Precious few business relationships last forever, and we know that from the clients we’ve gained as well as from those we’ve lost. But you can make an IT switch more effectively if you follow a few good practices.Continue reading
New File Access Environment
They’re a relic from the days when we all had our own servers for our office documents. When a user clicks on it to access a file, it starts a long and involved search process for your computer that sometimes turns up empty.Continue reading
Don’t Let Encryption Push Your Data off the Cliff
We seem to value our data so much, that we’ll encrypt it to protect it from anyone who might steal it. But if we don’t handle encryption and backup properly, our data can be irretrievably lost.Continue reading
The Night the ‘Office’ Went Dark
Two weeks ago, Microsoft’s Office 365/Microsoft 365 cloud-based services, which include the online Office apps, went down for as long as five hours in some parts of the United States, Western Europe and India. As of this writing last week, users were still reporting sporadic outages of some services. So far, our clients have not been affected, but It’s a fluid situation.
No matter what happened and what might happen, you can protect your data by backing up your files in more than one place. The outage hit Azure, a Microsoft platform, that we use for our backup for Microsoft 365, which was known as Office or Office 365. Microsoft 365 is built on Azure. It wasn’t the first time it was hit by an outage, and it won’t be the last. In its most recent outage, Azure and Microsoft 365 were affected by what was reported as a major Azure Active Directory authentication issue. In practical terms, users got kicked out of cloud-based applications, such as Office, Outlook, Exchange, Teams and SharePoint. It lasted from roughly 5 to 10 p.m. on Sept. 28.
Microsoft said very little but referred to an update in their network structure – and then said they rolled back the changes to an older version. It was all automated, but because of the authentication issues, some administrators couldn’t see the changes. Over the course of two weeks, problems cascaded worldwide – and randomly. Despite what Microsoft reports, we haven’t seen any satisfactory explanations of what happened and how it was fixed.
In this case, we don’t know of any data losses, but if you can’t access your files, they’re as good as lost until the service comes back. That’s where multiple backups are valuable. As a small business or home user, you may still have a computer with a version of Office installed. If you can pull a file from another storage site, such as Mozy (one of our partners) or Dropbox, or from an external hard drive, you may be able to work with your file. You also can store files on your computer’s hard drive.
One of the problems with an outage such as the one that hit Azure, you never know when it will hit. We reported on an outage two years ago, and we did have at least one client who was affected.
At the time we were affected, we were doing a setup at a client and needed to get a big file from Azure. When I logged in to get it, I got no access; I just got a message they would send a text. I had an external hard drive with an old version of the file, and that was not suitable. Transferring the file remotely from my office computer would have taken too long. We solved the immediate problem by transferring the file from my computer to my Dropbox account and then downloading it from there. We and our client were fortunate that I had the capability – files stored on a computer I could access and Dropbox – to initiate a solution.
Azure solves recovery issues for us because it works seamlessly in the background with Office 365, including Outlook and its PST files for your email. For some, backing up email may be more important than backing up files.
As an IT professional, I like Azure’s ability to generate reports – with more capabilities coming online all the time. Microsoft constantly uses customer feedback to add more power to the platform. That gives us the ability to go back into our clients’ backup records to trace incidents and to restore files after a catastrophic event. That’s critical because it can be 90 days – sometimes longer – before a hack or data loss is discovered by a client. When that happens, we can go back in time through the power of Azure to find data files that help us help you recover.
We can help you with continuity during various service outages, but it all starts with accessing your data. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your backup and file storage options. The cost of a workable redundancy system may pale in comparison to the loss you could suffer from the loss of data or the loss of access to your data.
Technology Years and Dog Years
Dog owners are used to extrapolating their pet’s age into more human terms by multiplying their age by seven. A 10-year-old dog is roughly the same “age” as a 70-year-old person. A technology year can be more like 20 human years; your 3-year-old computer could be more like a 60-year-old person. If you have a business, old technology can hamper employee retention because there are only so many tricks you can teach an old computer.
It makes good sense to keep your technology younger and more athletic because employees feel old systems hold them back. This is especially true for employees who work remotely, including salespeople. Older systems are not as adaptable for security measures to get to protected data they need to do their jobs better. Nor are they able to accommodate the new ways innovative employees find to do their jobs more efficiently. We’ve talked to many people who have accepted less money at new jobs because they want the opportunity to improve their skills and performance levels in ways that could lead to higher pay later.
The Windows 7 end of life should give business owners with old technology reason to rethink their technology. A 5-year-old system still running Windows 7 is like a 100-year-old person who has really slowed down physically.
That’s well past the retirement age, but even more, it illustrates the problem of old technology. There are no nursing homes for old technology. The industry just doesn’t support old software and old hardware. Technology arteries harden, becoming less flexible and subject to fractures. Even if you have a Windows 10-based system, older versions of office present the same symptoms of aging. Employees are not able take advantage of new features, and that prevents them from increasing their work throughput.
Our clients who have invested in Office 365 subscriptions are benefiting from an improved work environment. Employees are “playing around” with newer, more powerful tools to do their jobs better. The Microsoft Teams tool is a major upgrade over Skype for Business. We’ve seen employees use Teams to set up meetings, share screens and use other collaborative tools, including video conferences, to get more work done faster. Any business that relies on field technicians, for example, can let them use these tools on their cell phones to chat with office-based resources and solve their customers’ problems faster and more efficiently.
If you have Office 365, all these advanced tools are part of your package. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to help you determine the tools and features that are best for your business and to help you set them up with your employees. We can also help you make sure your current hardware has the capacity to help you make use of your new tools.
Microsoft ‘Ignites’ Tech Initiatives
We’ve all grown along with Microsoft, starting with its DOS operating system and moving through Windows and its many reiterations and the package of Word, Excel and other apps that evolved into Office 365. It’s fair to say the company and its products are entrenched in our daily lives, like it or not. At the Ignite technical conference, they showed how they’re digging deeper.
Delivering the keynote at this year’s Ignite conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella highlighted the company’s latest product and service launches, including new tools and services for the Azure cloud platform. Most of you are familiar with Azure because we’ve built your backup services on it. We’ll talk more about Azure and backup services in Azure – Always at Work in the Background, but Nadella’s talk showed how all the technology is tying together to ultimately give you more computing power.
“We want every organization to be a digital software company. And that means you all need to have the capabilities to be able to turn every organization into a digital company,” Nadella said. “In fact, our goal is to commoditize digital tech. We don’t want it to be just the province of a few companies in the West Coast of the United States or the East Coast of China…we want every company out there to be a tech company in its own right.”
Let that sink in. Whether you are a small business, a home-based business or a family user, Microsoft wants to treat you as a digital company. We can trace our path to this point from the time that Microsoft opened Office 365, OneDrive and Azure to the smaller users. It’s enabled all of us to share in the technological advances made possible by the economies of scale – and it will only get better.
Nadella touted the introduction of Azure Arc as the beginning of a new era in hybrid computing. Boiled down to simple terms, hybrid computing allows data and applications to be shared across public and private cloud environments – server systems. It will, in turn, enable companies – and you, eventually – to switch seamlessly between private servers used for sensitive operations and public servers for less sensitive operations. That will add speed and ultimately let you pay only for the service you need. Nobody will need to build systems to handle spikes in operations because the hybrid system will handle the supply-and-demand needs of users. Everyone will benefit from flexibility, scalability, and cost efficiencies with the lowest possible risk of data exposure. Azure Arc will be enhanced by open-source projects that will allow developers to build and deploy more power applications.
With the introduction of Azure Synapse, Microsoft will offer data warehousing and big-data analytics, using cloud-native memory hierarchy and storage hierarchy to redefine the rules around analytic workloads. It will bring together two separate categories, data warehousing and big data – in ways that integrate analytics systems. Eventually, this capability should filter down to smaller users who need it on an affordable scale.
Two other products that caught our eye are:
- Project Cortex is an AI (artificial intelligence) initiative that works with Office 365 to classify and categorize content, such as documents and email, to gain greater knowledge within their context. It is expected to be generally available during the first half of 2020.
- Project Silica will use quartz glass as a storage device. The company is collaborating with Warner Bros., who stored the original 1978 “Superman” on a piece of glass approximately the size of a coaster. Project Silica uses laser optics to encode data in glass and then uses machine-learning algorithms to decode the data. It’s said to be incredibly durable.
As time goes on, we may be able to incorporate some or all these advances into your technology or business operations. Some of these advances may involve new computers, services or networks to help you take advantage of the benefits that apply to you. We can help you plan for these and other developments. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to talk about where your business is heading and how we can plan for the most efficient acquisition and deployment of suitable systems.
Be Aware of Backup Terms & Conditions
If you’re one of our many clients using Office 365, we’ve likely put you on OneDrive, which essentially backs up some or most of your files. You also likely have another backup option or two that includes data storage in the cloud. But do you know what gets backed up to each cloud? Or how long it’s kept on a server? Or what happens in a catastrophic failure? Here’s what to be aware of.
For this article, we’ll focus on Office 365, Dropbox and Google Business Services. And while we believe the cloud is safe for data storage, the question is: How safe is it? There’s a lot we don’t know.
For example, what happens if something goes drastically wrong, such as an employee of the service going rogue, a hacker getting into the server, or a catastrophic system failure?
What happens if you lose your mind and delete a whole bunch of files – and then realize two months later that you need them?
In broad, general terms, the terms and conditions you agree to absolve them from any responsibility for any error that could possibly connected to you or your actions. None of the cloud providers covers your disasters; they only cover theirs. If there is a complete “nuclear meltdown” on the part of your service provider, they’re only required to restore data to the last point where they backed it up. If you back up your system on Wednesdays and the meltdown happens on Tuesday, you’re out six days of data.
One other problem that many small businesses and individuals face is knowing where all of their data is. They may have stored data in some account and haven’t accessed it for years. They may not even remember having the account. In many of the terms and conditions you agree to, a data storage company may have limits on how long they keep data, but let’s assume it’s unlimited. In cases where you forgot all of your access info – or maybe now use a different email address as your user name, it can be tedious, if not impossible, to verify you own the data and retrieve it.
To cover a reasonable number of contingencies, you should answer the following questions:
- Do you know where all your data is and how to access it?
- How much data do I need to keep? The amount of data we keep tends to expand as we acquire more storage capacity, and today’s technology makes that capacity virtually unlimited. Only you know what’s important, but your storage decision doesn’t need to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You can prioritize your data and put it in different places.
- How are you backing up your data? You can do it automatically to a cloud and/or a portable hard drive connected to your computer or server. You can also do it manually. And, you can use any timeframe from real time to once a week – or even less often, though we’d always recommend real time as the first choice.
- To what extent do you backup your data? You may be backing up only data files, or you may be backing up application software – or both. If you have employees who work remotely, you may have a system in place that backs up their work files or any changes that they may make while using certain applications.
Once you answer those questions, we can help you design a backup and storage program that meets your needs. However, it’s far from simple, especially for small businesses. We constantly go back and forth with vendors and clients about where to back up data and whether it should be more than one cloud. We tend to put our stuff in the cloud because it’s safer, but no cloud can cover human failure (it’s in the terms and conditions).
Security is the biggest human failure. If you or one of your employees with access to data opens a security breach, there’s no cloud service provider who’ll take responsibility for that. That human error is compounded if you go two or three months or longer before you find that data is missing or compromised – and that’s almost always the case.
Our advice is to forget about terms and conditions from your provider and set a few of your own:
- Look at the data you store and determine how much you really need to keep.
- If you find data stored in places or accounts you no longer use, transfer everything to a place you use and close out old accounts.
- Decide where to store your data. Ideally, if you want to cover all of your bases, you should use more than one cloud and have a physical device in your office or home, such as a server or portable hard drive.
- Develop and institute an automated backup program.
- Decide who has access to your data – and then institute a process to keep it safe and make sure everyone who uses the process is trained.
We can help you follow through on all the terms and conditions you set for yourself, your employees and your data. Our process includes helping you make sound decisions on what to store and where, closing up all your loose ends, designing and implementing a storage program, training employees and monitoring your storage program. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your needs and set up an appointment to move forward.
Terms & Conditions and Apps
Many of the companies we do business with online, especially those for purchasing merchandise, like us to use their apps for phones and other devices. We accept their terms and conditions to get it done – and we never bother to find out what data those apps share and with whom. You can sidestep the issue by going to a company’s website for the transaction. And while you’re at it, you might want to delete those unused apps that may be tracking you and feeding info to…whomever. I recently cut my apps from something like 150 to 47 – and I still only use about half of them. I was prompted to do it initially because for years, I suspected an app was screwing up my phone. So now, my phone works better, and even though my data may be shared with unknown parties, there are fewer of them watching me.
Who’s Your Office 365 Partner?
As an Office 365 administrative partner for almost all of our clients, we have extraordinary access to your systems – and a huge responsibility. You depend on our honesty and competency to keep your systems running and protect you from breaches. Some of our colleagues are not as good about this. Microsoft finally provided some tools to strengthen security.
We’re shocked it took Microsoft so long to do this, but they finally are requiring outside administrators, such as Sterling Rose, to keep two-factor authentication turned on at all times. We instituted this control years ago on all of our administrative accounts.
What brought the issue to a head? When Microsoft Office 365 went mainstream by making the subscription service available to individual users, families and small home-office businesses, it created a lot more accounts for us to service for our clients. It also created a password nightmare.
As administrators, we can go into accounts to see what’s needed to make sure you and anyone included in your subscription can do what’s needed. In most cases, we go in when called on to solve a problem. We are scrupulous about signing out properly, effectively shutting the door to your account on our end, and we have been scrupulous about two-factor authentication to protect access from our end.
In our opinion, the two-factor authentication covers the laziness or carelessness of some IT providers – and it also protects Microsoft from being responsible for any losses of data not connected to a Microsoft meltdown.
That puts the data-protection ball back in our court. We want to make sure you have your side of the court covered, and here are some things you can do. The big thing, of course is to have all of your files backed up. Microsoft OneDrive does this, but we don’t recommend it to be your only storage location. Azure, another Microsoft product, has backup and restoration capabilities, and there are other providers.
On our side of the court, we have two-factor authentication and other tools that fall under the label of cyber resiliency. Through the Information Technology Laboratory of the US Department of Commerce, a three-level approach to cybersecurity is being developed and refined. The first level, of course, is to resist penetration by cybercriminals. It’s an approach that’s been around, but we’ve learned that no defense can be entirely impervious.
Thus, we have two additional layers. One layer seeks to limit lateral movement within a system once it’s been penetrated. The strategies include barriers to gaining permissions to move laterally within a system, a technique that hackers use to get to other systems. Defenses can include time limits to lock out an intruder or limit the amount of data that can be exported from a system under attack. Another defense is to provide misinformation. Another layer of security will allow a system to operate while under attack so that business won’t be disrupted.
This gets us back to why it’s so important that Microsoft hardened its defenses for Office 365. It provides one more defense against penetration. At the same time, it provides another reason for your IT providers to have access to your system.
We have access to some of the tools needed to limit lateral movement within a system, many of them customized to your needs. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to set up an appointment to discuss your needs and implement a plan.
Trade War’s Perfect Tech Storm
You could see this one coming way off on the horizon. Computer users on Windows 7 are starting to move to Windows 10 as the date approaches in 2020 – it’s eight months off – for the end of Windows 7 tech support. The shortage of chips is starting to abate, but with tariffs looming on chips imported from China (which means just about all chips), prices will rise – possibly affecting supply and demand. We’re finding ways to work around the issues for many of our clients, and we can still keep options open for those who call quickly to get equipment ordered and work scheduled.
For clients still running Windows 7 who have computers with the capability of upgrading to Windows 10, we’ve been able to execute a two-step strategy. Success depends on having a good processor and enough RAM (random access memory). The first step is to install Windows 10, and the second step is to install a new solid-state hard drive (SSD). The combination of the new OS and SSD makes those computers run like new, and that will buy you time to make a bigger investment in a new computer.
The new SSDs we’re using are mostly 256 GB hard drives, and they are providing enough space for users with 500 GB mechanical hard drives – and even some with 1 TB hard drives. For those who need to store a lot of files or may want to store them, we’re installing 500 GB SSDs.
There are two primary reasons why the smaller SSDs work for most of our clients. First, SSDs are a different technology. They don’t require the space to physically access, use and store files. Second, our clients with Office 365 packages, including those with the $5, $8.25 and $12.50 monthly plans, can store files on OneDrive and access them on any device from where they can get to the internet. Personally, I have 32 GB of files on OneDrive and keep only a handful of files on my hard drive.
With OneDrive now making the storage space part of its package and integrating it with Office 365, we believe it is now a better value than Dropbox. While Dropbox has a free plan, it is limited to use on three devices, and it can easily escalate to more than $100 year just by itself. OneDrive also gives you a better feature set, including Mile IQ, which we talked about in our opening letter in the email.
With prices expected to rise because of market conditions and/or tariffs, anyone who can solve their Windows 7 and upgrade issues with a new SSD hard drive can do it at a reasonable cost. A 256 GB drive costs $125, and 512 GB drive is $200. We generally need about 1-1/2 hours of time to set up the drive, including file transfer. While we can’t predict what prices will be in the near or long-term future, we can look at Apple for some guidelines. If a new iPhone costs $1,000, a 25 percent tariff increase will raise the price to $1,250. The supply chain can only absorb so much of the increase for a limited time, and once the prices go up, they won’t come back down.
If you are an Office 365 user, see our article Setting Up and Using Microsoft OneDrive to learn how to get ready for migrating to a new hard drive or computer. We recommend you call us to help you get your OneDrive account set up, and then you can manage the transfer of files on your own.
Again, we urge all who need or want an upgrade to Windows 10 and a better hard drive to call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your best migration path, order the required equipment and schedule the work.
Setting Up and Using Microsoft OneDrive
Microsoft OneDrive may be as close as we’ll get to finding a safe harbor in the perfect storm created by the end of Windows 7, chip shortages and trade wars. Even without the storm conditions, it can give you smoother sailing.
We’ve found that OneDrive fits several trends we’ve seen among many clients, including more mobile computing, more collaborative work, and the need to work with larger files across all platforms. For those of you with Microsoft Office 365 plans starting at $5 per month, you get 1 TB of storage as part of your plan. If you need to access a lot of large files, including huge spreadsheets as well as photos, music and movies, this a good place to keep them. You can send collaborators links to any files in your OneDrive folder, and they can make changes, just like people do with Dropbox. This eliminates the need to send emails with attachments back and forth. As an added bonus, files are automatically saved in real time when working with a file in a OneDrive. And, finally, you can get Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other Office 365 apps for mobile devices, enabling you to view, edit and even create documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Granted, it may not be the same as on a computer, but it’s another tool at your disposal.
In addition to being free for Office 365 users, you also get a couple “blow-away” features. One of them is a version history, which is great for tracking financial reports on Excel spreadsheets or changes to Word documents. Instead of saving umpteen million versions, you can go back to a date and see the file as it was. It was meant as an autosave feature for data recovery, but it’s certainly not restricted to that.
We also like Mile IQ, which we discussed in our email for this newsletter. It works on your phone, and it senses motion when your car moves and starts to track miles. At the end of a trip, you swipe right for business use, and left for personal use. You can always go back and add details for each trip you track. It’s not a well-publicized feature, but it’s great. You can sign up through their website.
Installing OneDrive is not a particularly difficult process, but it has a few complexities in the setup. We recommend you have us help you with the setup so that you can work more easily with your file. The first two steps are:
- Select the Start button, search for “OneDrive”, and then open it. In Windows 10, select the OneDrive desktop app. In Windows 7, under Programs, select Microsoft OneDrive.
- When OneDrive Setup starts, enter your personal account, or your work or school account, and then select Sign in.
At this point, we’ll help you configure OneDrive to match your needs and get you started on transferring your files. We recommend putting all of your files on OneDrive for two reasons: 1.) You’ll have them there for recovery in case your hard drive crashes, and 2.) you can always select files to put back onto your hard drive.
By having access to all of your files but only having a percentage of them residing on your hard drive, you’ll free up space that will allow a mechanical hard drive to work more efficiently, or you’ll be able to get by with a smaller hard drive.
In operation, you’ll access your files from your OneDrive folder instead of from your File Explorer and work on them through your application program. If you turn on AutoSave, everything you do will be saved in real time, and you’ll never lose data due to a power outage or hard drive crash. Yes, if you lose your internet connection, you’ll lose OneDrive, but you can continue to work on your files and save them. When OneDrive access is restored, the changes will be saved.
If you are getting a new hard drive or computer, we use OneDrive to transfer your files. We believe that if you have an Office 365 plan and if we’re doing the work already, you are better off keeping your OneDrive and using it. You’ll find more benefits as you go along.
Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to get your OneDrive set up. If you’re an Office 365 subscriber, it’s there for the taking. If you don’t have Office 365, let’s talk and see if it’s right for you.