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Posts from July, 2015

DaaS and the Virtual Workspace: The Next Big Thing?

Thursday, July 30th, 2015


We’ve recently received quite a few questions regarding “virtual workspaces.” Particularly in light of the imminent release of the next version of Windows (which, as we’ve discussed, won’t come cheaply for enterprise users), will virtual workspaces be a cost-effective alternative to full computers on every desktop?

The original incarnation of virtual workspaces came in the form of Virtual Desktop Architecture (VDI), a self-contained, “on-premise” server responsible for delivering documents, software, and apps to multiple network users simultaneously. Over the past few years, the reputation of VDI has really taken a beating because, despite the projected bandwidth and storage capacities of that in-house VDI server, network performance invariably seems to fall a step behind—leaving end users frustrated with keystroke lag, poor video resolution, and other annoyances. In most IT circles, VDI is looked back upon as a “novelty”—a technology that never really proved ready for prime time.

Over the past couple of years alone, major advances in the power of Cloud computing have breathed new life into the virtual workspace concept—with far better results.

Through the “Desktop-as-a-Service” model (DaaS), business customers purchase a monthly subscription for Cloud-hosted virtual workstation emulation: software, storage, backup, and upgrades included.

What are the primary benefits of switching to a DaaS environment?

Cost. A monthly DaaS subscription delivers more long-term “bang for the buck” than a traditional PC network or on-premise VDI server. Cloud-hosted workspaces cut the expenses associated with regular hardware upgrades.

Expandability. The turnkey convenience of DaaS means onboarded employees can enjoy a fully functional desktop within only a few hours, without the prolonged hassles of additional software licenses and manually loading and configuring every program.

Mobility. DaaS is an ideal solution for telecommuting and other out-of-office applications. As many employees prefer to use their own personal laptops or tablets, a virtual DaaS environment allows full desktop access on any device, regardless of brand or operating system.

Security. “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Security breaches typically occur on the outer fringes of a network—hackers singling out an end user with inadequate protection or lax “security hygiene.” A DaaS environment centralizes network security at its core, and software patches and antivirus updates deployed from the Cloud protect the full network immediately (all computers and devices, everywhere).

Service. Onsite hardware requires onsite support, such as setup and maintenance. The first generation of VDI required hours upon hours of setting up the onsite servers, plus creating and tweaking the virtual interface for every customer. Because DaaS is hosted remotely, it can be deployed much more quickly, and service issues can be fixed in the fraction of the time of an onsite service call.

In the coming weeks, we’ll expand on the emerging viability of DaaS, and whether it may be the best solution for you.

Is Your Server Room Too Noisy? Take Steps to Fix It

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015


When we conduct our complimentary IT assessment for a prospective customer, one question we’re frequently asked is “Can we do anything to cut down on the noise in our server room?”

Most older office facilities in the Bay Area simply weren’t designed to accommodate heavy computer equipment operating 24/7. And every new server added to a data center contributes to that endless noise. The effects can range from a nagging inconvenience—difficulty hearing phone calls—to levels approaching OSHA’s workplace noise limit (85 decibels). Long-term exposure to noise at this level can have serious consequences, such as tinnitus—a constant ringing in the ears.

Even if completely soundproofing your server room isn’t a viable option, health experts agree that lowering noise levels by as little as a few decibels can markedly reduce employee fatigue and increase productivity.

From the Inside Out

A quieter server room starts with a fortified interior. For rooms with wood walls, remove the exterior surface and fill the spaces between the beams with fiberglass or other heavy insulation, or add a layer of sheetrock to concrete walls. Vinyl sound barriers or acoustic tiles are a good supplemental noise-killer, as are sound baffles suspended from the ceiling. Just make sure everything is properly fire-rated, fiber-free (to prevent clogging in fans), and provides full 360-degree coverage—without any exposed openings that can produce a concentrated “megaphone” effect.

Next, reduce the noise from the servers themselves by replacing “standard” open metal racks—which often reverberate and actually add to the overall noise—with noise-isolating closed cabinets. There’s a wide variety of cabinets on the market today specially designed to contain server noise via layers of foam sound insulation. But it’s important to choose a cabinet with adequate ventilation to prevent the server from overheating. Many mid-range cabinets include built-in auxiliary AC fans to circulate airflow.

Cool Off

Servers are particularly noisy because of the fans required to keep the equipment from overheating. Arbitrarily reducing the speed of a cooling fan—simply flipping the switch from “high” to “low”—can be dangerous, but a server can often be fine-tuned to reduce the amount of heat generated by its CPU, thus reducing the cooling power required.

As vendors are designing most new equipment to be quieter than earlier generations, a noisy older server can usually be made more tolerable by upgrading the fans with newer, quieter units.

How much of a distraction is server noise at your company? Would a quieter work environment be more productive? Let’s see if we can help.

Malvertising: The Next Big Cyber Threat

Thursday, July 16th, 2015


We’ve spent plenty of time here talking about safeguarding your company against phishing and other forms of cyber-attack. As we’ve discussed, the first line of defense against phishing is to make sure your employees remain vigilant by avoiding email links and shady websites. But there’s a bigger threat on the horizon for anyone who simply surfs the Internet. Hidden malware delivered via online ads, or malvertising, is rapidly spreading across the web—including the most trusted news and entertainment sites millions of us visit every day.

Via banners, pop-ups, and animated ads, cybercrooks can embed hidden lines of code that instruct a web browser to automatically retrieve and install malware programs from an unseen URL—literally a “drive-by download,” undetectable by most common anti-virus programs. Some malvertising scams entice viewers to click on an ad (most often pop-ups offering “software updates”). Others infect a computer simply by loading the page.

Successful malvertising immediately renders a computer susceptible to any of the following:

  • Outright theft (identity, financial, or data) or extortion via ransomware, such as CryptoWall or CryptoLocker, a high-encryption virus which can’t be removed without paying off the crooks—usually in untraceable Bitcoin or wire transfer.
  • The computer can be hijacked into a botnet, a ring of “zombified” computers which are silently manipulated for criminal activities, such as repeatedly clicking on bogus pay-per-click ads, bilking websites out of artificially inflated profits.
  • The malvertising can leave behind a browser exploit kit, malicious code that constantly probes a computer for vulnerabilities within the browser as well as standard plug-ins including Adobe Flash Player, Java, and Microsoft Silverlight. When a weakness is found from the inside—as little as missing the latest security update—the door is open for even more lethal malware.

No Sheriff in Town

Most high-traffic websites outsource their advertising to third-party networks who sell space to advertisers—usually simply accepting ads from the highest bidder—and directly insert ad applets into a web page. You’d think these ad networks would bear the responsibility for screening ads against malvertising, but they’re simply not responding fast enough. Like so much of the Internet world, the frenzied volume of online advertising grew much faster than anyone’s ability to regulate it.

Everyone still assumes law enforcement can effectively police criminal activity in cyberspace… but there’s literally no sheriff in town.

How Can You Protect Yourself?

There are a number of measures you can take right now to defend your company against malvertising:

  • Keep your anti-virus and anti-malware software up to date, and make sure the software continues to update on a regular basis. Some manufacturers update their software daily to combat new threats.
  • Use a Firewall with an activated subscription service for UTM (unified threat management). UTM is a service should provide at least two forms of protection:
  1. Filtering out some viruses and malware as they attempt to pass through the Firewall into your office or home network (whether in an email or on a website).
  2. Prohibiting you and/or your users from visiting sketchy websites—the kind a phishing email might direct you to, with or without your knowledge, in an attempt to infect your computer.
  • Regularly check your browsers for the latest security patches.
  • Modify your browser settings to prevent Flash and Java-based animated ads from running automatically, as well as to flag suspicious website content.
  • Create multiple user accounts for each computer, including a “web surfing” account without administrative rights to install or modify software, and to block malicious exploit kits. Some firms have all desktop accounts for their employees configured without administrative rights for this reason.
  • Consider signing up with a Managed Services Provider (MSP) for a Managed Services Program that supplies anti-virus, anti-malware, and security patching, keeps these systems up to date, and manages the process for success—so you can focus on actually using your technology.

To learn more about the dangers of malvertising and other emerging cyber threats, contact us.


Small Business Disaster Recovery Solutions

Friday, July 10th, 2015


“Disaster”: the word itself is synonymous with trauma. Of course, even after a traumatic event, there is an opportunity to rebuild. Restoring your data is a critical part of rebuilding your infrastructure and your business after a physical or virtual disaster.

For businesses, especially small- to medium-sized companies, time is money. The faster your technology systems can recover from any number of problems, the sooner you can return to business as usual. One way to ensure quick recovery is to outsource your technology management to professionals. Let a dedicated IT consultant take on the task of securing your critical business information.

Traditional Cloud-based backup of your in-office systems is the go-to solution for many businesses. With Cloud backup, when something happens to your in-office resources (fire, flood, theft, power problem, or a common virus event that destroys data), you can retrieve all of your data. So far, so good.

The problem with this model, epitomized by offerings from Iron Mountain or Mozy Pro, is that when you do have a disaster and have to retrieve your data, it can take a very long time. Your office may be completely down for a day or two—even weeks or months is not unheard of. Why the delay? Two reasons:

  1. It can take a LONG time to get data back from a Cloud data center. After a disaster, you will have an urgent, mission-critical need to copy your company’s data from a Cloud data center back to your offices, using an Internet pipe. This can take days, a full week, or even longer, largely because data is big and Internet pipes are small. (Think of draining a swimming pool with a garden hose.) Some of these challenges can be partly overcome with a data center that can copy data to hard drives and FedEx it to you. However, this may also be a cumbersome and slow process.

  1. Because Dell and other firms don’t stock servers in inventory, it takes about two weeks to order and receive a new server to put your data back onto. For them, it is more profitable to carry no inventory and to build a server only after you order it. Server parts are often stored on railroad cars near the computer factory, still owned by parts suppliers until the manufacturer says they need something. You can throw money at the problem, but if your servers were burned, stolen, or soaked, where will you put your retrieved data?

Enter hybrid Cloud-based backup technology. This technology marries traditional Cloud backup with a backup server appliance that is located in your office, where mirror images or additional copies of your Cloud backup are stored. Even if you lose a lot of data, no problem—you can quickly retrieve it from the backup server already located in your office. With this approach, the data does not have to pass through an Internet pipe.

Even better, many of the backup server appliances can serve as a “spare tire” server. If your office production server is burnt up by a power glitch, your backup server can take over—and you can be up and running again within an hour.

Some hybrid Cloud backup systems can even “turn on” a spare tire server for you in a Cloud data center. This means that if your office server and backup server are stolen, the data center still has your data and applications. The data center will be able to turn on a mirror image of your original server, and you and your staff can access it remotely to keep serving your clients.

Before hybrid Cloud-based technology was widely accessible, disaster recovery solutions were almost exclusively available to large enterprises with big budgets. Now, thanks to technology advancements, data backup and restoration are readily available at a reasonable cost for small businesses like law firms and financial service companies. Partnering with an IT consulting firm can give you priceless peace of mind when inevitable problems occur.

Benefits of Hybrid Cloud-Based Disaster Recovery

  • Minimized Risk. Remote storage takes on a new dimension with both on-premises and Cloud-based DR servers combined into one system. A natural disaster that causes damage to your physical building will not affect data recovery that is aided by Cloud computing. 
A disaster that affects only your on-premises server, and not your building, is quick to recover from because many of your backups are already in your office. And if the Cloud data center is the location of the disaster, you still have copies of your backups in your office.

  • Compliance. In the event of a disaster, natural or otherwise, data stored in Cloud-based servers can restore servers and allow “snapshots” of data to ensure compliance. Go back in time with your data for audit purposes, or any other scenario requiring information collected in the past. 
 Encryption, often a compliance requirement, is easy to obtain in comparison with a traditional tape drive.

  • Minimal Down Time. Rest assured that your in­-house software recovery may occur within minutes or hours instead of days or weeks, ensuring the continuity of your workflow. If you have an app on your tablet or smartphone that allows access to data on a “normal” work day, you should be able to access that same data directly from the data center.

Options Within Options

If regulatory compliance such as SEC or HIPAA is an issue, the hybrid approach—a combination of Cloud and traditional DR planning—could be the best solution for your disaster recovery needs. Technological advancements have produced abundant options in data security for small- to medium-sized companies. With heightened security and flexibility, you’ll be equipped to recover from any unforeseen event that would otherwise devastate your business.