Do I really need the cloud – what can it actually do for me

“Cloud” is the buzzword in IT today. Unfortunately it means different things to different people. Rather than use the term “cloud” Quay prefers to be specific – clouds services are either Software-as-a-Service (“SaaS”) or Infrastructure-as-a-Service (“IaaS”).

SaaS is very common – the two most known and most used services would be web-mail (Gmail, Hotmail) and of course web hosting. An example of IaaS would be Stuff’s and Trademe use of Datacom’s set up in Wellington and Auckland, Trademe controls the software Datacom provides the servers that it sits on.

“The Cloud” has (whether we like it or not) created a revolution in the IT industry. Several years ago if you wanted to test a new database you went out and purchased a new server. Now you can rent space on someone else’s infrastructure just for the time you require it.

First Microsoft entered into the SaaS arena in New Zealand with BPOS (Business Productivity Online Suite) – a series of offerings to host email and intranets for a competitive per-month, per-user investment. BPOS was good but, in my opinion, aimed at large corporates

Office 365 was officially launched in July of this year, it was (I would say) an upgrade to BPOS. Office 365 is a product that is cost effective enough for anyone to use from the single user in the home office to a large business with staff all over the country…

For those of you don’t already have a server, Office 365 gives you all the advances of having an Exchange without that hardware cost of a server.

xchange is the product that sits on your server and controls all thing email, it also allows users to hare calendars, contacts and mail boxes etc. It also takes a bit of grunt on the server to run Exchange and even more so now that EVERYTHING is done via email and mail boxes are growing in size by the minute.

Down sides to Office 365 – large files !! Because the service is run out of Singapore every time you send an email even internally it is going to Singapore and back … This is fine for standard emails and emails with small flies but it can get a bit hair raising for larger files… Speed becomes an issue and you also have to look at your Internet usages as well, for example; a 1 x 5mb attachment sent to 5 users internally becomes 30mb of data – 1 x up and 5 x down

The company’s we have moved over to 365 have all been very happy with the experience so much so that we have had one do a formal case study with Microsoft and one do an informal case study with us ..

There is also a middle ground – you can have your email in the “cloud” with 365 and your files in a small server at your office… With Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS 2011) essentials, Essentials looks after the print, file and remote access and Office 365 does the mail. Because Exchange is a fairly hefty piece of software, when you remove it, it does give you a bit more flexibility when it comes to you hardware selection

Other benefits of Office 365

  • Exchange Email, Calendar, Contacts & Personal Archive with 25GB Mailbox
  • ActiveSync Mobile Support
  • SharePoint Team Sites – The ability to build a website specifically to manage a project or event that also allows authenticated external user access enabled (for up to 50 unique users/month)
  • Simple Public Website – includes ready-to-use templates, option to add custom domain.
  • Online Access databases
  • Lync Rich Client – secure web-presence, communication, and instant messaging. Also part of Lync are
    • Online meetings, limited to 50 participants
    • Desktop Sharing
  • Financially-backed 99.9% uptime guarantee

So what can the cloud do for you ? If the solution is the right fit then you are removing yourself and your business from the hamster wheel that is Server upgrades, once you are in, there is very little maintenance required (depending on the solution). If you have an IaaS solution then you can upgrade your “hardware” in the blink of an eye, need that extra RAM, here you go. Your Data is off site and if (depending on the provider) is backed up.

With Office 365, especially for smaller businesses it has opened up the opportunity for shared calendars, mail, and document collaboration without the requirement for a server. The cost per user can be as little as $9.25 per month per user.

“The Cloud” is becoming more accessible and viable for New Zealand businesses, slowly changing the face of business IT. Expect to see bigger change in the next five years.

Authors:
Delia Gill
Roland Tuck
Greg Wratt

Disaster recovery

This blog is an extension of our June 2011 newsletter. Disaster recovery (DR) is such a huge topic it was too hard to squeeze it all into a newsletter without giving you reader’s block…

According to Symantec’s 2011 SMB Disaster Preparedness Survey, 57% of SMBs do not have a DR plan. You may think this is unrealistic but we know that it’s pretty dead on.

DR options

Quay has several cost-effective options for disaster recovery including a great offsite backup service called Black Box Backups. See http://www.blackboxbackup.co.nz for more information. For only $0.80 cents a GB you can get an offsite backup service which stores data both in Wellington and in Auckland. Quay has been so impressed by the robustness of this set up that we are using it ourselves as part of our own disaster recovery plan.

Black Box uses Datacom’s infrastructure which automatically replicates between here (Wellington) and their data centre on the North Shore.

Black Box requires software to be installed on the server. A seed load (that’s a copy of all the current data on the server) is then sent to the data centre and uploaded. From there the software sends incremental changes to the data centre every night.

On Site options

Something that we consider an essential part of any disaster recovery plan is VERY good backup software. An example of this is ShadowProtect.

ShadowProtect is a great bit of software that you can load on your server (there is a version for desktops too). It will backup to an external USB drive, an internal drive or another device on the network. The software creates an image of your server (or desktop) that you can then start up on a similar or dissimilar piece of hardware making it extremely effective. The engineers can recover a server in under half a day.

The technology in ShadowProtect “snapshots” your server or servers at scheduled times . This snapshot is an exact copy of your server at that time, including the operating system, applications, configuration settings and data. Snapshots are saved to an external hard disk, usually USB connected.

Snapshots are fast to create and small in space, which means that you can schedule them to be every fifteen minutes or as often as your business needs them.

ShadowProtect images enable you to:

  • Do rapid recovery from bare metal, to dissimilar hardware or to and from virtual environments
  • Run centralised backup administration from a management console
  • Verify and re-verify your backup images
  • Do quick failover to a virtual server with VirtualBoot
  • Do automatic backups of SQL, exchange and other critical applications
  • Do granular recovery of individual files and folders in moments
  • Schedule automatic full and incremental backups as often as you need

Traditional backups to tape are usually done after hours, starting late evening to be completed before business opens the following day. But several common issues arise:

  • The tape has not been changed the previous day, so the backup does not go ahead.
  • There is too much information to backup so the tape fills up and is delayed while waiting for an additional tape.
  • Backup jobs run over time as there is too much data to fit on a single tape and continue on into the following day causing delays for users.
  • Restoring from tape can be a labour intensive process

Tape backups still have their place in the IT world but you do have to think about the time to recover data. We recently did a test disaster recovery on a server for a client. This was done under the assumption that their server was completely dead. We had to find a suitable piece of hardware then install their operating system (in this case it was SBS 2003 – Small Business Server 2003), install the backup software, then attach the tape drive and recover the data. All this took more than 16 hours.

Businesses need to make sure that they have addressed these things in their DR plans:

  • How long will it take to recover your data? If it takes two working days then you have to take that into consideration.
  • How will your business be affected – will you be able to run at all??
  • What is the most critical thing that you need access to?
  • Also don’t forget that it will then take you up to two days to enter everything in the system that was NOT entered during outage.

Some people have great difficulty remembering to take the tapes offsite. A backup is brilliant but if the building burns down and your tape or USB drive is in there, it does not make for great DR. If this is one of the issues that you have then have a chat to Online Security Services. We have a number of clients using their service so we know that it is tried and tested. They will come and get your tape or drive from you as many times a week as you schedule with them. They will move it out of Wellington and then rotate it the next week. I have done a quick add up and to take one tape or drive to Auckland costs approximately $27.50 per week, which is pretty good for peace of mind. http://www.onlinesecurity.co.nz/

Making a start on your DR plan

So if you don’t have DR… where do you start? Yes it can be quite a headache and very easy to put it in the too hard basket or … the “I will do this tomorrow pile…”

I write A LOT of DR plans for businesses so I thought I would give you some pointers to get you going:

The first thing to start with is the contact details of all the relevant people in your business. Make sure you include their after-hours details. List your providers and their out of Wellington contacts in case of earthquake. You need to include:

  • The directors
  • Relevant staff
  • ISP details (internet)
  • Telecommunications (phones)
  • IT people
  • Accountant (very handy if you need assistance with your accounting software)
  • Custom software suppliers (in case you have custom software that will need to be reinstalled)
  • Domain name details in case you need to redirect email, etc

Once you have done this you are, believe it or not, half of the way there… Work out where your backup is going to be in the event of fire, flood or quake, then have a think about how you are going to recover the data… This is where you can get some input from your IT providers.

We can help you do your DR plan

Hopefully this has given you some useful thoughts… Just give the team a buzz if you want to have a coffee and pick our brains some more…

Check the IT when you buy a business

What is the existing IT worth? Make sure you don’t buy a lemon!

When you are buying a business, ask yourself: what is the existing IT infrastructure like? What do I need to look for? Am I going to be up for a bunch of extra costs right when I don’t need them?

It is well worth getting a second opinion on the existing IT in a business BEFORE you purchase. We have a come across some interesting cases in the last few months that have made us think – for instance a guy bought a business in Wellington, only to find that the server had no backup software, no antivirus and there has been no maintenance done on it for over 3 years. ALL of the PCs needed to be replaced. He is looking at $2000 to get the system updated with backups working and antivirus installed and another $8,000 – $10,000 to get all the PCs replaced.

Some things to look for

Hardware

  • How old is the hardware: the PCs, servers, printers and routers? There should be invoices for the purchases – ask to see these.
  • Remember if these are on the books as assets then they may have been deprecated off the books. It is still worth having a look at the original invoices to see what exactly has been purchased against what is installed AND even if they are old enough to be depreciated off. It is better to know now what future costs you may be up for – then you will have no nasty surprises.
  • What is the mode of the PC/Server ? It is very important to check this out.
  • Is the PC a consumer model? (If so, it means that you may not get as long a lifespan out of it).
  • If it is a non branded machine, are parts easily available? (If it is over 3 years then this is less likely.)
  • Is it still under warranty? If it is a branded machine like HP you may be able to purchase warranty extensions, giving you a bit of piece of mind for another year or so.
  • If the server is backing up to tape, when were the tapes last replaced? What tapes are offsite ?
  • Have the backups ever been tested? That is, can you actually retrieve data off them?

Software

  • What is the software on the machines – i.e. Office? We are still coming across sites that are running Office XP – which is nearly 9 years old. The licence has just been transferred from one machine to the next…
  • What are the current licences? If they are OEM it means that the licence has to stay with the machine, but if they are Open Value/retail they can be moved from machine to machine.
  • Is the site FULLY licensed? Will you have issues if you get audited?
  • What antivirus is running and where are renewal notifications going? If you miss the reminder and don’t renew, then your system can become vulnerable to attack.

Domain Names

WHO owns the domain name for the business?? For instance, I’ve made sure that I own all the names relevant to my business, i.e.

Quaycorp.co.nz

Quaycorporate.co.nz

Quaycorp.co

Quaycoporate.co

And a few more

Where do the reminders to renew the domain go? This is particularly important – if you miss the reminder and don’t renew the domain and if you are using this for your email – i.e. admin@quaycorp.co.nz – then your mail will stop!

Security

Who has access to the system – i.e. administrator passwords – levels of security.

Checking first saves headaches later

Checking the IT of a business before you buy should be part of your due diligence process. These checks save you from unnecessary expense later on and the hassle of interruptions to business. You can make sure that systems are up to date and protected.

What you find during your checks can help you decide on the price you will pay for the business.

Tips from HP on how to extend the life of your notebook

  1. Take care of your battery
    Your notebook battery capacity will decrease with time, wear and tear, but there are things you can do to maximise its lifespan.
  2. Avoid excessive heat
    Notebooks generate a lot of heat. When they get too hot, they shut themselves down or cause damage to your notebook battery, hardware or electronic components
  3. Let air vents breath
    Overheating can quickly result if your notebook’s air vents are blocked. So don’t put it on a soft surface.
  4. Be careful with LCD screens, the most expensive part of the notebook
    When cleaning your screen, be very careful. Minerals in tap water can leave spots, so only use distilled water. Best of all is to use a lint-free dry microfibre cloth.

How regular maintenance of office equipment can save you money

Just before Christmas, on a Friday afternoon, a lovely man come charging into our offices with a very large, very old server tucked under his arm. The server had made a large “bang” and then all the electrical devices along one wall of his office stopped working. When the electrician was called in, he reset all the fuses but took one look at the server and said “I’m not touching that.” (Clever man!)

What had caused this spectacular mess, not to mention the nasty burning smell? The fan that cools the power supply became jammed with dust and stopped working, causing the power supply to overheat. Fortunately, even though the server was nearly seven years old, a new power supply was installed and the client was on his way.

Now this was a happy ending – no data lost, the server fixed, power to wall sorted and only about half a day down time in total. It could have been much worse. Dust could have clogged other fans or shorted other parts, then bye bye server – hello large bill for a new server when the client really did not need it.

So what have we learned here? If you don’t look after it you will lose it. You know that you need to get your car serviced every six months, but your car does not run 24/7, as many computers and servers do. So why would you think twice about getting them serviced, and what is the cost to your business if they suddenly go bang? You can’t expect them to run 24/7 without some TLC. Most PCs run 40 hours a week at a minimum. Computers like a check-up at least once a year (six monthly is better, and quarterly is ideal). A good check-up includes getting updates done, running a defrag and running a program like CCleaner though to clean the cookies etc that have built up – no, cookies are not biscuits, they are internet related files. The ideal for servers is to have a check-up monthly or bi monthly, or quarterly at the very least.

But believe it or not, PCs, like servers, also need a good dust yearly as well, (as essential as an oil change in your car) though this really depends on the environment that the PC is in. For instance, if you have just had new carpet installed in the office then six months later it is a very good idea to get your IT person in to give the machines a good clean out (we all know how long carpet fluffs up for after installation). The cleaning process requires blowing all the dust and fluff out with compressed air (see photos). Do not under any circumstances attempt this yourself. You may end up either breaking components in the machine or blowing the dust back into the likes of the central processing unit (CPU). Now I hear you asking, “How does dust get into a PC and is there really that much that it needs cleaning?” “It certainly does” is my answer. There are two fans in most PCs, one for the power supply and one for the CPU. These suck air into the machine to cool it and as a result suck in an amazing amount of dust etc too. This dust coats the components and sometimes blocks the fans, which then can’t cool the computer. In the short term this can cause the machine to stop or overheat but in the long term it can damage it, reducing the life of the machine. And this is where regular maintenance not only saves you money (you can get four or five years out of that PC instead of just three) but unnecessary down time – which usually happens right when you don’t need it.

Laptops are as bad as PCs for dust and can be even worse. They like a firm clean surface to sit on while you are working – not the bed where your cat sleeps. Make sure you keep the fan area on the side of the laptop clear. Another good tip for laptops: yes they are designed to be carried around but not while they are still on. Hard drives don’t like being moved around while they are going and it upsets them. Turn them off before packing into a bag that is designed to carry laptops (sports bags and handbags are a no-no).

Modern printers are made so that when you replace the toner you are replacing a lot of the machine at the same time. However, it’s important to note that you still need to keep the paper feeder etc dust free. Only use good quality paper (cheap paper tends to have more dust and fibres which end up creating paper feed issues). If you do get a paper jam that you can’t remove don’t be tempted to stick a sharp object in there to get it out. Call in a professional – it will cost less in the long run to do it right the first time. When purchasing a printer pay close attention to the recommended monthly volumes. If you purchase a printer that is 2000 – 3000 thousand copies and you are doing close to 10,000 then you are in for an uphill battle.

Helpful tips

  • PCs on the floor are more likely to collect dust from carpet etc
  • You can void the warranty on PCs and printers by using non-certified repair agents. Make sure you have someone that not only knows what they are doing but is allowed to do it.
  • Like paper, good quality toner will increase the life of your printer.

Avoid reusing paper. Some printers leave a film on paper that is then transferred to the rollers when you feed it back though the printer, causing paper feed issues.