Author Archives: Hugh MacKinnon - Page 2

How to Keep Up with Technology for your Business

Technology has become an inescapable part of all our lives.  It has also become a way to differentiate your business from the competition.  It can be a tool that lets you operate more effectively, and serve your clients better than any of your rivals.  The only problem is time.  Your focus needs to be on your core business.  Keeping informed of the constant change in technology is nearly a full-time job.

There was an article published on the net that recommended that small business owners set aside time to read tech magazines, surf for new information on the internet and take online technology classes.  We have yet to run across a small business owner that has that kind of time to read about and research trends in their own industry, let alone to try to tackle the subject of technology.  So what can be done?  Collaborate!

We are quite sure you are doing this now.  You have an accountant, don’t you?  We would hope you are not only using your accountant to just keep your books and process your tax payments.  They should be ‘partnering’ with you and advising you on things like inventory levels, tax policy, benefit packages, and cash flow.  You trust your accountant with the most intimate details of your business.  You need to find someone who will ‘partner’ with you on technology.

Talk to fellow business owners and find out who they use.  Talk with a number of IT companies, interview their owners.  Here are some suggestions on what to look for:

  • Try to deal with an owner.  They are more likely to understand the challenges you are facing      and will have a better idea of how to help.  If they have been running their own business for a while, they may be able to advise you on more than technology.
  • Find someone who is willing to spend some time learning your business and its processes.  They can make better recommendations if they have knowledge of both what you are trying to accomplish and how you get there.
  • ‘Partner’ with someone willing to meet with you for at least an hour or so each month.  Come to that meeting prepared to discuss the issues that are concerning you and how technology may be able to help.  Also be prepared to listen.  You might cover things you never considered.
  • Make sure your technology ‘partner’ is interested in the success of your business, not just trying to make a sale.  A ‘partner’ will realize that your long-term success will translate into their success.
  • Find someone you can be completely honest with and will return the favor.  The more upfront you are about your situation and expectations, the better help you will receive.

Developing this type of relationship with a technology partner will have at least one ‘unintended consequence’.  It will force you to begin to think strategically (think big picture) instead of just reacting.  You will find yourself staying ahead of the curve for your industry instead of chasing it.

Backups vs. a Disaster Recovery Plan

How long could you afford to be out of business?  That may seem to be a strange question to many of you.  But this is one of the questions that should keep you up at night.  Look at the folks in Oklahoma City this past spring.  Do you remember all the businesses affected when Hurricane Sandy hit?  What would you do if something out of your control happened to your business?

Of course, it is not just you to consider.  How long could your employees go without a paycheck?  How long could your clients go without your services, and how long would they?  How many would you lose to competition?  What you need is a plan.  We call these Disaster Recovery Plans.  The goal of this is to put together a step by step guide that you can follow that will allow you to have all the software and files available for your use as quick as possible after a disaster.

Now you are running backups every night, but that is just a first step.  Running backups is necessary.  It is a great habit to have.  But to where are you backing up your data?  If it is not to an offsite location, you may still be in trouble.  A tornado isn’t going to destroy your servers, but leave your external backup drive behind.   What are you backing up?  Are you sure you are backing up the right files?  You must backup those files that will allow the easiest restoration of your programs to a usable state.

So we need to make sure there is a backup set stored away from your office.  This brings up another important question; how much of your data can you afford to recreate?  This depends somewhat on the business you run.  A medical office, for example, would be hard pressed to recreate all the patient notes a doctors records throughout a day.  A much less data intensive business might only have a handful of transactions to recreate.  This will determine both how often you run backups and where you are storing the data.  Some businesses are almost backing up data in real time.  This is expensive and unnecessary for most businesses.  Once a day is usually all that is necessary.  We also recommend doing a full .iso image of your server and any critical workstation once a week.  This is essentially a snapshot of the system.  We do recommend backing up to the cloud.  Prices for cloud backups have become very affordable.  Your data is safely stored offsite.

Another item most owners fail to address is software.  You buy a program, load it, and the original software goes…  Well, most business don’t know.  You need to gather all of your software together and store it somewhere safe like a fireproof safe, or a bank safety deposit box.  For any programs you obtained by downloading, make sure you record the activation codes and store them with the rest of the software.  Without the original software, you will be put in the position of purchasing new copies should you need to replace the hardware.

The last item you need to plan for is the hardware.  Make sure you have a comprehensive list of computers, monitors, printers, routers, copiers, etc. for your insurance company.  As far as replacing the hardware there are several options, depending on how long you can afford to be down.

Having a new server built from scratch can take a week or longer.  Your IT company needs to gather all the parts and then get access to your .iso image to load the new server.  You will have to pay for this option out of pocket probably well before your insurance settlement arrives.  You can also have a backup server ready in a separate location ready for use.

The other option is to use a virtual server.  This is space set up in the cloud that emulates your server.  While this option may be a bit expensive at the moment (prices are coming down quickly) it also offers the quickest option for you to be back running.  All you have to do is take a laptop to the nearest coffee shop with WiFi access and access the server as if you were at the office.  It is fairly easy to set up synching between the actual and virtual servers so you are always ready to go.

Of course, your situation will be unique.  We strongly recommend bringing in both your IT partner and your accountant as you develop these plans.

Cloud Backup starting at less than $10/month!

The Subscription Model for Software: How It Will Soon Affect You.

The subscription model for software has been receiving a lot of buzz in our industry lately.  Yet, this is not really a new thing.  You have probably been using this model without ever realizing it.  Think about the antivirus packages we have all used for years.  You purchase a package, be it Norton, McAfee, Kaspersky, AVG, etc., and you get the antivirus protection and essentially a subscription to any updates to either the program or the virus definitions they develop.  Netflix is another common example.  It has been used from the beginning, anyone remember AOL?  It was a subscription.

Now this model is being deployed for business applications, and not from companies you have never heard of.  Adobe, with their Creative Suite, and Microsoft, with Office 2013, are adding a monthly payment option.  This may help many small businesses with their cash flow.

office2013Let’s consider the example of Office 2013.  You have the option of paying $399.99 (Staples price) for the full version.  This gives you the license to install and use the product on one machine.  Or you could go with the subscription model.  For $15 per user per month, (or $12 per user per month if you pay annually), you get the full package, and license to load it onto five separate devices per user.

I know this is a little confusing, let me try to explain.  You will need a separate license for each user.  Each user can install their license on five devices.  If you have an employee who does some travelling, for instance, they can load the same Office onto their office desktop, their laptop, their home desktop, and their tablet.

There are some advantages for the consumer in this deal.  Any updates are, of course, automatically installed.  So are any version upgrades.  As long as you have the subscription, Microsoft provides the latest version of the software to you.  If they release Office 2015, you are automatically upgraded.  Your company owns the license.  If the employee quits or is fired, you can deactivate their license and you still retain it for the next employee.

The other advantage is in budgeting.  Let’s say you have 10 employees.  To upgrade them all at once would run you $4000 plus tax.  Which is why we see so many offices running two or three versions of the software.  With the subscription, you would pay $150 per month and everyone is instantly on the same version.

Now the advantages for Microsoft are fairly obvious.  You will probably pay more in the long run for the subscription than you would if you bought the package and used it as long as possible.  It will also even out their cash flow.  Right now they get a huge influx at the release of a new product and then sales dwindle until the next full version is ready.  With this model, they will have a steady income every month.

You will probably see this model extend to other products including, if the rumors are true, Windows.  There are rumblings that Microsoft is considering adopting this model for the operating system itself.  We’ll see how it goes.

Office 365

Windows 8.1: The Return of the Start button

We are sure you have all heard talk about the new version of Windows 8 that is being released soon.  It is known as Windows 8.1.  The beta version is out now, and the release version will be shipped to manufacturers next month so they can use it for the upcoming holiday season.

You are all probably wondering when and if you should start planning your own upgrades.  While it is never too early to begin planning, we would advise you to wait until the true release version is ready to begin upgrading.  The version available now is still a beta version.  It does not allow itself to be ‘uninstalled’.  The only way to get rid of it is to format your disk and start over with your original operating system.  The other reason is that Microsoft has not included an upgrade path to the full release version.  Once again you will have to format and start over.  If you are a true geek and just can’t wait, we recommend installing the beta on a separate partition, or an external drive.  Reports claim there are great difficulties installing it on a virtual machine.

Windows 8 has been quite an adventure for Microsoft.  The full version was not available for the last holiday season, so they missed that opportunity.  The developers concentrated on getting the RT version ready for their Surface tablet.  The RT version only frustrated serious users because of its limitations.  This is why you have heard so many negative opinions about Windows 8.

It is also a true shift in design for Microsoft.  It represents the greatest change in form since the shift to Windows 95 from 3.1.  (And, yes, we are old enough to remember that happening.)  Everything is different.  The design is geared toward those who are used to using smart phones.  Your programs are now “apps”.  Your media is by default played by the almost useless Xbox media player.  Worst of all, they took away our START button.

And so, less than a year since the release of Windows 8, we have the next version, 8.1, about to be launched.  Microsoft says this is because they want to speed up the life cycle of their products; going a year between versions instead of three or four.  There are many in the industry who feel this upgrade was rushed into production because of lower than projected sales and a large number of complaints.

Windows 8.1 does fix a number of features that received criticism.  The page on which all the apps are displayed is now much easier to organize the way you want it.  The Xbox media player issue has been addressed.  You will now be able to set your system to boot to your desktop view (reminiscent of Windows 7).  And, yes, they are giving us back our start button!!!  (Although it has greatly reduced functionality.)

So, who should consider upgrading?  Well, anyone whose business software will require Windows 8 or higher to run properly.  And all of you who are currently using Windows XP.  As of next April, Microsoft will stop supporting XP.  There will be no more updates, or security patches.

Does this mean that XP will suddenly stop working?   Absolutely not.  What this does mean for XP users is that now is the time to research and plan.  The main reason you will need to look at upgrading those systems involves their function.  Will the software being used on those machines need to be upgraded, and what will be the requirements for the new software?  Do you access secure websites with those systems that will require Internet Explorer 10 or higher?  (Windows 8.1 will be shipped with IE 11, XP cannot upgrade past IE 9.)  Chances are an upgrade to Windows 8.1 ( or to Windows 7 for that matter,) will require a hardware upgrade as well.

We would recommend taking a look at Windows 8 and the infinite number of websites talking about 8.1.  If you don’t want to abandon the familiar at this time, you will need to purchase copies of Windows 7, or new systems loaded with Windows 7 now.  At a time in the near future you will not be able to get your hands on them.

If you are unsure of what to do, contact your IT specialist.  We are sure they would be happy to meet with you and help you evaluate your options.  If they won’t, find one that will.

XP Users: Now is the Time to Plan

Microsoft has announced that in April of 2014 they will stop supporting Windows XP.  This means no more security patches, no more updates, and no help from Microsoft if you have a problem.

April 2014…that’s forever away.  Why should I worry about it now? 

Well, are you ready to dive into Windows 8?  Will your applications run in a Windows 8 environment?  You see, Microsoft is getting ready to introduce Windows 8.1, which means new copies of Windows 7 are going to become scarce very soon.

Now is when you need to find the answers to some questions:

Are you going to need to upgrade? 

The answer to this will be based on the function of your XP machines.  What applications are you running on the XP machines?  Are there newer versions of these applications you are going to have to install?  What are the minimum requirements of the newer software?  Do you use the machine to access secure websites?  How long are you going to be able to access them with Internet Explorer 9?  (Version 10 is out now and version 11 is included with Windows 8.1)

Are you going to need to upgrade the hardware as well as the software?

If you decide that you have to upgrade the operating system, what are the hardware requirements of the new software?  Is your current hardware able to handle Windows 7 or 8?  You obviously don’t want to just be at the minimum requirements.  Software doesn’t seem to run well when you just meet the minimums.

When is the best time to upgrade?

This question is harder to answer than it appears.  You need to know if you are going to upgrade to Windows 7, Windows 8, or Windows 8.1.  If your decision is to only upgrade to Windows 7, you need to act soon to at least purchase the operating system now.  You won’t find it on the shelves for long.

The other consideration will involve your accountant.  When is it to your advantage to buy from a tax standpoint?  Do you want to make the purchase during this fiscal year, or is it to your advantage to wait until the next fiscal year?

So you can see, the deadline may not be April of next year, it may be much sooner for your particular situation.  Bring your IT person in on your concerns now.  I am sure they would be happy to help you with these decisions.