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Posts Tagged ‘cloud computing’


Boost Productivity and Security with Google’s Cloud Applications

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

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For anyone unfamiliar with the Google Applications platform, Google Docs et al. are a Cloud-based spin on mainstay office suite programs that can help your staff work better together.

With a zero-dollar price tag (compared with Microsoft Office’s hefty annual subscription fees) and the potential to boost both productivity and IT security, Google Docs shines as a collaboration tool.

For many types of projects that require teamwork, Google Docs streamlines solutions to the most challenging continuity and security issues inherent in transferring multiple versions of the same file between staff members.

About Google Docs

Google’s DocsSheets, and Slides applications offer many of the same features as Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, respectively. As browser-based applications, however, they are platform-agnostic, and will work across any device that runs a compatible web browser.

According to CNET, Google Docs does not compete with Microsoft Office feature-for-feature, but instead tries to emphasize the features that are most useful for the typical user. These applications can function in conjunction with existing office suite programs or, depending on your preferences, as a standalone service.

Productivity Perks

Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides offer incredible continuity perks that facilitate collaboration in a huge way. Employees share access to files on Google’s applications through a Cloud-based storage platform called Google Drive, where the files update automatically every few seconds to ensure that everyone accessing them sees the latest version. This makes it easy to edit a document before sending it to a client, or use a spreadsheet as a checklist to keep track of progress on a project in real-time.

The Google application suite eliminates scenarios such as accidentally grabbing an old version of a document/spreadsheet and wasting time merging two sets of content into one file. As a bonus, Google’s web apps free up IT staff to work on other projects because they no longer need to spend time implementing Microsoft Office on employee devices.

IT Security Perks

Google’s range of tools offers several benefits from an IT security standpoint. Cloud-based systems like Google Docs reduce the need for employees to transfer files via email, minimizing the risk of spreading phishing links and viruses. And while it may not be the best option for storing confidential information or files, the platform-agnostic nature of Google Docs allows for easy access to shared files on a wide range of device types, including Windows PCs, Macs, Linux PCs, Chromebooks, iOS devices, and Android devices. This flexibility allows IT teams to take advantage of more secure platforms and limit the device pools that could spread malware. 

If you’re looking to increase workplace productivity and security, the IT consulting experts at MPA Networks are ready to help. Contact us today to get started.

Looking Forward: Cloud Services Costs and Opportunities

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

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If your small-to-medium business (SMB) isn’t looking at ways to increase productivity through Cloud services, you could be missing out on exciting opportunities. But while the Cloud offers countless opportunities for business expansion, it can also taking up an ever-increasing share of your company’s IT budget. Overall IT budgets may not be growing, but Cloud expenses are; industry shifts indicate a gradual move towards increased dependency on Cloud platforms to run business operations even among small businesses.

Your business should be aware of these shifts, as they could have a direct impact on how your company’s IT budget is allocated in the future. Read on to find out more. 

The Cloud’s Share of IT Budget

According to a 451 Research study, the typical business spent around 28 percent of its IT budget on Cloud services in 2016, which could increase to a projected 34 percent in 2017.

The study argues that the budget adjustment will stem from an increased reliance on external hosting infrastructure, application platforms, online IT security, and SaaS management programs.

While this report implies a budget increase in one area, businesses will be able to recoup part of the cost with a decreased reliance on internal infrastructure like local servers. Additionally, Cloud platforms do a lot of the heavy lifting, so your business will be less dependent on powerful, expensive computers.

The State of IT and Cloud Expenses

Gartner reported that businesses worldwide spent $2.69 trillion on IT services in 2015With IT expenses remaining mostly flat across 2016, that puts total enterprise Cloud service expenses around $750 million annually. The Cloud is a big deal in the business world: in 2016, upwards of 41 percent of enterprise workloads ran in the Cloud, and that number could grow to 60 percent by the end of 2018.

Why Use the Cloud for SMBs?

Simply put, the Cloud offers businesses incredible versatility, flexibility, and agility that’s not available with on-site servers. One of the Cloud’s key advantages is that it can enable a business to become significantly less dependent, if not completely independent, on local servers. Moreover, Cloud servers can scale for extra processing power to handle work in web applications, web hosting, and SaaS platforms that wouldn’t be available if the business had to rely entirely on in-house servers. Finally, the Cloud allows employees easier access to work platforms regardless of their physical location, making collaboration, disaster recovery, security, and data backup much simpler.

Common Cloud Services to Explore

Here’s a list of Cloud services worth exploring for all SMBs:

  • Content Management Systems
  • Customer Relationship Management Systems
  • Data Backup and Archiving
  • Point-of-Sale Platforms
  • Time Clock Systems
  • Productivity/Web Applications

 If your business is trying to decide whether to expand its IT infrastructure into the Cloud or simply maintain current costs via IT consulting, contact the experts at MPA Networks today.

Are Chromebooks Right for YOUR Business?

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016

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Google’s Chromebook platform has the potential to replace traditional laptops and increase productivity for businesses, much like it has in the consumer market at large. For the uninitiated,

Chromebooks are Cloud-oriented laptops that run most operations through the Google Chrome web browser instead of traditional desktop applications.

And, while lacking the raw horsepower and feature range found in Windows and Mac computers, Chromebooks manage to pack a ton of functionality in a secure, zippy, and affordable package.

Extremely Capable Machines

According to TechRadar, the Chromebook is an ideal device for workers who rely mostly, if not exclusively, on Cloud data storage and web applications. Employees that work mostly through Google Apps already will find the device a natural fit. If it runs in Chrome, it runs on the Chromebook.

Other employees who primarily use desktop computers may find a Chromebook a much more powerful productivity booster for a secondary mobile device compared with smartphones and tablets. While the devices may have slower CPUs than comparable laptops, they’re running an OS with little overhead bloat, so they tend to offer a smooth user experience.

Cloud-Based Advantages

The Cloud-based nature of Chromebooks makes them a great asset for malware prevention and simplified disaster recovery. According to Google, Chromebooks “are designed from the ground up to defend against malware and viruses.” Additionally, all files saved in web applications are stored in the Cloud, which means the disaster recovery process amounts to simply reloading the operating system. Moreover, Chromebooks are highly secure in the event of theft since they don’t store confidential data on the device itself.

Low Cost

Chromebooks are a cost-effective option for many companies, but small startups may have the most to gain. Don’t use—or can’t afford—costly management tools, server hardware, and other infrastructure? Chromebooks start as low as $150, with more capable models in the $200-250 range; high-end Chromebooks hit the cost ceiling at $500. These are much cheaper than typical enterprise laptops, making them an affordable alternative. Chromebooks are also a great option for business trips, considering three-day laptop rentals can cost between $70 and $150 per employee.

Results May Vary

Chromebooks aren’t for everyone, so make sure the device fits seamlessly into your workflow before making a company-wide commitment. If, for example, your employees need powerful systems with proprietary software for intense applications like video editing, rendering 3D models, or financial modeling, and these tasks are not offloaded into the Cloud, then Chromebooks are not for you. Also, it’s worth keeping in mind that Chromebooks lose most of their functionality when working in areas without an Internet connection, and that configuring a Chromebook to print isn’t as easy as on a PC or Mac.

That said, many of the Chromebook’s shortcomings could see improvements soon: Google is planning to add Android application support in the near future. If your workflow can adapt well to Chromebooks, the pros may outweigh the cons and then some.

New Ransomware Good Reminder to Practice Thorough Data Backup

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016

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A new combination of a sophisticated password-stealing Trojan, powerful exploit kit, and content-encrypting ransomware is making its way around the Internet infecting Windows users. If it hits your business, you’re looking at a considerable loss of time and finances.

It’s estimated that businesses worldwide spent around $491 billion in 2014 managing the blowback from data breaches and malware infections. Making sure your business is ready to minimize the amount of damage a ransomware attack can do is the best course of action for dealing with cyber threats like these.

Ransomware Refresher

Ransomware has taken system-disabling malware to a whole new level by trying to extort money in exchange for returning control.

Ransomware that employs data encryption programs like Cryptolocker and CryptoWall uses a complex encoding algorithm that locks off important data on the computer—so removing the ransomware will not restore the data.

In many cases, paying the $24 to $600+ demanded to decrypt the information ends up being practical, because restoring the lost data would end up costing more. However, it is possible that even after you’ve paid the ransom the hackers will not restore access to your system. So pay at your own risk.

Kicking You When You’re Down

The new malware fusion doesn’t just lock a user out of their computer or try to steal login credentials; it does both, and tries to use some of that stolen information to hijack websites the user has admin access to (and propagate itself across more systems). According to PCWorld, the new disastrous malware mix uses the “Angler” exploit kit, the credential-stealing “Pony” Trojan, and the “CryptoWall 4” ransomware. If any of your business’s computers are hit with this malware campaign, you’ll have to deal with compromised account login information, possible FTP and SSH website access breaches, and all the data on the infected computer is as good as lost. So you’re not only looking at the expenses for changing passwords, locking down websites, and replacing lost information, but also the dozens of hours redoing lost work.

The Best Defense

Even though malware finds new ways to compromise systems, it is still a best security practice to keep your antivirus and system software up to date to protect your information. However, keeping everything updated can be problem for some companies, as vital software may not work correctly following an update. Additionally, businesses should avoid using computers running old, outdated operating systems like Windows XP that are no longer receiving security updates.

Making sure your important information is also saved in off-device storage (like an external hard drive or on a cloud service backup) is one of the best things your business can do to minimize the amount of damage caused by a system-disabling malware attack. If the system is infected, the backed up data will still be up to date—and instead of losing months of work, you’re looking at a few hours or days instead. Moving work to cloud-based applications with online storage is another good way to prevent loss from malware. If an employee’s computer gets hit with ransomware, any work they’ve been storing or working on through a cloud service is still safe and secure.

Need advice on backing up your data? Get in touch with a local MSP today.

Transitioning to the Cloud? “Know Before You Go”

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

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The Cloud is here to stay—and growing before our eyes. Even the customer segment that the marketing world terms late adopters—the last people to “get on the boat” of tech trends—are finally taking a hard look at migrating at least some of their IT to Cloud-based apps.

One big reason is that their existing data center infrastructure has reached the end of the line. In the depths of the Great Recession, belt-tightening and bean-counting left many companies reluctant to spend the capital to replace their on-premise server equipment, squeezing out a few more years beyond their recommended service life. When it’s finally time to usher obsolete servers into retirement, IT managers are weighing the pros and cons of deploying Cloud services over purchasing new hardware outright.

Is the Cloud right for you? Maybe.

The hardware/Cloud argument isn’t all that different from deciding whether to purchase or lease a new automobile. Both options have tangible advantages—which, depending on the salesperson’s objective, they’ll play up. Hardware vendors will insist that direct ownership translates into a higher ROI over the long haul, while Cloud service providers will stress a speedier turnkey deployment with lower pay-as-you-go (or pay-as-you-need) pricing, eliminating a need for hefty upfront financing. Depending on who’s trying to sell what, it’s easy to play with the numbers—and leave the customer’s head spinning!

Before you turn to the Cloud simply because “Cloud looks cheaper,” don’t forget to read the fine print.

As we talked about in our Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) series last August, the flexibility of the Cloud can be tempered by vendors’ hidden charges, such as software license fees, shifting between “service tiers,” locking customers into a minimum number of desktops, or other unfavorable contract terms. Service that looked competitively priced at the beginning can look less attractive as costs creep upward.

A Top-Down Approach

Instead of basing these decisions on the bottom line, look at them from the top down. Which IT functions would be better served via the Cloud? Many companies begin with transitioning their email system from onsite servers to Cloud-based email, because the vendor becomes contractually responsible for keeping the system up and running 24/7 (when email goes down, so does your whole company!). They’ll also assume the required day-to-day maintenance of upgrades, add-ons, and security patches, as we know email is the primary gateway for hackers and malware.

We anticipate a future where most small businesses will rely on the convenience of the Cloud, simply networking each desktop into a single modular connection to an outside provider. Our point today is that transitioning to the Cloud involves a strategy for determining the logistics—what, where, how, and why. If you’d like some advice on crafting a successful Cloud strategy for your company, contact us.

Standing Desks: Could They Improve Your Workplace?

Tuesday, January 12th, 2016

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It’s been talked about everywhere from the New York Times to Men’s Health and Women’s Health: Sitting at a desk all day may be dangerously unhealthy.

Medical studies conducted around the world support the same conclusion: When a human body remains seated and inactive, it quickly enters its own “power-saving mode”—not unlike the computer you’re using right now. The internal processes that burn calories and break down fat slow to a crawl. Over a full workday, the body’s overall “fat burning” functions can shrink to as much as half the normal rate. That raises the long-term risks of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, while pressure points on the spine can lead to other issues—from poor posture to lingering back pain. Prolonged sitting may even slow chemical circulation in the brain, affecting mood.

In today’s breakneck pace of Bay Area business, how many of your employees stay seated in their cubicles from 9 to 5—or longer? Do they skip meals and work through what was once generally considered “lunch hour”—hardly even getting up to stretch their legs? Will their productivity eventually be threatened by what researchers have dubbed sitting disease?

There may be a simple solution.

Stand and Deliver

More and more office workers—including employees of Silicon Valley heavyweights Google and Facebook—are experiencing multiple health benefits from standing desks. A Canadian study of standing desk users published earlier this year in Preventative Medicine revealed:

  • An average physiological increase of 8 heartbeats per minute (even higher for a treadmill desk!)
  • Higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol—and less (“bad”) LDL.
  • Reduced fatigue, tension, confusion, and depression—with more energy and focus.

Best of Both Worlds?

A standing desk may take some getting used to. Some users report a physical “break-in” period—like the soreness from a new workout routine. While many come to prefer standing, doctors advise that only standing or sitting still both carry potential health risks, and recommend alternating between the two. That could mean using height-adjustable desks (an online search will display plenty on the market, at varying price points) or using one or more “community” standing workstations, which employees can try for themselves and use whenever they’d like a change of pace.

The good news here is that simple “toggling” between different onsite workstations is another perfect application for Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS). Instead of unplugging and re-plugging a laptop—or being left “anchored” by an immobile desktop PC—the user can simply log in from either endpoint, with full functionality (files, apps, email, conferencing, and more) hosted in the Cloud.

If your company has an in-house ergonomic specialist, run this idea by them… then talk with us about making it work.

3 Incredible Benefits of Protecting Your Cloud Data with Two-Step Verification

Friday, October 16th, 2015

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Online security breaches can be expensive and productivity-killing events. When a nefarious third party acquires an employee password, it’s no party at all.

Many online businesses have begun using Two-Step Verification, also known as Two-Factor Authentication, to introduce an extra layer of protection against hackers and other cyber villains.

A number of juggernaut tech companies rely on some form of Two-Step Verification to store and exchange private information, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Dropbox, Evernote, Yahoo, and PayPal. Two-Step Verification works by controlling which computers, tablets, phones, and other devices can access online accounts, requiring a user who’s logging on for the first time on a new device to enter an authorization key. Account owners assign a specific authentication key to each device—whether a cell phone or USB dongle key—which the user receives via text message, telephone call, or application. The key is time-sensitive, so any given key code only works for a short duration. If an account owner discovers a breach, all they need to do is sign on to the account with an already approved device and change the password.

Still wondering whether Two-Step Verification is right for you? Check out this list of benefits:

  1. Stolen Passwords Are Relatively Useless

If someone steals a password for an account that uses Two-Step Verification, that password is entirely useless unless the crook stole the authentication device as well, or has access to systems already approved for use. If they have the device but not the password, they’re also not getting through. In other words, the key and password are useless without each other.

  1. Control Which Machines Access Accounts

Two-Step Verification makes it so an account owner can choose which devices have access to confidential accounts. For example, a business may opt to enable access to specific devices for employees, but withhold the authentication key to prevent people from enabling access on unapproved devices. Alternatively, someone may opt to sync their workstation and personal laptop via the Cloud to work seamlessly between the two devices, but keep the laptop unauthenticated for confidential accounts because it poses a higher security risk. The workstation would act as an intermediary device in this case.

  1. Brute Force Hacks Fail

Brute force hacks systematically guess passwords and keys until they find the one that works. Since Two-Step Verification systems change the key after short intervals, brute force hacking procedures have to start from the beginning each time the interval elapses. The key is a moving target, which makes a brute force hack contingent on luck. The hack will almost certainly be identified and blocked before it cracks the code.

The downside? Two-Step Verification can be a bit tedious to configure. And because it prevents bad things from happening instead of making good things happen, it may feel like an unrewarded effort.

A managed service provider can help your business develop and implement a Two-Step Verification plan today. Two-Step Verification can streamline data sharing and increase productivity, saving you time and money by preventing security breaches over third-party platforms. Get in touch with a trusted local IT consulting service to protect what’s most important to your business.

Desktop-as-a-Service: Start with the Right Roadmap

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

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In this third installment of our blog series on Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) and Cloud-hosted virtual workspaces, we’d like to pass along a few pointers about when and how to plan a successful structured deployment within your organization. Everything starts with a plan.

When is it time to think about switching over to virtual desktops? First, assess the physical condition of your current IT infrastructure. Have your existing servers literally outgrown the confines of your cramped server room, making expansion near-impossible?

If the average age of your servers, desktops, and company-issued laptops is more than three years—long past their initial warranty—it’s probably a good time to consider switching to a DaaS environment over the mounting costs of maintaining all that depreciating hardware.

Adapting Your Software: Old and New

Your first step toward DaaS is a comprehensive inventory of all software currently used by every workgroup. Many “legacy” applications—where the original vendors are either out of business or no longer offer support—require extensive advance testing to determine if they’ll fully function on a modern DaaS platform.

Newer software may require some “gymnastics” when it comes to user license agreements. Copies licensed to one or more individual PC users may contain significant restrictions regarding installation on a multi-user Cloud environment. The penalties for license infractions—fines or back payments—can be rather stiff, so it pays to “do your homework” before committing to a DaaS switchover.

Test, Troubleshoot, Tweak

Migrating to the Cloud isn’t a one-size-fits-all, flick-of-the-switch affair. A successful company-wide deployment only comes after a period of in-depth pilot testing. Find a few volunteer “guinea pigs” from every workgroup to test-drive critical parts of their new DaaS experience. Are their everyday applications completely functional? Are subtle differences in the virtual interface more or less convenient? Is the available bandwidth sufficient, or causing annoying lag? Are remote users encountering common difficulties among their mobile devices? Now is the time to troubleshoot the earliest problems before the formal deployment “goes live.”

Preparing Your Workforce: Change Is Good

After completing necessary adjustments during the pilot phase, it’s time to set an official deployment date. Get your company ready for that day by setting aside time for a formal training program to get everyone acquainted with the new interface, changes in log-in procedures, and any differences in the support structure. You’ll probably notice that many employees are naturally wary of changes to their familiar work environment. Expect to offer plenty of patience and hand-holding before everyone “gets with the program.”

Our point today is that while much of a DaaS rollout can appear daunting, most of the initial headaches and growth pains can be prevented by strong advance planning and sticking to the roadmap along the way. For more ideas about DaaS, the Cloud, and other custom IT solutions for your company, contact us.

Hidden Costs of DaaS Service? Know What to Look For

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015

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Back in July, we talked about the emergence of Cloud-based Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS). From overall cost to scalability, mobility, and security, more IT decision-makers are recognizing DaaS as simply a better alternative to traditional networks of standalone computers.

As with any other new technology, however, there can be a steep learning curve involved. While quite a few vendors are hopping on the bandwagon and offering contracted DaaS services like selling a new car or a cell phone, many just aren’t adept at explaining the contract’s fine print—or even the real meaning of the big print. Too many first-time customers are left to “learn the hard way” about sneaky fees.

Before locking your company into a DaaS commitment, here are a few major items to do your homework on:

Semi-Private Cloud or Public Cloud. A DaaS platform can be hosted on two types of Clouds. A semi-private Cloud divides operations between Cloud infrastructure hosted remotely and some server hardware installed at the client’s onsite data center. In many cases, the provider may bear the initial cost of designing and setting up the onsite equipment, but impose higher costs over the long term via monthly hardware rental fees.

Public Clouds are hosted entirely off-site and offer direct “turnkey” DaaS services without any onsite data center equipment. They are particularly effective at providing full desktop access for mobile workers, quick desktop setup of new or temporary employees, and hassle-free disaster recovery.

Licensing Fees. Third-party providers merely serve as “middlemen” for DaaS platform products from the big-name vendors, who pass along their costly licensing fees to their end customers. When that’s the case, ask what specific “value-adds” their service includes.

Service Tiers. Many providers divide their DaaS service into different levels along the lines of “standard,” “gold,” or “platinum.” Each offers progressively greater per-user bandwidth and storage capabilities. Make sure you choose the best package for your company, without any hidden fees for switching to a more appropriate tier—up or down.

Long-Term Commitment. The flexible, pay-as-you go nature of the Cloud has been a real advantage, especially for smaller businesses. Yet, as with cell phones, many vendors still try to lock customers into annual contracts. Avoid unfavorable contract terms if you can.

Minimum Number of Desktops. Some vendors require a minimum quantity of daily users in their service agreements—with harsh monthly penalties for dropping below that number. Don’t let this added expense hang over your business’s head if your workforce shrinks when times get tough.

As managed DaaS services become the new standard for businesses of all sizes, we expect it to become a customer-driven market. Know where you’ll find the best deal for both price and service. Need help? Just get in touch.

 

DaaS and the Virtual Workspace: The Next Big Thing?

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

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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.