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.

Personal Cloud: Microsoft Expands User Cloud Storage Choices

Personal Cloud: Microsoft Expands User Cloud Storage Choices

For over 30 years we have referred to our computers as a “PC” that we may have forgotten that the acronym stands for “personal computer.”  If we use personal computers, shouldn’t we also have personal clouds?

Many of you are already thinking, “well, isn’t OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) a personal cloud service?” and you are absolutely correct.  Microsoft OneDrive is a cloud storage service that goes one step further in that the Microsoft Office applications are all so well integrated with it.  It’s easy for users to save and retrieve their Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other documents for editing.  In fact, with the Microsoft Office Web Apps you can even perform many editing tasks without even having Office loaded on the PC you’re using.

Two recent introductions from Microsoft make the personal cloud experience even more robust!

Microsoft in a Multi-Vendor World

Thanks to Microsoft’s initiatives to participate in a world filled with PC and PC-related vendors, Office users now have even more choice available to them.  On November 4, 2014 Dropbox Inc. and Microsoft Corp. issued a press release announcing that they would be “integrating their services for collaboration across Dropbox and Microsoft Office on phones, tablets and the Web.”

As a result of this collaboration, Dropbox and Microsoft users will now be able to:

  • Access Dropbox from Office apps to get to their files and folders faster.
  • Edit Office files directly from Dropbox and sync them across devices.
  • Share new or edited files from the Office apps using simple Dropbox sharing functionality.

This will be especially powerful for those who use tablets or smartphones to access their files.  Now, instead of having to download a file for editing, those users will be able to open them directly from within the mobile Office apps, edit them, and share them without having to jump from one interface to another.  Also, those with small-capacity storage devices such as 128gb solid state drives popular in Ultrabooks, will no longer have to replicate locally to take advantage of native Office integration with Dropbox.

The functionality will first be included in the next updates to the Office apps for iOS and Android, coming in the next few weeks. The Web integrations between the Dropbox website and Office Online will be available in the first half of 2015. Dropbox will also make its application available on the Windows Phone and Windows tablet platforms in the coming months.

“In our mobile-first and cloud-first world, people need easier ways to create, share and collaborate regardless of their device or platform,” said Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. “Together, Microsoft and Dropbox will provide our shared customers with flexible tools that put them at the center for the way they live and work today.”

“People around the world have embraced Office and Dropbox to empower the way they live and work today,” said Drew Houston, CEO and co-founder of Dropbox. “Our partnership with Microsoft will make it easier than ever to collaborate seamlessly across these platforms, giving people the freedom to get more done.”

You Can’t Beat Unlimited Storage

In perhaps an even more stunning announcement, Chris Jones, Microsoft corporate vice president for OneDrive & SharePoint, announced in an October 27, 2014 post on The OneDrive Blog, “Today, storage limits just became a thing of the past with Office 365. Moving forward, all Office 365 customers will get unlimited OneDrive storage at no additional cost.”

From the standpoint of “personal clouds,” it’s important to note that Microsoft has started by rolling unlimited storage out to Home, Personal, and University Office 365 customers prior to rolling it out to corporate and commercial customers using OneDrive for Business.  In fact, those customers will not enjoy unlimited storage until it is rolled out to them in early 2015.

Jones emphasizes the importance of application integration in personal as well as business cloud storage in his post, saying, “While unlimited storage is another important milestone for OneDrive we believe the true value of cloud storage is only realized when it is tightly integrated with the tools people use to communicate, create, and collaborate, both personally and professionally. That is why unlimited storage is just one small part of our broader promise to deliver a single experience across work and life that helps people store, sync, share, and collaborate on all the files that are important to them, all while meeting the security and compliance needs of even the most stringent organizations.”

Need it Now?

For those of you who are Office 365 Home, Personal, or University customers, you can move yourself to the front of the rollout line by turning on First Release in the service settings of your Office 365 admin center.  Visit Office 365 Release Programs for complete instructions!

Microsoft Refines Its Focus on The Cloud

In his FY 2012 annual letter to shareholders, former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer first identified Microsoft as being a “devices & services” company, saying “This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves — as a devices and services company. It impacts how we run the company, how we develop new experiences, and how we take products to market for both consumers and businesses. The work we have accomplished in the past year and the roadmap in front of us brings this to life.”

That declaration has been further refined.

The new CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, recently issued an email to all of his employees in which he declared that Microsoft would be known, going forward, as the “productivity and platforms company” in our “mobile-first and cloud-first world.”  In this blog post, we’ll explore what he meant, and what it means to all of us.

Productivity & Platforms

Fundamentally, Nadella is referring to the two services that will form the foundation of the future for Microsoft:

  • When he says “productivity” he is referring to Microsoft Office 365, the complete productivity suite which gives you the familiarity and power of Office with the flexibility of the cloud. With Office in the cloud, your applications and files are with you wherever you go, whether you’re working offline at your desktop, online, or on one of your devices. Edit files at your PC or Mac. Email or share files from your tablet. Join an online meeting from your phone. What you need is accessible from anywhere, right up front, and always up to date.”
  • When he says “platform” he is referring to Microsoft Azure, the “open and flexible cloud platform that enables you to quickly build, deploy and manage applications across a global network of Microsoft-managed datacenters. You can build applications using any language, tool or framework. And you can integrate your public cloud applications with your existing IT environment.”

Mobile-First

Going back just a few years, if you spoke with anyone about networks or computing you’d probably both be picturing a desktop or laptop computer with someone sitting at a desk doing productive work.

Today, you may be in your car shopping for a new appliance.  Instead of driving from Best Buy to Lowe’s and to Home Depot you more than likely take out your handheld smartphone device and open the app for each of those retail stores to compare their prices on the unit you’re interested in.  Perhaps you’re already in one of those stores when you find what you’re looking for and want to compare prices.  You simply point your smartphone at the “QR” or bar code on the shelf-sticker for the item, scan it, and instantly obtain price comparisons from the other stores.

Then you may sign on to your bank to make sure you have sufficient funds in your checking account to make the purchase.

Needing moral support, you text a friend to ask their opinion of your intended purchase.  They point out some reviews you might want to look at.  You email home asking your spouse to take a quick photo of the spot you have picked out to install this appliance in to make sure it will look right there.

The next day you’re heading into work and begin checking in via email with your team members… on the same device.  You go to work before you even get to work.

Cloud-First

As you’re heading to the office you check your inbox and receive a complaint from a client that you didn’t send the file they’ve been waiting for and they need it before the start of the working day.  Do you turn around and head home to retrieve it?  Speed up and drive recklessly to get to work sooner?

No.  You keep all your workfiles in Microsoft OneDrive, your private cloud storage service.  That cloud storage is automatically replicated on your office computer so when you work on a document it is automatically saved locally and in the OneDrive cloud.  Your home computer also replicates that OneDrive cloud storage, so the document was already there on your local drive to work on over the weekend at home.

Now, as you’re travelling, you access OneDrive using that same trusty handheld smartphone you’ve been using and email it directly to the client from where you are.  Problem solved.

Your Productivity and Your Platform

Turn to CloudStrategies to help you architect your platform for future productivity.  Much is changing not only within Microsoft but within the entire IT industry.  We’re here to help you navigate through all of it, finding those innovations that are right for you and your business.

Mobility Considerations When Moving Communications to the Cloud

Mobility Considerations When Moving Communications to the Cloud

mobility considerations

The answer is everything. The question is “what is really moving when you talk about ‘going mobile’?”

The first thing most people think of when you talk about mobile computing is a smartphone or a tablet, the device you actually use. It follows that ‘going mobile’ for them means changing from a desktop or laptop computer to a smartphone or a tablet. Tip of the iceberg.

What Else Changes?

Operating System – If we consider that device to be the endpoint and work our way inward, the next thing that changes is the operating system that the user encounters. On a desktop or laptop it would most likely be Windows, but on a smartphone or tablet it might be Apple iOS or Google’s Android. Even on a Windows Phone, the operating system isn’t really Windows.

Applications – Next stop is the application. For a while the popular application to use when accessing many software-based services was a web browser, but that has shifted within the last few years to the point where most services are delivered by a dedicated “native app.” This is an app that has been specially produced to run on the specific device you have, and exploit as many of its capabilities as possible. If the device is a smartphone, the buttons will be large enough for the fat-fingered among us to navigate.

In the Windows world, Windows 8 and 8.1 were designed to offer two working environments. One is the classic desktop running classic Windows application software. The other is the now-familiar tiled “modern user interface” which allows the user to tap the tiles to open “apps” that run the way you’d expect them to on a tablet. Users who yearn for the “good old days” can still get back to the familiar desktop and work there, but the Start menu has become a full-screen Start Page.

Data – One of the things that may not move much is the data. IT managers who must support mobile users on smartphone and tablet devices continue to refine their strategies for keeping the corporate data that reaches the device from mixing with the user’s personal data.

Many prefer not to ever let the data get out of the data center. Instead they have adapted Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to run the actual apps on a server in the data center and only exchange screen appearance and keystrokes between the data center and the user device. When no data ever gets on the device, there is no need to “containerize” the corporate and personal data to keep them separated.

Network – To bridge the gap between the device and the corporate network we move our network connection from the familiar RJ-45 connected Ethernet port to a 3G or 4G/LTE wide area wireless network that ultimately connects back to the corporate network.

Data Center – Finally we get home to the data center. But, wait, this may not be our familiar data center. When going mobile, many companies are choosing to drive their mobility with cloud-delivered services, especially cloud-delivered communications and collaboration services. While large corporations may prefer to keep their infrastructure internal, many midmarket and even larger companies are choosing subscription-based cloud services that give them all the same functionality as the enterprise systems enjoy. Less internal infrastructure means lower cost. In one recent use case a multi-national consultancy estimated that their operating costs had been reduced by as much as 90%.

Phone Service – Moving phone service to become part of the cloud communication solution also dramatically reduces costs as all internal calls are routed across the company’s internal network rather than the tariff-bearing public switched telephone network.

For a glimpse into the near future of cloud-enabled mobility, start with the recent announcement by Microsoft that they are now the “Devices & Services” company. Why would the world’s largest and best known software company stop calling itself a software company? Because they see an end coming to the age of software which will be replaced by everything-as-a-service (EaaS). In this new world you can choose your device based on its speeds, feeds, form factor, creature-comfort and other features, and then select the services you need to access. Your choice of device. Your choice of services. Almost without restriction.

You can leverage the power of cloud-enabled mobile communications and collaboration capabilities today. To learn more, contact your CloudStrategies Advisor today!

The True Meaning of Cloud Agility

The True Meaning of Cloud Agility

cloud agility

On October 26, 2012 Hurricane Sandy hit the northeastern United States.  Even though it was classified as only a Category One storm, and then later as Category Two, the entire region was unprepared for the onslaught and the states of New York, Maryland, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and West Virginia declared a state of emergency as all power-related systems became crippled.

While stories of disaster and heroism in the wake of Sandy abound, there are also some telling stories of businesses that truly weathered the storm with almost no interruption whatsoever.  Even though many had their business premises flooded by record-setting high tides and rain, their people were able to continue working from wherever they were.  Some may have left the affected area to stay with relatives.  Others found locations spared from the widespread power outages.  Others had reserve battery power available to power their desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone devices.

All had their company’s servers located at cloud providers’ facilities.

Agility

Agility is one of those words that many consider to be an industry “buzzword.”  Unlike so many others, however, agility is a very real advantage of cloud computing.   Many don’t wait for a disaster to take full advantage of the agility afforded to them by their cloud strategies.

Any” is a key word here.

  • Users can work on pretty much any computing device they have available.  Even if they don’t have their own device they can usually connect using someone else’s as long as they can provide the proper authentication information.
  • Users can access their cloud-based resources from pretty much any place that offers internet connectivity.
  • Users don’t have to wait for business hours to get to their network.  They can connect from home, hotel rooms, convention centers, airports, kiosks, or other locations at any time of night or day.
  • As more line-of-business applications migrate to cloud hosts users can use pretty much any application they need to use.

The dictionary defines “agility” as “the capability of rapidly and cost efficiently adapting to changes.” This is the very definition of cloud computing.  Users can easily and readily access more resources and then release them rapidly back to the pool when finished with them.  When users need more storage, more processing power, more memory, they simply request it.  They don’t have to wait until more infrastructure hardware is procured and installed.  They can adapt quickly and very, very cost-efficiently.

Behind the Scenes

Agility is also being demonstrated behind the scenes by the underlying virtualized technology.  As virtual machines need more resources, or as their hosts encounter difficulty, they may be moved automatically and instantly to other servers.  Storage and other resources are dynamically allocated as required to satisfy user needs without intervention.

The Agile Business

The cloud-based agile business no longer need depend upon physical quarters, specific locations, or other potential single-points-of-failure.  Quality cloud providers offer redundancy to the data center level.  Should the primary data center hosting your infrastructure be disabled or destroyed by storm or other acts of God or Man the network fails over to an alternate data center located far away.  Such resilience was formerly only available to the largest corporations.  Today single operators can enjoy the same advantage.

The question that remains is what this agility will mean in terms of leveling playing fields.  How will this change competition in the market?  How many agile Davids will emerge to conquer former Goliaths.  That is the true potential value of cloud agility.

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