Coughing Clowns & Consternation

I just ran out of the Google’s “Coffee, Cloud & Conversation” event held at their Cambridge office. The pitch to IT consultants is designed to turn us into eager resellers of Google Apps. The show was run by a quartet of perfectly-tuned, and ethnically-diverse 20-somethings. Their enthusiasm was genuine and visible, if not infectious.

Some highlights:
- In the old days you could expect to make $125-$250 per user per month. Get used to the idea of dropping that to $20-$50
  • You also won’t make much money on supporting the product and, by the way, Google’s support needs some work.
  • There are no backups currently available
  • There is no offline access to docs
  • In the GMail demo, the presenter was clearly not familiar with newer versions of Outlook so he made inaccurate comparisons
  • On more than one occasion, I heard this response to a question: “We get asked that a lot – I don’t have an answer”
Oh, and 5 minutes into Coffee, Cloud & Conversation ….. they ran out of coffee.
Are they serious?

The Ultimate Backup & Disaster Recovery Solution

We have a new solution for clients who not only need encrypted online backups but require very fast recovery times in the event of a disaster.

How it works.
We configure a souped-up Windows 7 PCs as a Standby Server. This computer along with a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) device and a firewall are installed at an Alternate Site, which might be a branch office, owner’s home, or our office.

The Primary Site (company headquarters) is permanently connected the the Alternate Site through a secure site-to-site VPN.  When the system is first set up full images of one or more servers are created and transferred the NAS device. Then, several times per day (6-12), incremental images are transferred from the servers to the NAS at the Alternate Site.
Disaster Strikes.
If one or more servers goes down for any reason from hardware failure to office fire, the images at the Alternate Site are compiled and mounted as a virtual server. After a few tweaks to the firewall the alternate server is available for use by remote users.
Typical recovery time: 1 hour
We call this solution SystemSafe Ultimate and we consider it the best disaster recovery solution available because it has many advantages:
  • Uses private, not public, cloud
  • Secure transmission and storage of data
  • Extremely fast recovery time
  • Easy to test
  • No recurring cost

New Tools Let You Be Anywhere

New Tools Let You Be Anywhere

If I had to pick one significant change in computer in the last few years it’s how a person “digital life” now includes multiple devices. It’s hardly unusual these days to use one or more computers, a phone and tablet throughout the course of a day.  The problem then becomes accessing critical content from whatever toy, um, device happens to be in your hands at the moment. Two software/service solutions address this nicely.

Dropbox ( acts as a central repository for your important files. For every device (i.e. PC, Mac, phone, or tablet regardless of brand or operating system) there is a Dropbox app. Just install it and connect it to you Dropbox account . On a computer your data automatically syncs between the local dropbox folder and the “cloud” storage. This is not only a great way to make sure you are working with current data but it also serves as an online backup
Evernote ( a similar hub-and-spoke model but is geared toward ad-hoc creating and capturing of ideas.  Through it’s logical user-interface, Evernote makes it easy to capture images and web content, or create content on the fly from any device. All Notes can be tagged and organized into notebooks for easy search and retrieval.
Both Dropbox and Evernote offer free versions

Welcome Tommy Michaud

Tommy Michaud, Harness TechnologyHard to believe it’s been over a month since Tom Michaud joined Harness Technology as an IT Support Specialist.  Because of his background in small business support, managed services, and the technologies and tools we use around here, Tom has hit the ground running with server maintenance, malware removal and putting out fires.  By now most clients have experienced his friendly disposition and can-do attitude. If you haven’t met Tommy yet he’ll be coming to a computer problem near you in the days ahead.

How to send large files quickly

The typical business email is based on Microsoft Exchange. In it’s out-of-the-box configuration, Exchange caps the size of an inbound and outbound message at 10 MB. So you’ve got a 15 MB proposal that you need to deliver to a prospect right away – what do you do? You could beg your system administrator to up the limit (small, unmarked bills please) but who’s to say the message won’t be rejected by the receiving mail server?
The solution: So simple: go the site, enter your email as well the recipient’s, then select and upload the file and click Send It. Your message is delivered with a link that allow the recipient to download the file.

Switching IT providers is easier than you think

It’s not uncommon for companies to stay with an IT support company even if they are not getting the service they deserve. That’s because there is a perception that it is difficult change vendors. Not so.

We’ve have transitioned many clients from other support providers and have developed a methodology for a seamless move that ensures no interruption of service and a network that’s protected exclusively under new management.
The key elements to a successful and secure migration are:

  • A full accounting of all IT assets, passwords and remote access paths. Often, a customer doesn’t even know what information to ask for. Not to worry – we can provide a complete list of  critical passwords and other items.
  • A documented review of the network design, security, website, contracts. This document not only assures you that there are no missing links in your infrastructure, it also forms a solid footing for network management going forward.  [Note: Harness technology provides this free of charge].
  • A brief and well-timed transition that includes total lockout of the current vendor

There is a right way to make a transition to improved support. It is not difficult but does require experience.

Switching IT providers is easier than you thinkSwitching IT providers is easier than you think

Windows 7 – Finally another keeper

It’s hard to believe but it has been 15 months since the release of Windows 7. We’ve been around for plenty of Microsoft PC operating system releases but this one is like no other. There are a couple of reasons that make the transition to Windows  7 unique:

  • Pent up demand = more enthusiasm. Let’s face it Windows XP was around a long time and when Vista came along and tanked, the older OS went on extended life support. As solid as XP is, it’s a testament to Microsoft’s endurance that we all put up with a single platform for almost a decade. By the time Windows 7 came out (October 2009) the world was ready to get on board as long as it wasn’t terrible.
  • Difficult in-place upgrade. Very few of us upgraded to the new platform on our current PCs for one very simple reason – they made it too difficult. To go from XP to 7 you had to re-install all your programs! Ouch. So most of us waited for new hardware. This relaxed upgrade scenario is easy on IT budgets because there’s no compelling reason to get everyone on the new OS anytime soon. By attrition, I think most corporate desktops/laptops will run Windows 7  by the end of 2012.

No one was a bigger Vista-basher than yours truly. I detested its bloaty performance so much that I switched to a Mac for about 15 months.  Take that into consideration when I say I think Windows 7 is excellent. As many have said, it’s what Vista should have been all along. I switch back and forth between PCs and my Mac and I have to say the Win 7 is every bit as good as OS X.

We look forward to bringing Windows 7 into our client’s networks and helping users take advantage of new features. It’s the best part of the job when you can show someone a new way to do things like “Send me a picture of that error using the Snipping Tool. Can’t find it? – just hit the Windows key type snipping”

To Mac and Back … the return

One day it became apparent that I had to go back to a Windows laptop as my main computer. It certainly wasn’t because of any complaints with the MacBook Pro. Three things tipped the scales:

1. I had converted our ticketing system to ConnectWise which is a Windows program

2. I wanted to switch to Exchange for the company and Entourage just doesn’t cut  it.

3. An increasing number of important web-based services don’t work in Firefox or Safari.

All of this meant that I would be spending most of my time in virtual PC mode on the Mac. What’s the point?

So I am back in the world of Windows (except I still use the Mac to handle photos, videos and music) and there have been some surprising pluses.

Alt & Ctrl keys – it’s just a better and more consistent way to perform alternate commands. For example, on the Mac you might use Apple-V or Ctrl-V to paste. It depends on what you are doing at the time. Windows always uses Ctrl-V.

Delete Key – Thank you! Why doesn’t Apple have a Del key? It’s ridiculous that it takes 2 keys to delete the character you are on.

Right-mouse. Again, what is Apple thinking? Their Mighty Mouse has a right-button why doesn’t the touchpad? It’s an adherence to tradition for no particular reason.

Lastly, this low-end Dell Vostro doesn’t have the same quality feel of the Mac but it cost $500, not $2000!

I have no regrets about this round-trip excursion. At least I now know what all the hoopla is about. Both the Apple-bashers and Windows-haters of this world need to calm down. Both platforms let you do many incredible things and stay mosty invisible in the process.

To Mac and Back .. the road in

Many blog entries have been posted by various technoids who have made make the illogical leap from Windows to Mac. I took the plunge in April 2008. Keep in mind that my entire business life centers around providing support in Windows environments.

My twisted reasoning when something like this: It was time to replace my aging Toshiba notebook but what t buy and, more important, what OS to get? I am solidly Vista-resistant but figure I might have to learn it to keep my knife sharp. The irony is that, by buying a Mac with Parallels software, I didn’t really have to make that choice because either Windows OS could be booted inside a OS X window. That and an overriding temptation to see life outside of Microsoft pushed me to get a MacBook Pro.

While there are som application that exist on both platforms (Firefox, VPNC)  the big science projects for me were about finding Apple equivalents for very familiar Windows tools. The migration map nows looks like this.

  • Outlook -> Entourage
  • SonicWall VPN -> VPN Tracker 5
  • UltraEdit (favorite text editor) -> Coda
  • Remote desktop client – CORD
  • CuteFTP -> Cyberduck

What was surprising was that the most difficult transitions centered around the keyboard. Those handful of keyboard combinations I did in my sleep had not obvious equivalents on an Apple keyboard. An example: in Windows Firefox Alt-D selects the current URL so you can quickly go to another site. There is no intuitive replacement for the Mac it is surprisingly tedious to find the answer (Command-L)

Now I’m completely comfortable with my Mac and really enjoy the serious performance boost over XP (and certainly Vista). On the other hand I would kill for a real DEL key

Perfect Fit for Terminal Server

Every so often we run up against a situation where users in a client’s branch office are hampered by very slow connections to the database application in the main office. Usually they have already done the hard part – connecting the office through a site-to-site VPN. But when the application is loaded on the remote end it tries to bring big chunks of data across a relatively skinny pipe. Result: hourglass from hell.

This is a perfect scenario for bringing in Microsoft Terminal Server. The steps are simple

1. Buy a dedicated server to run terminal services. We usually spec out a low-end server like a Dell PowerEdge 840 with 2 modest drives mirrored running Windows 2003 Server. It’s important to max out the RAM at 4GB. You also need terminal server licenses at about $80 per user or device.
2. Set up the server, add terminal services and terminal server licensing as Windows components
3. Now that is TS running you install any applications that users will need. This is done by kicking the server into “install mode” via command line.
4. Use another command line to put it into share mode and you’re all set

Now users use Remote Desktop Connection to connect to the TS, then they run the same application that was giving them nightmares. The difference in performance is often dramatic. We recently installed this solution at a client with remote locations in Atlanta and Salt Lake. It was a pleasure to walk the remote user through the new procedure. We would get to the critical point of launching the application on the terminal and, without exception, we would hear “Wow!”