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Do You Have A Plan to Refresh Your Technology?

in Technology
Joe Balsarotti
Joe Balsarotti

It’s hard to believe any business nowadays not being computerized. After all, without a website or at least email, it would be invisible to the vast majority of the public. Even businesses that get their customers solely from referrals have to be able to communicate in a way that customers and prospects prefer.

Those of us old enough remember the switch to computers. It usually started with an accounting system, maybe BPI, Great Plains, Timberline or Accpac. The time spent on finance and accounting went down significantly as adding machine and ledger paper were replaced. Then came word processing and the days of carbon paper were gone. CAD/CAM drastically reduced time to design and reduced errors. Local area networks started becoming commonplace in even small offices and everyone had access to the data without having to wait for someone to get done with ‘the file.’

Back in the very late ‘70s to the early ‘90s, it was easy to justify the expense of computer technology. The benefits went almost immediately to the bottom line, expanding abilities and reducing labor costs. ‘Selling’ management or the owners on buying equipment and software was an easy task. Technology planning meant calling a rep, getting a quote and saying yea or  nay, then starting the whole process again from scratch five to seven years later.

Some years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Dan Bricklin at an industry conference. You’ve probably never heard of him, but you certainly know the results of his invention, Visicalc. Yes, imagine a world before spreadsheets. The digital marriage of a sheet of ledger paper and a calculator was the brainchild of Mr. Bricklin. During his presentation, he was asked one of the best business questions I’ve ever heard at a tech event (tech events tend to be very techie rather than bottom-line oriented) “How did you arrive at a price of $499 for Visicalc?” He replied that those were the days of timeshare computing and that an hour of computer time was expensive. So, he calculated the average three-month cost for timeshare services then worked backwards, subtracting the cost of an Apple II computer, monitor, disk drive and printer. The result was a difference of about five hundred bucks, so $499 became Visicalc’s price.

Bricklin wanted the selling of Visicalc (and everything necessary to use it) to be a no-brainer. Why, after all, would any company want to pay to rent computer time when in just three months they could have their own system free and clear?

Nowadays it seems the benefits of newer technology are much harder to calculate. How much productivity does your business really gain if an older machine takes two more minutes to start up in the morning than a new one would, or printing takes an extra minute? Realistically, is your staff ready at the first minute of the workday or are they getting coffee, arranging their desk or hanging up their coat anyway?

The gains of new technology for businesses seem to have hit an inflection point. Now, it isn’t how much more you’ll gain as much as how much your business could lose by not keeping current. All those columns I’ve written about security, backup, and data loss might be coming to mind for you right now (at least I hope so). Downtime is an expense and a costly one. What price do you pay if a machine goes down and leaves an employee unproductive for a day? What if that machine is your server? Hard drives have finite life spans, so do cooling fans. They will eventually fail and that means your staff can’t get work done. Parts availability might become a problem with older systems. Even if the parts are available, how long to get them, have the repair completed, and the data restored? Time is money, after all. What’s your plan to deal with a failure?

Security also is a concern on older systems, as is compatibility with newer systems within your organization or those of your vendors, clients, and prospects. It’s hard to calculate the damage if your proposal looks like gibberish or is formatted wrong, because you were running a five-year-old version of Word or Acrobat, but it’s easy to calculate the loss if you miss a deadline because of system failure.

Businesses should have a written plan for a technology refresh. Some businesses can get by with a once-a-five-year refresh if their systems and internal procedures are very solid and scripted. Others, especially ones with more creative aspects such as design and architecture, need to replace machines along with each new version of their primary design software as each version adds new features and therefore requires more power from the hardware.

Even Internet access requires technology refreshes. How many of you have the same firewall from an old DSL connection running a newer cable or fiber line? If so, you are getting half of the speed you’re paying for because the firewall can’t scan the data at the speed of your line. Security improvements aside, a five year old firewall is a dinosaur and if not costing you money, is keeping you from getting what you’re paying for each month.

So, work with your tech provider, develop a plan and stick to it. If your technology people aren’t proactively working with you already in this regard, it’s probably time to find a new provider who can be a true partner for your business. A tech refresh plan will allow you to budget for necessary improvements and go a long way to keeping your company secure and up-to-date.

I welcome your questions or comments at businesstech@software-to-go.com

Joe Balsarotti, president of Software To Go, is a 36-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’ (NFIB) Missouri Leadership Council, was 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 over 1000 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America.

When’s The Last Time Your PC or Server Got an Oil Change?

in Columns/Technology
Joe Balsarotti

By Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go

The quick lube places drummed the “three months or 3,000-mile” mantra into all of us some 20 years ago and built an industry around it. Later, autos with 100,000 miles were considered exceptions; now 200,000 miles and more is the norm. Any mechanic will tell you that regular preventative maintenance allows cars to last longer. Computers need constant maintenance, too. A network going down can be far more costly to your business than if a truck, van or car in your fleet malfunctions. After all, you can’t just call up Enterprise and rent a new network for a week.

Far too many businesses see their technology as simply a necessary expense rather than the asset it is. After all, how expensive would it be to do your bookkeeping by hand compared to the cost of merely plugging numbers into your accounting system? Computers, networks and the like should be treated as the integral part of your business that they are. Just like changing the oil in a car or greasing the gears of heavy machinery, regularly scheduled preventative maintenance results in saving money rather than costing your business money.

Computer technology changes constantly. A model year for a desktop computer is about four months; major application programs renew every one to three years. In the software realm, most programs are dependent upon other programs that very likely are produced by another company. One vendor finds a bug, a defect or an entry point for hackers and writes a patch or update to fix it. That, in turn, changes parameters in other programs that communicate with it, requiring updates. On the hardware side, printers, scanners, CNC, robotics, entry systems and other connected devices need software updates when the operating systems running on the PCs are updated. Security updates to anti-virus, endpoints and firewalls are conducted daily, if not hourly, behind the scenes.

All those updates and changes need to be managed by someone. We’ve seen many a business user’s system crash, only to discover that the software is two, three or even five years behind. Companies may unintentionally leave their operations vulnerable and accessible to any kid who searched for “hacking tools” on the Internet. A lack of preventive maintenance and monitoring – what our industry refers to as managed services – leads to unexpected and unpleasant future expenses.

Just last month we heard about the St. Louis Public Library’s entire network being rendered unusable as a Cryptolocker type of ransomware was downloaded and encrypted the data, holding it hostage. The patron machines and back-office machines never should have been on the same network in the first place, but I’m sure someone will argue that it was prohibitively expensive to do it the correct way. Oops. We’re left wondering how much that shortcut will cost taxpayers. Was the library paying for update subscriptions to its firewalls? Was all of the software completely updated and was the network being monitored for a mass change in data? At least we do know that St. Louis Public Library had backups of the data and didn’t pay the ransom.

How would your network fare if it were attacked in the same manner? What costs would your business incur if all computers were unusable for a week? Would the idea of preventative maintenance and monitoring suddenly look like a cheap insurance policy?

Gartner research back in 2010 showed that 43 percent of companies were immediately put out of business by a “major loss” of computer records – and that another 51 percent of businesses studied permanently closed their doors within two years, leaving a mere 6 percent survival rate.

Maybe many of those data losses were caused by a major disaster destroying the surrounding customer base, as one possible example. But ask yourself: even if these are extra harsh statistics, what happens if you lose your customer list, your A/R report and aging, blueprints, plans or schematics for all the projects on which you are working? Realistically, would your business survive, and at what cost? More importantly, could it have been prevented by spending a realistic amount of money on managed service and preventative maintenance?

Most managed service plans are flat monthly, quarterly or annual fees based upon either the number of users or devices in the business. Your business gets the advantage of peace of mind that your tech provider’s incentive is to prevent problems because repair and remediation takes more time and is therefore less profitable. Additionally, your business gains a far better grasp on the true expenses of your technology because you can forecast and budget far in advance – and you can hopefully eliminate the unexpected, immediate expenses that failures bring.

I welcome your questions or comments at businesstech@software-to-go.com.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 37-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Balsarotti served three terms as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) 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 Advisory Panel of the ASCII Group, an organization of more than 1,000 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America.

Consider Lying to Make Your Personal and Business Data More Secure

in Columns/Technology
Joe Balsarotti

I’ve written about it before, security breaches allow access to personal data. No business is safe. When the ‘big guys’ get hit, it makes the evening news. When it happens to a small business or an individual, it can still be devastating.

The recent Yahoo hack exposed one billion accounts. That’s one-thousand-million users who got their data stolen. What’s really bad about this second exposure at Yahoo is that not only did user names and passwords get out, but also those security question answers. Oops.

With that in mind, here are some tips on how to make your data and your business’s more secure.

In my opinion, the whole idea of a security question as a way to recover forgotten passwords or accounts is just plain stupid. As Sarah Palin found out during the 2008 elections, just about anyone can find out enough about you to answer the questions usually asked and sure enough, her email account was hacked. Which, of course, means that just about anyone can get your data.

So, what can you do about it?  Lie.

Yes, lie when you enter answers to security questions. If the vendor asks for your high school, enter your college. Enter your father’s middle name when asked for your mother’s, etc. The trick, obviously, is to be consistent so you don’t trip yourself up. You might even consider entering the first of your birth month as your birth date, for example, when registering with most sites. After all, you will still get your free birthday desert at the local restaurant if you keep the month correct but might save yourself grief if the restaurant rewards program gets hacked and your birthday gets out.

The ‘keep it simple’ premise can be utilized in your business. Don’t ask your staff, your vendors or your customers for data that you really don’t need. Remember, once you have that data, its safety is the responsibility of your company. That also means the liability for a breach is on your company as well. Maybe your marketing people say sending a birthday greeting or your sales staff knowing a customer’s anniversary is a plus, but does it really matter if you know the exact day? Would more general data serve the same purpose with lower risk?

Remember, the adage of ‘change your passwords frequently’ is not to protect you, the customer, it is to protect the ones holding that data. Obviously, the best security is to come up with a password very hard for someone else to figure out, but that you can memorize. Constantly changing passwords, do the opposite. People forget them because the most secure and meaningful ones have already been used. Therefore their passwords become simpler and simpler and in most cases end up written down on Post It notes, where a cleaning crew, employees, visitors, or family can easily see them.

The reason password changes are crammed down your throat is due to a valid worry that the data holder may have already been breached and doesn’t know it. Changing the passwords regularly renders the stolen data useless, which does protect you, but it’s really done as an attempt to reduce the holder’s liability.

One way to protect yourself with regards to frequent password changes is to come up with some formula only you know which allows a memorizable password, but also makes it unique at every place you use it.  For example, say you decide your ‘master password’ will be the word “memory”. If you have a Yahoo account, make the password “1Memory1-Y”, for a Gmail account, your password would become “1Memory1-G” and for online banking it would become “1Memory1-B”.   In this way, you’ve kept the basic password as something you can remember and not have to write down, it includes letters of both upper and lower case, numbers (not just tacked onto the end) and a symbol, all things that are required by most sites nowadays. You’ve already figured out the last letter is the first of the site, but when hackers try your data at a host of well-known websites, it will fail. They are not going to analyze your individual password for a pattern. They are already onto trying the next million easy targets in their list.

Turning to the business side of the equation, customer data stored on your systems should always be secured with multiple levels of security, which include hardware firewalls, passwords (or better yet, biometrics), endpoint protection, and security training for your staff. All security products should have update subscriptions and only administrators should have access to install software. Every user should have their own unique passwords and your employee manual should make clear that sharing passwords, or using another’s account could be a fireable offense. Don’t ask security questions of your customers. Instead consider having them enter a second phrase, which only makes sense to them, but not one based on a question which could be obtained by a hacker.

Having your personal data stolen is bad, but losing your company because someone stole all your employee or customer data is worse. Take the necessary precautions and consider protecting yourself with a couple little white lies.

I welcome your questions or comments at businesstech@software-to-go.com.

Joe Balsarotti is President of Software To Go and is a 37-year veteran of the computer industry, reaching back to the days of the Apple II. Joe, served three terms as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) 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 Advisory Panel of the ASCII Group, an organization of over 1000 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America.

Are You and Your Company Suffering from Data Overload?

in Columns/Technology
Joe Balsarotti
Joe Balsarotti

By Joe Balsarotti

The amount of data on the Internet is staggering. Back in 2011, USC researchers estimated humans had already stored 295 billion gigabytes, and here I am adding to the total with this column. Here in 2016, tweets rack up at a rate of about 6000 every second. While I write this, there are over a billion separate websites, with over 3.89 billion pages (You can see the ‘size of the Internet’ change in real-time at http://www.worldwidewebsize.com/)

You’re wondering how this makes any difference to your business. The statistics above are interesting, but here’s the one that brings it home. Every second of every day, more than 2,000,000 emails are sent. How many are unread in YOUR inbox?

Data overload is happening to everyone. We’re inundated in emails, tweets, Facebook posts, pins, and a host of other calls for attention. Technology has not, as of yet, developed the solution for keeping up with it all, namely the 25th, 26th and 27th hour of the day. Since those extra hours aren’t here, yet, although I keep trying to invent them, how can one manage the time consumed by both ‘good’ emails and time wasters?

First off, use more than one email address. Yes, more makes for simplicity. Use a Yahoo, Gmail of other ‘freebee’ email service for all those companies who send newsletters, sale fliers, blogs, and the like. Using something completely divorced from your primary work email address (which should NOT be your primary personal email address) gets right at the heart of the problem. When you have spare time, go to the freebee email portal and dig in. DO NOT have that address automatically sent to your phone, Outlook, Thunderbird or whatever you view normal emails with. There needs to be a barrier between that type of email and your business and personal correspondence.

After you have that general email address set up take an afternoon, subscribe only to the ones you want (times do change and your sign ups from 2005 may not be relevant anymore) at that new address. As soon as you do, unsubscribe from those lists on your ‘real’ email address. Use this opportunity to clean house and make your days easier.

Now, back to my pithy comment above, if you are using the same address for work and personal emails, time to split those up too. It’s fine to have those two addresses hitting your phone and computer, but when you await an important message about your child, you don’t want it mixed in with work and when that contract comes in, you shouldn’t need to sort through PTA emails to find it.

Next, use the power of the computer and the software you paid for. Create folders for general topics you deal with, be it your kid’s soccer team, church group, purchase orders, legal docs, etc. There’s no need to go hog wild with fifty folders when ten will do, but make those ten folders reflect topics you can easily prioritize on a hectic day. If a deadline is nearing, go straight for that project folder instead of having to sift through dozens of messages irrelevant to getting the job done on time.

Lastly, set rules for the incoming emails, this may be a time when you need your tech staff to assist you. When the sender is a subcontractor, have Outlook dump that email immediately into the folder for them, or for the project they are working on. If the sender is your child’s school, into the folder for that child it goes. Vendor invoices or correspondence goes into the vendor folder, then maybe a sub-folder for just them. What you have to learn to do is look at the folders for the highlight or number denoting new messages, rather than the inbox. In this way, you immediately know the topics of many of your incoming emails and can prioritize with just a glance.

Start with very general folders and rules and refine them as you become comfortable with the new ‘normal’. If do it correctly, you can deal with 200-400 emails a day (as I get) and still have time for lunch. Now, if only you can get your staff to do the same thing …

I welcome your questions or comments at businesstech@software-to-go.com

Joe Balsarotti, president of Software To Go, is a 36-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’ (NFIB) Missouri Leadership Council, was 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 over 1000 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America.

Reducing Risk in the Internet Age

in Technology
Joe Balsarotti
Joe Balsarotti

By Joe Balsarotti

Seems every tech article nowadays is about the liabilities of technology. Hacking, lost data, damaged online reputations, and the legal and ethical ramifications of technology and stored data.

So, it seems appropriate to delve into how to, if not minimize, at least mitigate the liabilities that the digital world has created for all businesses large and small.

Does your business host its own website?

Unless you have private components to yours site for vendors or customers to access your database, there is no reason to host your own site. Cutting off that entry point to your network goes a long way in reducing your risk. Besides, except for keeping internal I.T. people busy, there’s not much upside in hosting your own website. Outsource it to professionals after you’ve done due diligence to make sure there are backups, redundant sites, and uptime guarantees. In short, let specialists deal with it.

How about email, why would you host your own?

Forget the security concerns for a moment. Since over 95 percent of all email transmitted gets rejected at the server as spam, that means that 95 percent of the Internet ‘pipe’ you are paying for is wasted on trash. Find a reputable provider whose focus is on providing email.  After all, there are very few individual businesses with access to datacenters across the country for redundancy, battery and generator backup, communication lines from multiple providers, and 24/7 staffing, but quality email providers do.

Granted, going with one of the ‘big guys’ for email or hosted Exchange has its own set of issues as they are larger targets to hackers. If someone breaches your in-house email server, however, you don’t really have recourse, but if a multimillion or billion dollar provider gets breached, they will have far more resources to bring to bear on restoring service and recovering damaged or lost data. Plus, it’s a fair bet that lawyers will be lined up to help you recover compensation for any losses you suffer.

Passwords, remember them?

One of the easiest ways to minimize liability with technology doesn’t cost a penny, but it is essential. ANY notebook, phone, tablet, or home PC that can access your company and/or customer data must always be password protected and should lock if unattended.

When replacing old PCs and servers, businesses generally know to keep the hard drives or get a certificate of destruction. However, the same precaution goes for those tablets or phones. Getting a couple bucks for trading in an old phone or tablet turns into a really bad deal when the tablet or phone falls into the hands of foreign hackers and organized crime, who buy old electronics by the pallet, looking for data off of hard drives.

Save yourself some headaches and reduce your company’s risk in the digital world by getting a certificate of destruction for every device that you dispose of.

I welcome your questions or comments at businesstech@software-to-go.com

Joe Balsarotti is president of Software To Go and is a 35-year veteran of the computer industry, starting back in the days of the Apple II. He served three terms as chairman of the National Federation of Independent Business’ (NFIB) Missouri Leadership Council. He was 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 over 1000 independent computer and technology solution providers in North America.

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