Tech Blog


To Cloud or Not to Cloud?

mph : April 27, 2015 13:05 : Blog Roll, Reviews

Should you take your business into the cloud?

So Michael, what is cloud computing anyway? First, cloud computing is not new. It has been around since the beginning of the internet. Cloud computing is basically any service that you use on the internet that you do not directly maintain. Your home email is cloud based. You don’t personally maintain any of the physical servers that run your email. You don’t pay for the actual servers themselves. Heck, you don’t even know how they actually work. You just pay for or use the email service that someone else provides. That service has been around since the internet got going.

So, why is it such a big deal then?  Because now technology has allowed many other services to take advantage of the same economies of scale. Namely due to virtualization.  With the advances in virtualization and processing power of CPUs, we can now run more virtual environments on one server than ever before.  Also, security has been refined to allow remote services securely.  With virtual networking structures, called VLANs, we can make certain that your network traffic on the shared server does not interact with someone elses network traffic.  This follows all the way to virtual firewalls.  Also, with encryption technology for all operating systems, you can store your data remotely without having to worry about someone else seeing it.  Perfect for compliance reasons such as PCI, HIPAA, etc.  Now, it actually is a cost benefit for us to use the cloud for other services besides email because you are sharing a server thus only paying for a portion of it not the entire thing.

Ok, why should I use the cloud for my business?  The reasons everyone on the internet will tell you are: Business Agility, Reduced Capital Expense, Scalability, Anywhere Access.  And those are great reasons.  The reasons Computer Specialists LTD will tell you are: Less Hassles and Less Expense.

Alright, so it has less hassles and less expense. How can we really use the cloud?

The answer to that is pretty much anything you do now on premise you can do in the cloud.

We can host your entire environment in the cloud and use less powerful, cheaper devices in your office to access them.

We can run desktop environments to give remote users access without compromising security

We can run your file server in the cloud to take advantage of automatic backups for disaster recovery.

We can run your specialty, line of business software in the cloud to take advantage of up-time.

We have a file sync service (like DropBox) that gives you control of your data instead of your employees.

Your phone system is perfect to run in the cloud.

Backups are excellent for the cloud as it gets your data offsite in case of disaster.

If you have any remote users at all, the cloud makes absolute sense.

There are a few things however, that don’t make sense to do in the cloud. Video or audio editing are not good in the cloud.  Can be done as long as you choose the correct platform and have a really fast internet connection (50M+). But I personally wouldn’t recommend it if it’s your livelihood.  3D rendering falls in here too.  Can be done if the environment is right but I wouldn’t recommend it for a business yet.

When Should we be moving our services to the cloud?

If you have servers in-house running Windows Server 2003 and need to upgrade, which you should absolutely do this year (by July 14, 2015), then now is the perfect time to explore how the cloud can help your business.

If you have workers working remotely or travelling a lot, now is a good time to see what can be done about keeping control of your valuable company data instead of letting your employees control it on their own.

If your business is just starting out, now is a great time to get started in the cloud as it is a month to month service to keep your start up costs low.

If you are a seasonal type business that uses more resources, more employees at certain parts of the year than the norm, then cloud computing may be a good fit so you don’t have to pay for those extra resources all year long.  You can scale up for a few months then scale back down.

Who is using the cloud today?  Lots of businesses are using the cloud.  You probably are right now (your email). If you are using any file sharing services then you are.  I know I certainly use the cloud for about as much as I can:  Email, file sharing, office suite, backups, VoIP, collaboration.  I can get what I need, wherever I am on any device I choose.  That is the biggest reason I got into the cloud.  The cost was just a bonus for my business model.  At Computer Specialists we don’t have an office, we all work from our homes.  The cloud is the only way we have been able to run this way since 2009.

Where can I get more information for running my business in the cloud?  Of course, from Computer Specialists LTD or use your favorite internet search engine.

 

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Cryptolocker Virus

mph : January 18, 2014 14:38 : Blog Roll, Helpful Hints

Well, this bad boy is just that bad, BAD, BAD!  It has been out since the fall of 2013 and already has several variants.  So, what does this mean?  It means it’s hard to stop.  Can I protect against it?  Yes!  Let me explain it:

What this virus does is it encrypts all of the files on your computer, including any external devices such as USB stick or USB drive, your multimedia NAS, your other computer you have shared.  It pretty much tries to get it all.  Then, when it is all finished encrypting your files the software asks you to pay $300 for the magic key to unlock your files.  Oh, and you only have a finite amount of time to do that before they delete the key.  Ransomware is what they call that.  And no, you cannot get your file back any other way.

The anti virus companies can detect it and stop it.  Please keep your anti virus up to date.  But, as this virus is still evolving, they are not perfect.

So, what can you do to protect yourself even more?  Several things.  First, the original variant came in through email attachments.  So, be cautious of the emails you open, especially the attachments.

The next iteration just uses a link embedded in the email message.  So don’t click on any links you don’t really need to click on.

Also, it is now being spread though websites like those file sharing websites.  Are you looking for a free copy of MS Office, or Adobe Photoshop?  Not only is it illegal, but you may end up with Cryptolocker.

Ok, more prevention tips.  Backup your files.  I stress this to everyone I ever talk to about computers.  If you just have one device, please keep it disconnected until you need to back things up.  If it is connected, I certainly hope you are using a backup solution that has file versioning.  Online backups are great, make sure the versioning is turned on with at least 3-10 versions.  Why is this so important?  If you backup your Cryptolocked file over the one on the backup system then what do you have?  An encrypted version of the file you cannot do anything with.  With versioning, if you do happen to backup your encrypted Cryptolocked files, then at least you can get back the previous version that actually works.

So, while I said this bad boy was bad, it is preventable or at least fightable.  Please use some common sense on the internet, and checking emails.  Keep your anti virus software up to date ($40 is cheap insurance).  And backup your computer regularly with a system that does versioning.

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Linux vs. Microsoft. What’s the deal?

mph : February 19, 2010 11:36 : Blog Roll, Reviews

I am sure you have heard of Linux.  If you haven’t you are not paying attention.  Now, the question isn’t have you heard of it, it’s do you need it?  Maybe!  This is not an easy question to answer.  And quite honestly if you already have an existing sytem, I would not go changing it.  The point here is to discuss the pros and cons and possible reasons for each.

Let’s start with the biggest reason people switch…price!  Linux is free, Microsoft Windows 7 Home is $120, Professional is $160, Ultimate is $299.  That’s just for desktop upgrade license.  Small Business Server 2008 with 5 user licenses starts at $1089.00 whereas Linux is still free no matter how many users.  Hold on here, there has to be a catch.  Well, sort of!  Again this depends.  As long as you run on supported hardware everything runs o.k.  As soon as you go get that new laptop that just came out, well there might be some problems that will take a ton of time to sort out and may not even get working correctly.

Now on the server side of things Linux will do everything your Microsoft server will do.  It will even do it more efficiently but, it just isn’t going to be as easy to figure out for the average user.  Not that MS Small Business Server is easy either, but the main things are.  Like file sharing for example. In MS it’s all ready to go, very simple, right click, share, permissions, done.  Linux…install SAMBA, install SWAT, configure Linux user, configure SAMBA user, share file using web interface of SWAT.  It definitely takes a little more know how to get it working.  Someone is going to say, but Michael, what if you are using Linux desktop with Linux server, isn’t it easier to setup file sharing?  Not really!  NFS is the default Linux network file sharing protocol but it is anything but easy.  Well, redefine easy.  You need to understand how to create the config file called “exports”.  Once you configure this file you need to create a directory to mount it to on your Linux desktop.  Then mount the file system. If you want this to happen automatically then you need to add a line to the fstab file.  Again not difficult, but you need to know what you are doing.  You can’t just look at a bunch of choices and decide the correct one.  Please don’t misunderstand me.  Depending on the Linux distribution you use there are plenty of point and click GUI’s out there.

As far as a desktop operating system, Linux is getting there.  I did say “getting”.  I don’t believe it is here yet.  I think for a corporate office where applications are few, systems are pretty locked down, and there is an IT staff, it works great. For the home user that is not very tech savvy, stay away.  That is if you like to get a little advanced on some of your programs.  Applications are still limited.  There are tons of great applications that people started creating but then stopped due to time or money or boredom or whatever reason.  Quicken.  There are several great applications to replace Quicken, but none of them will be compatible with your online banking.  There are applications to do everything you need, but you have to look hard for them.

In the small business world it is even harder if you have a niche business that people have already created specialty applications in Windows to run your business.  They just don’t exist for Linux. Most of these applications use MS SQL on the server and a fat client for the desktop.  Those are Microsoft only appplications.  As soon as developers start writing web based applications (which they should have started doing years ago), then stuff will run on Linux better.  But until then you have to evaluate whether your business will run efficiently on Linux desktops.

The common way to go right now is Linux server and Windows desktop.  Best of both worlds.  You can still run the applications you are used to on your desktop, while saving a ton of cash on your file server.  If you don’t have business specific applications or you really just surf the internet and create documents then full out Linux will work out fine for you.

Games are a different story.  Windows is really the only way to go here.  As far as that is concerned, a game console is the way to go anyway.  There are games for Linux.  Some pretty good ones.  Some Windows games may even work under WINE (a windows emulation type application), but that’s a huge maybe.

It seems a bit confusing, but we are really at that “it depends” time right now.  I exclusively have gone Linux several years ago.  As a technician I have way more troubleshooting software available for free.  However at home we do have a Windows machine for the kids’ games.

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Ubuntu drive encryption with LVM / LUKS for your laptop

mph : December 15, 2009 09:49 : Blog Roll, How-To

This was written for me so I wouldn’t have to search the internet for it everytime.  This is a quick install version as I have done it a few times already but just like to make sure I’m doing it right.  If you are looking for more detailed steps then visit Google or http://oei.yungchin.nl/2008/04/23/installing-ubuntu-804-with-full-disk-encryption/ which is where I got this.  Thanks Yungchin!

Yungchin’s writeup is for 8.04, but I have used it for 9.10 also.

Use alternate cd.
The easy way is to use the “Setup encrypted LVM” which uses the entire disk.  But if you plan on dual booting with windows or using snapshots, manual partitioning will have to do.

Start with a plain /boot partition as usual.
If you want any free space for a windows partition or something then do it now.

Then choose “physical volume for encryption”.  use the standard dm-crypt settings as they are fine.  Use the rest of the disk. Finish

Now go to “Configure encrypted volumes” at the top. This will commit the changes and erase partition.  This may take a while.

Enter passphrase

Encrypted volume” should show up as a new disk. There’s one partition inside it, marked #1, which we’ll use as “Physical volume for LVM”. Back in the main menu, again a new option appears at the top – “Configure the logical volume manager“.

Create a LVM Group, I use vg1, but any name is fine

Then Create Logical volumes.  Here is where you would use your normal partitioning scheme.  I name the volumes as I would the mount points but again whatever you want.
I use sysvol, swap, home, shared.
Leave some free space for snapshots.  5G is more than enough but it’s what I use.
Finish.

Now we need to configure the actual file systems just as you would normally do.
sysvol is / with ext3, swap is swap, home is /home, shared is /shared all ext3.

Finish partitioning and continue.

Later if you want to create LVM snapshots then see this guide here: http://tldp.org/HOWTO/LVM-HOWTO/snapshots_backup.html

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Is Your Data Backed Up? Why Not?

mph : September 11, 2009 12:36 : Blog Roll, Helpful Hints

This article is more for the home or SOHO user.  Or even the small business with no email or databases in house.  First, some insight to this article.  EVERYONE NEEDS A BACKUP PLAN!! We cannot stress this enough.   It doesn’t matter if it is JUST your home computer as there are probably irreplacable pictures on your pc that if lost will not make for a happy person.  It’s not a question of will you lose your data – it’s when!

Some Quick Facts
The average failure rate of disk and tape drives is 100% – ALL DRIVES WILL EVENTUALLY FAIL.

Only 34% of companies test their tape backups, and of those who do, 77% have found failures.

60% of companies that lose their data will go out of business within 6 months of the disaster.

Over 1/2 of critical corporate data resides on unprotected PC desktops and laptops.

Key causes for data loss are:
78% Hardware or system malfunction
11% Human error
7% Software corruption or program malfunction
2% Computer viruses
1% Natural disasters
1% Other

Only 25% of users frequently back up their files, yet 85% of those same users say they are very concerned about losing important digital data.

More than 22% said backing up their PCs was on their to-do list, but they seldom do it.

1 in 25 notebooks are stolen, broken or destroyed each year.

Today’s hard drives store 500 times the data stored on the drives of a decade ago. This increased capacity amplifies the impact of data loss, making mechanical precision more critical.

You have a 30% chance of having a corrupted file within a one-year time frame.
*Source: VaultLogix

There you have it!  GET A BACKUP SOLUTION NOW! Ok, you say you backup to a USB drive or stick.  That’s a good start.  What if your house catches fire, or a flood, or tornado, etc?  Are you grabbing your backups on the way out the door?  Probably not the first thing on your mind.  Online backups solve this problem by putting your data outside of your home/business automatically with no user intervention.   You select the files or folders or the whole computer and it will backup at your schedule.   They don’t backup everything every time.  Most software these days do “in-file delta” and incremental backups.  What does this mean? When you make changes to files the software compares what you already have backed up and the changes and only backs up the changes.  Which makes the backup run quicker.  The incremental backup only changes files that have changed since the last backup.  Again, making your backups more efficient.

The other feature that most companies have is “versioning”.  Versioning is the ability to store x number of changes to the backup.  So, why is this important?

How about an example:  You create a file called Z.txt.  It gets backed up on Jan 3rd.  You make some changes to Z.txt on Jan 15th.  It gets backed up that nite.  On Feb 1 you make a few more changes to Z.txt.  It gets backed up that nite.  Now technically you have 3 different versions of the file Z.txt backed up.  On Feb 8 you realize you had the file all wrong and the one you created on Jan 3rd is actually the one you want.  Well, it is gone from your computer because you have been making changes to it.  All is not lost.  You can actually go back to that first “version” of the file because your software allows up to 5 versions to be saved.  Lucky for you!

“Ok, oK, I’ve got it.  I need a backup, but they are expensive!”  Not for basic file backup they aren’t.  There are several companies that do unlimited backup space for around $60 a year.  It doesn’t matter which one you use.  Here are a couple recommendations but htere are more:
Carbonite.com, Backblaze.com, Mozy.com.  All of these work with Windows and Mac.  If you want a Linux solution try Jungledisk.com.  JungleDisk.com is not unlimited but, at .15 per Gig, it is pretty cheap.

Now, a word about your external drives.  Backblaze is the only one that will backup your external drive without using tricks that are beyond most home users. So if you have external drives you need backed up, you only have one choice.

How about my small business server?  Unfortunately you will need to spend a little more money on this, but it is still cheap in comparison to losing your data.  The above programs will not backup your SQL databases, or your Exchange email server accounts.  But for less than $300 a year you should be able to get everything backed up safely.  We use a product for our clients from MidwestBackup.net.  Price is determined by how much data you store but it is still cheaper than a years worth of tape backups done correctly that, as stated above, have a 77% chance of not working.

So, go get started on backing up your data now!  It’s cheap, and you have a lot to lose!

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Blocking MySpace and More

mph : September 1, 2009 16:20 : Blog Roll, How-To

Have teenagers that you cannot tear away from Myspace, Facebook, or any other social network?  The fix is simple.  Sign up for a free account with OpenDNS.com!

We are not an affiliate or get paid for advertising.  We just have teenagers too!

Not only can you block those sites but you can block all sorts of stuff, adult sites, illegal activity, video sharing sites, virtual proxies, and general time-wasters.  There are over 50 categories to control individually or select from 4 pre-configured levels.  OpenDNS.com also keeps some malware from getting out if you do get infected.

This does not mean you can stop using your antivirus or antispyware software…YOU STILL NEED IT!

3 simple steps to configure OpenDNS.com in about 10 minutes.

1. change you current DNS from your ISP to OpenDNS.com servers.
OpenDNS.com has instructions on how to do this with every operating system and on most routers.  If you have several computers or you have a laptop you use at work and home, you will definitely want to change it on the router to make things easier, or your laptop may not function correctly at your work.

2. sign up for OpenDNS.com
Yes, you have to change your DNS first, before you sign up.  They track your system based on the IP you are accessing from.  So in order for them to add you to their servers you need to attach to them first.

3. configure your settings.
Once you get an account you goto settings and either select a pre-configured level or pick Custom and check the categories you want ot restrict.

Additionally, you can add websites that fall into a category that you are blocking to the never block list.  At my house, all social networking is blocked, but linkedin on the never block list so that I can get to it.

See how easy it is?  Now you don’t need to be a computer guru to stay ahead of your children.

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