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It’s a Good Time to Consider the Cloud for 24/7 Access to Resources Anywhere, Everywhere

in Columns/Technology

By MARTY HOOPER

As more and more cities, states and the federal government restrict gatherings during this current coronavirus crisis, many companies are making the decision to have their employees work from home.

This is especially trying for construction companies. With a mix of office staff, field personnel and folks who work in both the office and field, how to limit personal contact but still keep your employees working is a challenge. The first obstacle is gaining network access for office personnel from home.

There are a few ways to access your work network from remote locations. The quickest way to get up and running from home is to install SSL VPN access on your company’s firewall. This allows users to login to the network through a secure tunnel and access resources. The only drawback is that accessing large documents or databases may be slow since a lot of data is flowing back and forth across the Internet. Even though it is through a secure tunnel, the lag time tends to make remote VPN access non-workable.

You can also access the VPN and then connect to your desktop using Remote Desktop. That’s a service built into Windows that allows users to access their work desktop that is inside the network from home. It’s a little clunky since you have to login to the VPN and then login to your desktop. It also requires some setup before it will all work. That solves the lag problem since you are working from your desktop and just basically sharing the screen. Of course, that doesn’t work for people who have a laptop and take that home with them.

The best and most efficient way to access company documents and resources may be to move to the Cloud. Instead of being restricted to a local server and having to find a way to access from a remote location, moving all of your server functions to the Cloud means 24/7 access to all of the resources your employees have now from anywhere in the world with Internet access.

Cloud servers are just as secure as a local server. In fact, with the right security in place, they can be more secure. The same access rules can apply. Your employees can access the documents and programs that they are allowed to access, just like on your local network. While workers are at the office, they access the Cloud the same way, so that when it’s time to work remotely, there’s not any additional setup, education or training that needs to happen.

The major concern from companies who have not moved to the Cloud is, “What if our Internet goes down? Then we can’t work?” While that is a legitimate concern, with the reliability of most high-speed internet providers, that’s rarely an issue. If it does occur, there are a couple of ways to make sure your people can work. A backup Internet service is one way, so that if your primary ISP goes down, your network will switch automatically to the backup. Most folks may not realize that they can also use their cell phone as a hotspot and share that with their computer. One of the great features of the Cloud, if set up properly, is that the data and processing remains in the Cloud. So, accessing it and working from the Cloud uses very little cellular data.

One of other benefits of cloud computing is the hardware cost. Since cloud servers are all virtual, there is no expensive hardware to buy up front and then replace every five years or so. Maintenance costs can be less as well, since there is no actual hardware to maintain and troubleshoot. It’s all virtual so no hard drives, memory, network adapters, etc. are vulnerable to failure as in a local server environment. Most major cloud providers have redundant data centers so no matter if large segments of the Internet are affected by an outage, users can access their data from one of the redundant servers.

Moving to the Cloud can also benefit your field personnel. With the right cloud setup, project managers and supervisors can access job plans, drawings, work orders, change orders and job assignments from remote laptops, tablets and even cell phones. That way, jobs can be managed without coming back into the office. Most systems also allow your employees to submit time and expenses remotely without the need to travel back to the office with receipts and time sheets. Not only does that help protect your work force during a crisis, but it can also pay dividends in increased productivity – no matter what the current climate is.

Talk to your managed service provider to see if the Cloud is right for your company. Your provider may not be able to get you up and running in the Cloud for this crisis, but you will be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

Marty Hooper, regional account executive for Common Sense Solutions, has been helping businesses grow for more than 15 years by managing all of their technology. The past six years, Hooper has specifically focused on IT in the construction industry. Contact Marty at 314.720.8312 or martyh@cssworks.com.

It’s a Good Time to Consider the Cloud for 24/7 Access to Resources Anywhere, Everywhere

in Columns/Technology

By MARTY HOOPER

Marty Hooper

As more and more cities, states and the federal government restrict gatherings during this current coronavirus crisis, many companies are making the decision to have their employees work from home.

This is especially trying for construction companies. With a mix of office staff, field personnel and folks who work in both the office and field, how to limit personal contact but still keep your employees working is a challenge. The first obstacle is gaining network access for office personnel from home.

There are a few ways to access your work network from remote locations. The quickest way to get up and running from home is to install SSL VPN access on your company’s firewall. This allows users to login to the network through a secure tunnel and access resources. The only drawback is that accessing large documents or databases may be slow since a lot of data is flowing back and forth across the Internet. Even though it is through a secure tunnel, the lag time tends to make remote VPN access non-workable.

You can also access the VPN and then connect to your desktop using Remote Desktop. That’s a service built into Windows that allows users to access their work desktop that is inside the network from home. It’s a little clunky since you have to login to the VPN and then login to your desktop. It also requires some setup before it will all work. That solves the lag problem since you are working from your desktop and just basically sharing the screen. Of course, that doesn’t work for people who have a laptop and take that home with them.

The best and most efficient way to access company documents and resources may be to move to the Cloud. Instead of being restricted to a local server and having to find a way to access from a remote location, moving all of your server functions to the Cloud means 24/7 access to all of the resources your employees have now from anywhere in the world with Internet access.

Cloud servers are just as secure as a local server. In fact, with the right security in place, they can be more secure. The same access rules can apply. Your employees can access the documents and programs that they are allowed to access, just like on your local network. While workers are at the office, they access the Cloud the same way, so that when it’s time to work remotely, there’s not any additional setup, education or training that needs to happen.

The major concern from companies who have not moved to the Cloud is, “What if our Internet goes down? Then we can’t work?” While that is a legitimate concern, with the reliability of most high-speed internet providers, that’s rarely an issue. If it does occur, there are a couple of ways to make sure your people can work. A backup Internet service is one way, so that if your primary ISP goes down, your network will switch automatically to the backup. Most folks may not realize that they can also use their cell phone as a hotspot and share that with their computer. One of the great features of the Cloud, if set up properly, is that the data and processing remains in the Cloud. So, accessing it and working from the Cloud uses very little cellular data.

One of other benefits of cloud computing is the hardware cost. Since cloud servers are all virtual, there is no expensive hardware to buy up front and then replace every five years or so. Maintenance costs can be less as well, since there is no actual hardware to maintain and troubleshoot. It’s all virtual so no hard drives, memory, network adapters, etc. are vulnerable to failure as in a local server environment. Most major cloud providers have redundant data centers so no matter if large segments of the Internet are affected by an outage, users can access their data from one of the redundant servers.

Moving to the Cloud can also benefit your field personnel. With the right cloud setup, project managers and supervisors can access job plans, drawings, work orders, change orders and job assignments from remote laptops, tablets and even cell phones. That way, jobs can be managed without coming back into the office. Most systems also allow your employees to submit time and expenses remotely without the need to travel back to the office with receipts and time sheets. Not only does that help protect your work force during a crisis, but it can also pay dividends in increased productivity – no matter what the current climate is.

Talk to your managed service provider to see if the Cloud is right for your company. Your provider may not be able to get you up and running in the Cloud for this crisis, but you will be better prepared for whatever the future holds.

Marty Hooper, regional account executive for Common Sense Solutions, has been helping businesses grow for more than 15 years by managing all of their technology. The past six years, Hooper has specifically focused on IT in the construction industry. Contact Marty at 314.720.8312 or martyh@cssworks.com.

A Look Back at 2019 and Toward 2020

in Columns/Technology

By JOE BALSAROTTI

Last year I gazed into my laser-etched, OLED-lit, solar-powered crystal ball and offered up some of the technical innovations that would hit the prime time in 2019. Here’s my score card:

Continued push toward 5G cellular communications. Check.

5G has already had a limited rollout and the Sprint/T-Mobile merger was approved. Look for the major metro areas to get this first. Don’t run out an buy a new phone to take advantage of 5G because it will be a painfully slow rollout for the rest of us.

I think we’ll see a pause in the breakneck speed of technology change in 2019. Check.

Most of what was promised tech-wise is still on the horizon. There weren’t a lot of leaps this past year and certainly no groundbreaking innovations, just refinement and cosmetic changes to most technologies.

Data security will continue to dog all industries and all types of tech. Check, check and double-check.

Recently, two separate news stories regaled tales of creeps hacking into Ring brand surveillance equipment and not only watching but interacting with those on camera. Quit using the same usernames and passwords for multiple websites and accounts. Ring wasn’t hacked, but rather the individual accounts were. IoT, the Internet of Things, will have to address the build-first, secure-later mentality which exists before it has any realistic chance of mainstream acceptance beyond select things like video doorbells and smart speakers.

Looking into 2020, besides it being a leap year, I doubt that there will be any quantum leaps in consumer electronics or technology in general. As happened in 2019, we are in the lull before things jump forward again. An exception is the new “space race” when the likes of Space X, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Orbital are all starting to make commercial spaceflight look like the sci-fi movies all told us it would be. Once these companies truly make a trip into orbit an easy journey, the next step will be manufacturing in the weightlessness of space. Things will then get interesting quickly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see breakthroughs in materials, pharmaceuticals and processes change our lives in meaningful ways.

On a final note, this is my final regular column for St. Louis CNR. Like technology, things change in publishing and this page space has become too valuable for just the musings of a geek. It is my sincere hope that you’ve enjoyed the information and insights I’ve tried to bring to you over the years in an entertaining way. You can keep up with technology news by following me at Facebook.com/SoftwareToGo or on Twitter @softtogo

May we all SEE a bright future in 2020.

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.

Change for Change’s Sake: With Technology, Is Newer, Faster and Fluffier Better?

in Technology
Joe Balsarotti

By JOE BALSAROTTI

Change for change’s sake – or should I say tech for tech’s sake?

The more I mulled over my last column (the one about having dinner with a real live rocket scientist) the more I realized I hit on one of many symptoms of the problem the tech industry has in dealing with customers. It’s no wonder most people dislike dealing with technology.

First off, most in our industry don’t even call you customers or clients anymore. You’re now an end user. Catchy, isn’t it? In the eyes of the manufacturers and designers, what you the customer want really isn’t important. It’s all about what they see fit to drop on your plate.

Like that last column when I wrote of how much useful data was gleaned about Mars from a download speed that would make the average teenager go into a meltdown over its slowness, we’re bombarded with garbage through our cable, fiber or DSL lines, all taking up useful space and making us wait for the useful stuff.

Fast forward to very recently. After about five years, I finally replaced the PC on my desk. I really must raise my energy and courage whenever I replace my primary machine since no matter how easy the industry tells all of us it is, it often winds up being a 20- to 30-hour project.

And so it was again. Transferring the documents and data aren’t the problem anymore. It’s having to reinstall each application, then configure it.

I’m close to the last person to use a new technology for myself, since most of our clients are small businesses. I need to see what they see, and most prefer to stay away from the bleeding edge of technology and wait until proven benefits are shown. Not to say I don’t learn the new things. I spend about 10 hours a week just keeping up with product announcements and updates, but as someone who’s dealt with tech for more than 40 years, I don’t want to be constantly fiddling with my own. I just want it to get the job done for me.

Now that I have Windows 10 on my primary machine, I become more irritated by the day. Microsoft, just like Apple and all the others it seems, has decided that those who pay for the products shouldn’t be able to use them as they’d like – only as the makers envision. Thus Windows 10, for all the new things it can do, is now very much like a Mac in that all the customization has been removed. Stupid little things like changing the icon title size or font, spacing or increasing the size of text inside a program but not on the desktop have become tedious to accomplish. You can’t remove Word or Excel, even if you use competing products. And setting up a machine without creating a Microsoft account (can you say Big Brother?) takes some fancy work.

On the tech discussion boards, the Microsoft techs are instructing people to load third-party tools to hack into Windows to make even the most cosmetic changes which used to be a menu away. Macs have always been that way, paraphrasing the Henry Ford quote, “You can have it any way you want as long as it’s our way,” but now Windows is the same, much like Adobe, that has tried to push its pay-by-the-month cloud for years now.

We see this dumbing down happening in all facets of technology. Automobiles now become more irritating each second, reminding us that our seatbelt is not attached (even if we’re driving five miles per hour down our driveway). Aircraft pilots now need more simulator time. Because automation is so prevalent in the cockpit, it’s feared pilots have lost their edge when they need to take manual control in an emergency. With good old Windows, the settings page now takes the entire screen to present all of 14 items instead of the dozens of options we used to have. As for icons, we’ve gone back in time to hieroglyphics since it seems the designers don’t think you can read. We no longer tape record any show we want on TV as we gave up the old VCR in the name of progress. We’re now stuck with DVRs which can’t permanently save anything. Please remind me which icon means high beams and which is for running lights.

This constant push for faster internet connections, bigger screens to show larger icons (which accomplish less with each version) and exponential increases in the use of storage space (both locally and in the cloud) aren’t really bringing us any meaningful increases in productivity, are they? Do you get more done at your computer now than five or 10 years ago? Or are you presented with more fluff and junk using up the productivity gains from newer technology? Not sure what the answer is, but more and more of us are keeping our gadgets longer and longer, so maybe there’s hope.

Be sure that when your business is told it’s time to upgrade, update or replace technology that there is a compelling reason and productivity benefit. If not, perhaps it’s time to look at technology from another perspective.

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.

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.”

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