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Are You A Prisoner To Your Tech Support?

It’s Monday morning and you come into the office to discover that your network is down for unknown reasons.  You call your IT Professional, only to find out that he/she has been in a serious accident and is in critical condition.  You quickly Google for another “tech” in the area, and call and explain the situation to him/her.  As each moment passes, you are unable to do your job.  Later that day, you see your “geek angel” in the front lobby and you are immediately relieved knowing your problem is going to be fixed.  He/she takes a look at your infrastructure, and tries to access some resources.  He/she suspects it’s a problem on the server, and needs an account with administrative privilege to resolve the issue.  You look at the specialist, and with a sinking feeling, you realize that you don’t have passwords, account information, or any other useful documentations, and the situation quickly goes from bad to worse.

Those of you who know me will hear me refer to the “hit by the bus file”.  This is a file, paper or electronic that documents your entire IT implementation.  Consider this…one day you need IT support and you call your “IT guy” and find out he was crossing the road and was hit by a bus.  You now have to bring in someone else who has never seen your systems or implementation before, and this new person will have to figure out how your tech fits together before he/she can even start to assist you.  He/she can’t start to take anything apart to troubleshoot if they don’t know how to put it back together again for your implementation.  It’s very much like a completed puzzle.  You can see how all the pieces fit together, but without the picture on the box to refer to, the puzzle may not easily go back together again if some of the pieces need to be modified.

Your IT support person is also not un-replaceable.  Any person who holds your IT structure to themselves is (in my opinion) either selfish, lazy, or is hiding something.  Yes, this may sound harsh, but in my experience, it almost always comes down to one of these three factors.

1. Selfish – they want to feel like they are a key element of your companys structure.  You and your data are now hostage of your IT support.

2. Lazy – they don’t want to take the time to document your structure.  This should be part of the contract, and a professional will always include this.

3. Hiding Something – they might not use legitimate/legal software and this could be their way to hide it (follow-up post to come).

You are now at the mercy of whoever holds your information.  You are trapped.

As a small business owner, you need to be responsible for both your data and network.

Your trustworthy IT Professional should be leaving you:

  1. All usernames and passwords for all equipment
  2. A list of all service providers, including ISPs, and any hosting service
  3. A backup number to call
  4. A network schematic
  5. Documentation for custom application
  6. A list and location of all software installers
  7. Backup procedures
  8. Router configuration

This file should be updated whenever there is a change to the infrastructure.  For example, you change your ISP, or add a new file server.  As someone trying to help you, there is nothing more frustrating than realizing the documentation you have is not accurate.

Keeping your documentation current and accurate is critical in protecting your data. If your IT specialist (either on contract or on payroll) does not provide this information, you are at risk of becoming a “prisoner”.  Take the case of Terry Childs, the network administrator for the city of San Francisco.  He refused to give up the administrative passwords to his supervisors, and it cost the city almost $900,000 USD to regain control of their own network.  This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates what can and has happened.

What is the cost of your systems being unusable?  What if those systems are down for an extended period of time?  What would it cost for someone to have to figure it all out before fixing it?

If you don’t have current IT documentation, call your IT Specialist and ask, or if need be, demand that this documentation is updated or created.  Don’t be held captive by your IT support.

Image courtesy of worradmu / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Example of a Typical Small Business Office Network Implementation

Background

A 10 year old company specializing in custom medical devices sold worldwide. At the time of this writing, the company had 10 full time employees. Five employees worked in the office on desktop systems connected to a hub and router.

The other five employees were outside sales reps all using company laptops. Two of the sales reps came into the office weekly. Two would be in the office a few times a month. The fifth lives in another province and is only in the office once a year.

The office has a business Internet connection. The connection was and still is a satellite and is prone to disruption. Satellite is the only cost effective and viable option at this point in time. Fibre will be available in the area in a few years. The office was hard wired with Cat 5 cable and two access points available for wireless connectivity.

Users had individual copies of pricing spreadsheets and quotes. When a user needed a file, the file was either emailed or copied across the network to a shared folder on the users’ desktop system.

A desktop computer served the CRM then shared via the network to the other users in the office.

A convoluted backup solution was in place. The backup solution was never tested. This was discovered after a hard drive failed and we were unable to successfully restore the users’ data.

Also, installed was one network printer, one NAS (network area storage) and a standalone fax machine.

The client requested we keep costs to a minimum to remain within their budget. They did not require or want a large, complicated system and do not have the staff or resources to manage it after implementation.

Requirements:

  • Easily share files between in house users
  • CRM must always be available
  • Reliable backup

Optional:

  • Easy access of non-confidential files (mostly customized drivers and documentation) for the outside sales reps and clients.
  • Allow all employees access to the critical files and CRM from outside the office.

Solution:

Requirements Met:

We installed a server operating system on a spare computer. This computer met the minimum requirements but had limited disk space. I expected this solution to meet their needs for 18-24 months. This was 3 years ago, and we are only now looking at upgrading, due to hard disk space limitations. The server houses all the shared files and the CRM which all users can access depending on their permissions. All sales reps have an offline CRM database on their laptops which they update daily and then sync with the office.

Critical files on the server (in this case financial files) are backed up to an USB key daily and rotated off site. All additional server files are automatically backed up to an external drive daily. Weekly backups are moved off site. Desktop systems have native OS backup software installed. These backups are kept on a NAS. Weekly, a staff member manually moves the backups to an external hard disk and keeps it off site. This requires a few hours, but can be done in the background. Once the office has a faster, more robust Internet connection, cloud bases backups will replace the current in-house solution. Until then, the current implementation is working well, and most importantly, when files had to be restored we were able to do so.

All users with laptops are responsible for their own backups on an USB drive.

Email and website hosting are outsourced. We choose this option due to connectivity issues at the local site. It would have also added additional costs to host internally in both hardware and administration.

Optional Met:

User can access files and the CRM database via a VPN connection. The server software controls the remote access permissions. Each employee has an account and permission to various files and/or options.

A networked printer and a networked multifunction device have since been added. The stand alone fax was removed.

In addition, an unused Windows XP system became a FTP server. The internal users can add non critical or non-confidential files to the FTP site for clients or other outside sales reps to access. Clients and outside staff can only download from the FTP server. Uploading is strictly controlled.

In order to keep the costs down, older equipment was re-purposed where possible. Printers and a new fax machine had already been budgeted. Total cost less than $1000 for the server operating system.

Current Status:

The users are very satisfied with the current implementation. As stated above, the hard disk space on the server is running low and we are in the process of adding additional hard disk storage to the server. We have looked into upgrading the current satellite Internet connection, but due to location of the office it is cost prohibitive. We will re-evaluate the connectivity issues in a few years when fibre will be available in the area. I suspect, within the next couple of years, the company may have move to a larger location in town as they keep growing. If a move or the employee growth trend continues, it would then be an opportune time to re-evaluate their needs. If and when this occurs a new server with an upgraded operating system and a more comprehensive backup plan would be added.

This outlines the basics of a typical small business office and what can and needs to be done to meet the needs of the users. As you can see from the above example we worked within a limited budget and provided the functionality they required.

PS Since this was originally written some of those expected growth changes are planned this year. I’ll do a follow up post as this company moves forward.

Is Your Small Business Ready for a Server?

Are you or your employees sharing files by walking across the office with an USB stick? Are you emailing the same document to each other for editing, then emailing it back? Does your company use a shared calendar or just email a weekly schedule to one person who in turn emails out the details to every employee?

When your small office starts to grow, using the “sneaker net” becomes tiresome and inefficient. When this happens it may be time to consider installing a server in your office. Today’s server operating systems offer a variety of options and scalability.

Adding a server to your office will provide:

  • Networking
  • Security
  • E-mail and calendar capabilities
  • Database and line-of-business support
  • Document and printer sharing
  • Remote Access
  • Backup Support

You will be able to take advantage of these benefits and more depending on the server operating system and the needs of the office. As your business grows additional functionality can easily be switched on.

Server operating systems can be Mac OS X Server™, Windows Small Business Server™ or Windows 2003/2008 Server or even Linux. You would choose the operating system which is best suited for your current operating environment. For example, if your users use Mac OS X, a Mac based server operating system would be a better fit. This is not to say you could not use a Windows operating system, but it may require further tweaking in order to make all the pieces work together.

Mac OS Server™ and Windows Small Business Server™ have been designed with the small business in mind. Both are easy to setup and configure, but if you are unsure it is best to work with your IT Specialist. A server installation should make your life easier not create hours or days of frustration. An IT professional can configure your server that best meets your needs. When dealing the Linux, Windows 2003 Server or Windows 2008 server I would suggest you have a certified IT Professional configure these systems.

Once you have settled on the operating system you will need to select the appropriate server hardware. Your server will be handling many different processes and users at once therefor e using proper server hardware is imperative. Server hardware has been optimized for server operating systems which will provide the best performance. This is a situation providing inadequate hardware resources can seriously compromise performance and efficiently.

Adding a server can significantly increase the workflow in the office. The benefits will outweigh the initial costs very quickly. Spend the time and do the research or hire and IT Specialist and you and your small business will enjoy the benefits of a collaborative work environment.

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