IT Consultants are Guides Through the Jungle of Tech Choices

The consumerization of technology has had some benefits, but there’s a sinister dark side, too.

On the plus side, technology has become so ubiquitous and we’ve become so familiar with it that choosing the technology we use personally, is something we’re comfortable with.  The way prices have come down on personal technology takes some of the anxiety out the decision making, too.Strategic ROI

When it comes to technology for business, it can be tempting to apply the same anecdotal knowledge to these tech choices as well.   But too often, price looms too large in the decision making process, and the desire to save a few dollars at the cash register can have very costly effects on the business using the technology.

DIY Works for the Home, But Not For Business

In most cases, the home IT infrastructure is simple, and fault tolerant – low risk.  The demands on the technology are modest, even though it might not seem that way with Mom, Dad and the kids all tapping away on tablets and smartphones.

The business technology environment is much more complex.   The technology has to be selected, configured and installed with considerations for levels of expandability, security and interoperability that rarely apply to home use.

The stakes are much higher too.  If your internet at home goes out, everyone complains, you scream at your provider, then everyone finds something else to do until the services are restored.  That’s what we mean by fault-tolerant.

Contrast that with the chaos that results in the workplace when technology fails to work properly.  There are employees with nothing to do, customers that aren’t being served, and business – the very thing your company exists to do – grinds to a halt.  The costs of downtime run in the thousands of dollars per hour – sometimes tens of thousands of dollars per hour.  Does the $60 Wireless Router seem like a good idea now?

Expertise and Experience – a Wise Investment

IT Consultants can provide tremendous value by helping clients choose the technology tools their company needs to achieve their business goals.  They will devise solutions that take into account:

  • - Your company’s growth plans
  • - Your company’s needs with regards to security
  • - The need for all the disparate parts of the network to work together

IT Consultants don’t work for free, of course.  The technology they recommend will rarely be the cheapest on the market.  But by choosing the right technology for your company, and your company’s current and future needs, the investment in the consulting AND the right technology will pay for itself many times over.

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Email Services — In the Cloud or In Your Building?

It’s hard to imagine living without email. Yet, less than 20 years ago, if you asked someone for their email address, you would likely just get a blank stare.  Now, email accounts for a large percentage of available internet bandwidth (some estimates say over 90%).  Despite the rise in other forms of online communication (texting, IM, Twitter), email is not going away anytime soon.Email

So how should business manage their need to provide email communications?   Most companies larger than a handful of workers install an email server as part of their Information Technology (IT) infrastructure to handle this.

With the advent of cloud computing though, a tantalizing alternative has arisen.  What if a company could get out from under maintaining their email server and have it all handled as a cloud service?  With prices per mailbox per month down under $5 a month, wouldn’t that save a huge amount of money?

The short answer is, it depends.

Calculate Your Return on Investment (ROI)

To find out if it’s the answer for your company, you must conduct a side-by-side cost comparison over time.  You’ll need to consider:

  • - What does having your own mail server cost you over the course of five years?  Server, software, electricity, air conditioning, maintenance – total it up.
  • - What is the cost to switch to cloud-based email?   There are a lot of variables that affect this answer, and things that can contribute to costs over and above the monthly service charges.  And those services charges do add up:  $4/mo X 25 users, X 5 years is $6000 over five years.
  • - There is a cost to migration as well, and this can vary widely depending on the complexity of your current setup and your needs.  Shared calendars, shared mailboxes, the amount of data being stored, and the length of time you need to store it – all these things will affect the cost of the migration.

An IT Consultant can help you wade through the thicket of variables, and help put some real numbers to paper, based upon your particular needs.   Then, you could look at the total investment for on-premises email vs. cloud-based email and make the right choice!

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Streamline Your Company’s Computing with Virtualization

Think back to when your company got its first server. It was a humming, glowing monolith and it meant the business was on its way.  Then a second server came in, then a third, and the next thing you know, you had a server farm – a little army of humming, glowing monoliths and the humming army demanded more electricity and adequate air conditioning (and its own room) to keep the data flowing.Virtual Servers

Clearly, there was a scaling issue at work here – if the number of servers grew at a rate that matched the company’s growth, there is actually a reverse economy of scale at work.

There is an answer, and it presents itself at an opportune time.   As your venerable old servers reach the end of their useful, humming, glowing lives, you don’t have to replace them all with a similar number of demanding monoliths.

With virtualization, you may be able to consolidate multiple servers into a fewer number of servers.  And in a virtualized environment, it’s easy to quickly add new servers to expand your technological tools, or to recover from a disaster.

What are some of the benefits of virtualization?

Optimize the Server Workloads. One of the inefficiencies of server sprawl is under-utilization of CPU power.  When properly implemented, virtualization can provide the maximum return on investment per server dollar.

Rapid server deployment.  Using a server template, virtual servers can be created quickly and easily.  New server provisioning can take only minutes or seconds, rather than the days or weeks required to procure a new server machine and install an operating system and software.

Portability. Virtual servers and the applications they support can be easily moved or copied to other hardware, independent of physical location or processor type. This feature alone provides unlimited flexibility for hosting servers and applications on any combination of physical hardware.

Reduced facility costs.  Fewer discrete servers cost less, take up less floor space, require less electricity and air conditioning, which reduces costs related to office space, air conditioning and utilities.

Can all workloads be virtualized?  No, but a surprising number of applications do very well in a virtualized environment.  An IT Consultant can evaluate your company’s server farm and determine which parts would benefit from consolidation and virtualization.  Position your company for future growth, agility and disaster recovery, using virtualization!

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Help Yourself, Help Your Company: PC Security Tips

Cyber attacks come from an ever-increasing variety of places, and some of them may be surprising to the average computer user.  We all learned long ago not to pass around floppy disks in the office, but that issue went away when floppies went away.Malware

Hackers still pose a threat, so be sure, but many cyber criminals are bypassing the firewalls and relying on innocently curious users to deliver their evil payload.  Some of the ways they do so are:

Virus attached to emails

This is the classic virus delivery method, and it can be mitigated by up to date anti-virus software.  And avoid the tempting freeware versions of anti-virus software.  For home users, make sure you activate the Norton or McAfee that comes with the computer, and renew it every year.

In a corporate environment, anti-virus (AV) is best handled by a layered approach to security – try and catch malware before it gets delivered to email Inboxes, and then have tools to detect anything that slips by the first layer.

Malware launched by following links or opening email attachments

Be smart about how you communicate. Be suspicious of e-mails in general, even ones that seem to come from legitimate sources. Never try to access anything important (bank, credit card companies, airlines, etc.) via a link embedded in an e-mail. So if an e-mail seems to be from your bank about a problem – CALL them, or enter their URL into a browser by hand, not through a link.

Many seemingly innocent emails are “phishing” attempts – designed to fool you into clicking a link to download malware, go to an infected website, or enter personal data in a “spoofed” site.

Can you spot the difference between a real email and a “phishing” attempt?  Take this simple test at OpenDNS’s website: http://www.opendns.com/phishing-quiz/

Overall, you want to be a savvy webizen – avoid hanging around websites that look weird or hobbled together or seem too anxious to collect information from you.

More and more, attacks are triggered by innocent users unwittingly ‘inviting’ malware.  Be informed, be wary, and be safe!   Clare Computer Solutions can help secure your company’s network – contact us today!

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Preserving Company Data is Key to Disaster Recovery

When a disaster strikes, the environment everyone is used to suddenly changes. Disaster Recovery plans seek to prevent the chaos that can result from these abrupt and disorienting changes.  It’s a truism that in a crisis, people will respond to the level of their training.DR plan

Ideally a good DR plan and properly trained personnel will minimize the effects of a disaster, keeping people safe and putting the employees, and the company in a good position to resume operations quickly after a disaster.

Once the worst of a disaster has passed. and everyone’s accounted for, and they’re emotionally and physically ready to return to work, the next step is having a place to go to work, and the tools and data they need to do their jobs.

Buildings are hard to replace.   A large scale disaster that destroys an entire facility could also destroy the entire Information Technology (IT) infrastructure on which the business depends.  A company’s data is the lifeblood of the business – most businesses that lose their data will fail soon after the data loss event.

Data could be lost in a conventional physical disaster such as a flood or fire, but it could also be lost at the hands of hacker or malware.

We live in wonderful time, however, where the tools to preserve data from harm, by encrypting it and backing it up to a remote location for safekeeping.   Costs for data storage have been dropping for years, as has bandwidth for data connections.  Moreover, it’s possible to make copies of an entire IT Infrastructure at a data center, and thus provide a workspace in the Cloud for employees who can’t return to their normal workplace for a period of time.

A typical data DR plan might consist of a backup strategy where data is backed up often to a local storage device (easy to access quickly in the event of a very localized disaster such as a crashed server) and then also backed up to a data facility in a region that would be unlikely to be affected by the disaster at your facility.  If virtual copies of the company’s servers were set up at the data center, they could be pressed into service and act as a remote virtual workplace for workers if needed.

Another way to provide an emergency alternative workplace would be a “hot site”.  This might be a nearly exact duplicate of the office at a location far enough away from the original facility to be affected by a localized disaster, but close enough to be a reasonable commute – at least temporarily.  There are also companies that provide portable offices – trailers that can be set up and ready to use in as a little as 24 hours after an emergency.

If a company’s data is properly backed up and accessible, and communication lines (for voice and data) can be set up, the return to “business as usual” after a disaster can be amazingly fast.  The quicker a business can resume operations after a disaster, the better the chance for that business’ survival.  And that means saving the company’s data.  Clare Computer Solutions has helped many companies design and implement a Disaster Recovery plan to suit their needs and their budget.  It all starts with a Disaster Recovery Readiness Assessment!

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Why CEOs Should Pay Attention to Technology

For many CEOs, the technological tools their company uses are just that: tools. They hire people to take care of the technology and rarely give it much more thought.CEO

Unless:
• There’s a breach of the network by a hacker
• Valuable company data is lost
• Malware causes the tools to become unusable
• A competitive firm gains a competitive advantage through better use of technology

Obviously, a busy executive can’t spare the time to be concerned with the minutiae of his company’s Information Technology (IT) infrastructure. But the instances shown above are NOT minor – they all can have a major effect on the business.

So how can a C-Level executive close the gap – be free from worrying about day-to-day details of the company’s technology, but also be in the loop enough to well informed, and affect strategies for the company’s IT?

The short answer is, a Chief Information Officer. It is the CIO’s bailiwick to ensure that the company’s employees have the technological tools at their disposal to get their work done, protect the company’s data, be prepared to resume business quickly after a disaster, and guide the company towards its stated goals.

Not every company has a CIO, of course. They may not be able to justify the expense of hiring a qualified CIO, or maybe the company hasn’t brought technology into their corporate strategy – yet. Sometimes it take an event like the ones listed above to spur action on this, but why wait?

For many companies, an IT Consultant can act as a “virtual” CIO. Without the cost of adding a CIO to the staff, an IT Consultant can assess the health of the company’s IT Infrastructure, and suggest options for protecting the network and making sure it stays up-to-date, and also make sure that the updates are appropriate in the context of the company’s growth plans.

Clare Computer Solutions has provided “virtual” CIO services for hundreds of companies. Contact us to see what a CIO can do for your company.

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Will 2014 Be the Year of the Cloud for Your Business?

Tech folks have been beating the “Cloud is coming” drum for a couple of years now. How does the “cloud landscape” appear today, compared to when we first started hearing about it?

Typically, a new technical paradigm follows a predictable pattern from emergence, to timid trials, some false starts and then on to widespread acceptance.  Right now, it seems we’reCloud Computing in between the false starts and widespread acceptance, and that could mean it’s time to take another hard look at what “the Cloud” can do for your business.

The notion of a business getting rid of all its onsite IT infrastructure and putting everything in the cloud is not outrageous, but neither is it commonplace – yet.

Clare Computer Solutions is seeing many companies taking their first foray into the cloud by moving their email services into the cloud.  There are a lot of choices when it comes to providers of this service and including industry giants such as Google and Microsoft, and the services tend to be competitively priced and increasingly easy to use.   Installation can get tricky if a company needs to move a lot of legacy email data up into the cloud, but once the migration is complete, the service seems to be as stable as the company’s internet connection.

Replacing aging technologies is also proving to be a driver for considering the cloud alternatives.   We see many companies trying to squeeze 7+ years out of a server, and they often get caught in a vicious cycle of paying for the service to prop up a dying server, trying to avoid the capital outlay for a new machine, and end up actually spending more. Virtual computing in the cloud offers up-to-date servers at a monthly rate that includes maintenance, power, and air conditioning.  

Two things are very important to keep in mind when considering this route:

1)    Not all applications are cloud-ready.  If use of the application requires a large of data throughput between the server and the user device, the performance from the cloud may not be acceptable.

2)    Internet connection – if your sole link to your vital business applications is your connection to the internet, you better make sure it’s fast, reliable, and redundant.  This doesn’t have to be a showstopper – many metro areas have multiple carriers of very high bandwidth connections at a good price. 

So, maybe 2014 is the Year of the Cloud for your business.  The best way to find out is to have an assessment of your cloud-readiness.   Armed with the facts, you can devise a plan to enjoy the cloud’s benefits and avoid the pitfalls, too!

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Three Technology Mistakes Businesses Often Make

There are very few businesses that don’t require technology to run smoothly, grow and compete in the marketplace.   Despite the importance of using technology wisely, many companies get caught up in the frenzy of the day-to-day activities and make some unwise choices.  Are you one of these?computer-question

Mistake #1: Not Keeping Technology Up To Date

The reason this happens is, it seems too difficult and expensive to try and keep up with the pace of change in technology.  This approach actually costs more money though.  Yes, technology changes quickly, but so does the world around it, and the habits of technology users.  If you slog along with creaky old technologies, you’re missing out on the advantages that technology can actually bring to your business in terms of efficiency, cost savings and productivity.

It all starts with a conversation about your business, and where you want to go.  An IT Consultant can help devise a plan for implementing new technologies into business process, and do it in a way that doesn’t disrupt your operations or strain your cash flow.

Mistake #2: Trying To Handle Your Whole IT Infrastructure with In-House Staff

If your business has more than 20 or so users on the network, the chances are the complexity of your IT infrastructure will require a level of expertise that will be difficult to hire.  It take more than a computer “handyman” on staff to keep your technology running at optimal levels AND perform IT projects and implementations AND provide expert support to formulate a technology roadmap to ensure your network will fit the business in 1, 3 or 5 years.

There’s a lot to be said for having someone in-house to deal with your network issues.  But at some point, the network becomes complex and important enough that you will want supplemental help, for bigger issues, vacation coverage, and strategic planning.  An IT Consultant can provide skillsets and experience that can complement the talent you already have.  Your small or medium size business can enjoy enterprise-level IT support!

Mistake #3: Purchasing Home User-Grade Technology to “Save Money”

The commoditization of the PCs and other network equipment have led to companies installing equipment at their office that is designed for light duty home or micro-office use.  The problem is, this gear usually lacks the flexibility, durability and security capabilities of professional grade products (hardware and software).

Saving a couple of hundred dollars on a PC or a switch might seem like a good idea, but those savings evaporate very quickly when cheap equipment has problems – and it always will.

The fact is, quality and expertise don’t cost your company money – they save your company money, by helping you leverage the power of technology!

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Four Technologies to Consider for Your Business in 2014

Technology evolves at an ever-accelerating pace, and that can make business owners anxious, as they wonder which technologies will be worth adopting for their own businesses.  Any deployment of new technology is disruptive to some degree, so taking advantage of the Latest Thing carries certain risks, to be balanced against the aTech Trends 2014nticipated rewards.

Here are 4 Technologies to consider for 2014.  None of them is brand-new, but your business may or may not have begun the process of considering, or adopting them.

The Mobile Workforce

This revolution has many facets – telecommuting, working while traveling, working from a variety of devices, and often, devices of the employees’ choosing.  All of these offer great benefits in efficiency, morale, and productivity.   The danger here is the widespread and rapidly growing use of mobile computing can outpace your company’s ability to ensure that network (and your data) is safe and secure.  This particular technological revolution is unique in that much of it is driven by the end users.

Cloud Computing

Moving certain business technologies to the cloud can aid in the deployment of your mobile workforce, speed up expansion and create a more disaster-resistant infrastructure for your company’s Information Technology (IT).  In addition, having servers in the cloud can positively affect your company’s cash flow, and shift IT investment into an operating expense rather than a capital expense.  The possibilities are exciting, but it’s important to examine which parts of your business are cloud-ready, and devise a migration path to take advantage of it.

Virtualization

As your current infrastructure ages, it presents an opportunity to consider different avenues for replacing it. Moving aspects of the IT to the cloud may be a possibility, but even on-premises technology may be consolidated, and moved to a virtual environment.  There are efficiencies to be gained, and a virtualized environment often offers easier management, easier deployment, energy savings and more agility in recovering from small and large disasters.  With proper planning, you could be spending your IT investment in a way that serves your needs now, and into the next few years.

Unified Communications

It used to be data communications used one infrastructure, and voice communications another, and never the twain would meet.  Now, IP (internet protocol) telephony is commonplace, and there are many different ways to take advantage of a converged network.   In addition to easier management of features such as voice mail, conference calling and call-forwarding, there are now ways to make it possible to choose between voice call, video conferencing, instant messaging and email – all from the same screen on a variety of devices.

Is this all too much to take in?  It’s tempting to stick with the technologies that have proven effective for your business, and avoid spending a lot of effort to make a change.  But at the modern rate of technology changes, the tried-and-true tools to which you’re accustomed may become obsolete right under your nose. Set aside some time to do some “future thinking” and speak with an IT consultant. Discuss whic technologies are being widely (and successfully) deployed and see how your business can take advantage of them.  Take the time to work on your business – instead of just working in your business.

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Think Solutions, Not Machines, When it Comes to Technology

Americans are great shoppers. Since the Baby Boomers’ heyday years in the 50′s, we are conditioned to consume.  That attitude spills over to business, sometimes.  But it’s not the best mindset for a business owner.Strategic Thinking

Buying things doesn’t solve business issues, or make your business more agile, or poised for growth.   Hidden behind every impetus to buy something is an opportunity to transform your business.  How can you seize that opportunity?

Tactical vs. Strategic Decisions
Think of the reasons you purchase technology.  Often, it’s tactical, as when you hire a new person and you’re adding a new workstation.  Or when an existing piece of network equipment fails, and you’re replacing it.

But either of these tactical situations can be approached from a strategic point of view, too.  Does the new employee’s workstation present an opportunity to begin a switch to virtualized desktops, which would prepare your business for quicker disaster recovery, or more rapid technology deployments when growing?   Instead of just replacing a failing server, maybe this is a chance to evaluate your Information Technology (IT) infrastructure, and embark on a strategic roadmap that bring advantages to your business that are much greater than simply replacing a machine?

The Path to Strategic Actions
It can be difficult to step back from the immediate tactical situation and apply the longer term strategic view.  However, any planned change to your IT landscape presents the opportunity to make decisions with long-term positive effects on your business.

The easy way to do this is to involve an IT Consultant.  The issues and challenges you face in your business and the available courses of action are familiar to a consultant who faces these situations every day.   They can help you step from a reactive mode and consider a more proactive, strategic plan.  In addition, they can help you put that plan into action, and improve your business.  They can help you realize the power of technology to transform your business for the long haul!

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