Your Virtual IT Department

Your Virtual IT Department

One of the big unreasonable fears expressed by Information Technology (IT) professionals in the early days of cloud computing was the question of how they could possibly manage servers that were located in some distant data center.

Unreasonable because, with a secure internet connection, it hardly mattered where the server was located.  They would connect the same console software to the server and do the same things they would do were the server right there in the room with them.

Shared Pool of Resources

Over time those technologists became comfortable with the idea of dynamically sharing a pool of server, storage, and other resources housed in a data center somewhere beyond their own four walls.

The concept of sharing a pool of resources that can be quickly requested and just as quickly released is a core component of the definition of cloud computing.  Memory, processor power and more can be accessed by any user via a self-service portal, and returned to the pool when no longer needed.  Sharing pooled resources instead of over-provisioning dedicated resources to each user creates tremendous economies that form the foundation of the cloud value proposition.

Sharing Support as a Pooled Resource

When you look at IT support there are really two separate strategies required.

Core – The first is the network “core” support strategy.  How to maintain the servers, the storage, the routers and switches, and the rest of the central infrastructure that runs the network.  With cloud computing, responsibility for core support transfers to the cloud service provider.  The cost of this support is folded into the fee you pay for the service.

Edge – The second strategy is somewhat trickier because it involves what those IT professionals like to refer to as the most difficult part of a network to manage, the segment between the keyboard and the back of the chair, the user.

Users require support whenever something doesn’t perform as expected.  Whether due to a malfunction, or an incorrect expectation, the user experiences a lack of certainty as to how to proceed.  The prudent next step is to request support.

This used to be one of those areas in which larger corporations had a substantial advantage because they could justify the expense of staffing their own Help Desk to provide needed user support.

However, many midmarket and smaller companies have realized the same results by simply sharing from a pool of support resources, a Virtual IT Department!

Layered Strategies

A well-designed Virtual IT Department achieves maximum economies by layering multiple strategies into place to provide lowest-cost support wherever possible.

  • They examine which questions are asked most often and provide answers to these on a Self-Support Portal where users can access the answers instantly without waiting for a person to respond.
  • If the user’s question cannot be answered by the self-support portal it is routed immediately to one of a team of support generalists who can either answer it or route it to the appropriate specialist for reply.
  • If the issue is being caused by a mis-configuration or other technical flaw, the specialists can reach in with online tools to resolve it remotely.
  • If similar issues are coming in from multiple users, the support software can correlate all the requests to help with root-cause determination.
  • If the root-cause is a physical problem with a piece of equipment or connecting cables, a field technician can be dispatched to the site where the equipment resides so they can correct it swiftly. In the meantime, the support team can be notifying all users of temporary workarounds as necessary.

The Flexible Support Solution

As with all virtual solutions, a new degree of flexibility is introduced that can significantly improve the speed and quality of support service delivery.  Customized support can be added for line-of-business applications specific to a given customer set simply by training specialists on those platforms.  Alerts, advisories, notifications and other communications are highly facilitated by direct access to the network.

The key to establishing or accessing a successful Virtual IT Department is in the development of an appropriate and effective strategy.  Talk to your CloudStrategies Advisor about your virtual support options!

Proactive vs. Reactive – The Difference Between Good & Great Managed Services

Proactive vs. Reactive – The Difference Between Good & Great Managed Services

One of the great axioms of the service industry is that the difference between a great service company and a bad one is that the great service company knows its costs.

A simple statement, yes, but with incredible implications for customers. The great service company that knows its costs can reduce them faster, and pass that savings along to customers. A great service company that knows its costs knows that it costs more to remedy a problem than it does when there are no problems. This leads them to one inescapable conclusion:

It Costs Less to Prevent Problems than to Fix Them

Think about the service companies you use that include preventative maintenance in their contract. That’s not just for your benefit, it helps them keep costs down too! It’s also the driving force behind health insurance wellness programs. A healthy patient costs less than one who becomes ill, so keep them from becoming ill.

Prefer the Proactive Managed Services Provider

Most service companies define their Service Level Agreements (SLA) in one of two ways.

Some define the Maximum Response Time and the Maximum Resolution Time. The first refers to how long you’ll have to wait at most for someone from the service company to respond to your request for service. This is usually anywhere from two to four hours, though some provide a less expensive plan that assures a response within one business day. Resolution time is the time it takes to actually restore your service to full functionality.

Others prefer to guarantee uptime, or what is often referred to as Quality of Service (QoS) measured as availability. For example, many high-quality services will guarantee that your service will be available for use 99.999% of the time, usually referred to simply as “five nines.” Other services assure three nines or fewer. Many offer penalty repayment back to the customer if they fail to fulfill their committed QoS.

For this latter group, assuring avoidance of such a slender window of downtime requires that they take steps in advance to assure continuity. They may test circuits more frequently. They may implement redundant connections and systems to failover in the event of an outage. They must be proactive about making sure their network keeps working, because it will often take more time to restore lost function than they are allowed under their own SLA.

An Ounce of Proactivity Saves a Pound of Disruption

When your managed services provider (MSP) take the proactive stance of interrogating your network performance reports regularly, they can spot anomalies that, if left alone, will turn into outages eventually.

The proactive MSP will take immediate steps to remedy the anomaly well in advance of the outage, preventing it from causing any disruption to your workflow. How much is that worth?

The proactive MSP will ask you many questions trying to learn more about how your business operates so they can anticipate things that might cause issues later and make provisions for them in advance.

The proactive MSP will establish testing cycles with you. Receiving a report that last night’s backup went off without a hitch feels great. Not so great when you need to restore that backup and it doesn’t restore. Frequent restoration testing is just one of the many subsystems in any on-prem, cloud, or hybrid environment that should be taken offline and tested regularly when it will not disrupt work.

Your Proactive Cloud Strategies

When considering or evaluating MSPs to choose one to support your cloud environment, ask about the proactive and preventative measures they take to prevent outages instead of having to remedy them. The one who replies most passionately about proactivity is your preferred provider.

Rich Media Conferencing

Rich Media Conferencing

One popular axiom that might get more of an argument these days is the phrase sports marketers like to use when talking about going to see a game: “There’s nothing quite like being there!”

Using that particular example, many sports fans might easily argue that sitting comfortably at home with all the refreshments close at hand, watching the big game on a big 100+ inch screen with a full immersion surround sound home theater audio system is infinitely better.  Better than crunching in between other fans in a row of seats where other fans always seem to need to squeeze out and back in to use the bathroom repeatedly throughout the game.  Better than paying ten bucks for a hot dog.  Better.  Much better.

The Genuine Experience vs. The User Experience

What really constitutes a “genuine” experience of meeting with someone?  Must the people involved be in the same room?  Must they be able to encounter each other will all five senses?

Is it possible, then, to have a “genuine” conversation over the telephone?  Many would insist it is.  But the only sense involved is hearing which includes not only the words spoken, but also the paralinguistic cues such as volume, pitch, vocal intonations, breathing, and any other cues that can be heard.  Let’s, for the moment, agree with those who insist they have experienced genuine phone conversations.

Now let’s add video.  Not only can we see the face of the person speaking, but now we get a host of new paralinguistic cues including facial expression, movement, posture, proximity to the camera lens, whether the other parties are looking at the screen or distracted and looking away.  Wouldn’t these only serve to make the conversation seem more “genuine?”

Okay, so now we have sound and sight.  Until someone actually invents “smell-o-vision” we’ll fortunately get to skip the olfactory senses.  Fair to say that we’ll also have to forego touch and taste for now, though it’s safe to say those would only become important in meetings of a more personal nature than we’re discussing here.

But it does seem like voice and video conferencing do contribute to a kind of “genuine” experience.

Can We Collaborate Closely Without Being Close?

Beyond conversation is collaboration, working together to create, develop and improve something.

So far we can see and hear each other.  We can certainly do screen and application sharing, which puts the work requiring our collaboration in front of everyone involved.  Each can edit, change, add to, or delete from the document on the screen.  As they do we get to discuss their changes.  If I really don’t like your edit I can show you my feelings in the expression on my face and voice my displeasure.

If we’re doing first level planning, we can share a screen-based white board that anyone can write or draw on, even post images.  Some applications, such as MindManager from MindJet, put graphical outlining tools on the screen and everyone can add ideas, concepts, and draw relationships between them readily and easily.  They can even annotate these items.

Before the work begins, any of the participants may want to share a video to set the tone for the session, or present a PowerPoint deck.  We may even have Chopin playing in the background to align our alpha waves and heighten everyone’s creative flow.

A Rich Media Experience

For many years people have listed reduction in travel and lodging costs, less time away from the office, and other financial savings as justifications for videoconferencing.

Now as even more rich content tools are added to conferencing solutions, we’re talking about creating an environment that is even more conducive to effective collaboration and conversation than actually convening all participants in one location.  A rich media experience that is superior to actually being there.

Microsoft frequently talks about the immersive customer experience.  Is it possible that video and computer mediated communication might provide an even more immersive experience than in-person personal interaction?

Sitting in the stands, could you really see the look of disgust on the pitcher’s face and read his lips as the batter knocked it out of the park?

 

Talk to your CloudStrategies Advisor about just how robust, just how rich a rich media experience can be.

MFA – Great security enhancement or productivity buzz-kill?

MFA – Great security enhancement or productivity buzz-kill?

We’re a little more than a month into turning on Office 365 Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) for everyone at CloudStrategies. My aim here is to share some thoughts and observations around the experience of using the technology across all my various devices. Is MFA a great way to secure our Office 365 tenant or a productivity buzz-kill? Within the first few days – I would have said a definite yes to both those questions. After a little more time using it every day, I still believe in the security benefits, but have warmed up enough to feel a little less productivity challenged.  More than that, I feel comfortable that I’m taking reasonable and prudent measures to protect access to our systems and data while leveraging the investments we’ve already made in Office 365.

So – let’s start with level setting on what MFA is, and why I believe more and more businesses are going to deploy it sooner than later. Frequently referred to as 2-factor authentication, MFA is technology that requires that a user not only have a username and password to access technology platforms, but instead also prove that they possess something as an additional level of security before accessing systems. The classic example that’s in everyone’s wallet is a debit card. The card without the pin isn’t useful, and the pin without the card doesn’t get you money from an ATM either.

Years ago I carried an RSA SecureID token that had a rotating number on a screen that I needed to have with me at all times to access corporate platforms. The geek in me thought it was cool to carry with me on my key-chain – but the user in me quickly found it difficult to have to sign-in to a VPN before I could do any work from outside the office. Though it may have been subtle, it definitely was enough of a pain that I wouldn’t bother signing in for anything other than a very specific purpose or goal – thus discouraging me from doing as much work as I otherwise might have from outside of the office.

Today, with Microsoft’s implementation of MFA for Office 365, I have a similar feeling of security as I did with my RSA ID, but yet, for my main devices and applications, I also have a sort of “fast pass” that makes the productivity hit much more manageable.

There are two core components of MFA that end users will learn to manage. The first is very much like the RSA experience – though it primarily is delivered through an App on the end users cell phone. The second is called an App Password and can be used as a one-time code for any application that needs to access an Office 365 resource on a regular basis (in the background) – such as email clients, OneNote, calendar applications, cell phones, etc. Let’s talk about the experience of each of these parts of MFA:

For the first part, any time a user needs to access any Office 365 resource through a web browser – whether on their own device – or on a public device, they will start by signing in normally with their username and password. After doing so – instead of immediately gaining access their account, they will be prompted to provide a second level of authentication. For this, there are a few choices. The one I’ve been using has been to be prompted for a 6 digit number that I can only retrieve by launching a simple app on my mobile phone. When prompted for the code, I simply pull out my phone, launch the app, and wait for it to provide me with the number. The number is continuously changing – every 30 seconds or so, so you can never predict what it is and need to type in the number within a given time period. This works exactly like my old RSA token did – perhaps with one benefit in that when I’m home I find that my phone isn’t ever very far away from me – as opposed to where I kept my keys and RSA token – so I’d need to run to the other side of the house to retrieve it.

For all non-browser based access to Office 365 applications, a user’s regular password will no longer be enough to access the system. Because applications like Outlook, Office applications, mobile phone apps, etc. do not have a mechanism to support the entry of an Authentication Code, they will instead leverage a uniquely generated “App Password”. Office 365 can generate up to 40 unique 16 digit App Passwords that can be used for individual applications or devices. App Passwords, once generated, can never be displayed a second time. They are entered and stored in individual applications on a per device basis and once entered, applications function normally – without the need for a MFA Authentication Code. The security strength of App Passwords comes from the fact that they can be deleted at any time. The productivity benefit of an App Password comes from the fact that once entered, those applications no longer need to have a password entered for recurring access to Office 365.  In the event of a breach, and once an App Password is deleted from the Office 365 console, any apps that have stored that password will no longer be able to access Office 365. Think about a scenario where a device is lost or stolen – a simple action of deleting the App Password will nullify that devices ability to provide any access to anything that shouldn’t be accessed.

Security in our lives always comes at a cost – frequently restricting access or limiting our capabilities. Microsoft’s Office 365 MFA solution provides an increased level of protection with a reasonable approach to securing systems and data. Any productivity hit is likely short lived for most users and the comfort that businesses can receive knowing that users data won’t be easily be compromised through the loss of a device or the inadvertent compromise of an individual’s password.

The Microsoft Productivity Engine

The Microsoft Productivity Engine

This post will be a bit of a departure inasmuch as it is also a suggestion that you read a blog post on The Official Microsoft Blog written by Frank X. Shaw, Corporate Vice President of Communications for Microsoft.

Shaw’s post talks about the definition and implications of a word that recently became one of the two most important words in Microsoft’s lexicon – “productivity”.

It became one of Microsoft’s two most important words when then-brand-new CEO Satya Nadella issued his first email to all Microsoft employees with the subject line “Bold Ambition & Our Core.”  In this key message, Nadella shares his vision that “At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.”

Shaw’s post, written a few months later, works to put the word into greater context, explaining that the concept must evolve as the world around us, and the technology we create, evolves.

Once a “Bad” Buzzword

Those who have been involved in IT long enough to go through the past several setbacks to the economy may remember how “productivity” actually became a “buzzword” with a negative connotation during those times.  Executives directed their IT departments, along with all other departments, to stop talking about “soft” benefits, like productivity, and instead find solid “hard dollar savings.”

In his post, Shaw suggests that “productivity is simply a way of thinking about how well we use our time.”  This is the one point we’d take issue with.  Just as “effective is doing the right things, efficient is doing those things right,” productivity is all about doing more.  Producing more.  Creating more value.  Productive is about producing results.

In those days of financial crises, the imperative was to “Do more with less.”  As new emerging technologies enable us to do things faster and faster with greater accuracy and consistency, doing more with less has become the new normal!

Cloud Is About You

As the post proceeds, Shaw identifies the primary impact of Microsoft’s expanding its offerings to run on iOS and Android devices as enabling greater choice for users to access and use resources on whatever device they choose from wherever they are.  He speaks of a change “from a world with devices, software, or clouds are central, to a world where people are in the center.”

At CloudStrategies, that’s not a new concept.  Since the beginning, we have been all about enabling people to do more, to be more productive, and to be far more agile in how they work with information to create more and better results.  Cloud has never been about the technologies, they are simply the enablers, the tools.  Cloud makes it possible for people to be more productive, and the strategies we devise to use cloud better are all designed to get those people the most value from these platforms.  We align with Microsoft in being a platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world.

Making the Enterprise Social with Yammer

Making the Enterprise Social with Yammer

Have you ever considered the lifecycle of an idea?

The igniting fuel of any idea is inspiration, which can come from anywhere. Something someone sees, hears, touches, smells, or simply considers. A serendipitous series of experiences that cause something synergistic to happen inside the mind of a person.  An idea.

Next the idea is discussed, probably very informally. “Have you ever thought of…” conversations are so often spur-of-the-moment events. With instant messaging technology at our fingertips we might not even be near the person we discuss our idea with. We very often just tap out a short message about our idea.  Share it with someone else. Let them start thinking about it.

As the idea begins to take root in more minds it begins to sprout and grow. More people get drawn into the conversation as the idea is shared with them. Because instant messaging is so wonderfully asynchronous we no longer need to wait until people are together in the same place at the same time talking about the same thing. Thoughts about the new idea are shot back and forth between people. The thread weaves more people into it, and the idea starts growing exponentially.

Chrysalis

With all of these thoughts shared about the idea it morphs repeatedly, expanding, growing, changing, improving, until ultimately it can no longer fit within the chrysalis of being simply an idea, it must now burst out and become a full-fledged plan that eventually becomes executed and makes the amazing transition from idea to reality.

Social Intelligence vs. Facts

We have seen powerful platform tools like email facilitate the sharing of facts. We have seen communication platforms that enable collaboration on a whole new scale.

When it comes to ideas, however, the source from which everything else begins, the sharing required to develop them must be spontaneous and highly responsive. People must have the freedom to express their thoughts if they are to contribute most positively to any idea.

  • Imagine having the agility to share thoughts instantly as they occur to you, ruminate over them, continue discussing them whenever you are moved to do so.
  • Imagine being able to go back and review all of the spontaneous inspirations you and your colleagues have shared going right back to the original idea.
  • Imagine being able to mold the growing idea with other multi-modal tools that add sound, visuals, and other media to your thoughts.
  • Imagine groups breaking off to separately develop specific parts of the idea.
  • Imagine being able to return to the discussion whenever and from wherever you choose, responding to inspiration and stimuli you may encounter at any time, and picking up right where you left off.

Now imagine that all of this is documented so well that you can take all of it and work with it to create a cogent, valuable plan from all that thinking and sharing.  A plan that contributes tremendously to the growth and success of your enterprise.

Imagine Yammer

You’ve just imagined Yammer, a persistent chat tool that allows your organization to privately conduct the kind of informal but important interaction that takes ideas from inspiration through to implementation.

Yammer captures your institutional knowledge in a framework that is completely governed by your business rules yet open enough to support inspiration and imagination. Yammer protects and preserves this institutional intelligence even though some of the participants may leave the organization.  It changes the way people work together, for the better.

Here’s an Idea!

An initiative like Yammer requires not only buy-in from the executive level, but also from the grassroots level as well.  It requires the commitment to participate and to learn and grow. Your CloudStrategies Advisor can take you through the process and help you understand what to expect, and what your company will gain by making Yammer a part of your communications life.  Contact us today about Yammer.

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