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Tech Tips

Backup – an Investment, NOT an Expense

Last week I called a doctor’s office of which I am not an existing patient and I booked an appointment for 9am this morning. When I showed up they had no record of me. Apparently they suffered a major computer crash a couple of days earlier and lost at least a couple of days’ worth of data, including all of their bookings and obviously their customer database.

This place had five or six computers in the reception area, a computer in every room, and several thousand dollars in monitor arms and other medical equipment. They had Windows 7 on every desktop that I saw. They obviously aren’t afraid to spend money on technology and they appear to see the value in having a nice clean, professional, high-tech medical office with up to date, secure operating systems.

So what the hell happened to their data?

All I can do is speculate here, but I’m going to guess that whoever installed all of this great equipment for them severely neglected the backup system. Thousands of dollars in new equipment and monitor arms, and I would assume more thousands in service to install it all, but the backup system left me standing at the reception desk this morning repeating my first and last name to the medical office assistant as she re-entered me into the computer. It was by pure luck that I still got to see the doctor, who was great by the way.

If this was a customer of Smart Dolphins they would have lost an hour’s worth of data in a worst case scenario. The day they signed up with us, we’d order them an amazing new backup system and we’d install it for them as part of our monthly fee. This type of crash would be nearly impossible. Our backup system backs up every single hour of every day, and we monitor it 24/7 to ensure that it is always working. Backup problems (which are rare) are caught and resolved on the same day because we give them a very high priority.

I bet this crash cost them over $10,000-$20,000 in wasted staff productivity and missed appointments, and that’s extremely conservative. I’m also guessing they probably aren’t able to quantify it. I bet it also cost them some customer satisfaction, as people would have shown up for appointments only to be turned away. Perhaps some of those customers never return and thus further thousands of dollars in revenue over the next decade are lost. Perhaps word of mouth from a dissatisfied customer costs them referrals, and more thousands of dollars.

All because the backup system wasn’t robust enough. It’s probably because it wasn’t valued enough when it was put in. It’s probably because somebody treated the backup system as an expense, rather than valuing it for the investment that it truly is. Sadly this is not the first time I have visited a doctor’s office on a day where they were recovering from data loss.

It wouldn’t even surprise me if a doctor put it in given what I’ve seen in the past. The amount of doctors in Victoria that think ‘IT on the side’ is a good use of their time is just astounding to me. That’s a whole other discussion though which I won’t get into today and I’m going to assume this isn’t the case.

There’s two points to all this:

  1. When you neglect things like your backup system (or your security, as another example), the risk you take on is exponentially more expensive than whatever those solutions would have cost in the first place. Well planned technology is not an expense, it is an investment in your company’s health and well-being. It keeps your highly paid employees working, it keeps your manufacturing or services from grinding to a halt, and it keeps your customers happy.
  2. You should be demanding that your IT provider take these things seriously. If your backup system seems cheap then it probably is, and the results will show. If they don’t understand point #1 then I would fire them immediately and find somebody who does, because all they are doing is putting your business and the livelihood of you and your employees in jeopardy.

 

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Email Policies to Cut Down Distribution List Pollution in your Business

We’ve all been there. Someone sends an email to a Distribution List (DL) and before the day is over we have ten replies sitting in our inbox that seem to reappear faster than we can delete them.

I believe that the way most of us mash Reply to All and abuse our DLs is poisonous to our efficiency and creates a lot more noise than people realise. Consider this: An email sent to a 10 member DL which is replied to 4 times throughout a day has been read or at least skimmed 50 times (the original + 4 replies). Most of the time we only think about how these things affect us as individuals, but if you expand some of those DLs and think about how many people are reading some of those messages it can be quite disheartening. At Smart Dolphins these ‘unnecessary’ emails equate to thousands per year, but I’m happy to say that this is shrinking.

Here are a few simple suggestions that you can put in place at your business to help cut down on the email noise.

  1. For the great majority of your emails that utilize DLs, use the BCC field. The BCC field masks the recipients, meaning that only the original Sender will show up when the Reply or Reply to All buttons are pressed. This obviously assumes that only the original sender needs to see the replies (which is true in a lot of cases). So many DL messages are simple questions or FYIs, with a great majority of the replies being simple answers or thank yous intended for the original sender. These make great BCC candidates.
  2. If the sender wants replies to go to specific individuals, those people should be included in the CC box. This allows recipients to simply click on Reply to All and their replies will go to the intended people rather than to the entire DL.
  3. Similar to 2 above, in cases where the sender feels that the DL should actually be replied to, place the DL into the CC field rather than the BCC or the To field. It’s important to use CC rather than To because it shows consideration of the email policy and that the sender consciously chose to open the email up to replies to the DL. If people were to use the To box then you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference people who were ignoring your email policy, and people who were consciously following it. This allows you to police the email policy somewhat, because anyone who still uses the To field will clearly not be following your policy and so can be reminded of it.
  4. Or if you really want to cause a stir, give us a call and ask us to disable the Reply to All button for all of your users. Some very big companies have done this with great results!

This is just one small piece of the fairly large email noise puzzle, but I hope it helps you!

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2 Steps To Better Security

Security is a funny thing, more of an illusion most of the time, shattered into pieces when a critical system is compromised. For most of us email is weakest link, an opening to the rest of the things we need to keep secure. What damage could be done by somebody with access to your email?

Could you post your email password on the internet and live to tell about it? I could. I’m about to.

Okay, so this isn’t my real email account, but I’m going to use this account to prove a point. I’m putting the following gmail address and password out there because I want one of you to email me from it. I will give five dollars to the first person that can. (seriously) And yes that is the real password.

Email: [email protected] Password: horriblepassword

There is a catch though, even with my password there is nothing you can do. You’re missing something critical. My phone.

What does my phone have to do with all of this? Well, I’m using something called 2-step verification from Google. Anytime a new computer (or mobile phone, whatever) tries to sign into my gmail account Google will send a six digit code to my phone via SMS. That code then needs to be entered after the password, once every 30 days. Without the code you can’t log in. No ifs, ands, or buts. Without my phone, that password is useless.

Go ahead try to sign in. My five dollars is looking pretty safe right about now isn’t it?

You can find 2-step verification under you Account Settings in your gmail. Just follow the prompts, the setup is very simple.

My wife and I both moved to 2-step verification a couple of months ago and the minimal inconvenience of having to enter that code now and then (no more than every 30 days) is well worth the peace of mind it brings. I would never go without it again.

I’ve been blunt in past blogs about how horrible most people’s passwords are. I say that lovingly, out of concern for other people’s security. But the truth is, most are not nearly as good as they should be. Adding 2-step verification is not a substitute for a strong password, but it sure makes it tough for the bad guys. Remember, the harder you make it, the safer your five dollars will be.

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Backup Systems and Car Purchases – Where’s the Comparison?

Ever hear the saying “I drive a car to get to get from point A to point B”? It’s almost never true. The truth is that we factor all kinds of decisions into our vehicle purchases.

 

  • Safety – we’ll be packing our families into those vehicles. We want to do better than ‘hopefully survive’ in an accident.
  • Reliability – we want to ensure that our vehicle is going to work for us consistently, and not break down leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere
  • Comfort/Options – we generally want better than the bare minimum for ourselves, and getting from point A to point B is a bare minimum. We need heating, windows that open, windshield wipers, and more. Some of us want power windows, heated seats, GPS, and airbags.

 

Time and time again, I hear smart business owners talk about their backup systems with a ‘point A to point B’ mentality because nobody has told them about what a good backup system should be doing for their business. Too many businesses are operating with the bare minimum and believe that they are protected from failure because they ‘have a backup’, and that’s just simply not the case the majority of the time. What does ‘having a backup’ mean exactly? It can mean a great deal of things, just as ‘having a vehicle’ can mean the difference between life and death or being stranded in the middle of nowhere.

 

Here are a few of the key considerations when looking at backup systems:

 

  • Recoverability – What happens when you delete a file that you’ve been working on all morning? What happens when your server hardware fails completely? How long is your business down for in a real disaster like an earthquake? Is your data protected in an offsite location somewhere?

 

  • How often does the backup fail? How much do I have to pay my IT company to monitor and resolve issues with my backup system? How much risk do I take on by having a backup system that fails even a small percentage of the time?

 

  • Granularity – What happens if a file was deleted three weeks ago and nobody noticed until today? Can it still be recovered? How far back can you restore from?

 

  • Retention – What about archiving? What about data from six months ago? Or a year ago?

 

  • What about the backup window? Is data being backed up continuously, or does it backup overnight? Does the server slow down while the backups are running? Is employee productivity lost because the server is running slowly?

 

So do you know the answer to some or all of these questions? If not, I suggest calling your IT provider and asking them sooner rather than later. Ultimately, a business protects the lives and health of the families it employs and the businesses it serves. So there are a lot of reasons why it is critically important to invest in a backup system that is capable of protecting that business properly. Unfortunately, there are a lot of businesses out there with a ‘point A to point B’ backup system. If you’re concerned that you might be one of them we would love to help you fix this problem.

 

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Meet EDDIE – The Evil Destroyer of Delicate Internal Electronics

So – what happens to your old hard drives that we receive at Smart Dolphins either when you get a new computer or when it physically fails?  Well – like any responsible tech company – we hand them over to a guy named Eddie.

Now that I have your attention, meet EDDIE – The Evil Destroyer of Delicate Internal Electronics:


Video is from Asset Investment Recovery‘s website.

Eddie is kind of like a paper shredder on steroids.  Or maybe a garburator gone mad.  No matter what you can compare Eddie to – the important thing is to know that he destroys electronics better than anyone else can – and he has an appetite for hard drives!

So what’s the point of all this jibberish?  First of all, this thing is cool!  And secondly, your data is safe with us – from the implementation stage to the disposal stage.  Also, this method of disposal is preferred because the shredded pieces are recycled after the drives are destroyed.

Can you bring your own hard drives to Eddie?  Yes.  Eddie is available to the general public.  Visit the Asset Investment Recovery website for more information. Be forewarned – it costs $2.50 per hard drive to get them destroyed. 

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Hardwire’s Shoretel System Awakens Benefits

I like to think we graduated. We moved from “good enough” to “great”.

How much thought have you put into the phone sitting on your desk? It probably just sits there doing its thing. What if “its thing” was a whole lot more than it is now?

We moved into our current office in 2004 and we invested in a real phone system. This was a big step for us at the time, but the system really wasn’t much more than a ringing phone with extensions and some voice mail. It did its job, but not much more.

ShoretelZip off to 2011 and Smart Dolphins is definitely ready for more from our phone system. So in September we invested in a new Shoretel system. I won’t bore you with all the things the system can do, but I will share a few surprises: This thing can do your dishes, it can file your taxes and tuck your kids in at night – well. Well, I might not have those things quite right, but the system is Benefit rich, indeed. It makes us seriously wonder how we went without for so long.

Hardwire TelecomI mostly want to use this post to say a big thanks to Sandy at Hardwire Telecom and our very own Jesse Smith for putting in some serious effort to get this new system humming. As far as I know, the transition went without a hitch. I would suggest you seriously consider what more you could get out of a phone system and that conversation should start with the gurus at Hardwire.

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The Interface Is The Thing

I’ve long believed that, when it comes to computers, the parts you interact with are critically important.  Sure, a fast CPU and a ridiculously large hard drive are nice.  But even if you have the world’s fastest computer, your experience will still feel crappy if you’re using a blurry old CRT screen and a $10 bargain bin keyboard and mouse.

In the spirit of this, I’m always on the lookout for new gadgets and neat things that will make my computing experience better, more interesting, or just different.  Most things I just look at, think to myself “that’d be neat, but I don’t really need it,” and move on.

Every few months, though, I go off the deep end and scour the Internet looking for the next wonderful thing that will transform my computing experience entirely.  Most of the time there’s something “just over the horizon” that has the potential to be truly awesome, but if I want something today I have to settle for a minor incremental improvement instead of a revolution.  Sometimes I’m even able to resist buying the new “slightly better” gadget and wait.  Sometimes I’m not.

This time though, I didn’t have to.  I managed to find something that was:

  • Not just an internal piece of hardware that I’d never know I’d installed if I didn’t put it there myself
  • Actually related to the interface of my computer – that is, the entire look and feel experience
  • A big, big change
  • Something I’d wanted for a long time, but just hadn’t been practical

So I crunched some numbers and came up with a plan:

Step one:  New video card.

I’ll admit that the video card and monitor setup I already had was more than adequate for anything I did with my computer.  I had two good monitors and a really nice video card.  I already played all my games on max settings.  To be truly honest, I’d been playing all my games on max settings before I got that card too, but that’s neither here nor there.  This plan required a new, faster video card, so I got one.

Step two:  New monitors.

This is where the video card comes in.  Step two is three shiny new tilt-and-swivel monitors.  Now, a lot of people have two-monitor setups, and three monitors are becoming more common as well for really busy people, so this in itself is no big deal.  The big deal for me was this next bit:

Three monitors in portrait mode makes for an awesome gaming experience:

As an added benefit, I’ve found that swapping the central monitor back to landscape orientation and leaving the others in portrait mode is really good for productivity.  The vertical screens are really good for reading documents and long web pages, and the central monitor is good for more most other computer tasks. (See?  It’s practical, too!)

So I’ll leave you with this thought:  How do you feel about your keyboard, mouse, and monitor(s)?  Are they helping you get things done, or getting in the way of your computer experience?

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Dropbox – Sharing (Part 2 of 2)

Dropbox has the ability to share files and folders. From your own Dropbox you can create and share a folder with other Dropbox users. This allows for easy collaboration on projects. There is also a “Public” folder from which you can allow people to download a particular file simply by clicking a link. The illustration below shows how easy it is.

Dropbox

Clicking the “Copy Public Link” option creates this: http://dl.dropbox.com/u/6452346/Dropbox.docx. Copy and paste that address into your internet browser and you can download the document. I’ve used this to share large amounts of photos. Have you ever tried to email photos? It’s Painful. Dropbox makes it much easier for everyone involved.

A property management client of ours uses Dropbox extensively. They have a team of employees who do maintenance for the properties they manage all over the island. Each of the employees has an iPhone4 with Dropbox installed. Inside of Dropbox are hundreds of files with contact information for the thousands of tenants they deal with. The files are updated at their main office and synchronized with Dropbox ensuring that the maintenance employees have the most current information 24/7.

As I mentioned earlier, Dropbox is free. With the free version you get 2GB of storage and all the other features I mentioned. If you need more space you can pay $9.99 a month for 50GB or $19.99 a month for 100GB. Both options are a great deal.

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Shallows – Again

I just finished reading Shallows after hearing Dave’s recommendation earlier this month. What a great read.

Shallows really speaks to me. I’ve noticed and commented to various people over the past few years how my ability to remember and absorb information has changed. I’ve been at Smart Dolphins for over seven years and the difference compared to before I started working here is very noticeable. I always blamed the constant distractions and shifting of attention from one tech issue to the next for my poor memory, but I always said it with a bit of a comedy attached, never really serious or sure if these distractions were the cause. I partially thought I was just getting older, or wondered if my frequent headaches were responsible for slowing my memory and hurting my concentration.

Shallows provides some reason to this phenomenon. We now live in a world that thrives on distraction and multitasking. The internet, email, Facebook, Twitter… all of these things compete for our attention and before long the brain actually begins to function differently. The brain reprograms itself and our ability to concentrate and retain memories IS directly impacted. We skim so much that we don’t give our brains a chance to commit anything to long term memory, and even when we aren’t skimming our brains have become so conditioned to forget that it is still harder to learn and retain information than it used to be.

Shallow thinking also leads to shallow learning. Googling and skimming and resolving has led to a lot of people in the tech industry who we wouldn’t really call experts. They rely too much on their Googling skills and too little on their own ability to troubleshoot and isolate a problem. Obviously quick access to information is critical in the world that we live in, and tools like Google are critical to the success of almost any company nowadays, but I have to wonder who would be left standing if we removed those tools for a while. We’d all be impacted, sure, but the deeper thinkers would be much more successful than the shallow ones. Those who manage to read a book every few weeks would thrive because they would actually know stuff.

I miss the deep style of learning, absorbing and reading that I used to have to do back in college. The internet was still massive then but it was nothing like it is now. We didn’t all live on it. I used to have such a penetrating interest in things. My mind was a sponge. It didn’t require the effort that it does now.

I’m hoping to use some of the concepts in the book to ‘retrain’ my brain. Not completely, but I would like to get some of my old way of thinking back. Step one is just managing some of the bad habits that I have, like checking my email every 5 minutes. I started this exercise today by making a few modifications to my work environment.

  • My speakers are off
  • Outlook notifications are completely off. I see no popups, no bubbles, and no envelopes.
  • I’ve changed Outlook so that it only checks for email every 10 minutes, rather than instantaneously.
  • All distractions or notifications that I can think of with other programs have been turned off. Chat windows no longer blink, or make noise, etc.

That’s a start. I guess I’ll see what happens.

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Dropbox – The Basics (Part 1 of 2)

DropBoxUsing modern terminology one might describe Dropbox as storage space in “the cloud”. If one wanted to use it just for storage the cost is already justified (2GB is free). Install the Dropbox agent on your home computer and dump important files into it and you have free online backup. Not only does Dropbox store your files it will also keep a one-month history. That means you can undelete a file or revert to a previous version at any time.

Now you’ve got free online backups of up to 2GB of your data. This already sounds like a pretty sweet deal. It gets better. Say you’re on a trip and desperately need access to a file you know is in your Dropbox. Not a problem. Get on any computer with internet access and log into the Dropbox website. From there you can access all of your data. You can even add more files. Have a computer at work? Check with your friendly IT department and see if you can install Dropbox. Have an iPhone, Android, or BlackBerry? Dropbox has a mobile app as well. There is no limit to how many devices you can use to access your data.

This came in handy for me a few weeks ago. I was the best man at my brother’s wedding and had to prepare a speech. I started working on it at home and saved it in my Dropbox folder. In the weeks leading up to the wedding I made small changes while at work and rehearsed the speech from my iPhone. No matter where I was, I always had the latest version of the speech available.

Worried about keeping sensitive documents on the internet? Don’t be. Dropbox uses SSL encryption (the same encryption used for online banking) when transferring your data and stores it on their servers using AES-256 encryption. That’s 2256 possible keys to crack the encryption.  That’s 2256 more secure

Stay tuned for Part 2.

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