The golden rule – them with the gold make the rules

The current recession has forced the move of IT budget decisions further up the ladder. Now CEO’s are giving the go or no to IT initiatives. Not surprising since a good CEO needs to manage with tighter control during tough times. Talking to the president of a company is not a new sales strategy. In his book The Sales Bible, Jeffrey Gitomer advises going straight to the top and working your way down. It’s a lot easier than starting at the bottom and getting stuck there.

This will be seen by many veteran and senior IT managers as a blow to their power within the organization. The result may be a further separation of the IT department from being a strategic decision maker and move them to strictly tactical roles. The worst that could happen is that the CEO makes decisions based strictly on costs and sales pitches, ultimately setting up the IT department for failure.

The best that could happen is if a CEO looks at the vendor proposals from the strategic advantages their products and services offer and include IT managers in the consultation process. IT managers need to make the most of this new role versus fighting it and ending up with less than they had before. I’ve seen both scenarios and only one of them works well. Guess which one.

Dean

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Top 5 Technologies for 2009-2011

Following is a list of the top five technologies which will have an impact on how businesses use IT in their operation in the next few years. This is based on a larger list from Gartner Research targeted towards large enterprises but we have picked out the items more relevant to small and medium enterprises. Why do they these matter to your business? They will help you maximise the effective use of IT while driving down costs associated with traditional IT models. Many are easy to setup and low cost to implement. If they work for global enterprises, they’ll work for you.

1. Virtualization

(Definition: Hardware based virtual machines allow the sharing of the physical computer resources between different virtual machines, each running its own operating system. Examples: Running Windows XP on an Apple Mac OS X computer, consolidating many different servers into a single server box.)

Server virtualization is already being used to consolodate multiple boxes into single servers. Storage virtualization offers simplified access by pooling systems and can save big money with storage deduplication. In terms of storage virtualization, deduplication could be a huge money saver because every enterprise has tons of duplicate versions of files clogging up their servers. Desktop virtualization allows users to have a portable personality across multiple systems, delivering a thick client experience with a thin client delivery model. The biggest factor that could drive desktop virtualization will be the advent of low-cost $300-$500 thin clients (nettops & netbooks) based on Intel Atom processors.

2. Cloud Computing

(Definition: Where applications and software services are provided from the internet versus LAN based servers or running locally on desktop/laptop computers. Examples: Google Docs, ZOHO.com, Microsoft Azure)

You need to be very careful about all of the hype, but you need to take it very seriously as well. Deduplication, remote & mobile accessibility, consistency in versions and lower maintenance costs are some of the advantages to cloud computing. It can allow IT to move a significant amount of money from capital expenditures to operating expenditures. Instead of tying up capital in unused infrastructure with cloud computing you only need to pay for what you use, when you use it.

3. Enterprise Mashups

(Definition: Mashups mix content from multiple sources by using feeds from application programming interfaces (APIs). Example: portals.)

Enterprises are now investigating taking mashups from cool Web hobby to enterprise-class systems to augment their models for delivering and managing applications. Portals allow a single sign on point with all required corporate applications accessed from a single point. The advantage comes from efficiency and manageability.

4. Unified Communications

(Definition: The integration of communication services such as voicemail, e-mail, SMS, fax, instant messaging (chat), presence information, IP telephony and video conferencing. Example: BlackBerry accessing applications such as a web browser, texting and email clients which can also be accessed from a desktop computer.)

Enterprises are realizing that they have multiple products and vendors performing the same communications functions, and that this redundancy creates additional expense, makes it more difficult for users to learn, and increases the complexity of integration. Some companies such as Cisco see the desk phone becoming a video and data device. Others see the desk phone going away and mobile phones (with both a business number and a personal number) becoming the sole voice device for most business users.

5. Green IT

(Definition: Green computing is the study and practice of using computing resources efficiently. Example: energy efficient equipment, recycling equipment and printing/document management.)

Many businesses are looking at energy efficiency or ‘green’ products simply for the practical advantages in energy savings. Some companies are emphasizing green activities as part of their social responsibility. Energy will be one of the pre-eminent public concerns of the next decade and energy conservation will be an important part of the discussion. IT departments need to act now to start measuring the energy consumption of IT infrastructure and looking for strategic opportunities to reduce it, before they are forced to act due to government intervention.

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Gen Y and Gen X use of technology and how it affects your business IT

The digital generation ages 18 – 35 have grown up using technology and expect it to exist in business as they know it in their non-business life. Access to the web, high-performance applications, a variety of applications to perform their job, social networking based applications, multiple platforms – desktop, laptops, Windows, Apples and smart-phones, multiple access points – at the office, at home, while traveling or more to the point – anywhere and at anytime. How does your IT plan and support system meet this challenge? Traditional IT can limit system user access to a narrowly defined set of applications and use. Trying to balance the needs of these new workers with the needs of traditional IT users is a challenge as well. It’s not just about new technology but a differing culture between the two age groups.

Courtesy Mike Kline
Courtesy Mike Kline

Number one is to provide the tools your workers need to be productive. Limiting these younger workers to just email as a communications tool and a mainframe based business application written twenty years ago and only accessible from their work station at work may keep these newer workers from performing to their utmost.

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Our tax dollars at work

Here are two examples of government spending you might want to think about.

The CBC reports that the RCMP is funding two separate data bases. One for BC and one for the rest of the country. This costs the RCMP (the taxpayers) an extra $9 million dollars to support two systems that aren’t integrated. Hmmm. The reason why is mostly politics and could be solved with proper IT systems governance.

The Recovery.gov website is being upgraded for the cost of almost $18 million. This is the website which the US government uses as a vehicle to update the rest of the country on the where, who, what and why of their economic recovery plan. Hmmm. That’s a lot of money for a website.

Dean

NAS Drives, a quick and easy option for data growth on small networks

With burgeoning data requirements in even the smallest of businesses, simplifying access to it becomes a major headache. Obviously, dumping data on a PCs internal hard drive isn’t a viable option anymore. The complexity increases with the advent of devices like laptops, smart phones and PDAs, hooking up to the LAN and trying to access data conveniently through a central location.

hdr-nas-graphic-516x276

A NAS (network attached storage) box is an acceptable option for small business networks. Not only are these devices small, but they are equipped with hard drives which can store up to 4TB of data, and connect through an ethernet cable into a network port or router. You can also plug in a USB device such as a printer, to NAS device and make it accessible over the network. These devices are ideal for small offices with 10 to 15 PCs for compact, centralized storage accessible from anywhere, including over the Internet.

HP Mediasmart server

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Top 5 easily preventable network vulnerabilities

Large enterprises and small companies have one thing in common when it comes to IT – vulnerable computer networks. Tests were applied to both small and large corporate networks using criteria based on industry best practices from CISCO Networks, the US National Security Agency and Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). They all failed with most of them failing a majority of the tests. As a result of not following basic configuration steps and best practices these networks were vulnerable and open to intrusion. Following is a short list made up of the most common errors.

If you are a small business owner and whether you have in-house IT staff or outsource, ask them about these five common mistakes. What’s really critical is that you ask them for proof that best practices are being followed. A penetration test and survey from a third party IT firm is not a bad idea either. Since they don’t know what they are looking at, they’re more likely to find vulnerabilities in systems that your own staff have overlooked.

1. Not changing the default passwords on all network devices.

It’s hard to believe that this happens but it does. A server, switch, router or network appliance with the default password – usually “password” or “admin” – still enabled usually happens when installation is performed by DIY users or unskilled IT techs but it also happens to pros. Why? Lack of familiarity with the equipment or lack of an installation checklist being in place or being followed. Things like, “I don’t have time to set it right now, so I’ll do it later”, but it never gets done since a lot of networks are a ‘set and forget’ project. More than half of all the records that were compromised last year were the result of using a default password on a network device, according to a Verizon Business study.

2. Sharing a password across multiple network devices.

For convenience sake, people often use the same password across multiple servers, and several people know the password. It might be a good password but once it’s shared among several systems, these systems are all at risk. You need a process to make sure that server passwords are not shared among multiple systems, are changed regularly, not shared beyond those people who require direct access and are kept secure. If the password is discovered by a hacker, the hacker can get into many servers and cause more damage.

3. Misconfiguration of your access control lists.

Segmenting your network using access control lists is the simplest way to make sure that systems communicate only with the systems that they should. Having properly configured access control lists would have protected 66 per cent of the records that were compromised last year, according to the Verizon report.

4. Allowing non-secure remote access and management software.

One of the most popular ways for hackers to get into your network is to use a remote access and management software package, such as PCAnywhere, Virtual Network Computing (VNC) or Secure Shell (SSH). Often, these software applications are lacking the most basic security measures, such as good passwords. This problem accounted for 27 per cent of the compromised records in the Verizon Business report

5. Not adequately protecting your servers from malware.

Most malware is installed by a remote attacker and is used to capture data. Typically, malware is customized, so it can’t be discovered by antivirus software. Lock down servers so that no new applications can run on them. Malware on servers accounts for 38 per cent of all security breaches, Verizon Business says.

If you accept credit cards as payment for products or services, here is a bonus mistake.

6. Not following the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards.

Dubbed PCI DSS, this set of 12 controls for protecting cardholder information work but most companies don’t even try to meet the strict but basic PCI standards. Even though 98 per cent of all compromised records involve payment card data, only 19 per cent of organizations with security breaches followed the PCI standards, according to the Verizon Business report.

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Repair & replace your computers – a blended approach

Intel released a report on the costs associated with extending the life of old computers versus refreshing with new models.  This report is more than an attempt to sell more computers. The fact is, they are right on target in their evaluation of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). Computers have a limited life cycle both from a physical and use perspective. An old computer is like an old car, it can nickel and dime you to death and eventually leave you stranded when you need it the most. But with today’s tough economic climate many small and medium enterprises are delaying the refresh in an attempt to save cash. Deferring any refreshing of equipment is a false economy and will cost you big time later on. There are other options available though.

The best strategy is a blend of replace and repair.

  • Evaluate your current computer inventory based on age and the role it plays in your operation, critical or non-critical;
  • Refresh critical equipment with new purchases;
  • Replace what is at the end of its life with new equipment;
  • Upgrade the rest to a minimum performance standard;
  • Assign some budget money to cover the cost  of repairs, current and future.

An important trap to avoid is the creation of ‘Frankenstein’ computers. This is when parts from a variety of PCs are thrown together to create a working unit. A drive from this one, a power supply from another, an HP system board in a DELL case, etc. This is a creative approach for the geeks but doesn’t make good sense from a business perspective.

It’s pretty simple really. If your computers need to work to support your business, make sure they are in working condition.

Dean

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Does bribery result in bad IT?

Big news in IT a few months ago was the announcement of the arrest and charging of an IT professional who had links to US President Obama’s top pick as CIO/CTO for the US federal government. He (not Obama’s man) is charged with allegedly taking bribes from a vendor to influence his purchasing decisions, pay for products never delivered and paying for ghost staff. There was a news item a few months ago which identified a group of Canadian IT staffing companies as being in collusion with a federal government office to fix prices and inflate contracts. All of this got me wondering about how much bad IT out there is the result of bribery, collusion and other forms of illegal business practices. When you’re faced with poorly performing IT systems at work – how much of it is the result of someone in the decision making food-chain taking bribes. Not all bad IT is the result of bribery. But the next time you get told that there’s no money to buy you that new and sorely needed piece of computer equipment you might want to wonder where the money went. Questionable purchasing decisions aren’t made just within the IT department. There are many others in the decision making food-chain who can take part. Are decisions for technology based on sound reasoning or questionable  influence from vendors?

Dean

P.S. – This just in (04/15/09):

7 Ottawa tech firms charged with bid-rigging – and the plot thickens . . . and gets deeper and deeper!

Should your company buy netbooks?

The latest next big thing in desktop computing is the netbook. Should your company go out and buy netbooks to replace the desktop and laptop computers that your folks are currently using? No . . . not unless you’re able to look beyond the low price and are willing to place it in the role it plays in the new IT ecosystem. Netbooks are low in price but are also slim in resources – no CD/DVD drives, small displays, low storage capacity, limited amounts of processing power and minimal RAM. Here’s a Wired article which gives a good history of the netbook. Read it first before you make a decision to purchase netbooks with the goal to save tons of capital on these new fangled and cheap computers.

Netbooks are part of a larger system and culture that you will need to have in place in order to reap the benefits. If you aren’t willing to build and support the new IT ecosystem model that netbooks are made for, then this initiative will result in failure. Your goal of saving money will backfire and end up costing you more than you bargained for. Users will be left unsatisfied and the IT department will be left with the stigma of yet another failure-to-deliver.

Netbooks are made for a whole new world of computing. Web browsing, apps in the cloud, pictures stored on web servers, streaming media – music and video, mobile access through wireless connections, connections to people through social networks and SKYPE. I’m writing this on a full-sized laptop computer. For the most part this computer isn’t utilized much more than a netbook would be. It’s just bigger, heavier and consumes more battery power. Lot’s of unused capacity though. It sits in our dining room and  is powered up first thing in the morning along with the TV. It runs all day and sometimes becomes more important than TV. Nothing good on cable? Let’s watch YouTube! Check email. Send messages to friends on Facebook. Chat with family members in other parts of the world via live-chat and skype. This is the environment that netbooks are good for – a web centric appliance. A consumer oriented tech-gadget.

If your company still purchases and installs full blown copies of MS Office, stores corporate data on local computer hard-drives, uses MS Outlook for calendar and email, equips your field staff with ten pound laptop computers and argues with the IT staff over their budget requests needed to keep this all working then netbooks aren’t for you.

Dean

IT and current economic state

OR . . . Deja Vue all over again!

If you’re a veteran IT manager what did you do to weather the last economic downturn?

  • trim staffing levels?
  • postpone new projects?
  • postpone upgrades (hardware, software, infrastructure)?

Will you do the same things again this time? Maybe you shouldn’t! Why? When budgets improved did you find yourself undernourished and struggling to get back to the levels you were at before the big hit?

Maybe you should take a different approach this time. Take a tip from your business colleagues. . .

  • use the downtime to retool,
  • look at new technologies and approaches that will give you a competitive advantage when the money starts flowing again,
  • change your operations and business model not just to survive but to grow,
  • focus on services and technologies which give true business value and eliminate the trash.

After spending yesterday reading and listening to Gartner’s ITExpo (October 12 – 16) coverage it struck me that they may have some good advice. They are suggesting that now is the time to ‘invest’ in technology versus the knee jerk reaction of just ‘cutting costs’. The stock market experts are recommending that now is the time to start some serious buying rather than wait until the stocks start their upward trend. When everyone is doing it – it’s too late. Warren Buffet has been quoted as saying,

“We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” (Warren Buffet)

Now is the time for IT managers to get greedy and take advantage of the situation, not just be victimized by it.

Some good tips from across the web:

  • Focus on what’s important, not just now but in the near future for when the economy starts growing again – use this opportunity to eliminate the legacy technologies and systems that are consuming 80%-95% of your budget. When the sun starts shining again, you’ll have the cash to spend on ‘new’ things.
  • Listen to the people in your organization (IT and business folks) on how to save money and still deliver services.
  • Investigate and pilot new and emerging technologies such as cloud computing, social networking, virtualization at the server and desktop.
  • Look to outsourcing (versus out-tasking) some of your operations. This allows you flexibility in cost control.
  • Look to moving more of your operation from Capital Expenditures to Operational Expenditures.
  • Look to consumer technologies (lower costs, wider availability, broader knowledge base among users) to drive down costs.

And the number one piece of advice?

Use this as an opportunity to change how you do business. Abandon status quo. During times of turmoil and change there are winners and losers. Use the upcoming turmoil to show true leadership and become a winner.

Dean