Non-Profits: The Time to Plan Your IT Budget is Now

For many not-for-profit companies, the fiscal year ends at June or July, so this is the time Non Profitto create the budget for the coming fiscal year. Does your budget include addressing your organization’s IT needs?

IT costs can be controlled and predictable when steps are taken to properly maintain the IT infrastructure and cycle out aging IT assets in an orderly manner.

Here’s how to address this in 3 manageable steps:

Assess

Take stock of what your IT infrastructure is right now. In a small organization, this might be done visually, but generally, it’s much better to utilize a software tool to “discover” what you have, and output that information in a diagram and an accompanying asset list.

Remediate

Often, the assessment will reveal some things that have to be addressed immediately, and if that’s the case, take steps to repair what’s truly not working.  It can ensure your operations are stable and properly running as you address the next step, which is more strategic.

Plan

Forget technology for a minute. What are the goals for your organization over next 1, 2, 3 or 5 years?  How do you envision the future? Then, compare that vision against your current IT infrastructure and decide how that environment would have to change to accommodate the organization and its operations if those goals are met.  How can you ensure your technology will be appropriate for your future needs?

You’ll need to create a plan for achieving the change you’ll need, by the time you’ll need it.

For many companies, this type of strategic IT planning is not in their skill set. This is the purview of a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or a Chief Information Officer (CIO) – to create a technology roadmap to match the company’s business goals.  Clare Computer Solutions provides strategic IT planning and consulting, acting as a “virtual CIO” to help organizations just like yours achieve their goals. We can help you, too – contact us today to get started!

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Integrate your Company’s HelpDesk with Your IT Provider for Improved Support

Many small-to-medium size businesses prefer to keep user-level IT support in-house and HelpDeskoutsource the support for the more complex parts of their IT infrastructure. The reasoning is, higher level support is more expensive and not necessarily needed every day, while desktop level IT personnel are needed every single day. In a small, static environment, this can be a good arrangement. But in a growing business, in-house Tier 1 support often doesn’t scale well. Why is this?

Capacity               

Demand for Tier 1 support (desktop users) can fluctuate quite a bit, depending on circumstances like a software update that doesn’t go well, new versions of applications causing confusion, or if a virus hits. Moreover, an IT staff of one goes to zero if that person is sick or on vacation.  Even an IT staff of two is severely impacted when someone’s not available.

If your IT support company has a HelpDesk staff, perhaps they can be used as a resource for spikes in support needs, or during scheduled vacations.

Procedures

IT support for users in a small office is usually on a first-come, first served basis, and that works well when the demand for support is steady and low. But if that demand spikes for any length of time, then more detailed, consistent procedures are required to avert chaos. If the company is in a growth mode just adding more in-house IT staff may actually make things worse if there aren’t procedures for triage, dispatch, knowledge transfer, and quality control.

If your IT support company has a HelpDesk staff, they will likely be handling many more requests than your in-house staff encounters, so they should have procedures to quickly and accurately receive support requests, evaluate them, determine the priorities and severity of each request, and schedule resources to address the issues. Everything should be documented, and the entire staff should be able to draw upon that historical data to speed up problem resolution.

IT Support integration may be the answer

Some IT companies can even give your in-house staff access to their ticketing system, effectively making the combined in-house and IT provider’s staff one entity – requests can be evaluated, scheduled, resolved or escalated from the same interface. It creates a very productive partnership between the in-house IT staff and IT provider, introducing efficiencies and increasing the benefits realized from the company’s technology.

Clare Computer Solutions offers this service to their NetCentral Managed Services clients.  Contact them today to take advantage of this highly productive integration for best-in-class IT support and management.

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Common Cloud Computing Usage Patterns

CloudUsagePatternsCloud computing offers a variety of potential benefits to businesses, from cost savings to convenience (increased mobility) to business agility.

While planning your company’s cloud strategy, it is useful to consider what type of cloud environment and capabilities will best suit your needs, because the way your company uses the cloud will have an effect on the provider and services you choose – and this will affect your costs.

Many businesses assume their data storage and throughput needs are fairly static, since day-to-day, the business seems to operate about the same. But data storage and network data throughput fluctuates all the time – sometimes a lot, and sometimes a little at a time. Let’s examine some common cloud computing patterns and scenarios.

On and Off

Businesses that do development work and maintain test environments may find they will have periodic heavy usage of bandwidth, as when testing new applications, and then those needs could actually drop off to zero, as the next cycle of development begins.  Another scenario would be a disaster recovery plan that calls for a spin-up of a new server in case of an emergency, with no needs before or after that emergency. Either of these scenarios would indicate choosing a cloud services plan that allows for costs to follow those start/stop usage patterns.

Fast Growth

In general, data storage tends to go in one direction: up. In some environments, this growth may be rapid and sustained.  If this is your anticipated environment, you will need to ensure you have adequate bandwidth, preferably with some sort of scalable plan. The same would go for your cloud data storage services. You don’t want to pay for space until you need it, but you’ll want additional storage capabilities to be quickly available as needed.

Unpredictable Demand

In his scenario, there is a practical baseline for cloud services, but the nature of the business means there may be irregular spikes in the need for storage and bandwidth. Examples of this would be disaster recovery actions, or perhaps an e-commerce website that has traffic that spikes now again in response to marketing or something in the news.  The ideal plan here would be able to change quickly and dynamically to suit these spikes, and the costs for accommodating these dynamic needs would be spelled and understood.

Predictable Bursting

This is a scenario where the agility aspect of cloud computing really comes to the fore. In some businesses, they have predictable seasonal sales and activity patterns. In the pre-virtual, pre-cloud world, that meant the IT infrastructure had to be built with the needs of the peak periods in mind. With cloud computing, those resources can be allocated dynamically to meet predictably changeable requirements. Think of it like how you pay for electricity – you pay for what you use, when you use it.

The promises of cloud computing are real. But companies considering moving some or all of their IT infrastructure to the cloud need to consider how to tailor their plans to fit their specific needs – and every business is different.

Clare Computer Solutions can help your company devise and implement a strategy for taking advantage of the things that the cloud can do best!  Contact us today to get started.

Get a Cloud Readiness Assessment

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Why Managed Services Makes Sense for Businesses with an IT Staff

For at least the last 25 years, Information Technology (IT) has been an integral part of the Managed Servicestools that businesses use to run.  Communications, planning, accounting, prospecting, selling, billing – all of these are typically managed through technology.  Therefore, the management of the IT infrastructure is vital for the continued health of the business.

Often, businesses choose one of two models for IT management – they either hire staff to take care of the IT infrastructure, or they use the services of a third party IT provider.

For an in-house staff, businesses may find that staffing the skills necessary to handle every possible contingency in the network is prohibitively expensive.

For third party services, businesses may find they will have access to higher skills levels on an as-needed basis, but may find it expensive (and sometimes taxing on the resources of the provider) to get timely support for the little things that crop up every day.

We would suggest a third alternative – a hybrid model for IT support.

If you feel your business needs some in-house staff for day-to-day ad hoc IT support, then find someone whose skills will meet those needs, but for the following needs, choose a Managed Services Provider (MSP):

Ongoing IT Monitoring, Management and Maintenance

Even a company with barely 20 employees is likely to have an IT infrastructure of sufficient complexity to require proactive and timely expert management. Software and firmware patches need to be evaluated and deployed.  Anti-virus and other anti-malware software requires updating. Vital network elements such as servers need to be monitored to detect impending signs of failure.

IT Projects

Every network will undergo some improvements, deployments, migrations and upgrades at some point, and managing IT projects can be tricky.  You can’t expect your in-house IT person to handle their existing duties and an ongoing IT project. Expertise is needed to minimize disruption of active business processes as well.

Supplement to In-house Staff    

If your in-house IT staff becomes overwhelmed, or impacted by illness or vacation, an MSP can step up and make sure your needs are met.

CIO Services

Considering the importance of your company’s IT infrastructure to the business, it makes sense to have some IT expertise involved when planning your company’s growth and goals.  Leverage the experience and depth of knowledge of your MSP to ensure your company’s IT infrastructure will support the company as you grow.

This hybrid IT support model is working well for many companies – it’s a way to maximize IT support while controlling costs and realizing the real power of technology!

Clare Computer Solutions was doing Managed Services since before the phrase was coined.  We can help your company – contact us to get started!

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Addressing the 800 Pound Gorilla in the Cloud: Security

Security remains one of the biggest concerns for companies considering wider deploymentCloud Decisions of cloud computing.  Part of the concern is emotional – systems that aren’t under the home office’s roof or control seem less secure.  But there’s nothing inherently insecure about the cloud per se. Security is more about systems than platforms.

When it comes to physical security, having data and applications at a class-A data center facility is considerably more secure than the average office park. And data centers typically focus more on security than the average brick-and-mortar business.

Match Your Needs with the Cloud Provider’s Capabilities

If you felt your data and applications were secure in your office, then review what security measures you have in place and make sure your potential cloud provider can meet or, hopefully, exceed them.

Have IT Infrastructure Management Roles Clearly Defined

Since most cloud deployments are hybrid in nature – with some services being cloud-based while other remain on-premises — it’s important that both sides are clear on the responsibilities for governance of the systems. Make sure your cloud provider is clear on the administrative roles for the total hybrid network, and how this will be tracked.

If there is a cyber-attack, what are the procedures for handling it, and how is it handled?

Get It in Writing

Your contract should spell out the responsibilities mentioned in the previous paragraph, but also:

- What gets logged and what doesn’t
- How long is data retained?
- What is their data backup scheme?
- How often are test restores done?
- What is the security procedure for storing password and handling requests for resetting passwords?

Technologies and methods exist for keeping your cloud environment as safe as your on-premises environment, but it’s up the consumer to ensure that these technologies and methods are used, and used properly.

An IT consulting firm like Clare Computer Solutions can help you assess your company’s cloud-readiness, and formulate a cloud migration plan.

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Tips for a Successful Office Move

Moving an office is exciting — a chance to settle into new quarters and really get organized.Office Move But there’s a lot of anxiety, too. You don’t want to lose anything, and you certainly want to keep disruptions to the business to an absolute minimum.  In the ideal moving scenario, everything from the old office would be picked up on a Friday night and by Monday morning, every stick of furniture, every cubicle and every piece of the IT infrastructure would be in place and functioning.

Clare Computer Solutions has helped a lot of companies move in 25 years and here are some things we have learned.

Research

This may sound obvious, but it’s worth bringing up.  Whenever a company moves, it’s vital to ensure the new location will meet the company’s needs with regards to square footage, access to reliable high speed bandwidth, and access for shipping/receiving.  Adequate parking for employees and visitors and physical security are important considerations as well.

Planning and Timing

Different services have different lead times, so timing is crucial. For instance, data and phone communications services often have multi-week lead times, and then on the installation date, resources must be scheduled to ensure everything is working.  This means choosing a provider, negotiating a contract and ordering the services must be done far enough in advance.

IT Improvements or Upgrades

Sometimes a move is a chance to make improvements in the company’s IT infrastructure, but trying to do too much at the same time as everything is being moved and re-set up can be a recipe for frustration.  We would recommend having the new office cabled for your ideal network, and if changes or improvements to the switching scheme is indicated, have that part of the infrastructure completed and waiting for the move.

If a major overhaul of the servers or end-user devices is planned, it will probably go smoother after the move. In other words, it’s better to ensure the infrastructure itself works, and then plan for the technology refresh.

The key to a successful move is to leverage the expertise of companies that have the experience necessary to aid in planning and executing the move. A moving company will know how to pack the physical items at your business, and an IT consulting firm like Clare Computer Solutions can help with the IT infrastructure side.  Plan ahead – contact us today to get started!

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Things to Consider When Migrating to Office 365

It seems the future for that venerable productivity suite Microsoft Office is in the cloud, to one degree or another.  Certainly, the shift from a license purchased by machine to a per-user subscription addresses the needs of the modern information worker. For example –nowadays people work from a variety of locations and devices, so the Office 365 paradigm of one license for up to 5 devices, coupled with the online tools, is appropriate for the “modern office”.

And cloud-based email is one of the fastest growing segments of cloud computing, and it’sOffice 365 Logo easy to understand why. Email is such a ubiquitous part of modern communication (How long has it been since someone in business told you they don’t have an email address?), a solution that promises wider access, simplified management and subscription-based licensing is attractive to many companies.

But the move from an on-premises email service to a cloud-based solution is not as easy as flipping a switch, and some companies have had very frustrating experiences when trying to make the change. Here are some things to consider when considering migrating to Office 365, to help make that transition go as smoothly as possible.

How Much Storage Are You Using?

The amount of stored emails companies have on their email servers is often taken for granted. In general, the common practice is to save everything, to be on the safe side. But when it comes time to move all that data, it can add considerable complexity to the task. This is just one of several “hidden” aspects of the email environment that must be addressed for a successful migration.

Public vs Private Folders

We all grow accustomed to having access to the resources we need, but it’s easy to forget that the permissions for each users’ access can vary quite a bit, and it takes some investigation and planning to successfully transplant that combination of permissions to a new platform.

Calendars

Outlook users benefit from the ability to view their own calendars, and those of selected colleagues, and the view they see while in Outlook can make it seem deceptively simple. But behind that view is an interactive combination of permission and this, too, requires careful consideration to be successfully migrate with the user environment intact.

Cloud and Onsite?

Some Office 365 SKUs include a full version of Office for up to 5 machines per license, and the email can co-exist with your existing Exchange Server and the cloud-based email services. But this requires some planning too, to ensure that the parallel platforms are properly synced with regards to data and permissions.

The promise of cloud computing in general, and Office 365 in particular, is real. It’s just important to get expert advice to ensure those benefits are properly realized.  Clare Computer Solutions has the expertise to understand your business, its IT environment, and the emerging cloud solutions – we can help you make the right choices, and fully realize the power of these technologies!  Contact us today to get started.

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Three Reasons IT Projects Go Wrong

Too often, companies avoid implementing badly-needed improvements or upgrades to the IT infrastructure simply because the last upgrade project went poorly. Nightmare stories make for vivid memories and many owners would rather make do with the status quo thancrashedserver relive past fiascos. On the other hand, many other companies include periodic upgrade and implementation projects in their ongoing business plan, and they are consistently successful.  What’s the secret?

Clare Computer Solutions has designed, executed and managed hundreds of IT projects in their 25 years, and offers these three common pitfalls that can scuttle well-intentioned projects.

Failure to Plan Properly

Nearly always, projects involve multiple resources, multiple technologies and multiple vendors, and each of these have their complexities. Interoperability is crucial, so advance planning with regards to proving the concept, researching the technologies, and arranging the timing of each phase is necessary to complete a project on time and on budget.  A detailed Scope of Work must be created to act as a roadmap and a checklist as the project moves from beginning to end. Resources must be committed to the project and that commitment honored.

Failure to Stay Focused

Even a well-planned project will encounter sidetracks – the dreaded “scope creep”. The plan needs to have procedures for determining which issue are on scope or out of scope. Out of scope issues need to be documented and set aside for future consideration, and energies need to be directed to resolving unexpected issues that affect the project’s scope.

Siphoning off of resources that were supposed to be committed to the project can cause a project to stall. Once one or two project deadlines are missed, the tendency is to take the remaining milestones less and less seriously, and this is where many projects enter the nightmare stage.

Failure to Follow Through

As a project nears completion, everyone is anxious to move on and this can lead to a project being abandoned when it’s 95% done. If the upgrade or implementation is complete enough for the company to use the technologies, it’s easy to waffle on clean-up tasks like documentation or post-implementation training. But these are crucial parts to ensuring the company will reach the full intended benefits of the project. Without these final steps, everyone falls into a pattern of workarounds and under-utilization of the technologies and the full return on the investment will not be realized.

Any business owner has a lot of things to lose sleep over – making needed improvements to the business’ technology should not be one of them. Project management is a skill set most companies don’t have in-house. Trust IT projects to an experienced IT consulting firm like Clare Computer Solutions. Contact us today to get started!

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In the Modern Office, Think of the Network as the Platform

When businesses struggle to gain control of their information technology (IT) network, it is often due to a failure to perceive as all of the systems as one platform. It’s really the old Network is the Platform“can’t see the forest for the trees” problem.  If you’re grappling with the on-premises data network, without realizing that it’s inextricably linked with the voice network and the wide-area network, it can be difficult to bring these disparate systems under control.

The technologies that enable offices to break out of the brick-and-mortar limitations exist to help businesses, but sometimes, some help is needed to properly integrate all the parts that make up the IT infrastructure in a modern, mobile office.

Choose Solutions with the Big Picture in Mind

Many networks grow piecemeal over time, with components added to serve specific needs or address certain problems. This approach can cause a lot of problems if the various pieces weren’t chosen with interoperability or scalability in mind.

Get the View from the High Ground

Modern IT networks often have different technologies that have to work together, so it’s important to have tools to enable this collection of technologies to be managed as a cohesive whole. These tools can enable your IT department to view all the parts of the network – voice, data, local, cloud-based — through a minimum number of interfaces.

Help Your Vendors Work Together

Often the parts that make up your office network will come from multiple vendors, and this can be a support challenge. Often vendors are predisposed to assume the problem must lie with the another vendor, when faced with a support issue with their product and how it works with other vendors’ products,

Having someone available on staff, or on contract, who has experience and technical knowledge of all the technologies can help the vendors work together to overcome any trouble spots that can arise.

So, don’t be daunted by the challenges and miss out on the benefits of these transformational technologies. An IT consultant like Clare Computer Solutions can help with every aspect – choosing technologies, deploying technologies and then managing them so they help your business grow and become more profitable.

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Options to Consider for Your Company’s Cloud Connectivity

One aspect often missing from discussions about cloud computing is the access to the cloud. Yes, cloud computing can have some very real benefits for companies, but those services are dependent upon a robust, reliable connection to the cloud. Also, the costs of the connection must be taken into account when determining the ROI for a move towards High Speed Internetcloud services.

The good news is, the choices for cloud access have grown in number, and, for the most part, decreased in cost over the past decade or so. Here’s some tips on zeroing in the cloud access solution for your company.

Assess your needs with regards to bandwidth

When your office begins accessing services and data in the cloud, there needs to be sufficient bandwidth to ensure an acceptable user experience. Ideally, it should seem the resources are local. Begin by determining which aspects of your IT infrastructure are going to the cloud, and determine how much bandwidth you’ll need. In some cases, the vendor for those services may have some metrics to help in this  – in other cases, some testing may be required.

Assess your needs with regards to security

You’ll notice we have been referring to cloud connectivity rather than internet connectivity. What’s the difference? Sometimes, there IS no difference. Many cloud services are accessed through an internet connection. Sometimes, for security or regulatory reasons, your connection to a cloud resource needs to be through a dedicated connection that does not traverse the internet or the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). This doesn’t mean IP traffic on the internet is can’t be secure  – there are a number of solutions to encrypt that data.

Assess your needs with regards to redundancy

If your office’s sole access to the cloud is through a single wire somewhere, what happens if that wire is broken somehow?  If your business can’t tolerate even a brief outage, you will need to have some failover strategy, ideally involving a solution that is unlikely to be affected by the same thing ((construction, for example) that affected the primary circuit.

Compare your needs against the costs

Most businesses, when asked about how much bandwidth they need, will answer “A lot!” When asked how much downtime they could tolerate, the answer is “None!” It may turn out that the maximum bandwidth and maximum availability solution is not financially feasible. Decisions may have to be made with regards to which services you should move to the cloud, and which solutions you’ll use to maximize your benefits and minimize your risks.

Discussions with an experienced IT consultant, like Clare Computer Solutions, can help you settle on the right solution, with the right services, at the right price, to enable your company to effectively leverage the benefits of cloud services. Contact us today to get started!

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