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Technology

Data Here, Data There, Data Even From Mars

in Columns/Technology
Joe Balsarotti

I recently had the opportunity to have dinner with a real-live rocket scientist, Adam Steltzner, PhD, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Learning about the challenges, the technology involved and leaps of faith required to successfully land a rover on the planet Mars (as Steltzner has done) made for extremely interesting dinner conversation.

Compare the upload speed of the Mars Curiosity Rover – which can communicate directly with Earth at 0.032 megabits per second – with the average home or business connection of 200 megabits per second. But for about eight minutes a day, the Orbiter comes into view of the Rover and can relay signals about like an old DSL line can. Plus, considering that the time for the signal to get from there to here takes an average of 14 minutes, one wonders how in the universe we could retrieve those unbelievable images, atmospheric data and mineralogical analysis.

Something that stands out to me is that those connections are pure, useful data. Our home and business Internet connections, whether they are wired or wireless, are bogged down with endless (and in many cases, useless) data. The average PC is constantly sending out the connection to “ping” other computers to see if the printer is still connected, any email is coming in and if there is yet another update on the way for one of the dozens of programs loaded. Updates come down for antiviruses hour-by-hour, websites are constantly refreshed with new content and synchronization occurs between clocks, files and more; all of this occurs in the background before the user ever opens a window.

Add to all of that the endless garbage filling the data pipelines. By many accounts, more than 98 percent of all email never reaches a recipient. Why? Because it is outright spam or malware and it is rejected at the mail server level. It’s something we techs call “perimeter nuking,” not to mention the misaddressed email that sent to addresses no longer online. All this clutter makes us keep longing for faster and faster Internet speeds to do the basics, while 100 percent of the bandwidth from Curiosity is dedicated to transmitting actual data.

Although the next mission, Mars 2020, is the first step toward bringing Mars samples back to Earth so that maybe we get a version of the 1969 techno-thriller “The Andromeda Strain” that way, the Curiosity data lines don’t have to deal with viruses trying to hack into your home or business router.

Every time you or your staff download a program to your machine or add another online service or sync tool, your overall connection becomes more and more bogged down. Only the applications required to do the job should be allowed on company machines. In this publication on many an occasion, I’ve detailed the pitfalls of users loading unauthorized software, but beyond the security concerns and loss of control of your company’s data, your business also pays for those superfluous programs in slower network and Internet speeds.

My advice: Have both a written policy in your employee manual about loading unauthorized software, and systematically evaluate your company’s use of such programs to remove those which are no longer being used. They take up storage space and utilize bandwidth.

Steltzner’s latest task is as the project lead for the upcoming Mars 2020 mission. He was in charge of the landing team that invented the Sky Crane landing system, which successfully placed Curiosity on Mars. Learn about the landing at https://youtu.be/h2I8AoB1xgU.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 40-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Keep up with tech by following him at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo.

Phishing, Spear Phishing and Other Scams in the Digital Age

in Columns/Technology

By JOE BALSAROTTI

Joe Balsarotti

Gotta love the tech industry. We make up names for everything. The newest name to come to the forefront is spear phishing, since misspelling “fishing” makes it sound more futuristic, I guess.

Seriously, scams and outright theft in the digital world have become a sophisticated criminal enterprise. Whereas just a couple years ago, scammers would spam millions of email addresses hoping to reel in a handful of people, now thieves are researching companies, their staff, their suppliers and their customers in extremely targeted attempts to fool people into either giving up their user names and passwords or outright attempts to get money transferred.

Emails purporting to be from your bank, your brokerage, your suppliers or your clients –

recreated complete with company logos and fonts – claim there was a problem with their systems and all you need to do is reenter your credentials via a link they provide. That link takes you to a fake website, again, recreated to match the legitimate one down to the smallest detail. It’s a fake website just waiting like a spider for some person to let his or her guard down, just once, and enter personal info. Once it’s done, scammers quickly use those credentials to access the legitimate site and either spend the limit within seconds, redirecting shipments to a place of their choosing, or sit with the info for months – waiting for the right moment to take control of business dealings that can easily add up into six or even seven figures in a matter of hours. We’ve received warnings of targeted attacks from both our vendors and major clients. They’ve seen evidence of pinpointed attacks of even the smallest businesses.

Another common scam now is the thorough research of spear phishing, in which an email will show up in the inbox of an employee with authorization to transfer funds, supposedly from the boss’s boss, asking for money to be transferred to an account. Usually there is some supposed catastrophe or a “once in a lifetime” deal that will slip away if the money is not transferred immediately.

Luckily, any business with even basic security procedures in place should catch these attempts. After all, no money should ever be transferred to a new account without multiple cross-checks. However, once again, all these crooks have to do is catch the newbie – or someone having an off-day – and the money is gone. I know of two clients who have been targeted with these attempts. In both cases, a bank employee did not follow procedure. In one case the account number was mistyped, so what would have been a disaster was averted. In the other case, the bank involved had to make the client whole since the employee did not follow any of the verification procedures that were in place. Still, in both cases, there was a considerable amount of wasted time and a lot of stress that shouldn’t have befallen these businesses in the first place.

Besides educating staff about these threats, businesses that regularly transfer money should consider using a separate domain (and separate email addresses) that are not connected to the company’s everyday domain name when sending financial data and requests. Also, all emails that contain account numbers, usernames or other such information should be encrypted. Office 365 has this capability, as do several third-party services such as Bracket from Mailprotector. Also, no funds transfer should be initiated without a second type of verification. For example, if the initial request comes in via email, the verification should be by telephone.

The same applies to attempts to snatch employee data. Like the scam I outlined above, this time the scammers pose as someone needing to verify employment info or say they’re from the employee’s bank and are trying to troubleshoot why the employee’s direct deposit didn’t go through. Once these scammers get the SSN and/or bank account info, employees will be dealing with cleaning up identity theft. And if it gets traced back to the employer, look for the lawyers to circle. I had a relative who was scammed by the opposite version of this. She was contacted supposedly by her employer’s HR office to verify bank info for a direct deposit. The result? Scammers redirected her paycheck to their account. The employer’s failure to verify that it was indeed my relative who initiated the change – and failure on my relative’s part (as the employee) to hang up and independently call the HR department to verify the action – led to the success of this scam attempt.

As owners and managers of small businesses, we are very juicy targets to these scammers, who are usually overseas and have significant resources. Using information specific to a business owner, scammers try to find a soft target such as an employee who is distracted, new, not well-trained or just doesn’t follow procedures. Simple searches of company websites, press releases, LinkedIn and the like provides a treasure trove of information that these scammers can use. Fake emails, texts or voicemails ask the employee to transfer money to a supposed new bank account, pay a new vendor in advance to get a project moving or impersonate the identity of one of the business’s long-time vendors, which just so happened to have changed its remittance information today.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 40-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Keep up with tech by following him at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo      

Is Your Business’s Faith in Technology Its Undoing?

in Columns/Technology

BY JOE BALSAROTTI

Joe Balsarotti

There’s evidence of it all around us. Teens can’t make change at the drive-thru window. Drivers blindly follow GPS right into a lake (if they take the wheel at all). Cursive writing has become a lost art. Surveys show that people losing their smartphone rank that experience just one point below a terrorist attack in regard to the level of stress it would cause.

As technology does more and more for us, the adage “use it or lose it” has begun to prove itself a law of the universe. Just as the prevalence of auto-pilot use caused the FAA to increase simulator time for pilots due to falling reaction times, we see what used to be common knowledge has become foreign to the younger generations – or lost to those who don’t make use of the skills they once had.

Maybe map reading, making change or flying planes aren’t required for your business, but the same causes and effects are probably starting to creep into your business processes. After all, we purchase and use technology in our companies to increase productivity and lower costs. However, blind trust in the technology – with staff now unable to verify or recreate the results without the ‘black box’ – should be of concern to any business owner or manager.

All technology eventually fails. We back up, surge-protect, virus-protect, firewall and scan. We sync data and for mission-critical systems, we include redundant elements and have spares at the ready.

Is your company ready for when the systems “which can’t go down” do go down? Does your business have a documented plan in place to start from scratch in case of a major disaster? Where are the license keys, contracts and warranty information for your equipment, software and services? Is your answer, “On the computer?” If so, you now see the problem.

The old POTS (plain old telephone service) was unbelievably resilient. New VoIP (voice over internet protocol) phones are anything but. You can’t just grab a $10 extension phone at Radio Shack like you used to, plug it into the wiring closet and at least get a line out. Now the internet line needs to be up, the switches, routers, firewalls and VoIP servers need to be in place, powered and configured to achieve that same basic dial tone. That’s the price for the cost savings and flexibility of VoIP, and there’s no choice as phone companies slowly turn off those POTS services.

Fire, flood, earthquake, alien invasion or zombie apocalypse – all could render all your technology infrastructure useless. You say, “It’s all safely in the cloud” and that’s fine, assuming you can get to that cloud. What many forget is that if you can’t get to your account information, license keys, contracts and the like, you can’t gain access. With encryption being the norm for backups nowadays (for good reason, as I’ve discussed in previous columns) that also means if you lose the key, the data is rendered useless and unrecoverable.

What’s a business owner or manager to do? Follow the words of President Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify.”

~Take the steps to back up locally and offsite in the cloud.

~ Put redundant elements in place where critical.

~ Regularly maintain and update not only the hardware, but the software also.

~ Make sure there are hard copies of your contracts, licenses, keys and other critical information locked up in a fire safe both on-site and off-site.

~ Have a contact list for emergencies and a calling order to wrangle the staff together.

~ Drill your staff to make sure they can keep basic business functions running without the cool technology.

~ Check your insurance coverage to verify you have cyber coverage as well as contents coverage.

~ Speak to your IT provider about what services it can offer in event of an emergency.

The United States Small Business Administration found that more than 90 percent of companies fail within two years of being struck by a disaster. Unfortunately, it’s these basic non-technology pieces of the technology puzzle which elude so many business owners and become the death knell after a disaster strikes.

Use these tips and apply common sense business practices to make sure your business doesn’t become a statistic.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 40-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Keep up with tech by following him at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo.

My, How Time Flies: Windows 7 Will Be Gone in a Flash

in Technology
Joe Balsarotti

By JOE BALSAROTTI

It seems that the upcoming discontinuation of Windows 7, Microsoft Server 2008 and Adobe’s Flash were somehow a surprise to a number of businesses. Microsoft drops its monthly security updates and patches as of January 2020, as in the beginning of next year. We’ve consulted with our clients for a while to develop budgets and replacement plans for their networks, but far too many IT firms don’t like to give “bad news” – and as such, they leave such discussions until the last minute.

If your business is all Windows 10 or Server 2016, congratulations. Pat yourself on the back; you’re more prepared than most, it seems. If all this is all news to you, you need to get ready quick. The computer industry has been plagued with shortages of Intel processors for months now and there is no relief in sight. That means multiple months-long wait times for server and higher-end PC orders. Also, there are a number of application programs that need to be upgraded to run under Windows 10, so this tech refresh will probably take longer, from a calendar perspective, than previous ones. Networks with older NAS (network attached storage) units and old servers have problems connecting to new Windows 10 equipment, as W10 slammed the door on many of the security holes that the operating systems of these devices have.

Microsoft did its biggest push ever to position Windows 10 as its premier operating system. For more than a year, Microsoft gave free updates for users of both Windows 7 and Windows 8. Personally, I suspect sweeping the anything-but-popular Windows 8 under the rug was a large part of the strategy. However, narrowing the development focus to just one version certainly can’t hurt Microsoft, who has had its hands full trying to patch and secure multiple operating systems at the same time.

In January 2020, when Microsoft stops updating Windows 7, all those old machines become a security risk for your business and the data of both your company and its customers. As we’ve discussed before, running a business with known flaws in its PCs and networks opens it up for liability and loss of customers. Assuming one wants to stay in business, updating older technology is a business imperative in today’s environment. A new wrinkle is that Microsoft has said that updates will be available for those Windows 7 and Server 2008 customers who sign support contracts, but pricing will be such that updating the machines will be a far, far less expensive strategy.

Microsoft’s position is that Windows 10 is the “last version of Windows” and will morph over the years and undergo substantial updates on the fly, adopting the philosophy of Apple with its operating systems. Whether that idea will survive amidst changes in technology and widely varying needs of users is a gigantic question. Just ask the Apple owners who wake up to notice things that used to work no longer do because their systems can’t handle the new updates. Also, look forward to “as a service” offerings from Microsoft where monthly or annual payments will replace Windows bundled with systems. Microsoft has already been successful transitioning millions of Microsoft Office buyers onto monthly or annual payments for Office 365.

On top of these Microsoft changes, Flash – the language that powered websites for two decades – is finally going away. Flash, which was developed by Macromedia (and acquired by Adobe in 2005), brought easy animation to the web. However, Flash has been plagued with bugs and security flaws. Apple dropped support in its browsers and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs publicly skewered the software in an open letter back in 2010. Those using Firefox for browsing saw Flash support end, and Microsoft is dropping it from IE and Edge as well. At one point, more than 80 percent of users accessed some Flash-enabled website each and every day, but at last count that had dropped into the teens as HTML5 became the web language of choice. As with the Windows 7 transition, look for disruptions as old websites and applications that have not been rewritten become inaccessible.

Be sure to not only plan for the physical replacement of machines, servers and upgraded software, but also for training as Windows 10 and Windows servers have some substantial differences from their predecessors – and rewritten websites might have different functionality from their Flash version days.

Hopefully this isn’t new news. Hopefully your company and its tech staff (or outside provider) are already discussing this on an ongoing basis. However, if your current IT provider isn’t consulting with you at least annually to talk through refreshes to your technology, you may want to get serious about upgrading soon.

Technology is always in motion. To ignore it is to put your company at a disadvantage.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 40-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Keep up with tech by following him at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo.                             

A look back at 2018: Did My Technology-Based Predictions Materialize?

in Technology

By JOE BALSAROTTI

About a year ago, I wrote “What 2018 May Bring” in these pages. Let’s see how I did.

Then: Faster Internet – The pros or cons of the repeal of net neutrality will have to play out, but one thing is sure. Fiber to the home and gigabit infrastructure really took a hit the last couple years, possibly because the payoff was unclear or due to rising build and maintenance costs, but the technology exists for multi-gigabit Internet. Will 2018 see the likes of Google Fiber, Comcast’s Xfinity or Charter Spectrum ramp up their roll-outs?

Now: The world didn’t end when the short-lived net neutrality regs were rolled back. Locally, Spectrum doubled its base speeds and is pushing its fiber offerings more and more.

Then: Faster Wireless – Remember 3G, then 4G? 5G is almost upon us. This one might take until 2019 or 2020, but once 5G gets implemented, your smartphone data speeds will rival that of your wired connection. That dynamic should make for very interesting times as the “cord cutting” of cable TV could become cord cutting completely if wireless is priced comparatively with wired. The undeniable upside of this is that people will truly have choices in their communications options, beyond merely their phone company or cable provider as an on-ramp to the Internet for their business and personal use.

Now: We’re still waiting for 5G. And as too many of my recent travels have shown, 3G isn’t even prevalent outside major metro areas.

Then: Artificial Intelligence – You’ve already heard about this one. From experts warning that The Terminator is a real possibility (and imploring the military across the globe not to put machines in charge of weapons) to the far more benign, such as Amazon’s “you may be interested in…” After all, I remember reading an article maybe a decade ago that computers had already replaced human engineers in designing the very processors which become the next generation of computers. So maybe we’re already past the point of Skynet?

Now: 2018 saw the likes of Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking sounding the alarm on AI creators doing things because they can without thought to the unintended consequences.

Then: 4K Video – This one is already here and readily available. Simply put, the picture resolution is four times better than HD. Netflix, Amazon and Apple are already on the bandwagon, producing most of their new offerings in 4K.

Now: Very quickly, 4K has taken hold. Most TVs (except the very low-end ones) now have built-in 4K capability, as do video cameras and newer smartphones.

Then: The Internet of Things – I think IoT is one of the stupidest acronyms the tech industry has ever come up with. If consumer electronic companies and ad agencies have their way, every light bulb, thermostat, door lock and dog collar will be Internet enabled. The upside is we can control almost everything from our phones and know where Fido is at all times. The downside is there will always be a smarter programmer to hack into it. Instead of just losing data on a hard drive or network, now a hacker can cause physical damage by burning out an air conditioning compressor, spy on you from your own surveillance system or heat a building until equipment fails. There are predictions that by 2020 there will be 75 billion Wi-Fi-connected devices.

Now: 2018 definitely saw smart speakers become commonplace. You speak “order dinner” into them and it appears. But the unintended consequence of every word uttered in your home going to someone’s cloud server to be parsed might take the shine off for those who actually value privacy and security over convenience.

Then: The Gig Economy – This is the name given to the rise of temporary independent contractors, freelancers and others with alternative work arrangements. This drastic change in basic business continues to send shockwaves through industries. Lyft and Uber did it to the taxi business, Airbnb did it to timeshares and hotels. The playing field has not only been leveled; technology has taken an earthmover to it and changed the landscape completely.

Now: Uber, Lyft and the like are commonplace. Heck, even Lambert International now has Ride Sharing areas. If that doesn’t prove the concept has stuck, nothing will.

Looking ahead through 2019:

  • Continued push toward 5G cellular communications. The on-off-on merger of Sprint and T-Mobile cleared a hurtle in December. If it happens, the combined company says its claim to fame will be the most robust 5G system in the country. Much still has to happen for this to come to fruition, but a strong competitor to AT&T and Verizon might make it a reality.
  • We’ll see a pause in the breakneck speed of technology change in 2019. Amazon keeps adding massive warehouses. The accompanying overhead may just force business and common sense to win out over the things better left for Sci-Fi, like the now-shelved drone delivery.
  • Data security will continue to dog all industries and all types of tech. It seems to me the pendulum between cloud and on-premise might just swing back a tad this year as vendors see increasing pushback to their data being in someone else’s hands. Look for new and expanded private versions of cloud applications ranging from video surveillance to voice command, accounting and CRM systems.
  • Quantum computing (developing computer technology based upon the principles of quantum theory) is one of those things straight out of the Sci-Fi realm. Yet seeing a model of an IBM quantum machine at CES (the world’s largest consumer tech show) makes it seem that one of these days, things will drop into place for this technology. What it could mean for humanity is as unclear as it is boundless. The whole idea of computing gets upended in the quantum world. Answers are not exact and not identical, and final results are averages of millions of runs of the same equation – and those millions of runs can be done in less time than a single run can in the digital world. Modeling extremely complex things like the universe, the weather, medicine, motions of subatomic particles and the data generated by IoT devices might need this weird but compelling technology. It won’t happen in 2019, but this could be the most life-changing of any technology being talked about.

 

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 39-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Keep up with tech by following him at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo.

Environmental Remediation Issues Require Immediate Attention, Best Practices

in Technology

By TOM WOODCOCK

The environmental aspect of a construction project can often be inconsistent in approach. Whether asbestos, mold or lead, it’s surprising how common it isn’t properly handled or even ignored.

The risk of an environmental issue not being corrected is by far greater than the expense of litigation, industry experts contend. Part of the problem is many owners are not aware of the need; many times, owners are not informed of an existing problem. The discovery of dangerous materials should spur a removal process, environmental remediation experts say, but this isn’t always the case. Why does this occur, and what can be done to correct it? Too many times, renovation and demolition projects may remain unchecked and construction will go forward without the problem being resolved, experts agree.

There are reasons this is occurring regularly on construction projects, according to Mike Renfroe, founder of St. Louis-based GenCorp Services, LLC, a remediation and demolition contractor.

“There are several factors to this work not being done,” Renfroe said. “These may include tradesman who are not educated on environmental requirements and miscalculating the expense of removal.”

These two factors, Renfroe said, seem to be the most common reasons environmental problems go unresolved. At times, not a single individual on the project takes any regard to the presence of mold asbestos or lead, he added.

According to Renfroe, willful negligence can result in steep fines and even jail time in some cases. Fines can exceed $10,000 per day for more egregious violations, according to Renfroe. With more than 1,000 contractors in the vicinity and a minimal number of inspectors, some contractors may opt to roll the dice and skip the environmental phase of a project. In such cases owners are completely unaware of problem at hand, yet they absorb much of the blame. This scenario is far more common than many realize, according to Renfroe.

Simple testing of a site prior to renovation or demolition can solve this problem, said Ryan Spell, vice president of Precision Analysis, Inc., an environmental testing service.

“We are often brought in after the fact and have to test a site that has an apparent issue,” said Spell. “Testing midstream is more difficult, and workers may have already been exposed to harmful matter. It’s always wiser to test before a project begins,” he added.

Though testing seems reasonable, it’s not done consistently, according to Renfroe. Both St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis employ a small number of inspectors. These inspectors are often forced to focus on larger, higher-profile projects, Renfroe said. Smaller commercial projects – such as small office facilities – and residential projects are commonly missed. “People are living and working with dangerous environmental problems in the same spaces,” Renfroe said. “Laws have been established to prevent usage of some products and determine the levels of each material that are acceptable. The big question is whose responsibility it is to make sure the environmental issue is handled properly,” he added.

That question has an interesting answer.

Owners often count on the general contractor to handle all aspects of a project. The thought process here, according to BEX Construction Services President Randy Bueckendorf, is that a contractor knows what to look for and will address it. Most general contractors see the environmental issue as the responsibility of the owner or demolition contractor, Bueckendorf said.

“The environmental and demolition contractors are the experts,” said Bueckendorf. “After checking building records, we immediately refer any potential environmental issue to an environmental contractor. If a problem is discovered, we will stop work on the spot. The GC is not in a liability position, in most cases, to deal with it internally.”

It is difficult in some instances to determine unforeseen environmental issues, according to Bueckendorf, which is all the more reason to test and consult an environmental expert. Leaving the project to chance is not a solution, he said. Communication is paramount in eliminating the concern of environmental problems. Whether existing mastic (adhesive) or the airborne asbestos is involved during demolition, determining the need for removal is central to ensuring a safe project.

The cost of removal is exponentially less costly than mid-project remediation work, Renfroe said. If the hazard isn’t detected until construction work is already in progress, completed work may need to be torn out, cleaned and then rebuilt. All that can be extremely costly.

In addition to testing, Renfroe recommends using a demolition contractor that is fluent in environmental regulations and safety codes. “Owners cannot assume that the environmental aspect of their project is being addressed on the front end,” he said. “Asking the general contractor whose responsibility the environmental will be can help determine where the liability rests. The risk is significant, but it isn’t realized till a citation is given. Then the battle over responsibility begins. Combine this with an active living or working space, and things can get dicey quickly,” said Renfroe.

Best practices suggest testing and monitoring any renovation or demolition project, experts concur. “Taking the extra step and assuring environmental issues are being dealt with is the best course of action,” Bueckendorf said. “Averting extra project cost is enticing, but the risk seems to be significant. The seemingly small percentage of projects that are tested and even cleaned is disconcerting. The majority of quality general contractors, environmental and demolition contractors are sensitive to problems that may exist. They are looking for potential problems and are keeping the best interest of the owners in mind. The problem arises when the desire to save cost overrides the safety concerns. Covering up environmental issues is a risky proposition. Banking on inspectors not having the time in their schedule to review a project can be problematic,” he added.

The environmental aspects of demolition and renovation projects require attention. In a health-conscious construction community, not addressing these issues is counter to current construction positions. “Environmental professionals across the board agree that there needs to be greater adherence,” Spell said. “Many in the general contracting community concur, too. Increasing the level of analysis can help alleviate much of the concern as well as the potential for very costly results.”

The Bleeding Edge of Technology

in Technology

By JOE BALSAROTTI

I was racking my brain trying to come up with a good topic for this edition when inspiration struck. Unfortunately, it struck at one of my client’s workplaces and with a lot of wasted time, energy and frustration.

The publisher of an LOB (line-of-business) application (some people call them vertical or industry-specific applications) contacted our client to say that a new version was available, and the publisher needed us to provide remote access for them install it. The client has a maintenance contract with this publisher; it includes any and all updates as well as installation. This is a commonplace event for specialized software – and this is a software company that has a long-established program and track record of solid tech support.

In this scenario, we are the “boots on the ground,” acting as the intermediary/translator/consultant. We let the manufacturer of the software do its thing. We all decided upon a date and time, the appointment was made and one of my techs was on-site to answer questions about the network and provide the support requested by the software publisher.

Backups were made, and the installation appeared normal. The techs from the software publisher’s company said they were satisfied and went off on their merry way.

Of course, if the story ended there, this would be an awfully short guest column.

The story didn’t end there. What actually happened was that the next morning our client called to say they were getting kicked out of the application every couple of minutes. After some basic troubleshooting, it was time to get the publisher back on the line. The publisher’s software technicians fiddled around for most of the morning; meanwhile, the client wasn’t getting work done. That afternoon, the publisher said the issue had been fixed. The client squeezed in a couple of productive hours late in the day.

Unfortunately, the next morning, the client was back on the phone, reporting that they’d features they hadn’t used the previous day and some of those either did not work as they were supposed to or just plain crashed. Again, the publisher went to work, spending the rest of the day fiddling and fooling, but to no avail. Same thing on day three. The publisher was logged in and getting nowhere while our client’s staff sat around being unproductive.

Time for a conference call. Guess what? The techs suddenly admitted that this version had only been out there for one week and that all the installs were experiencing random problems. So, our problems weren’t unique and this update “might have been put out there without adequate testing.” Ya think?

Luckily, the software publishing company has been around for a couple of decades and did have a provision for rolling back the update. The publisher brought our mutual client to a stable environment so they could all get back to working productively. That’s not how it usually happens; the ability to roll back changes is not normal practice, unfortunately.

Like many others, this publisher has pushed annual updates of its software for years – something I think is ridiculous because at this point very, very few useful features are being added to anyone’s programs. Nearly every time, they’re merely cosmetic changes so that a publisher can continue justifying that a maintenance contract is worth the expense, rather than just buying an upgrade ad hoc. In this case, it looks like the publisher was running out of days on its calendar to get the 2019 release out there and rushed a buggy, obviously untested program to its clients just so it could say there was a new version available. This publisher even went as far as to proactively contact our mutual client to schedule installs.

As of now, our client is back to using the previous version of the software, which has worked well and has been bug-free for the past year. The software publisher is still working on making the update usable. There has been no estimate from the publisher’s techs as to when a fully-tested update will be available.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 38-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. He served three terms as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Missouri Leadership Council, as chairman of the Clayton, Missouri Merchant Association for a dozen years, chaired Region VII of the Federal Small Business Regulatory Fairness Board and currently serves on the Dealer Advisory Panel of the ASCII Group, an organization of nearly 1,200 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America. He can be reached at businesstech@software-to-go.com.

Five Essential Lessons to be Learned When It Goes Very, Very Wrong

in Columns/Technology
Joe Balsarotti

By JOE BALSAROTTI

As I write this column, my staff is in the fourth week of a nightmare scenario for a technology provider. One of our long-time vendors, who provided email and web hosting services, gave 30-day notice that the company was closing down. This followed a series of incidents in short succession of one client’s email being hacked, his tech making a grave error in an attempt to recover data and as a result, the destruction of a number of other clients’ data.

Luckily all but one client did get their data back, but significant downtime resulted for these businesses. Many of those affected by the shuttering of the vendor are our clients, but a number of them were not. Nevertheless, we offered to assist anyone who wanted help during the transition.

Through our industry associations, I’ve always kept a list of trusted colleagues who provide products and services that are complementary to ours. I’ve also kept a list of trusted colleagues who could act as a backup if we needed help. That planning paid off. We were able to work with a company who provided similar services and had the resources to be able to onboard those who were stranded in the digital sea before the looming deadline.

The process of switching all these companies over has been daunting. Each client’s setup is a little different. Some just use email, others depend upon their websites and many utilize both. This was about as close to a nightmare scenario as one can get, except that there was at least a month’s notice.

Working through all of this brought to light many important points.

First off, as we’ve covered before, do you own your data? A handful of the clients had their website created by that vendor and were never given access to it, nor were they given a copy of their data. Unfortunately, that means they will have to pay to have a new website designed for them. It’s not something they were expecting or budgeting for. And until the new site is completed, they don’t have a presence on the web.

Secondly, moving email providers is about the most labor-intensive project one can have. Someone has to touch not only every computer, but also every email and user account on each computer. Local data needs to be backed up, changes made, connections tested and data restored. With the volume of email some users keep, this can be a two- to three-hour process just for one account. Now multiply that by about 800 and you comprehend the scope of the task belonging not only to my team, but to the new datacenter and its staff as well.

We did our best to prioritize those who needed 24/7 access to their email, those who could do with checking through webmail during a transition and a select few who welcomed a day or two of digital peace and quiet.

“Always in motion, this project is,” paraphrasing Yoda. Like any major project your business takes on, making sure you’ve accounted for how much time is spent on each client is essential. With so many separate clients and each user needing attention, it’s easy to lose track as techs get sucked into a rabbit hole resolving one problem or another. Organization is key. Even if it starts to fail under the stress, at least there is a framework to keep the project moving forward.

The third point that reared its ugly head was documentation, or the complete lack of it at many clients. The vendor dealt with these clients directly. And although we often acted as a consultant or even a translator between them, we were not privy to the transactions between them. Many clients were sent scrambling to find account numbers, passwords and to track down who controlled (or even owned) domain names. Getting in contact with the website designers was nearly impossible, as many sites were old and their designers had long since moved on.

The fourth point brought to light was the lack of attention to websites. With only a handful of exceptions, all these clients’ sites were running drastically out-of-date software, security was nonexistent and the web designers who (as we’ve discussed in this column before) should have been doing ongoing maintenance on the sites, never even bothered to discuss it with the clients, let alone sell them on it. One of the affected sites was infected with a virus. As such, we could not download the client’s data because our security systems prevented it, as they should have. If we would have had another month to go through the process, we would have been able to save it, but the cost of cleaning and updating data just to be able to transfer it probably exceeds what designing from scratch would cost.

Lastly, misplaced trust in the cloud was amazing to me. As many times as we preach to clients that they must make backups, the number of businesses who made the faulty assumption that the vendor would have everything available forever – and they didn’t have to take any precautions themselves – was astonishing. The initial problem this vendor had was exasperated by a technician’s error, which then revealed that their assurances of data security were not as they had been portrayed.

The moral of this story – which continues to play out – is that with organization and a little planning, your business can survive a major disruption such as losing a key vendor. There will be a price to pay, however. Lost productivity, unforeseen costs and the potential of lost business are givens. How impactful this can be to your business comes down to how much time and effort you’ve put into being prepared.

Joe Balsarotti is president of Software To Go and is a 38-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. He served three terms as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ Missouri Leadership Council, as chairman of the Clayton, Missouri Merchant Association for a dozen years, chaired Region VII of the Federal Small Business Regulatory Fairness Board and currently serves on the Dealer Advisory Panel of the ASCII Group, an organization of nearly 1,200 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America. He can be reached at joe.balsarotti@software-to-go.com.

Contractors Rely on Mobile Device Management to Protect Client Data, Control Usage

in Columns/Technology

By KERRY SMITH, Editor, St. Louis Construction News & Review Magazine

As the amount of sensitive project data transmitted from construction sites is increasing exponentially, so is the need to remotely manage and protect that information.

Mobile device management or MDM has been in existence for years. Security software that is capable of monitoring, managing and securing employees’ mobile devices – namely their smartphones – is and has been a reality within a myriad of industries. But for the design and construction industry in particular, tracking who is transmitting what from where to whom in real time is critical.

“If you have mobile device management capability, it means that the owner of the device – the construction company in this scenario – has full access to its intellectual assets,” said Brad Hagemeyer, a technician with St. Charles-based eTech Solutions. “It puts you, the owner of the smartphone, in control with regard to what information is being shared and with whom. If necessary, at a moment’s notice you’re able to wipe sensitive data from the phone, selectively delete information from it, remove contacts or even render the device inoperable,” he added. “And all this can be done remotely in very little time.”

Hagemeyer says that Apple keeps device owners and operators at arm’s length when it comes to accessing and controlling data. “That being said, however, Apple does allow remote managing of the device in terms of usage,” he said. “And with an Android device, you’re able to tap into an unlimited range of mobile device management applications.”

For construction companies whose mobile devices are held by project executives, project managers, estimators and many others, MDM is a necessity in order to protect the privacy of client data. And in a human resources context, MDM enables a firm to ensure that the devices are being used only for what the company intends, according to Teresa Whitcomb, chief financial officer at St. Peters-based Blanton Construction.

“Our customer security is very important to us,” Whitcomb said. “Although the construction industry in particular has a more transient workforce, we still need to enable that communication and also to monitor usage. MDM allows us to restrict mobile device usage from sites that are not work-related, to monitor and control bandwidth usage and to be able to lock down and secure data in the unfortunate case where we do have a termination. Keeping company assets – smartphones and tablets – secure is essential, especially in our industry where so much of the information sharing that we do takes place at the job site.”

In the event that a device is unintentionally lost, stolen or damaged, MDM allows for near-immediate lockdown of the device, according to Hagemeyer. “MDM also makes it possible for contractors to monitor the location where the mobile device is being utilized,” he said. “For example, with MDM a company can track whether a particular worker is transmitting data from where he is supposed to be at any given time and within geographic parameters. Mobile geofencing is the use of GPS or RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology to create a virtual geographic boundary, enabling software to trigger a response whenever a mobile device enters or leaves a particular area. If the worker assigned to the device is supposed to be at a particular job site from 7am to 3pm but leaves the job site at 2pm, by tracking the device’s most recent IP address, the geolocator can send a message to the manager that his worker has left the job site.”

Hagemeyer and Whitcomb said there’s often a misconception with regard to mobile device management that its purpose is to act as “big brother” with regard to surveillance of the nature of the data being transmitted. “That’s really not what MDM is all about,” said Hagemeyer. “As a third-party monitoring agency, we cannot see the actual data and we don’t want to see it. Unlike computer systems, our monitoring software does not remote in and see screen shares of information. What we monitor for construction companies and other clients depends upon the degree of control they want to have over the devices they own, devices that are a company’s intellectual assets. A big facet of what we do for contractors is to control the use of their devices for activities that are directly relevant to their employees’ work. If that device is also being used to stream YouTube videos, Netflix or anything like that which really racks up data usage, we have the capability of knowing about it instantly and restricting the device,” he added.

Monitoring and controlling a contractor’s entire fleet of mobile devices can translate into significant telecommunications cost savings in the short term and long term, Hagemeyer says. “If the company is paying $3,700 a month, for example, for usage of its mobile devices, initiating MDM and taking control of those company-owned assets can immediately spell significant savings,” he said. “In this scenario, we were able to reduce the firm’s telecom bill by approximately $2,000 or 54 percent.”

Whitcomb says employing MDM is a wise human resource strategy for any company, particularly one whose daily scope of work includes large amounts of sensitive data being transmitted remotely from and to job sites.

“Working with eTech Solutions and using (Cisco) Meraki software has enabled us to restrict our band width usage to what is necessary for performing work-related functions,” she said. “It has also enabled us to restrict mobile device usage from sites that are not work related. All of us have done it…we’ve unintentionally left our smartphone somewhere. There is sensitive data and contacts on these phones that we wouldn’t want out in the public. MDM gives us the ability to be able to lock down that phone anywhere at any time instantly if necessary.”

Fueled by E-Commerce Fulfillment, Industrial Bulk Distribution Development Momentum Continues

in News/Technology

By Kerry Smith, Editor – St. Louis Construction News & Review Magazine

Speculative industrial warehouse and distribution construction remains alive and well across the St. Louis MSA, as evidenced by new construction activity and high-tech robotics upgrades.

Kadean Construction of Fenton is building “Building 5,” a 769,000-square-foot speculative building in Lakeview Commerce Center, Panattoni Development’s 750-acre bulk distribution park in Edwardsville. Kadean Construction President Mike Eveler said the construction project, which includes 80 loading docks with clearing heights of 36 feet, is the mirror image of a twin warehouse that his firm completed in 2017 within Lakeview. Eveler anticipates construction of Building 5 to wrap up by September.

“This is the second building we’ve built recently at Lakeview Commerce Center,” he said. “In addition to constructing Building 5, we built its sister building, Building 4, which is occupied entirely by Amazon.”

Although Building 4 was completed in 2017, Kadean is already performing major technology upgrades for client Amazon as the e-commerce giant embraces the very latest advances in fulfillment/distribution technology.

“In 2017 they (Amazon) invested approximately $23 million worth of tenant improvement work (in Building 4) as well as heavy and electrical distribution,” said Eveler. “Much of this investment was related to robotics within the facility that hold the product and move it around.”

As innovations in e-commerce order fulfillment occur at a pace that’s nearly as swift as that of e-commerce product delivery itself, serving forward-thinking industrial clients like Amazon is also a dynamic process, according to Eveler. “About six weeks ago, Amazon contacted us to request additional work specific to fulfillment robotics,” he said. “We’re already tearing out some of what we built (internally) for them in 2017 to help them upgrade with the latest technology. Upgrades and modifications in their robotics system alone represent about $1 million worth of work,” he added.

The scope of work Kadean is performing includes upgrades of the Amazon Robotics (AR) field, a type of invisible electronic track network upon which automated guided vehicles travel. The robots travel over the AR field picking up an entire upright shelving unit known as an inventory pod, bringing it to a technician at a fulfillment and packaging station and later returning it to its designated storage area. Kadean’s work includes removing the existing AR field and picking stations as well as installing new power and data requirements for the new field and picking stations, and related electrical work to accommodate Amazon’s automated storage and retrieval system.

Kadean works in tandem with Panattoni Development in other industrial parks across the St. Louis MSA such as Aviator Business Park in Hazelwood – the 155-acre park on the site of the former Ford Motor Co. plant at Lindbergh and Interstate 270.

Mark Branstetter, partner at Panattoni, said his firm has developed approximately 1.7 million square feet in Aviator and has equally that much ground available for future development.

“We are about halfway through developing Aviator,” Branstetter said. “It’s interesting…although Lakeview and Aviator are relatively proximate – some 15 miles from each other – their respective user groups are markedly different. Lakeview in Edwardsville attracts the larger, regional distribution centers, whereas Aviator in Hazelwood attracts more local infill.”

Although e-commerce is a prominent driver of bulk warehouse and fulfillment development nationally and regionally, Branstetter said e-commerce isn’t the only factor propelling the construction of these types of buildings.

“A big topic that receives attention is indeed e-commerce,” he said. “It’s certainly a big trend, but it’s not the sum total of what’s driving development in this industry sector. E-commerce is actually a very late trend, just in the last decade or so. Companies are trying to optimize their supply chain, be it location or size orientation. But once they’ve optimized their locations across the country, firms are then working to optimize the inner workings of their processes, again with the consumer at the forefront.”

According to the results of an annual industry outlook survey published in January by Modern Distribution Management, Amazon sold seven billion items last year, serving 70 percent of U.S. households.

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