All You Need to Know About Data Recovery and Computer Backups

“Computer backups are important.”  This is so obvious and well known that it’s almost not worth writing.  But I would like to shift the conversation here, because data recovery is actually what you should be worried about.

The question people are always asking is, “How should I be backing up my data?”  This is misguided.  The question they should be asking is: “If I need to restore my data, how will it work out?”  No one, aside from us techies, cares about data backups and the intricacies of how it all works.  Everyone cares about how difficult it will get to restore their data once they need it.  We will continue to use the term “backups,” but keep in mind that it is the data recovery you really care about.

The three things you need to know about backups are

1. What is the backup type, and how will that affect my restores?
2. Where is the backup stored, and how will that affect my restores?
3. What sort of data loss are you planning for?

Backup Types

There are two methods of backing up data today; each has its advantages and disadvantages:

  1. File based data backups – File recovery is what comes to mind when most people think about backups.  When a file is created or modified, that whole file is backed up.  Storing these files tends to take up less room than image based backups.  It is easier to see the files that are backed up, and usually easier to restore them.  This cannot backup the operating system or any programs – only data. If you would store something in your My Documents folder, this will back it up.
  2. Image based data backups – In this case, the word image is not a synonym for a picture or visual image, so forget that analogy.  Instead of backing up individual files, this backup method takes a snapshot of the entire computer all at once.  This takes up much more space than file-based backups, but subsequent backups are much smaller.  The initial backup would be the size of the whole computer.  After that, if you changed one letter in a Word document, it would only need to back up that single letter and its location on the drive, not the whole file.

How do these differences affect your data recovery?  File-based backups are easier to restore for non-technicians.  Files-based backups may be faster to restore, and they are often less expensive.

Image-based backups allow you to restore the entire system, exactly as it was at the time of the backup.  With a file-based restore, you would need to reinstall Windows, then all of the programs, then restore the files that were backed up.  This makes image-based backups superior for computer Disaster Recovery.

Backup Storage For Disasters and Data Recovery

Where your backups are stored can matter a great deal for your Time To Data Recovery, as well as your resiliency against disaster.  Here are your options for location of backup storage:

  1. In the office – Restores will be fastest if the backups are stored onsite in the office.  However, your backups will likely suffer the same fate as your server in the event of a fire or flood so they aren’t very safe here.
  2. Locally but offsite – Storing the backups at an employee’s house provides more protection against disaster.  However, most employees live near the office, and natural disasters that strike the office will likely affect a nearby home as well.  This is great protection against a building fire or sprinkler flood, but not as much for natural disasters.  Time To Restore goes up by the amount of time it takes to drive to the employee’s house and back, but are still quite fast once back in the office.
  3. In the cloud – This is the safest place to store backups because all cloud providers worth their salt will have mirrored data centers in multiple locations across the country.  This protects you against natural disaster. It also makes it easy to restore files to any location, including temporary office space if something happens to yours.  However, this is the slowest method of data restoration.  Downloading 100 GB of data over a would take 24 hours on a 10 Mbps cable internet connection, but only 20 minutes on a fast local network.  If you are shopping for a cloud backup vendor, make sure they will next-day ship you a hard drive with your data on it in the event of an emergency.
  4. Local-Cloud hybrid – This is the best of both worlds.  You back up all of your data to, and restore from, a drive in your office which is is very fast and efficient.  Then that data gets synchronized to the cloud for computer disaster protection and safe storage.

If you are going to store your data backups onsite, also keep in mind your storage media.  Technology changes rapidly and may change while you are still using the old thing.  10 year old hard drives won’t work in today’s computers.  Do you need to keep data for that long?  Magnetic tapes are the best way to guarantee decades of data archiving, but will your new server be able to run that old tape drive?  If you are using a CD/DVD, will they warp in the heat?  Hybrid and cloud solutions bypass this media conundrum nicely.

[box] You don’t care about backing up your data;

you only care about restoring your data.[/box]

File Restore or Disaster Recovery? – When deciding on your backup solution, ask yourself what is the purpose of it?  Backups serve two functions: restoring the occasional lost or overwritten file, and rebuilding everything when an emergency wipes it out. Basic backups are usually sufficient for individuals and home use.  Businesses, however, want to think more along the lines of Disaster Recovery.  If you only care about restoring the odd file every now and then, basic file-based backups in the cloud are sufficient.  If you are preparing for an eventual disaster, file-based backups may be insufficient.

What is your “time to recovery objective”?  How much downtime can your company accept if the sprinklers go off and the server room floods?  If several days of downtime is fine for data recovery, then file-based backups are sufficient and you can go about re-building your server from scratch.  If you need to be back up and running business as usual in hours or one day at most, then you will need image-based backups.

We offer a product to our clients that includes the best of all of these options.  It is a device that sits locally on your network for fast backups and data recovery.  It synchronizes with the cloud for safe storage and protection against disaster.  It does images-based data backups for getting the business back up and running quickly.  And it has the capability of mimicking your server if your server goes down, so you can continue going about business as usual even while your server is laying in a smoking heap in the corner.  Please contact us today if you are interested in learning more.

If you still have questions about backups, please visit our Contact page, or leave a comment below and we’d be happy to respond.

Cryptolocker – The Most Dangerous Virus in 10 Years

UPDATE: See the bottom of the article for information on a new decryption tool.

The Most Dangerous Virus in 10 Years.”  That is a very ominous title.  But thinking back, the last time we saw a virus this destructive was in 2000 (the I Love You virus), so it actually may be a bit of an understatement.  That virus spread by email and deleted Word document and image files.  This one, the Cryptolocker Virus, has more ways to spread, and while it doesn’t delete anything, it encrypts your files and holds them for ransom.

How do people get infected?
Cryptolocker first surfaced in September 2013 and spread so quickly that by November it was infecting more than 12,000 computers per week, according to  BitDefender labs.  The most common method of infection is via attachments in emails, but it has been known to infect people with browser vulnerabilities, Java vulnerabilities, or through other viruses that then download this one.

What does it do?
Once on your computer the virus will generate an encryption code.  With this code, or “key,” Cryptolocker will encrypt all Word documents it finds on your computer, as well as Excel documents, PDF files, and many others.  It also encrypts backup files and Shadow Copy files, in case you were thinking of fixing this by restoring from backup.  Then it sends the encryption key to the people who wrote the virus and places a big warning message on your screen to let you know you have been hacked, and instructions on how to get your data back.  Typically there is a limited amount of time to do this before the files are locked forever.

What can I do once I’m infected?
Without the encryption key, the only way to decrypt your files is with a supercomputer and a lot of time (years).  You have two options at this point:

  1. Restore from backup.  See the section below about how to do good backups.  Once you have this virus, you will need to clean your computer of it.  Most antivirus programs will be able to find it.  Click here for a free program that will find and clean it for you.  Once your computer is clean, then you can restore your lost files from backup.
  2. Pay the ransom.  The initial ransom can be up to $500.  After the time expires, they sometimes offer you a last chance, but by this time the price has jumped to $8000-$9000.  While we usually would recommend against this option because you don’t know if you can trust them to give the data back, this seems to be a viable option.  By one estimate, infected users that needed their data back paid the virus authors nearly $400,000 in the first 100 days after its release.  The FBI even recommend a Massachusetts police department to pay the ransom, because without proper backups there is simply nothing else to be done.

What can I do to protect myself?
Like any disaster preparation, you can do things to help prevent trouble from happening, and you can prepare for recovering once it does strike.

  1. The first thing to do is to get a good antivirus program.  We are currently recommending Kaspersky to our clients because they rank very well AV comparison tests year after year, but most modern antivirus programs will keep you safe.  Click here for a list of antivirus products available, and how they compare to each other.
  2. Be careful of email attachments.  Email attachments is the primary way this virus spreads.  Run your email through a spam and virus filter.  If you are not expecting an attachment from someone, don’t open it.  If you see the attachment with two file extensions, such as “filename.pdf.exe”, it is almost certainly a virus.  If you see an attachment with a .exe or .vbs extension, don’t open it.  (An extension is the final 3 letters of the file name, after the period.  Some computers are configured to hide these extensions, in which case you may only see one of the two extensions.)
  3. Take good backups.  Back up all of your Documents folder, Desktop, and any other folders where you store data.  Since this virus looks for backup files, your backups should be saved to a place other than on your computer.  An external USB drive is a good place for them (as long as it is not constantly plugged into the computer, or else it will be infected as well).  Cloud backups are great for keeping your data safe.  The virus may take a couple of days to fully lock down your computer.  This means if you overwrite your backups every day with new backups, you may be backing up infected files.  The best solution is to have a backup system that runs frequently and stores multiple revisions of the same file.

The good news is this virus is not very infectious.  It takes a while to fully infect a computer, and it is more concerned with encrypting your files than spreading to other computers.  It is also fairly simple to clean with standard virus removal techniques.  If you have antivirus and a solid backup solution in place, you made good progress in protecting yourself.

The bad news is that many people think their virus protection is active and up to date when it isn’t.  And they think their backups are set up running correctly, but they aren’t.  Check the computers in your home and office and make sure they are following the steps laid out in this article.  And if you want to know more about backups and what your options are, check back next month for our backup article.

Have you had an experience with Cryptolocker?  Or do you have any questions we didn’t answer in the article?  We would love to hear about it in our comments section below.

UPDATE – Aug 9, 2014: FireEye and Fox-IT security companies have teamed up and developed a decryption tool for Cryptolocker!  You upload your email address and a sample encrypted file (without any personal information) , and they will email you back a decryption key and a link to a recovery program.  I have not used the tool yet, but the “word on the street” is that it works quite well.  The decryption tool is located at https://www.decryptcryptolocker.com (August, 2017: link has been since removed, as it is no longer working).

The Death of Windows XP and Office 2003

It is an ominous title, but very important.  According to a recent survey, more than a quarter of all the computers out there are still running Windows XP.  That is more than everyone running Mac, Linux, Windows Vista, and Windows 8 combined.  Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001, then they skipped a release in their normal cycle, and then released Vista which nobody liked.  So most of us have had over a decade on this one operating system, but the party is coming to an end.  Microsoft is discontinuing support for Windows XP, among other products, in April.

April 8, 2014 is the End of Life date for Windows XP

Microsoft has a predefined product lifecycle for its software.  When the release a product to the public, they already know when the end-of-sale date will be, when the end of Mainstream Support will be, and when the end of Extended Support will be.  In general, most products will be supported for 5-10 years.

Which brings us back to our eulogy today.  On April 8, 2014, the Extended Support period will expire for Windows XP and Office 2003, and Exchange 2003.  Server 2003 has another year and will reach end-of-life on July 15, 2015.  You can actually continue using these products as long as you like, they will not stop working in April, but MS will stop fixing bugs.  And hackers will continue finding bugs.

[learn_more caption=”Find out more about Microsoft’s support lifecycle”] The rules are bit complex, but in general, they will fully support a product for 5 years in what they call their “mainstream support” period. Then, for business and development (i.e. programming) product, they offer an additional 5 years of “extended support.” These are the times in which you can call up Microsoft phone the phone, get their tech support on the line, and they will fix your problems (for a fee).

This is also the period in which they release service packs, patches, and security updates. Every month (sometimes more often), Microsoft releases updates to all of its products that fix bugs that have been found. These get pushed to everyone’s computers through Windows Update. Your computer should be doing this automatically. (If it is not, call us and we can discuss why it is important.) After the end of the Extended Support period, Microsoft stops releasing these fixes.[/learn_more]

So what do you do now?  Don’t panic yet.  First, you have a full quarter until we reach that date.  Second, like we mentioned already, Windows will not stop working come April 8, they will just stop releasing security patches and bug fixes for it.  So here are a few suggestions to help you prepare for this:

  1. Look through your network and identify which computers have Windows XP, which computers have Office 2003, and if any servers are running Exchange 2003 email server.  Your IT vendor should be able to provide a report on this info in just a couple minutes.
  2. Office can often be upgraded.  Computers with Windows XP should be replaced, not upgraded.  For help in choosing new computers, read this article.  Exchange 2003 should not be upgraded; either replace with a new server or choose a different email solution (like Hosted Exchange).
  3. With all this information at hand, review your IT budget.  If it needs to be updated in light of your results, meet with your IT vendor and revise accordingly.  If you do not have an IT budget yet, read this article for information on how to create one.

Do you still have Windows XP running in your office?  Are you concerned about how to deal with this information?  Is your office already up to date and you feel safer now that you know you will be in support for the next several years?  Tell us what you think and how your company has dealt with this situation.

 

References:
Microsoft’s lifecycle policy
Microsoft’s lifecycle product index
Net Market Share’s operating system distribution

4 Steps to Creating Next Year’s IT Technology Budget

We’ve hit December and now is the time you will see three things on blogs everywhere: recaps of the year, holiday gift ideas, and planning for next year.  This is a business-focused article, so recaps of this year’s technology will not be helpful to anyone, and we already have an article on what you need to know when buying a new computer. This leaves us with the topic of how to plan next year’s technology budget for your company.

However, this is not merely a compulsory planning article, and your technology budget should not be a token gesture toward financial planning.

We have seen that very few companies take the time to plan for their IT spending.  And when unexpected emergencies happen, these companies are stuck paying thousands of dollars for new equipment and labor costs that they had not budgeted for.  Since these funds were not set aside for these expenses, business owners are often forced to buy lower quality products that will likely break again unexpectedly, perpetuating the cycle.

Here is a fact of doing business in the modern world: IT costs will happen whether you plan for them them or not. New employees get hired, computers die, and servers crash.  Not planning a technology budget won’t prevent these events from happening, they will just be more expensive to fix – both in cash flow and lost business and productivity.  Creating an IT budget will give you the following benefits:

  • Peace of mind: Whenever we feel like we have to spend money, we are upset about it.  Creating a budget will put you in a position of power over your technology. You’ll likely be happier with your spending, rather than resentful.
  • Better technology: When you can plan for things ahead of time, you are more likely to get the equipment and services that are in alignment with your business goals and strategies.  When you make technology decisions from behind the eight-ball, you end up spending a lot of money on something that will merely get the job done to meet the nearest deadline.
  • More efficient business: Robbing Peter to pay Paul is rarely an effective way of doing business.  If you take an honest look at what is likely to happen and what is needed, you can more accurately fund your other departments as well.

Simply using “last year’s support numbers” belies the true cost of next year’s IT spending.

So, what is needed when planning a technology budget?  Most people simply take what they paid the previous year for support and set aside that much.  This belies the true costs of IT spending and leads to the problems described above.  If budgeting is worth doing at all, it is worth doing right.  So take a few hours out of your year, schedule a meeting with your IT provider, and and sit down together to do it right.

The 4 Steps for Creating a Technology Budget:

  1. Have a conversation with your IT provider. Discuss your business goals and needs for the following year. Ask him about new technologies and if it makes sense to switch any major areas, or if it is better to stay the course.  Discuss what software should be upgraded.  Decide which computers and what other equipment will need to be replaced and when.  For a discussion of when to replace computers, see here.  This is the major planning step and should not be skipped.  This is a technology steering meeting and should happen at least once a year, perhaps as often as quarterly to review and reassess.
  2. Calculate hardware and software costs. Take the results of that conversation and call software and hardware vendors to get pricing.  These may change by the time you make the actual purchases, but not by much.  Gather pricing for new computers, networking equipment, new software, software version upgrades, and licensing.
  3. Calculate support and project costs. Now that you know how much you will spend on software and hardware, it is time to calculate how much it will cost to set up and support it all.  First, consider normal IT support.  Your IT provider will be able to help with this number, but last year’s support costs are a good place to start.  If you are planning on hiring more employees, you will need to consider them in your calculations.  To do this, simply divide last year’s IT support costs by last year’s number of employees to get an average cost per employee for support.  Then multiply that by the number of employees for next year.  Now think about other support costs, including renewing or purchasing support contracts for your business-critical software, and renewing hardware warranties.  Get estimates from your IT vendor on how much it will cost to set up or install the software and hardware you discussed in the first step.
  4. Plan a timeline. At this point, you know how much you will need to spend to keep your technology in line with your business goals and the steps necessary to do that. Now, you can start planning when to do it all.  It doesn’t need to all be scheduled for January 1.  If you are purchasing several computers, you may be able to spread them out across the year.  Look at the projects you and your IT provider came up with and plan out what quarter each should happen in.

Now that you have a budget for your IT spending, you can take your business into the future with the peace of mind and confidence of knowing that your technology budget is in alignment with your business goals and you are managing your IT spending, rather than letting the technology dictate it to you.

Should I Turn Off My Computer at Night?

It’s the age old question: Should I turn off my computer at night, or leave it on?

We’ve always been told that it’s “bad for the electronics” to keep turning a computer off and on, and it’s better for the life of the computer just to leave it on all the time. I am here to set the record straight: Turning off your computer is not damaging.

The theory behind this myth is this: turning on a computer ran electricity through all the components and they heated up and expanded. Then turning it off cooled down the components and they contracted. Expand, contract, expand, contract– over time that is damaging to the computer. It’s simply not true. How many people do you know that leave their TV’s on all day to “protect the electronics”? No one. And modern TV’s have most of the same components that a computer has.

Here is some more good news about powering off your computer regularly: It will save you money.

An average company of ten spends over $2600 every year to power computers no one is using.

Consider a company of 10 employees, working normal business hours, all using Dell Optiplex 3010 computers. These are the computers we are currently recommending to our clients. Over the course of an average year, most computers are only in normal use about 37% of the time.

At current electricity rates, this company would be paying $2655.30 every year just to power computers that no one is using! Compare that to the company who has their employees put their computers into sleep or standby mode when they leave for the day: $63.73 for the year. That is enough savings to pay for new computers for the whole company every 3 years, which is about how often they should be replaced anyway. From just turning off computers at night, this company can have free computers for life.

Click here to show the math

Assumptions:

  1. Dell Optiplex 3010 computers use about 250 watts while in normal operation, and about 6 watts while in standby mode.
  2. Most people want their computers powered up on weekdays from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm for 48 weeks per year (accounting for holidays, sick days, and vacation).
  3. There are 8760 hours in a year, 2400 of which are business hours, 6360 non-business hours
  4. Calculations are made at the current rate of $0.167 per kilowatt-hour
  5. The equation for calculating the cost of electrical usage is: ((watts * hours) / 1000 ) * rate

Normal Operation:  ((250 watts * 6360 non-business hours) / 1000 ) * $0.167 per kilowatt-hour = $265.53 per computer per year to power the computer when not in use. Multiplied by 10 computers in the company = $2655.30 per year.

Sleep Mode: ((6 watts * 6360 non-business hours) / 1000 ) * $0.167 per kilowatt-hour = $6.37 computer per year to leave the computer in sleep mode when not in use. Multiplied by 10 computers in the company = $63.70 per year.

Savings: $265.53 – $6.37 = $259.16 per computer per year in savings by putting the computer to sleep. Multiplied by 3 years = $777.48 savings per computer over the recommended lifespan of a computer. A new Dell Optiplex 3010 with Microsoft Office and no monitor right now is $819.

 

Similarly, most families using the same computer can save over $200 per year by putting it into standby when no one is at home.

Unfortunately, not everyone can turn their computers off when they leave. Some people do work from home and need to remotely access their computers. Some computers do a lot of calculation work during non-business hours. IT providers often do regular maintenance to computers during these off-hours. However, much of the IT work can be scheduled and condensed to the weekend, and most people don’t need to access their computers from home. Even accounting for the ones that do, your company can find significant financial saving, as well as reduced environmental impact, merely by putting computers to sleep when they are not needed.

Disaster Planning I – Backing Up and Restoring Data

Planning for a disaster is something we all know we “should be doing” but few of us are.  This is the first in a series of posts that will provide a starting point for disaster planning and disaster preparation on the technology front.  This post will cover backing up and restoring data.  The next two will be go over replacing equipment and restoring software, and telecommunications and what to do while you’re down.

“We make regular backups, so we’re fine…”

When most people think of disaster preparation for technology, they think backups “We make regular backups, so we’re fine.”  But disaster preparation is much more than simply having a second copy of your data.  Yes, you have backups, but do you know how to take those backups and create a working business from them again?  In as short a time as possible?  The critical question here is: How will I rebuild my company after a disaster?  The answer is to have a full Disaster Recovery Plan in place before anything happens.  Below are some of the things you need to know about data backups and restores as one component of this plan.

 

Backing Up

Backups are the most obvious aspect of disaster planning.  But there is more to good backups than just plugging in a hard drive and dragging over your My Documents folder.

  • Files to Back Up: Most people will remember the obvious things, like their Quickbooks data and the My Documents folders.  But don’t forget the things you use every day like email, Outlook contacts, and web browser favorites.  Depending on what kind of email you have, it may or may not be backed up with your service provider.  Spend a day writing down everything you save, open, or use, and make sure it is all backed up.
  • Other Data: Your documents and your employees’ regular documents are not all that should be backed up.  Think about your business data that you don’t use regularly.  Vendor contact information, software installation files and serial numbers, paper contracts, hardware warranty information, etc. all should be accessible after a disaster.
  • Backup Storage Location: Consider whether your backups are in the same danger as your data itself.  If you keep your backups on a hard drive on top of your server, they will likely be lost in a flood or fire along with the server.  Even taking a backup drive home may not be enough; if a flood or wildfire hits the office it may well hit your home too.  A recent copy of backups should always be stored offsite, preferably in a different climate environment.  Cloud-based backup solutions are very well suited for backups in this respect.

 

Call us today for help in designing your own IT Disaster Recovery Plan

 

Restoring Data

People often forget to consider the restore process when deciding on a backup solution.  There are 3 primary things to consider when restoring data: time to recovery, required equipment, and restoration method.

  • Time to Recovery: Assume you have 1 terabyte of data backed up.  If this data is online and you have restore it all over the internet, it would take 57 days over a T1 line, 7 days over a 12 Mbps DSL line, or 2 days on a 50 Mbps Comcast cable line.  That is if you could get the full bandwidth just for restoring data, and not using it for any actual business. It is faster in most cases to have your backup company mail you a hard drive overnight with your data on it.  Make sure your online backup vendor has the capability to do this.  If you also have your data backed up onsite, it would take a fraction of that of time.
  • Required Equipment: What is required for you to restore you data?  If your data is backed up online, you require a fast internet connection.  If it is on tapes, you require a computer with a tape drive that fits your tapes, and those are hard to find in a local store.  In all cases, you need the same software that backed up that data in order to restore it, as well as computers to restore the data to.  In planning for a disaster, make sure you consider what is required to physically get the data from the backup medium to where you want it.
  • Restoration Method:  What kind of backups did you take?  If you only backed up files, then you will need to set up a computer and reinstall all of the software before restoring any data.  Better yet, if you have install images for your computers, this process goes faster.  Best, if you take the image-based backups, you can write the computer system and recent data all at the same time.

Most backup and restore solutions have advantages and disadvantages to them.  Finding a hybrid backup solution that gives you the best of several worlds is often the best way to go, even if it is a bit more expensive.  If the disaster ever comes, you will be glad you spend the extra money.

Finally, it is critically important that you run test restores regularly, or you won’t know if your backups ever work.  It would be a shame to have a flood hit and then realize that your backups were running every night to a USB drive that someone removed the first week and never replaced.

The best solution, and the one we offer to our clients, is a combination of image-based backups that are stored onsite and replicated in the cloud.  This gives you fast time-to-restore on individual files, fast time-to-restore on entire systems, and a cloud vendor who will ship you a device immediately in case of a disaster.  This solution also includes virtualization, which means you can have a fully functional copy of your server up and running in minutes.  Compare that to the 57 days it would take to download it all from the cloud.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”

–Dwight Eisenhower

While this is a great place to begin your disaster preparation, please remember that technology is only part of it.  Your IT Disaster Recovery Plan should be a part of your greater Business Continuity Plan that includes planning for temporary business locations; replacing inventory; contacting employees, vendors, and clients; etc.  FEMA has a good website (available here) that will help in developing your plan.

Finally, remember that in a disaster, nothing will go according to plan.  Things will get destroyed that you forgot were essential.  Things will survive that you thought were fragile.  Your whole plan may go south in a handbasket, but you will be in an far better place having done the planning. As Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Disaster Planning II – Telecommunications & Actions During a Disaster

Planning for a disaster is something we all know we “should be doing” but few of us are.  This is the second in a series of posts that will provide a starting point for disaster planning and disaster preparation on the technology front.  This post will cover telecommunications, and what do do while you’re down.  The previous one covered backing up and restoring data, and the next will be on replacing equipment and restoring software.

“Myth: Disaster Planning is all about data backups.”

Most of the articles and discussion regarding disaster planning and recovery is about data and what to do before and after an emergency. This article will discuss telecommunications, as well as what to do while your are in the middle of a disaster.

 

Telecommunications

Telecommunications is a fancy term for your telephone system.  Sometimes it also includes a connection to the internet, and we will include it here, too.  When we refer to “disaster scenario,” that can mean anything from accidentally deleted files all the way up to earthquakes and tsunamis that destroy a town.  You should plan all along this spectrum.  If your town is doing construction outside your building and they slip and cut a Fiber Optic line that supplies internet to your building, what will you do?  Will that affect your phones as well?  (Probably, yes.)  Here are some things to consider when planning for disaster situations from a telecommunications point of view:

  • Internet Redundancy: Internet has become very inexpensive.  You can get a DSL or Cable connection to the internet for under $100 per month.  While this may not be fast or stable enough for your day to day use, it may be enough to keep you in business when your primary internet connection is being fixed.  Consider how much money you would lose if the internet went down for a few days.  Now, consider how much you would spend on a couple of years of backup internet access and compare those costs.  Like insurance, it might be worth it when you need it.  Microwave and satellite connections are also available, so if the construction scenario described above happens, you can continue doing business even without a hard line.
  • Telephone Redundancy: The standard basic telephone system that we have been using for a hundred years is one of the most stable technologies you have ever seen.  99.999% uptime.  Most internet connections, VoIP services, and internal telephone systems are not that good.  If your normal telephone system goes down, it is good to have a couple plain old telephone lines ready to conduct a skeleton business from.  Many companies already have a couple of these lines for their fax, credit card, and alarm systems.  If you don’t have any already, they are fairly inexpensive to keep as a backup.  Keep some telephones around that you can plug into these in an emergency.
  • Telephone and Number Redirection: If your office is inaccessible but your business is one where employees can work from home, there are many things you can do to facilitate this.  If the system is Voice over IP (VoIP), employees can take a phone home with them and still make calls from your phone system.  Or they can launch software phones on their computers and use your phone system with a microphone headset.  Or they can log into your phone system (whether VoIP or not) and forward their direct extension to their home or cell phones.  You can log into your phone system from home and change the greeting to let your customers know what is happening.  It also may be worth having a VoIP backup system with a few lines at the ready so a few critical employees or managers can conduct business or be available.  It only takes a few minutes to call the phone company and redirect your company’s toll free number to another location.  If your building’s phone system is inaccessible, you can have all of your normal incoming calls going to a temporary VoIP system with a professional auto-attendant and phone tree which can all be controlled and accessed from your home.

 

Call us today for help in designing your own IT Disaster Recovery Plan

 

What To Do While You Are Down


Here are some things to do during an emergency to keep your business running and everybody informed about what is going on.

  • Switch to Backup Systems: If your phone or internet goes down but the rest of the building is safe, it is time to switch to the backup.  If this is not an automatic switch, you and your IT provider should have a plan in place about how this process goes.
  • Inform Employees: If employees should not be coming into the office, call them and let them know.  The business owner or managers should have– at their homes– a list of all employees’ home and cell phone numbers to initiate this.
  • Work From Home:  Many businesses can conduct a large portion of their business with some or all of their employees working offsite.  If your company uses a hosted email and VoIP solution, calls and emails can continue as normal.  If not, everyone has cell phones and personal email accounts and can do enough to let customers know what is going on.
  • Inform Customers: Update your company’s telephone auto-attendant message, website, and social media sites to let your customers and vendors know what is happen and he status/safety of your business and your employees.  The business owner should know how to do this, and have all the information to access it available at home.

Another term for disaster planning is business continuity planning.  A good disaster recovery plan will include steps to keep your business running, in full or in part, while these things are happening.  This includes backup internet and telephone connections, a plan for informing your employees and customers what has happened and what to do, and the infrastructure and training to continue doing business during outages.

Problems, outages, and disasters will happen.  They can either cripple your business or merely cause a brief bump while you continue along as usual.  It all depends on how well you plan and train for the unexpected.

[box]“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”

–Dwight Eisenhower[/box]

While this is a great place to begin your disaster preparation, please remember that technology is only part of it.  Your IT Disaster Recovery Plan should be a part of your greater Business Continuity Plan that includes planning for temporary business locations; replacing inventory; contacting employees, vendors, and clients; etc.  FEMA has a good website (available here) that will help in developing your plan.

Finally, remember that in a disaster, nothing will go according to plan.  Things will get destroyed that you forgot were essential.  Things will survive that you thought were fragile.  Your whole plan may go south in a handbasket, but you will be in an far better place having done the planning. As Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

 

Note: We would like to thank Chris Iovane of Walnut Telecom Group for his expertise in developing the telecommunications aspect of this article.

Disaster Planning III – Replacing Hardware and Reinstalling Software

Planning for a disaster is something we all know we “should be doing” but few of us are.  This is the third in a series of posts that will provide a starting point for disaster planning and disaster preparation on the technology front.  This post will cover replacing equipment and restoring software. The previous posts covered backing up and restoring data and telecommunications and what do do while you’re down.

 

It is difficult to respond nimbly to a disaster with hardware loss if you have not planned ahead.

 

Data gets all of the press when people talk about disaster recovery planning.  Backups, restores, virtualization, etc. are all talking about data.  This post is about infrastructure: the hardware and software that makes your data usable, and things to know when recovering, repairing, and replacing all of that infrastructure.

Replacing Hardware

Fact 1:  Computer equipment is expensive.
Fact 2:  With IT hardware, you get what you pay for.
Fact 3:  Quality, business-grade computer equipment is rarely available at a store near you.

These three facts make it difficult to respond nimbly to a disaster scenario that includes hardware loss if you have not planned ahead.  However, we are all well on our way to preparing our Business Continuity Plans, so that won’t be a problem for anyone reading this blog….

Here are some things to keep in mind when designing the hardware replacement aspect of your Disaster Recovery Plan:

  • Business class computers usually have to be ordered and shipped. HP computers can usually be shipped the next day, as can some Dell computers.  Other Dell computers need a week or two lead time.
  • Resist the urge to go down to Best Buy and pick up a computer.  You will only find home grade computers there, which we know is not a good idea for businesses.  Spend the extra time and money and buy the right thing, not just the cheap and fast thing.
  • If you must buy a computer immediately, mentally prepare to get a second computer of professional grade as soon as you can.  Donate the store-bought computer to a local charity.  It seems like a waste of money, but it will save you time, money, and headache in the long run.
  • Have a spare computer available.  This can be used for spare parts, as a complete replacement, or as a temporary station for guests or employees displaced by an IT guy fixing their computer.
  • These examples have all been about computers, but the same advice goes for networking equipment, servers, telephone equipment, and any other hardware you need to replace.  It will be expensive and take time, but it is worth it to do it right the first time.

 

Call us today for help in designing your own IT Disaster Recovery Plan

Software

While hardware is time consuming and expensive to replace, software is just the opposite.  As long as you have backups and documentation, replacing software should be inexpensive and relatively quick. Here are a few ways to make sure you are in a good place for software recovery:

  • It seems obvious, but make sure your data is backed up.  Sometimes third party programs save important information in inane locations.  Call the vendor and ask them exactly what needs to be backed up for a full recovery down the road.
  • Back up install CD’s and DVD’s.  Make duplicates of all your install CD’s and store them offsite.  Also, you will obviously need to know where all of your install CD’s are in the fist place.
  • Document all serial numbers and other installation codes needed to get a program working.  Store these codes offsite with your CD backups.
  • If you are replacing computers and installing fresh versions of Windows and all of your software, consider using install images to streamline this process. This a way to build a “master” computer template, designed the way you want it to be for several users, and install it automatically and identically onto many computers.  A small fee in imaging software can result in a huge savings in time and standardization when deploying several computers.

 

Another term for disaster planning is business continuity planning.  A good disaster recovery plan will include steps to keep your business running, in full or in part, while these things are happening.  This includes backup internet and telephone connections, a plan for informing your employees and customers what has happened and what to do, and the infrastructure and training to continue doing business during outages.

Problems, outages, and disasters will happen.  They can either cripple your business or merely cause a brief bump while you continue along as usual.  It all depends on how well you plan and train for the unexpected.

[box]“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable”

–Dwight Eisenhower[/box]

While this is a great place to begin your disaster preparation, please remember that technology is only part of it.  Your IT Disaster Recovery Plan should be a part of your greater Business Continuity Plan that includes planning for temporary business locations; replacing inventory; contacting employees, vendors, and clients; etc.  FEMA has a good website (available here) that will help in developing your plan.

Finally, remember that in a disaster, nothing will go according to plan.  Things will get destroyed that you forgot were essential.  Things will survive that you thought were fragile.  Your whole plan may go south in a handbasket, but you will be in an far better place having done the planning. As Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

 

Clearing the Clouds – Making Sense of Cloud Computing

I read a blog article recently in which a well known computer scientist said that “The computer industry is the only industry that is more fashion-driven than women’s fashion.”  He was referring, of course, to the recent explosion of popularity in the Cloud and Cloud Computing. We are being inundated these days with advertisements, news articles, and sales calls about the cloud and how it can help cut costs, increase productivity, decrease downtime, boost performance, and cure world hunger.  (OK, maybe not that last one.  But it can reportedly save Hollywood…) But the more people I talk to, the more confusion I see.  People don’t understand what the cloud is, why it could be beneficial, and what possible downsides are.  This article will bring clarity to the cloud and help you decide whether it is a good thing for your systems or if you should keep everything right where it is.

Etymology: Since the internet began, people have been drawing diagrams of computer networks that included it.  As far as those network diagrams were concerned, the internet was a bunch of stuff off in the distance.  It needed to be kept in mind, but no detail needed to be considered; it was big nebulous mess that just needed to be labeled and then moved past.   These network diagrams have always drawn the internet as a cloud because it was always there and really complicated but could be completely ignored.  That’s where the term “The Cloud” came from.BasicNetwork

 

What is it? The cloud is neither a new concept nor a new implementation.  In fact, you have probably been using cloud applications for years.  Do you remember 1996 when Hotmail first came out with free email for everyone?  That was email in the cloud.  Gmail, too.  Salesforce is a contacts database in the cloud.  Dropbox is file storage in the cloud.  Being in the cloud just means that data is stored and/or processed on computers in the internet rather than on your computer or local server. That’s it.  Instead of happening on your computer or one close to you, the same thing happens on a computer far away. This has some important implications, both positive and negative, which we will cover shortly.  But if the cloud has been around for so long, why the recent frenzy about it?  The main reasons are we now have more bandwidth available to us and the price of computing power is dropping.  Email has always required little processing power and little storage space, hence it has been in the cloud forever.  But 10 years ago it took hours to transfer a few megabyte file (e.g. a single MP3 file) so file storage in the cloud was infeasible.  Now storage and  processing power are cheap to providers, and high speed internet connections are widely available to consumers.  This makes it possible for more to happen over the internet, hence the recent explosion in cloud services.

AdvantagesThe advantages to the cloud are many and varied.  Cloud services are typically billed as a small monthly fee so it is easy to budget for and afford, and often less expensive in the end.  Updates are applied to your software regularly and automatically.  Cloud applications are built to be accessed from anywhere, making regular telecommuting and occasional remote access simple.  They are hosted in large datacenters and built for millions of users, so your application can scale in step with your business without growing pains.  Backups are taken care of for you; you don’t have to worry about making sure the backups ran or doing test restores.

Disadvantages: There are also many downsides to the cloud.  First and foremost is that if your internet access goes down or gets slow, so does access to your cloud-based application.  If your business is dependent on this application, then you are effectively shut down until the internet gets restored.  The average speed of a business office network is 100 or 1000 Mbps, while connections to the internet range between 1.5 and 50 Mbps.  At best the cloud service will be half as fast as the same thing on a local network; at worst it can be unusably slow.  While you do not have to worry about backups and test restores, neither can you confirm that these are being done regularly or successfully.  Your staff always has access to your data (or your customers’ data), but if it is sensitive then you now have all of the vendor’s staff with access to it as well.  If the vendor gets acquired or suddenly goes out of business, you may not be able to get access to your services or your data.

Strive’s Recommendations: Note: This article is written in September, 2013 and was written for business considerations at this point in time.
The cloud has many benefits and is the future of computing.  There is no doubt that the majority of business computing will happen there down the road.  However, for now, we warn that it is not a panacea.  The internet in its current form is not fast or stable enough to move everything to the cloud yet, despite what the current hype suggests.  Until the internet is as stable as the power grid and as fast as a local network, the cloud should be used for certain functions and avoided for others. Email and backup are great in the cloud, especially the hybrid solutions that allow you to keep a local copy of your data in case your internet connection gets cut.  File sharing is arguable, but for now we would recommend against it for files used regularly.  Active Directory (the system that controls business networks, user accounts, authentication, file permissions, etc.) should absolutely kept on a local server for now.

How Long Should A Computer Last?

Last week, we wrote an article regarding the top 5 things to consider when purchasing a new computer.  Now, we would like to discuss when to buy a new computer.  Put another way, how long should a computer last before you replace it?

The short answer: 3-5 years.
The real answer: 3-5 years, but it’s more complicated than that.

3-5 years has been the general consensus among IT professionals for a long time, and recent studies have borne this out. Also, 3 years is about the longest length of warranty you will be able to purchase from the manufacturer. (You can get longer warranties, but the prices go up dramatically after 3 years.)  Having said that, 3-5 years is a pretty soft number, for several reasons:

  • Business class computer tend to last longer than home class computers because they are build with higher quality components. (See this article for a discussion of home vs. business class computers.)
  • Desktops tend to last longer than laptops because laptops sacrifice longevity for small size.
  • Dusty environments like warehouses will shorten the lifespan of a computer.
  • Heat and improper ventilation will shorten the lifespan of a computer.

What we have found is that after 3 years, computers begin to have more problems.  That is why they are only warrantied for 3 years.  This does not mean they will stop working on their third birthday, but they are more likely to act up.  5 years is a reasonable lifespan.  After that, your computer may continue to work for a very long time.  We have seen computers die after 6 months, and we have seen computers chugging along 10 years later.  But after 5 years, you cannot reasonably expect that the computer will continue performing at its peak.

Think of it like a lifespan of a person.  The average life expectancy of an American right now is 79 years.  We all know people that live well into their 80’s, 90’s, and beyond, but history shows us that this is not typical.  Similarly, a computer lasting 6, 8, or 10 years may happen frequently enough, but it is not typical and should not be planned on.

Another consideration about when to buy a new computer is not simply how old your computer is, but how powerful it is.  Hardware manufacturers are always producing more powerful computers.  With this greater capacity, software companies and web design firms are always producing programs and websites that require greater computing power.  So, while your 6-year old computer may be working without problems, it may no longer be powerful enough to do what modern users are doing, and what modern programs and websites are expecting.  Take Microsoft Office as an example.  With Office 2007, Microsoft created a new file format for office documents (.docx and .xlsx, instead of .doc and .xls).  As more people got new computers, more people also got the new version of Office, and the more necessary it became for you to have the latest version of office just so you could open those documents and send them in a format people were expecting.

The next thing to consider on when to buy a new computer is your tolerance for downtime.  If your computer dies, will you be out of business until a new one shows up?  Will you be forced to buy whatever is available in the store nearby you instead of ordering the computer best suited to your needs?  If this is the case, then plan on replacing your computer before it dies.  Donate the old one if it is still working, but don’t force yourself into a bad situation just because you wanted to get all the life out of it.  If you can get by without a computer for a couple of weeks without noticing a problem in your business, by all means run it into the ground.  Just be aware that the technology around you has progressed while your computer has not, so even if it is still running at its top speed, it may not be able to keep up with the software and websites you want it to.

Finally, it may be tempting when a single component of a computer breaks to just replace that part.  Why buy a new computer for $800 when a replacement hard drive only costs $80?  Resist this temptation.  Unless your computer is new (in which case, it should still be under warranty and the replacement part is free), other components are probably not far behind.  In our experience, we have found it is more cost effective to replace the computer and pay the extra money up front rather than to replace a part and keep your old computer hobbling along for a few more months when you will have to replace it anyway.

So even though your computer may not have died yet, there are other factors to keep in mind in deciding when to buy a new computer.  If you are considering buying a new computer and have questions or are looking for some advice, please feel free to get in touch.  We would be happy to help in any way we can.

 

P.S.  As far as batteries are concerned, know that laptop batteries are only designed to last at their full strength for 1-2 years.  It is irritating, but that’s how it is.  Plan on buying a new battery every couple years if you want to continue using it unplugged.