Technology Writers on Notice in 2014

2014 LogoIf you’re a journalist in the technology industry, then one of your resolutions should be to get your act together. Let’s start with Christopher Mims’ 2013 Was a Lost Year for Tech. In a word PATHETIC.

Mims doesn’t work in the industry, but had a deadline and went to a tired formula of: negative, salute to the favorites for advertising, trivialize the new, bash Microsoft for fun, and tell the industry it’s arrogant.

For the record, technology has been the main industry that has brought the U.S. economy back. Like in most years, it’s really the software that was the story and not the stray gadgets like wearables. Why pay homage to Apple, while giving back-handed comments about Google and Microsoft?

The tired “Microsoft is evil and the PC industry is dead mantra” just screams out of touch. Microsoft wrote off $900 Million for Surface RT, but that pales greatly to the $29 Billion in iPhones unsold in the channel by Sprint and Verizon. Smartphones and tablets proliferate, but maybe since Microsoft supports popular products like XP for over a decade people are simply keeping their computers longer? Microsoft killed the stack rating nearly 2 months before the Mims bashing comments.

Yes, there were acquisitions and mergers that are usually lauded in other industries. Instead of discussing how Silicon Valley has hurt manufacturing and jobs, why not talk about 3D printing that will make us competitive again? Mims redeems himself somewhat with insight on social media and the NSA, but the damage was already done.

Go write for the tabloids if you just want to cause controversy. Your job is to report the facts and give something helpful for your audience. Cut the crap with the tired old formula, as my resolution this year is to regularly expose such drivel.

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Back to Facebook

Social Media Image
OK, I was wrong. I really didn’t think Facebook would survive. It was a fad that would fade away like Myspace. So, just another lesson to learn about people and in turn business.

Facebook was a curiosity I signed up for long ago just to understand the buzz. Technology is the broadest field of any, but you can’t really claim to be a technology expert and not know the basics of something hitting mainstream consciousness almost daily.

Search Engine Optimization was the craze at the time, so obviously it was my place to be for backlinks and a company page. Reading a lot growing up, I was always amazed about Asian culture and how over crowded and lacking in any privacy for the average person. Facebook felt like it could be that way. Then the rules changed and that funky little Facebook language for company pages changed decimating a two weeks worth of effort. Matrixforce serves organizations and not consumers, so the company page was abandoned. My Facebook presence was on auto-pilot while I went on to WordPress, Expert Articles, Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Squidoo, Google Plus, and HubPages.

In the mean time, Facebook had the IPO, made numerous changes including vanity URLs for users and organizations, and has even managed to make money. Time flies and you’re there. Plus, unfortunately you do have to get the experience to have the wisdom of how all these services should be used.

Since Facebook is not going away, I used our trademark status to wrestle our Facebook URL from some security guard company in India and we’ll begin filling in the timeline, as we do a pretty fair job providing content for clients. Personally, my Facebook page will be … well … personal.

That’s the thing you learn: unlink your accounts because you should have a different persona on different services. Like probably a lot of people, I linked my Twitter account to everything. It was lazy, simple, and easy. However, that approach just spams the other services with the same stuff and what is appropriate for Facebook, may not be good fit for something like LinkedIn.

For my Facebook friends (which truly is a pretty small set of family, friends, classmates, etc.) don’t be alarmed when my account is largely decimated and changed. There may be the weekly post from my blog, but everything else will be personal. Go to the Matrixforce Facebook page if you want the business and technology stuff and you’ll just have to see how I use the other services.

Personal Use Office 365

Office 365 LogoI often hear the same complaints:

  • My ISP e-mail sucks.
  • Maybe I should do that Carbonite thing to backup my files.
  • A new copy of Microsoft Office costs how much?

So let me give you an idea. Use Office 365 for your personal account. How many of you want to write a book or have a hobby or simply want a personalized e-mail address? Maybe you’ve already registered that domain name. If so, for $20 per month you can have:

  1. Enterprise grade e-mail with 25GB of storage and unlimited archive storage.
  2. 10GB of document storage AND disaster recovery that you can access from anywhere.
  3. An always current copy of Office Professional that can be installed on up to 5 devices.

Basically for less than the cost of HBO that you rarely watch, you can have better technology and peace of mind. Try Office 365 free for 30 days.

Improve Your Worth in 2013

Improve WorthIn mid January, James Altucher wrote a post for TechCrunch titled “10 Reasons Why 2013 Will Be the Year You Quit Your Job“. It was a tug at the hearts of technologists during a motivational time of the year and ingeniously designed to keep readers coming back for inspiration. Altucher is one of those unsuspecting souls from high school that went on to become quite successful as a writer for the Wall Street Journal and lucrative investment entrepreneur – all launched from a stint with HBO as a computer programmer in the mid 90’s.

While there is a radical school of thought that you should start a business in a down economy, quitting your job with the current economic turmoil to start a new venture is just plain crazy. In the late 80’s, I traveled the nation implementing bar coding and scores of data entry personnel went on to do more meaningful, better paying jobs like inventory analysts. Even at that time, much of the Northeast was littered with massive, empty buildings. It’s more than ironic that someone from Wall Street would just now notice causal vacancies. Not to mention that failed, huge government, welfare states like New York have forced the average person to work multiple jobs for the last 30 years to stay in the middle class.

Today, I help business owners and their management escape broken legacy thoughts about technology in order to improve profitability. Smart IT people don’t lose their jobs to managed services. They are happier doing brain work moving their organization forward, rather than worrying about mundane updates and backup. The rank and file employees also embrace cloud computing and other new technology, knowing their worth only improves. Any lost counterparts that throw up their hands in resistance and confusion quickly land in unemployment.

Improvement is the harsh reality of the world and has been forever. Live every day, improve your skills, learn new things, and follow your dreams. However, I’d be wary of Altucher’s message to choose yourself for success and escape the job prison. I envy him because he’s made it to the show. Unfortunately, it’s not from self-publishing books as most books sell less than 250 copies per year and 3,000 copies in a lifetime. Once you start with that fact, I wonder how Altucher was able to quit his job and don’t you then question the rest of the article?

IT Firms Make Less on Cloud

Many of my peers often ask if they should get into cloud computing. I generally tell them a flat “no” with an explanation that they’ll make less money, a totally different sales/marketing approach is required, and technical competencies change drastically. The next question is usually something like, “OK, Kevin, then how are you so successful at it?”.

This is the fourth year in a row Matrixforce has achieved the elite Microsoft Cloud Accelerate Partner accreditation, with over 50 new customers and 2,000 users annually. We started three years beforehand when most people thought of cloud computing as something about the weather.  Today, we offer deployment and support services for Office 365 and Google Apps, Windows Intune, CRM Online, and Quickbooks Online – not to mention current training on Azure and competing cloud platforms. The sales and marketing team provide thousands of social media updates, hundreds of web pages and blog posts, and dozens of videos and podcasts. The technical folks are now all about productivity and usage of services and only a tiny bit of specialized old-school technology infrastructure. It’s been a long-term approach to grow a practice to compliment our other services that our firm took nearly 7 years ago. For certain, providers must have at least 5,000 to 10,000 individual subscribers, before the recurring revenue is enough to be significant and still can’t stand alone as a separate business. Most providers don’t survive longer than 5-7 years, much less have the resources and bussiness savvy to make the investment to try to get to those numbers of subscribers in that period of time.

Many prospects and customers have gotten the message loud and clear from the competition, that they need to stay on-premise with their technology infrastructure. “Why cloud computing is not reliable or secure.” Or you get the picture. Then the pitch is “You should just move all those servers into our data center. It’s not any cheaper, but we take care of all the hassle for you”. Hosting or rack space is definitely not cloud computing and brings forth questions of significant risk with the facility and provider’s long-term viability. Cloud computing uses knowledgeable experts backed by multi-billion dollar facilities provided by major manufacturers like Microsoft and Google. Further, the whole value proposition is reduced cost for significant improvements in productivity, reliability, and security.

I can’t blame the competition as the motivation is self-preservation, because switching to cloud computing eliminates 70% of product revenues and 30% of maintenance services. In hard dollars, that $50,000 annually in revenue for a few servers with associated software GONE – $250,000 loss in 5 years per customer. To add insult to injury, that $20,000 annual project and $10,000 in maintenance and support evaporates too, for another $150,000 loss over 5 years. So, the traditional legacy provider takes s $400,000 hit over 5 years in a moderate customer environment of 6-10 servers. Less product revenue equates to smaller discounts with distributors, coupled with more bench time for idle system engineers. Legacy providers face a grim business disruption problem of slowly dwindling cash and relevance.

Plus, the slick smile and dial, NASCAR like logos and product of the day – or selling a body for staffing or a project don’t really apply anymore. For sure prospects and customers don’t like it. Today, customers want to find out who you are and expect tons of information to research and have informed opinions before they even talk to you.

A few competitors are trying to change, but face a huge uphill battle with existing staff and any cloud wins are tiny infusions of cash even less than shrinkage currently experienced on legacy on-premise infrastructure. Some competitors have doubled-down and gone the niche high-end hardware route. Many have got in the way-back machine for circa 1989 and are pitching hourly rates with no means to provide availability or quality service on a regular basis. Finally, the overwhelming majority are obfuscating reality and bilking the unsuspected into moving servers to a data center at little savings in cost and no escape from the product obsolescence hamster wheel.

Meanwhile, prospects and customers love our offerings. They appreciate straight technology advice not motivated by product or selling them a body. Already knowing quite a bit before we even speak, we prove our capabilities by telling about all the stuff they need to know that is not on the web. Having prospered over 35 years while surviving virtually every war or challenge for a technology firm, customers know we are stable and practice strong business and operational skill. When you are serious about the cloud and online services, give me a call (918) 622-1167  x25.

Disaster Drills

How often do you try out your disaster plan? If you’re a small or medium business, the default answer is “what plan?” or “we’ll find out when it happens”. The reason is cost, complexity, and apathy. CFO’s balk at the cost of most technology. Technology folks struggle with where to start and how to justify, as not all disasters are equal or require the same response. Finally, the norm for most management is that even when knowing the first 2 facts, they do business as usual because “it’s never happened before because we have smart people and redundancy” (or whatever helps them sleep at night).

Rather than bore you with steps to take to recover from a disaster, the following are some current and nominal cost approaches of how we run our business (and of course help clients do the same):

  1. Recently, a key employee’s spouse was badly injured in a car accident. We were able to advance some additional salary for a short period during the spouse’s recovery. Cash is king in business. You don’t want to have too much as it signals possible operations problems to potential buyers and excess dollars should go to shareholders, but you must have enough on-hand or readily available to cover such situations.
  2. After another summer storm, our main domain controller died. As best practice, this server shared no data or ran any key applications. The second domain controller took over ready and able to service the whole network, using DHCP failover strategy. While operations ran normally, our team was able to seize critical roles and manually remove the domain controller from Active Directory.
  3. Major storage for a client failed. Fortunately, our online backup had a full copy of the data, including databases and server system states. We managed to keep the storage running in a degraded state and minimized customer downtime, by moving data and virtual servers to other locations. Online backup continued to run regularly and after the hardware problem was resolved, the data moved back and synchronized with the off-site backup.
  4. A contractor blew the transformer for our building. Fortunately, we run our business using cloud computing with services like Office 365. Our personnel were able to easily and securely work from home for a day with no loss of operations for customers.

Now the scary part – all of these things happened in the same month. We survived because of business acumen with little additional cost. Our Virtual CIO services can help you identify how to run operations that are disaster ready. If you were the average business, would you still be in business without your key employee, main server, critical data, and a power outage?

Eliminate Bottlenecks

Is this year going to be better than last year? I can already say yes, but can you?

The reason is the elimination of several bottlenecks in our business. It took most of last year, but two major issues holding us back were eliminated by process change. We estimated the changes would save us approximately 500 hours this year and about 10K in capital investments. More importantly, the changes help us focus more on clients. Already, the board and myself are seeing improvements in staff motivation and better understanding and service.

Too many businesses fly into the new year with great hope, but no direction. Management is clobbered with year-ending and beginning tasks, so it’s business as usual. What are 1 – 3 things that if you “fixed”, would help management, staff, and customers? Think strategically and if it is just one thing that has a significant positive impact, that is still huge.

We moved our Customer Relationship Management application that runs both our sales and support operations to cloud computing. We exported the data, customized a few forms and reports, and in full operations in less than 30 days. A bottleneck was removed for staff as all functions could now be done in one place. Our management team had one less thing to worry about off of our business continuity list. Finally, customers reap the biggest reward by some new features and more focus.

One of the major reasons you use a Virtual CIO is to eliminate those bottlenecks which become a win/win/win for all involved. Here are a few examples we’ve done for other clients:

  • Increased inventory turn double per month by integrating data collection for a large distributor
  • Increased product shipments 6,000 tires per day for a major manufacturer
  • Saved energy conglomerate $24 million annually in freight processing
  • Reduced IT costs $86,000 annually for local law firm
  • Lowered communication costs $225,000 for a municipality

Unfortunately, identifying the bottleneck and how to remove them are two different skill sets. If you’re tired of the status quo, inquire about our Virtual CIO service (918) 622-1167 Option 3.

Winter Ready

One day in late October, the day ended at 91 and then just like that the next morning it was freezing and the high was in the 50’s. Then the Northeast got dumped on and just like that it was flashback to ice storms of 2007 for Oklahoma – only this time the 5 inches of ice also had another two foot of snow. The state was gridlocked, but the world didn’t care. They were out of the polar blast zone and customers had needs and employees had to work to earn a living.

Fortunately, Edward had learned a lot since then and his company wouldn’t suffer through the following 2 weeks. In 2008, he hired a Virtual CIO that helped to reduce the amount of servers and IT cost with managed services. Accounting, CRM, e-mail, and standard documents had all been moved to cloud computing for better security and built-in business continuity at much less cost. The IT guy Bill was great, but we no longer needed him and fortunately the Virtual CIO was connected and landed him several other opportunities.

In 2009, Edward helped the economy and moved to another house where the power lines were buried. He’d also picked up some disaster recovery skills having an annual backup of SharePoint Online on an external drive, critical contact information, and extra battery backup at the house. Whether a disaster or sunny day, employees accessed the applications from anywhere there was Internet access. No costly failover to Houston or wherever or liability of having employees try to travel to a failover facility or underground bunker that was likely flooded and unreachable. Add a few cheap mifi’s and you’re good to go even if your cable or satellite goes out.

Most of Edward’s peers still wanted to “touch” their servers or had contracted with some local hosting company, that was either over-run with those fortunate to make it to those facilities or otherwise occupied with the misery of new prospects. All the while their employees were at risk for severe injury or death, the cost was overbearing, and even so business was at a standstill. Of course, Edward knew he was lucky as few technology companies understood the cloud or even the business processes of moving there. If the company hasn’t been around for more than 20 years with proven industry recognition, skip them and run not walk away from the “we’re gold, platinum, diamond” whatever pitch of the day.

The phones had been remotely forwarded. There was another order. Purchasing processed it and the sales people had even put a few opportunities into the pipeline. Accounting processed the invoices and payroll. Marketing had updated the website and was responding to followers via Twitter. All in all, employees had a couple of days working from home in pajamas by the fire and most importantly customers were impressed and knew the company was there for them when most of the rest of the industry was not.

Kevin Fream on Google++Kevin Fream

Dead Zero

Here are two contrasting stories of network security for National Security Month. What follows, does not depict real events or persons.  In the business world, corporate data is protected by two separate, yet equally important groups:  the Information Technology staff, who maintain systems, and management that control budget and strategy. These are their stories:

Scenario 1

“Zeus, this is Striker”, the hacker said, like this was some cool military mission. “You were right about that IP address from the port scan and this should be easy”. The java injection for the just above consumer-grade Sonicwall got the hashed password. Let’s RDC to the mail server using the internal IP specified by the SMTP rule. Yep, same password for the domain administrator account. Score and owned!

Now add an account to the firewall with a special rule and port for backdoor access just in case – it’s takes four steps and as many places to find so it’s not likely to be discovered. Hide another admin account in AD and bury the hacking utilities some three folders down in Windows.

Time for the good stuff – make sure there is full access to all mailboxes and as usual administrator has full permission to all files. Find the HR, Accounting, and Management folders and copy anything that looks promising. Whoops, there’s that password spreadsheet. [Grin] Bingo, in the accounting system and that account number list will help quite nicely.

That should be some good commission. Charlie, I mean Whiplash,  has the employee list to get a decent return on stolen identities. Crackers can do the bank transactions and order spurious stuff from suppliers using the accounting data. And finally, Ohura can use Outlook Anywhere and copy or monitor anyone’s mailbox using the website or LinkedIn to target the big-wigs first.

Scenario 2

“Zeus, this is Striker”, the hacker said like this was some cool military mission. “Why are we looking at this one again?”

The firewall was enterprise server grade. Worse the MX record showed that e-mail was hosted at Microsoft. Further, there was a CNAME for SharePoint that likely housed all the critical data, that was also at Microsoft. Ohura was dating a salesman there who was brain-dead and had no scruples about giving away company secrets, but his account only had access to his mailbox and some public sales literature.  Even if it was the IT guy, his account wouldn’t have access to all the SharePoint data and mailboxes in the cloud.

I could spend a couple of nights hammering on this firewall, but what is there to go after? For sure, I don’t want to start going after Microsoft and have SWAT busting down the door the next day. “Zeus, let’s go after something with a pay day.”

Washing Machine Syndrome

washing machineAt some point in your life, it happens. The washing machine stops spinning out or simply dies. What a major inconvenience to have wet and soapy clothes. You may have to go buy some underwear for the next couple of days or try to find a laundromat. It costs as much to repair as it does to buy a replacement. If you’re fortunate, you whip out the credit card on the weekend and try not to get sucked into your favorite color or cool front loader with the matching new dryer. Depending upon your stage in life, you may be forced to hit the garage sales and get a friend with a truck to pick one up.

Regardless, the old washing machine is removed and the new one plugged in and screwed to the hot and cold water. You’re back in business and wash away without another thought until it happens again in another 6-8 years. The problem is that many companies take the same approach with their servers and it’s not as simple as replacing the washing machine.

Anyone in business can tell you, there is significant risk and lots of small and massive failures. Owners have a lot of moving pieces to understand and must have the courage to make decisions like that old Kenny Rogers song – count your money, be ready for the cards you are dealt,  and know when to walk away or run. These same people wouldn’t dare try to not pay payroll tax for a couple of months (which can never be escaped), but regularly risk it all to run 12 – 36 months out of warranty on servers running the business.

You see I have a unique ability to tell the future about when a server will die. Well, actually it’s simple. Servers are generally warranted for  3 years with some limited options for upfront 4 or 5 years. That means there are no parts or extremely limited spare refurbished parts throughout the world at warranty end – thank you lean manufacturing. So that means if you have only one power supply that shorts out, it’s 5-10 business days to have a new server shipped plus emergency recovery because complex hardware and software just isn’t like plugging in a new washing machine. Bad RAM, that old type is probably not available. If you have RAID and one drive dies and the machine is still running, try 5 times the cost of a new one with 5 times the capacity wasted to replace.

I’ve heard it all: “That’s the best server we ever bought” or “We just got that server in 2005″. This is generally begun or ended with some explicative or irrational statement about so much was spent, it should last for 20 years. Then, wait for it, the new equipment won’t run any of the old software and the new software requires other new software.

Treating your infrastructure like a washing machine just costs the business half to a full month’s expenses and revenues, plus lost goodwill with employees, customers, and suppliers – along with bad press and loss of new potential sales. But its IT or that support firm’s fault right? We’ll just fire those bastards. After all, IT has no budget authority and those consultants were crazy and the recruiter of the day with PC Magazine says anybody can do this stuff.

Ding. Ding. School is in. While it may feel good to fire someone in this situation, how about trying to prevent it in the future? Fact: your equipment is only as good as the warranty. Often it’s only like $200 – $400 more to get that 4 hour 4 year warranty part replacement from Dell. Then a hardware problem is fixed quickly versus doing everything by hand, waiting 10 business days for a new server and weeks to workout restoration with the waterfall effect of upgraded software.

Back in the day like 10 years ago, the answer was to buy two of each server or a spare parts kit for each server. The cost was exorbitant and the software configuration overly complex and rarely worked. Today, you stop repeating the washing machine syndrome by:

1) Cloud Computing – Get rid of most of your servers. Escape the cost of hardware, software, maintenance, and upgrades. Along with less cost, a big chunk of your disaster recovery is also resolved.

2) Virtualization – What servers are left should be virtual with reduced equipment cost and the side benefit of running on older versions of software on the virtual servers longer.

3) Managed Services – You’ve outsourced everything from the coffee service to payroll because those services do it better and for less cost. Why not shrink or eliminate your IT staff for the same benefits? The good ones manage cloud computing and virtualization, as well as keeping you current for anything on-premise.