype for Business, check it out. I have yet to see a business that can’t benefit from implementing even just the basic features associated with messaging and presence. It’s a great way to employ technology that used to be reserved for only the largest companies that could afford to implement it. It’s now available to even the smallest businesses, so take advantage of the opportunity to increase your productivity. You’ll be glad you did.

Prime Day Phishing Examples

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Yesterday, I posted a warning about scams associated with Amazon‘s upcoming Prime Day on July 11th.  Here are a few examples, to help you remain alert and avoid getting caught by the hackers trying to exploit this popular online shopping day.

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In each of these examples, you will notice the following:

  1. The sender address may look like it’s coming from Amazon, but if you take the time to look at the actual address within the <> symbols, you can clearly see that it’s not.  Some email programs will show you this like in these examples.  Others, you may have to hover your mouse over the “from” name to see what the underlying address is.
  2. The message contains only links.  DON’T CLICK.  These links will bring you to malicious sites that will load malware on your device.
  3. The messages all have an Unsubscribe link at the bottom.  As with #2, DON’T CLICK.

Hopefully these examples and warnings will help you enjoy Prime Day safely!

In case you missed my original post yesterday, about this, here is the link.

With Prime Day Comes Scam Days

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Amazon Prime Day is coming and along with it, hackers are actively trying to scam users of the popular Amazon service.

What is Prime Day?  From Amazon’s web site: “This July 11 is the third annual PrimePrime Day Day. Prime Day is our annual deals event just for Prime members. We want Prime Day to be one of the world’s best days to shop, with awesome prices on everything you’re into. We’re bringing you hundreds of thousands of deals, new deals starting as often as every five minutes, and special offers across everything included with Prime—from music and video to reading and voice shopping.”

This year, hackers are really taking advantage of Prime Day, perhaps in part because Amazon has been more aggressively promoting Prime Day each year.  Prime Day deals are available for several days prior to the 11th.

Be on the lookout for phishing email messages, with subjects and sender names referencing Amazon Prime and Prime Day.  Even if you just placed an order, double check the sender address and hover over any links before clicking to be sure they are really from and going to amazon.com.  And don’t forget, never open an attachment.  Amazon doesn’t send them, so that would be a clear indicator of a potential phishing attack.

I have already seen numerous examples of phishing email messages that say they are from Amazon Prime or reference Amazon Prime Shipping in the subject or other similar names and subjects.  Be careful while enjoying Prime Day!

Cloud Computing Won the Preakness!

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That’s right, a horse named Cloud Computing won the prestigious Preakness Stakes, the second of the coveted Triple Crown.  Why is this of interest to a technology blogger?  Because it certainly says that Cloud Computing has arrived in the popular vernacular.

My daughters rode horses for over a dozen years, competing in both the English and Western styles, not racing fortunately.  Too dangerous for a father.  It was hard enough watching them compete and occasionally fall.  My girls enjoyed great success in their riding careers, reaching national finals at the collegiate and public school levels.  Each finished in 7th place on the same day at respective national finals.  Over their careers they rode horses named Bond, Dancer, Itchy, Johnny and more, but never one named for a technology.

So, if a horse winning a race as prestigious and well known as the Preakness Stakes is named Cloud Computing, what’s your winning strategy for harnessing the Cloud in your business?  Yes, the pun was intentional.

The Cloud has received a lot of hype over the years, as I have often written about.  Hype aside, every business I work with uses the Cloud, even if they don’t know it.  What’s important is how you use the Cloud and is it optimized to help you reach your business goals.  There are three primary types of Cloud Computing, in addition to the horse type, Private Cloud, Public Cloud and Hybrid Cloud.  Here is a quick, basic summary of what each means:

  • Private Cloud is when you host your own servers in a data center and make them available to users across the Internet or a private connection like a VPN tunnel or a dark connection (one that exists only between your office sites and the data center).
  • Public Cloud is when you leverage a company like Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Google or one of several other companies that specialize in hosting virtual servers in their data center for you.
  • Hybrid Cloud is a mixture of both private and public and may also integrate servers on-premise in your office.  Often this involves a robust business continuity plan that leverages the geographic diversity of these options to provide high availability, regardless of issues that may be impacting any one of these options.

Cloud Computing is one of the hottest buzzwords in the IT industry and most businesses, across all industries.  Companies are still trying to determine how to best use the Cloud to help them be more competitive and profitable.  Whether this involved moving entire systems to the Cloud or just certain types of services, the goal is to provide a better internal user and customer experience, to help the business achieve its goals.

One of the ongoing risks with Cloud Computing is cost.  There remains a large misperception that Cloud often means lower TCO (Total Cost of Ownership).  This is not always the case.  In my experience, only the smallest of customers are able to move their entire IT infrastructure to the Cloud and also realize cost savings.  Most businesses may see increased costs when introducing robust Cloud solutions.  This is because Cloud moves expenses from the Balance Sheet to the Profit & Loss, so most businesses see an increase in monthly expense.  This is where the finance team needs to be involved, as this may not necessarily be a bad thing, even though it may first appear to be.

Like any technology, don’t jump to the latest and greatest without a well thought out evaluation of the benefits you expect to realize.  You also want to be sure to employ proper management solutions for your Cloud systems, just as you would if it were on-premise.  Of specific concern with Cloud solutions, especially those in the public Cloud, is managing cost.  Public Cloud price models are one of the most complex in the market today.  You will hear terms like compute cycle, IOPS and more.  These all add to your costs and need to be proactively managed so you don’t get an unpleasant surprise with your next monthly billing statement.

I know of one company that learned they were spending $400,000.00 more annually, than they needed to be.  Don’t let that be you!  There are tools that will help you understand, manage and optimize your configurations and utilization so you are not spending more than you need to be.

Cloud Computing is a winner and businesses are leveraging the Cloud for impressive wins.  Are you?

And just for the record, even Fortune Magazine picked up on this story idea 😉