2014 March 20 - Thanks to my proof readers who have made this a better document
2017 November 7 - Expanded with new discussion of Social Media under Internet Presence, and Phones under Hardware
2018 December 5 - Added Sample Inventory Spreadsheets
Perhaps the hardest part is deciding what to leave out. I've worked in and around Information Technology for twenty years though I was a full time IT worker for only six years. As a developer, business owner, IT technician and end user I've seen many IT systems from many perspectives. Yet, I am still learning new things and revising best practices while adapting to the changing landscape of IT. Thus much of what I might have written even a year ago may no longer relevant. Some of what I am sharing with this work may be obsolete in a matter of months though I have tried to steer clear of such details and focus on the concepts which will be true for several years or more.
The next most challenging part of writing what you are about to read is trying to keep it interesting. Many will find the material herein dull, dry and tedious. That is probably a good sign that IT is not a good career choice for you. It is also why I have tried to focus on the big picture though I have included some references for further reading for those that are interested.
This work is organized into six sections that can be read beginning to end but most people will skip around though they will benefit from reading a section from start to end at least the first time through.
Tom Egan Professional Geek
Every business today has some internet footprint, whether a simple Facebook page or a website with customer portal and company email. Thus it should come as no surprise that all successful businesses will want to take some control of their internet presence. It might seem simple to out source the "problem" to a web design firm who may create a great web design but charge exorbitant recurring fees. Alternatively, you could have an intern or acquaintance set up some thing inexpensive but you run the risk of being ignored by customers who see a less than professional design. So what does the successful business need to know about its internet presence?
The first thing a business owner should probably know is that an internet presence is not necessarily a single line item on a balance sheet. Today, an internet presence consists of naming, hosting, design and social media connections.
Names like Coke and Kleenex are universally recognizable brands for sugar water and tissues. Having a strong brand name gets your product recognized and preferentially selected by consumers. While many systems on the internet such as Facebook respect company names, branding, and trademarks; perhaps the most important naming system the Domain Name System (DNS) does not. The DNS registration system works on a global first come first serve basis. Witness the battle between Apple Computer and Apple Records which prevented the Beatles catalog from being sold in the iTunes Store system for the store's first six years. A company should look to register it's name(s) with the domain name system when registering it's "Doing Business As" name. Registering a name is fairly straightforward. A company known as a registrar acts as the intermediary between a company and ICANN the pseudo-governmental body which controls the DNS system. A good registrar will have a straightforward website where a company owner or technical officer will create an account and reserve the name. Also on this site they will be able to delegate the technical aspects of domain name management including the pointing the domain to a hosing provider's ip or secondary name server IPs.
Hosting is the act of running a computer that will respond to requests for the company's homepage or deliver an email message to some address. While hosting can be done in house, there is a significant amount of overhead to do so. Therefore, excepting some of the largest companies and those with particular needs such as financial institutions, hosting is typically outsourced to a Hosting Provider who can amortize overhead costs among many business.
Hosting Providers come in many sizes and pricing models though most charge a monthly or yearly fee for their service possibly with various price points for varying packages of services. Thus selection of hosting provider is a question of what is the best value among the hosting providers which meet a business's needs. Sadly, there are more than a few bad apples in the hosting provider world so business must consider not just a hosting provider's advertised price but also the fine print; are prices only introductory specials, are there hidden extra charges and how does a hosting provider deal with unexpected overuse of allotted resources. A business may also need to consider the legal jurisdiction of a hosting provider as some legitimate business ventures, e.g. selling tee shirts mocking religion, may be illegal in some jurisdictions while others, e.g. independent music production companies, may be at greater risk of death by frivolous lawsuit in others.
Picking a hosting provider can be a challenge. If you ask a dozen computer geeks which hosting providers is the right for you, expect to get a dozen different recommendations so aside from just picking the cheapest how can you be sure you are making the right choice? Fortunately all good hosting companies have a few common traits. First, a good hosting company will have a money back trial period for hosting, domain name registration fees are always non refundable. Second good hosting company will have an online site management portal. Management portals vary in quality but better hosting companies will have a tour, demo or documentation of their management portal available without requiring a contract. Take the tour, try the demo and browse the documentation does the portal seem easy to use? Third, all good hosting companies offer Linux or BSD based hosting. Finally, all good hosting companies take security seriously and will offer sftp access rather than ftp access to your web site's files.
The basic webpage will have your company's logo, its contact information and either a graphic or textual description of what your company does, ideally both. If you maintain a store front your operating hours should also be included. In fact most small companies can stop with just this simple one page website but all new companies should provide at least this much. This is your content and it is a designer's job to both make your content catch a viewer's eye and make this information available on the broadest range of devices possible.
The proportions, location, accents and construction quality of a Grecian Temple communicate this is a place for worship. Most of us are not cut out to be architects yet almost everyone can recognize a well designed structure. Similarly, while we may not have the skills to create a website, we can recognize a well designed website at a glance. A website design consists of a color scheme and the way content is arranged in a viewer. A well designed website will be balanced, of appropriate scale and your eye will end up focused on the most important thing which should be your content. A great design will memorably be visually pleasant for all viewers but will differentiate itself for a merely good website when viewers take away knowledge of your content.
Similar to design; some things are built to last. Consider: the 2012 Apple Unibody MacBook Pro, or the Brooklyn Bridge both have a certain rugged elegance to them, utilitarian even simplistic yet iconic. There is a lot that goes into building a reliable website but a business owner should look for one give away… A well built website will be accessible. Any customer whether they are using a phone, a tablet, a PC, a widescreen internet enabled TV or assistive technologies like a screen reader will be able to comprehend and interact with your content.
The first thing companies get wrong with social media is believing that they need a presence on every social media service. The second thing companies get wrong is filling their social media presence with press release style content. The promise of social media was to create an organic, interaction based relationship online. The downfall of social media is being trapped in the walled gardens of Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin. With so many things that can go wrong how can a brand get social media right?
First, not all social media sites are created equal. When a company understands this and is discerning about which social media platforms it uses, both the company and the companies audience will benefit. For instance Instagram is about sharing photos and Linkedin is about recruiting talent. Organizations that sell products that purchasers want to show off such as clothing may consider an instagram presence that connects with customers who post images of themselves wearing the company's products. Similarly businesses that are looking to hire positions requiring skills other than simple menial labor should consider cross posting open positions on Linkedin. Similarly, if a business does not have a photogenic product, e.g. a financial services company, then a presence on Instagram is not needed and if a business does not often hire skilled employees, e.g. a family run frame shop then a presence on Linkedin is not a good fit. Further a Twitter account that trash talks your competition even if in good fun as between sister companies or a Facebook account that posts company press releases is not going to raise brand awareness, or drive product demand and should be avoided. Therefore a business should consider social media platforms carefully and create a presence on them if and only if the business has a content need that fits with the platform.
While some content, such as customer selfies, may be well suited for social media and not as appropriate on a company's public website, companies must also conscientiously avoid being locked in the walled garden of social media. Consider if a job posting is advertised only on Linkedin as opposed to on the Company website and Linkedin. As many potential applicants do not use Linkedin, having the job advertised also on the company web page will put it in front of a broader audience for a minimal amount of additional work. Applicants should also be able to complete the job application without having to first create an account with a social media platform. Taking this level of care helps to signal to users of the social media platform as well that your company understands why they joined the social media platform but also that your company is accommodating to broader audiences
Email is a surprisingly complicated subject. The new media culture holds it with disdain while the older fax and paper culture fears it. The one thing everybody agrees on is that it serves a vital purpose for communication. The big thing that a business owner should know about email is that there are four distinct technologies for receiving email each with tradeoffs.
POP stands for Post Office Protocol and is the oldest of the solutions still in widespread use today. POP was developed at a time when the computing resources of major corporations were less than the computing power in a modern cell phone thus POP is technically simplistic. A POP email server works much like it's namesake the post office box. It receives email for an address and holds the message until you retrieve it. Once retrieved, it is the recipient's task to do what they will with the message; print it, save it or let it disappear into the background radiation of the universe for the POP standard says the server may forget the message once it has been retrieved. Truth be told, time and experience have caused POP to evolve and gain a number of features such as encrypted communications but from the perspective of the end user that's all there is to POP.
Because POP is extremely simplistic it is tried true and very reliable. Because it demands very little of a server it is inexpensive. Therefore it is often the basis for the free email addresses that come with internet service and web hosting accounts. Due to it's simplistic nature, POP only has rudimentary support for accessing email from multiple devices.
IMAP stands for Internet Message Access Protocol. It was designed to overcome POP's big short coming: the inability to access you mail box from multiple devices. An IMAP server does this by keeping all of your messages on the email server and letting email clients make copies of messages but not deleting messages unless explicitly told to do so. This means IMAP requires more server resources than POP but it also means that no matter what device you use to access your email; your PC, your cell phone or via a web page on a hotel kiosk device you will have access to the same mailboxes with the same email and even be able to see the same new/replied/forwarded status.
Enterprise messaging systems almost always do more than deliver email and as such comparing these solutions with POP and IMAP is unfair because most also handles calendar and directory (contacts) sharing. Also unlike POP and IMAP which are informal but openly published and widely accepted standards, not a single enterprise messaging system is publicly documented. These are expensive systems to setup and beyond the upfront price tag, the companies that build these systems rely on vendor lock in to keep you paying. But for the businesses that need enterprise messaging systems this is just the cost of doing business.
Like IMAP, enterprise messaging systems keep all email on the server. However, unlike POP and IMAP which only encode how email is transferred between client and server, Enterprise messaging systems are often tied to a single client. So whereas a POP or IMAP account can be accessed with Thunderbird, [MAC OS X] Mail, Evolution, Windows Live Mail, the mail software on your phone... just about any email software you can imagine Microsoft's Exchange mail can only be reliably accessed by Microsoft's Outlook email client. In fact the ability of Evolution and Mac OS X Mail to access Exchange email makes Exchange an outlier in the field, a quirk fate stemming of Microsoft's anti competitive behavior and European regulators
This allows tight integration with the client software does allow these systems to businesses that so desire two features not possible with POP and IMAP; namely message revocation and message access control. The first feature allows server administrators to pull back a message and pretend that it never existed. This feature is almost never used because once a message is delivered to a POP or IMAP mailbox it is no longer possible to maintain the fiction that the message was never sent. The second feature is commonly used among large businesses especially those under scrutiny of regulators. It a nutshell it means that administrative users can stop you from reading, filing or deleting email delivered to you. This feature is typically used by IT departments to produce copies of any email when subpoenaed. This can be done with IMAP as well but often only if the user has kept the message whereas enterprise messaging systems typically keep everything, even deleted messages.
The extra control that enterprise messaging systems provide a businesses over it employees mailboxes can also be misused. Many businesses are tempted to use mail access control to prevent fired and downsized employees from accessing their email even ones they have read. The idea is that this feature can be used to prevent a disgruntled employee from forwarding a business' dirty secrets on to the press or delete incriminating email while cleaning out their desk. However, to be effective these systems must be configured not to allow email to be resent (forwarded) outside a company, not allow email to be accessed on devices not owned by the company and to limit the printing of messages; restrictions that are an anathema to productivity. Businesses quickly tire of these draconian usage restrictions and tend to go out of business or stay in business only to service a handful of paranoid clients, typically governments.
Web mail is to anyone that has used email on the desktop, an inferior experience. Web mail originally was a gee look at what we can do with the web experiment but quickly grew into big business when a generation of kids found they could use it to circumvent the restrictions their parents and schools placed on their computer use.
When Google decided they needed to be more than a search engine to be a grown up respectable company they tried their hand at many products; some of which failed, some of which succeeded, but none took off quite like GMail. Google stumbled onto the fact that by making webmail more than a toy, more than a way to subvert the strictures of school, Google could increase market and mind share. Google's continued investment into the product has in turn triggered companies like Microsoft and Yahoo to invest in their own webmail products. Thus we have seen webmail grow to be a mature enough solution for some businesses, especially those founded by the generation that used webmail to avoid the prying eyes of their elders.
Webmail, like IMAP and enterprise messaging systems, keeps email on the server. This allows email to be accessible from any device like IMAP, but without the necessity of configuring and syncing client software, as the client software is a web page viewed in a web browser. Adopting a webmail solution can therefore lower support costs though they often come with costs to setup and host; however even the most advanced web applications can not duplicate the smoothness and usability of properly configured mail client software. Additionally while most mail clients allow already retrieved messages to be read even offline, most web mail requires a working network connection.
The office network is bit like a business' nervous system. While the employees are the smarts and soul of a company the network connects them together, letting them communicate and collaborate electronically.
The Cables and Radios (Neurons)
Getting data from A to B, sounds simple, but there are a number of different routes you can take to accomplish the task. The best way to do this depends heavily on the number of computers you have, the layout of your workspace, and whether or not you own or rent. For a small business this almost always boils down to wires or radios.
By wires we are talking of category 5 (Cat 5) or it successors Cat 5e and Cat 6 twisted pair cables. Wires cost more to install but for the foreseeable future are the fastest most reliable method for moving data between fixed points such as between a network closet and a work station. While not a necessity, a patch panel should be used to keep the network closet end of cabling organized and to facilitate future repairs. Additionally a good rule of thumb is to run two network cables to every location needing a network port as it is usually more difficult and costly to add cabling after the initial install. Conduit or cable trays should be considered when building or undertaking major renovations as proper use can simplify future minor renovation or reorganizations helping control maintenance costs.
Radios, specifically those defined by the IEEE 802.11 family of standards, really shine when it comes to mobile devices, as a mobile device tied down by a cable is not very mobile at all. Some manufacturers have embraced wifi to the point of encouraging wifi only offices. In practice wireless radios are limited to at most 30m and mesh networks are notoriously unreliable thus office wireless networks should be build on a wired backbone if more than one radio is required.
Switching (The Spine)
The spine is so basic that terrestrial life is classified as invertebrate (no spine) and vertebrate (has a spine). Similarly an home office may do well with a modem/router/switch combination device but most businesses benefit from choosing the appropriate network switch once they have much more than a single computer and printer on the network.
A network's switch(es) like a spine are responsible for getting data from one cable to another. Switches come in different sizes with various numbers of ports into which a network cable can be connected and with varying speed with which they can move data. A quality switch will have a lifetime warranty and last for a decade or more with no maintenance if chosen and installed properly.
Router (The Brainstem)
In order to function properly a network must be able to direct signals from one device to another. Doing so in a modern network means something or someone needs to take care of a few kinds of book keeping. Technically, each kind of book keeping can be handled by a different device but this is rarely the case as these book keeping functions are closely related thus they often get handled by a single device on the network, the router. For the smallest networks found in homes and home businesses, the router is typically embedded within the modem while larger businesses with more computers or with several locations connected by VPN tunnels will use a separate device.
Uplink (Language Center of the Brain)
There are two kinds of networks; standalone networks with no connection to the internet and networks with one or more connections to the internet historically called the uplink. Uplink is a bit of an outdated term. The device that fulfills this role is conventionally and more specifically referred to as a modem. A modem is a device that takes the internet from one format or media: phone line (DSL), cable loop (DOCSIS), fiber optic channel or cellular network and makes it available on another media or in another format: IEEE 802.3 (wired) or 802.11 (wireless) local area networking for example. Modems are often provided by or obtained from your internet service provider.
It's Elementary, Data
Data, it is why you buy computers, if your business had no need for data you would have no need for computers. They collect, store, organize, retrieve and transform data, computers can do no more and no less. In fact when you ask a geek about choosing a new computer they should counter with something like: What kind of data do you work with; word processing and spreadsheets, graphics or video?
Where you store and how you store your data can have a huge impact on your business. If you are the smallest of businesses, just yourself working out of an office over your garage, you probably haven't given much thought to where you have stored your data, it all just on your computer. Storing your data on your computer is inexpensive and it gets the job done for many businesses. This solution breaks down however if you need to manage large quantities of data or share data between computers.
Why does keeping data on your computer stop working? These days a 2TB hard drive is about as large as you can get in a new computer. That means you can store 250 full length movies on your hard drive, a whopping 2,000,000 minutes of music or staggering 200,000,000 pages of text data. But what if you are a photographer saving RAW photographic data? Well you can expect to store about 400,000 images which when you think about it is not that many. Video editors, architects, engineers and many other can also expect problems. Compounding this problem its the trend today not towards bigger hard drives but towards smaller, faster, longer lived flash memory storage in work stations.
Sharing data lends it's own problems. Some offices send files around by email. Perhaps though you don't need everything stored in you computer? Perhaps if we moved it to a special device designed to store data we could save some money. This wonderful device is a server. There are many kinds of servers but what they all have in common is that the share resources. Servers can have several of advantages over storing data on the workstation. Number one is that once data is shared to one workstation, it is trivial to share it to a second workstation. This sharing of data is by far and away the single largest reason businesses install servers. The second big reason for using a server is it collects data from across an organization allowing your IT person to leverage benefits of scale when it comes to backing up your companies data.
In the 1980's no one knew they were backing up their data by printing everything, in the 1990's no one trusted floppies, in the 2000's computers had become such a mainstay of our lives that we trusted them and lost all our data. Today, can you remember the last time your computer failed? In many ways this progress toward increased reliability has been great. We print less and store even less of what gets printed. Reliable storage has gotten cheaper and that means savings compared to the days of yore when we had to pay to warehouse blueprints, ledgers, legal decisions… However computers still fail. Hard drives, still the dominant storage media, have a lifetime of 5 ± 2 years. And while flash memory storage is on the rise, anyone who has had their thumb drive go through the dryer can tell you, it too can fail.
A backup is best thought of as an insurance policy. Just as home owners insurance is a hedge against the unlikely becoming homeless, a backup is a hedge against the loss of your data. And just as insurance comes in a number of varieties fire, auto, flood… hedging against different threats to your property, backups come in varieties hedging against varying threats.
The traditional backup is a hedge against hardware failure. Classically, one attaches an external hard drive to your computer and uses some software to regularly copy your data from your computer's internal hard drive to the external drive. Which the price of hard drives today this sort of backup is cheap and with the right software, this sort of backup is easy to setup, easy to maintain and can quickly get you back up to speed in the event of limited hardware failure.
A local backup has one serious shortcoming and that is what if your building is destroyed by fire, flooding or other naturally disaster or hit by thieves? Sure everything was backed up but if the backup is lost or destroyed along side the live system then it has not done it's job. One way of mitigating this is to have more than one backup drives rotating or exchanging the local backup drive with one kept off site on a regular schedule. Exchanging local backup hard drives is an error prone method as it requires regular human intervention. Also because more recent backups mean less loss of data the rotating drives method fails as an effective backup system due to the greater time delay between when the backup stored off site was created and the present.
If local backups are the traditional method then internet backups are the cutting edge. Backups over the internet get your backups offsite without depending on human actions making them less prone to human error. Because software can backup over the internet whenever is convenient shorter times between backups are possible, indeed many systems will backup files as soon as they are changed once an initial backup is complete.
Unfortunately, over the internet backups are no panacea as they are more expensive, rely on the your internet connection (introducing a new failure mode) and are slower to recover data from in the event of a disaster. In addition, while most over the internet backup providers state that they encrypt your data to secure it from prying eyes, you as the end user have no way to verify that claim. As such your data may be subject to unauthorized perusal at the backup provider's data center.
Bottom Line: Local backups are cheap and effective against hardware failure. Offsite backups can be expensive but are necessary for the most critical data. Therefore, your geek ought to suggest a combination of both approaches to give your company the most effective backups for the best price.
Software is the ghost in the machine. It is the set of commands which direct electrical currents within a computer which in turn brings the machine to life. Most people will never interact with the corpus of commands written in byte code or machine code that comprise a single rudimentary program. Yet, such a library of commands is what interprets our keystrokes, screen taps, mouse movements and positions text on our screen, let us select the song we wish to play and draws our immersive game environments. But what really is software?
The Multiple Realities of Software
The Programmer's Perspective — First, let's clear up a big misconception. Few people actually write software. Most programmers, people who create software, actually write descriptions of what a computer is supposed to do in a certain situation using a lingo called a programming language. The text of a program, known as the source code, is then fed into a special program called a compiler that writes an executable file. This file once tested and packaged with supporting graphics, language translations help files etc becomes the application you will use.
The Lawyer's Perspective — Is software part of the machine, a list of commands, a work of art? Unfortunately, ask ten technologists, lawyers or people off the street and you will get thirty answers just from the lawyers. The truth is a somewhat nebulous in between and the ramifications for your business could be subtle and monumental.
The User's Perspective — Is typically that software and hardware are two inseparable parts of a whole. Microsoft Windows is the user interface on desktop PCs, iOS is the interface on their phone and Google is the interface for the internet. Software has settings that the user hopes never to have to adjust, capabilities that they use everyday and hidden features known to a few who style themselves advanced users. Where one piece of software begins and ends is a blurred line in todays world of APIs and integrations which brings with it some good: the ability to get things done, and some bad: hidden charges to use features and phantom charges for unused services that user did not know they subscribed to.
Okay, so you bought a piece of software… or did you? Can software be bought and sold? The first generation of programers thought not. It was part of the machine and the cost of development was just part of doing business building hardware. Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer were the fellows most responsible for changing this saying; that software in a work of art, copyrightable and salable. More recent entrants in the software biz say sure it's a work of art and salable but the real revenue stream is charging admission to view the art. Licensing is the monetization scheme for most commercial software today.
Proprietary software is property of the company that produced it. Big name software like Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office fall into this category. Usually you purchase a license or subscription to use proprietary software though not always in the case of video card and printer drivers which in a sense come with the hardware. Proprietary software limits your rights to copy, distribute, transform and sometimes even run the software. Yet this licensing scheme is perhaps the most successful because developers using proprietary licenses get directly paid for their work.
The antithesis of proprietary software is free software. Free software comes in many flavors and while it is not always free of charge it is always freer than proprietary software in terms of freedom. Free software is typified by the developers attempt to return rights of copying, distribution, transformation and most importantly the right to run the software. Free software also tends to be free of charge. LibreOffice, Firefox and the Linux (kernel) are famous free software projects. The downside to free software from the perspective of many businesses is that it often comes with no warranty or support. Some free software such as Red Hat Linux (a full OS) have a free of charge version (Fedora Core) but the version with support and a warranty comes with a price tag. This free with paid support model has been extremely successful in the server world and practically all of the flagship packages; Apache, ligHTTPD, PHP, PostgreSQL, Maria DB, WordPress and qmail in this market follow this model.
Then there are the in betweens. Some software is free to use but still proprietary such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and Adobe Flash Player. There used to be an entire category or "shareware" that was free to try and share but if you found it useful you were expected to paid a small donation to the developer. Often you would then get an unlock code for additional features or to remove a splash screen or qualify for support.
Taming your software begins with an inventory of your software. What software and version of that software do you have? What is the license and if it is a commercial license what are the terms? Does the software require a license key or dongle to run? Who uses the software? Answering these questions on a regular basis will help your business be proactive about purchasing and deploying upgrades, renewing subscription licenses and maintaining access to your company's data.
Upgrading software is risky business. Upgrading software can mean the loss of functionality your business has come to depend upon or become costly in terms of both licensing and time to deploy, update data and workflows to accommodate the new software. Of course not upgrading software may be leave your business open to security risks and trap your data is obsolete formats. Generally it is best to install free updates to software such as operating system security patches and web browser updates. However a more cautious approach should be taken with paid for updates. Software vendors like to feel like they are giving you something for your money when you update so you should expect major changes when paying for an upgrade and test the update on just one PC, possibly with sample data so you can familiarize your self and staff user interface changes and test for compatibility before jumping into company wide updates.
Desktops, Laptops, Tablets, Printers… Oh My!
Maybe you are young enough that you started college with a laptop and built your business form the ground up over spring break senior year. Perhaps you bought a franchise which came with some computers. Eventually you probably grew a bit added more PCs, a printer or two, maybe something a bit off the wall like hand held barcode scanners. All this equipment represents capital you have invested in your business. Managed wisely it adds value to your business but managed poorly it is money thrown to the wind.
A desktop computer was synonymous with a computer through the 80's and 90's. The millennium brought the decade of the laptop. And today mobile computing is on the rise. But perhaps the most underrated aspect of IT, at least by the trade press is fitting these devices together into a cohesive whole.
Microcomputer, personal computer (PC), all-in-one, workstation, terminal and many other terms have been used to describe the workhorse computer for most businesses. Desktop will be our choice because what all these terms agree on is that the computer primarily serves one user in one location nominally a desk. As such desktops are typically larger computers with powerful processors, graphics cards and hard drives that require the cooling and power that can only be supplied in a larger enclosure. But for this reason a desktop PC is still the mainstay of engineers, graphic designers, video editors and many more professions that need every last computational cycle out of a computer. Because heat and power are not tight constraints in desktop PCs these computers tend to be simple, reliable, tried and true designs that are inexpensive both in up front cost and in terms of total cost of ownership. Thus desktop type computers are the mainstay of accountants and administrative staff though these professions usually are well served by less powerful, smaller form factor PCs
With desktop PCs it is the amenities that turn an average computer into a comfortable workstation. The right display, keyboard and mouse play just as much role in making a computer the right computer for a user. Many times it is better to spend an extra twenty dollars on a display with height adjustment than on bumping the processor speed up the corresponding amount.
A good desktop should last six to eight years. A good display may last ten to twelve years. Keyboards and mice have been known to last twenty years but because they bear the brunt of our abuse they last five to six years on average. Thankfully standard connectors allow us to replace these components individually. All-in-one PCs merge the display and computer into one same unit. While they look streamlined, those in the field regard the all-in-one models with skepticism because they tend to be more difficult to repair (such as the iMac), are notorious for overheating issues and the all-in-one approach takes away your flexibility to replace components separately. Long term, all-in-one PCs cost the end-user more.
The notion of a portable computer dates back to the first microcomputers that would evolve into the mainstay desktop PC. Portable computing has always held the promise of having your files and applications where you need them when you need them. It was not until the 1990's that miniaturization and long lasting batteries made laptop computers possible. Still adoption of laptop computers didn't really take off until prices dramatically fell around 2000-2002. Today, the laptop computer is a must have accessory for college students, travelers and executives; though for many it is a symbol of wealth and influence rather than a needed tool. A laptop computer is a wise choice when a user needs the power of a full fledged PC in a mobile package. Laptop computers tend to be more expensive than desktop computers both in initial price and in total cost of ownership because they do not last as long as traditional desktop computers. The average laptop lasts just three to five years with batteries lasting typically two to three years. Combined with the small screens and non-ergonomic design of the keyboard and touchpad of most laptops it should be little wonder that good IT departments double and triple check that users are making an informed decision when selecting a laptop as their work machine.
Mobile and Tablets
There is no question that mobile computing is the future. There is however a great big question mark as to when the mobile future will be. Right now mobile means smart phones and their big cousin the tablet. Mobile devices at present combine all the worst qualities of consumer electronics thus it is no wonder that most people deep down hate their mobile devices. Smart phones and tablets are expensive, especially after taking into account the cellular service contracts that come along with them and the eighteen month replacement cycle. Mobile devices have also grown out of a market where the service provider has maintained tight control over devices on their network. Thus end users continue to experience the frustration of using out of date, insecure software plagued with unwanted ads and features so distracting that they are regularly reported as bugs. Finally, the fragmentation that contributed to the complexity of Microsoft's Windows operating system twenty years ago has made an encore in the Android devices of today.
IT has long thought of electronics other than computers as peripherals, which historically has been just plain wrong. Files on the computer were not nearly as important as the newsletter sent to clients, the packing slips printed for the warehouse or the relationships tracked. Today, times have caught up with IT. The files in the computer are the most important thing as newsletters are sent electronically, packing lists only appear on screen and relationships are often mediated by computers. As computers continue to shrink and further permeate our life, it is possible that computers will become the peripherals.
Never underestimate the value of the right printer. The right printer will be a workhorse for your company, reliable and cost effective compared to sending a job to a print shop. At the same time consider that we as a culture print too much and don't use print shops effectively.
Printers come in three basic types: inkjets, laser and thermal. An inkjet printer squirts tiny droplets of ink onto the paper thus allowing them to produce excellent photo prints. Inkjets tend to be cheap to purchase but in terms of total cost of ownership they are the most expensive, as ink costs more than human blood. They also have the shortest expected lifespans. Choose an inkjet only if you regularly need photographic quality prints. A laser printer uses a laser to charge tiny spots on paper so that a dry powder called toner sticks to it electrostatically long enough to pass through a heating element called a fuser that melts the toner to the paper. Laser jets are reliable high volume printers with a higher up front cost and a lower long term cost of ownership. Thermal printers heat small spots on specially prepared paper to color it black. They are typically used for special purpose printers such as receipt printers.
Many businesses outsource their printer needs to a printer leasing company. These companies install and service your printers typically for a monthly fee. The advantage of the leasing company is that a small business does not have a large upfront fee to purchase a quality printer and should something go wrong with the printer, the leasing will fix it or replace it. These services are often sold as reducing IT support costs however in practice leasing companies often do everything they can to avoid absorbing these costs. Additionally, many leasing companies will push dated or substandard printers e.g. printers without drivers for the PCs deployed in the business on unsuspecting companies. Before signing a lease on a printer, small businesses should insure that the printer will support all devices that will be expected to utilize the printer currently deployed at the business and that the printer company will work to support future devices or replace the printer with one that does under the contract.
Today there is a larger variety of phones than ever before. The phone on your desk may be an analog (POTS) phone or a voice over IP (VoIP) handset, you likely have a cellular phone on your person and you may have a softphone application installed on your PC. Cellular phones and PCs have already been touched upon but it would be a mistake to overlook the desk phone.
Analog phones are rather simple devices and as such can last a lifetime or more. This simplicity has however doomed them to the dustbin of history as they no longer meet the needs of the business. Analog phones require a phone line (identified by a phone number) for every phone. As the phone company bills for every line, and not all phones are in use at the same time, companies began abandoning purely analog phones as early as the 1960's. Instead they purchased phone systems called PBXs that allowed multiple analog phones to use a limited number of lines to the outside world and also call other phones connected to the same PBX without the need to use an outside line. This dramatically cut costs of large businesses and while it would be a while before small business could afford such systems, by the late 1980's even the phone companies were encouraging small businesses to install such systems to cut down on usage of their overtaxed systems. Though these PBX's have no largely been replaced by VoIP systems, analog phones live on in elevators and other safety critical applications due to the fact that the can function even in a blackout.
Originally, a way to leverage existing infrastructure and thus reduce costs, VoIP technologies digitize voice calls and send them over an IP network, possibly the same network your PC uses to connect to the internet. As such most VoIP phones are specialized computers. Accordingly, VoIP phones share many of the same security and IT issues of PCs, including easily guessed passwords, sensitivity to power fluctuations and the necessity of a replacement cycle. Additionally, some VoIP systems use hardware that is incompatible with other systems so if one component is changed, potentially all components will need to be changed. Additionally, the modern PBX is typically a PC running a customized operating system, often a derivative of Linux, with it's own security and reliability concerns. As such VoIP phones and PBXs should be part of your technology plan and should be selected in consultation with an IT professional with knowledge of the field.
The next generation of phones builds on the VoIP technology of the early 2000's but rather than placing a physical PBX in your office it uses a virtual PBX hosted in the Cloud. This comes with some tradeoffs. By eliminating the PBX in the business one device worth of security concerns has been removed. Additionally, by placing the Virtual PBX in the cloud rather than behind a corporate firewall, employees can locate their VoIP phone at home or use an app on their smart phone as a virtual VoIP phone thus taking their office number with them wherever they go. However, as these phones now need to communicate with a virtual PBX somewhere on the internet, they can be more exposed to security concerns than when they could be isolated behind the corporate firewall. Finally, not all VoIP solutions will reduce costs. Businesses with many physical locations with few employees will likely see larger cost savings than businesses with many employees in a single or small number of locations.
Frequently Asked Questions
Nonprofits: Donated Hardware?
Donated and hand me down computing hardware sounds great in theory. It doesn't get much cheaper than free does it? But is hardware free really free when donated? First ask yourself why the computer was being given away. Most likely it is because it is no longer needed but is it no longer needed because it no longer filled a need because the need ceased or is it because the donated computer no longer fulfilled the need? And if the computer no longer fulfilled the need is it going to fulfill your need? Then their is the question of how much is this computer going to cost to keep running? New computers typically cost little to maintain both because new parts have yet to wear out and because if faulty components are discovered they are often replaced under a warranty. Donated machines often have worn parts and no warranty.
Bottom Line: Beware. If you have a person in your organization with the time and know how to keep after donated computers they can be a great deal even if they need a hard drive replaced. But donated machines can also cost as much as new computers in replacement parts and labor not to mention down time.
Why do I have to have so many passwords?
Passwords have become a fact of everyday life, pervasive in any industry that has an online presence, so it may come as a surprise to most people how thoroughly they misunderstand the concept. An example:
Recently, I picked up a computer for repair, it needed a new hard drive, and the client asked me if I needed the password for the computer. To the client's surprise, I answered: "no". You see I had fix a different computer for them previously and I needed the password so as to change some settings. If I needed the password for that relatively minor fix shouldn't I need the password for this much more involved repair?
Passwords are used to limit access to data. In the case above because the hard drive had failed there was no information to access, therefore their password was irrelevant. Even if the hard drive had not failed completely most computers store data to the internal hard drive unencrypted. Thus anyone with a screwdriver and a computer can copy data off your computer's hard drive should you leave it in their possession. So what good is a password if anyone that has physical control of a computer can simply bypass passwords?
Passwords are terrible at preventing determined attackers from accessing your data. They are however a simple and effective deterrent to so called casual data theft. For instance most businesses require staff to use a password to access their computer, not to make life difficult for employees but rather to limit non employees from accidentally shipping twenty cases of widgets to North Dakota. Passwords prevent most kids from changing their grades, rival companies from manipulating press releases and local busy bodies from reading your email.
Do use a password on any laptop and mobile device.
Don't use the same password in more than one place.
Do use long passwords. Eight characters can often be guessed in minutes. Passwords sixteen characters or more should be required to provide a modest level of security.
Don't tape your password to your monitor, under your keyboard or in a desk drawer.
Do keep a list of your passwords in a secure place such as a safe, lockable filing cabinet or use an encrypted file which is regularly backed up.
Don't use your name, kid names, pet names, birthdays, anniversaries, initials, addresses or phone numbers as passwords. And most definitely do not use "qwerty", "jesus", or "password" as a password.
Do you have example Equipment/Software inventories?
No one is certain where the term comes from, maybe some marketer somewhere got hold of a network diagram or heard some engineer snark about the cloud but it can be no coincidence that the symbol engineers use on networking diagrams for the internet is a puffy cloud. The internet from their perspective is something to be thought of as a black box existing somewhere but not inside your building. So The Cloud is marketing speak for the internet. Specifically services that use the internet to move a process or software or hardware that used to be in house, out and work though you aren't going to be bogged down in the details.
So should you or shouldn't you? The advantage to cloud services is that they cheaply and quickly enable access to your data from anywhere you can get an internet connection. The downside to cloud services is that you relinquish some control over your data and you will likely end up paying a lot more for the ability to access your data from anywhere compared to traditional setups limiting access to within the business network. Cloud services represent a trade off between convenience of access and cost that needs to be weighed carefully.
How to Switch Hosting Providers?
Whether because a provider's terms of services have changed unfavorably or because your business has outgrown your provider's offerings, a business may need to change it's website hosting provider. A first glance changing your provider can appear intimidating. But with a bit of foreknowledge, changing providers is a formalized process designed to eliminate fraudulent changes (Website Hijacking)
Ensure that your new host is able to accommodate your website
Prepare to move your website by picking dates for milestones and assigning responsibility to the appropriate parties if necessary
Prepare your new host to receive your website by creating an account.
Export a snapshot of website
Load your website from the snapshot at new host
Test that import worked
If your old host manages your DNS registration
Repoint your DNS records at your old host to your new host (takes 3hr to 3days to resolve)
Transfer DNS Registration (2 weeks to work through system)
Note you should not make changes to the website between #4 and #7
Application Programming Interface (API)
Documentation for programmers looking to build upon or extend a computer program.
Domain Name System (DNS)
A collection of servers run on behalf of ICANN that allow computers to take URL's like google.com input by a human and turn them into ip addresses like 184.108.40.206 which can then be used by the computer to request a web page, login in to an email inbox etc.
A device that must be connected to a computer to prove to software that you have indeed bought the software and thus may use it.
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)
The professional organization and standards setting body for electronics and opto-electronic networking. Standards published by this body are referred to by the organization's acronym and and identifying number eg. IEEE 802.11 is wireless or radio based local area networking
A device that converts a signal traveling in one medium to a signal traveling in another medium. Common Examples: Cables modem (cable loop to local area network) and DSL modems (high frequency telephony to local area network)
Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)
A retronym for the telephone system characterized by the analog transmission of audio information with switching control by human operator and later by sending control tones. Often, the Integrated Services Digital Network Basic Rate Interface that superseded it in 1988 is also lumped together as a POTS service because audio was still transmitted as an analog signal though switching was moved to a digital signal.
A set of rules set by the Payment Card Industry (PCI) aka Credit Card Issuers that businesses must meet to qualify for reduced transaction fees.
A device that directs the flow of packets between devices in a local area network by building routes
A computer that provides a service to other computers via a network connection
Software that provides a service to software running on the same computer via Inter Process Communication (IPC) or on remote computers via a network connection
A striped down computer that is designed solely to display a windowing system running on a server. See also: Workstation
Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS)
A battery that kicks in to provide power in the event of an outage until power is restored or the battery is depleted
A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a communications channel that can not be intercepted or eavesdropped on that appears to the software on a computer just like a network connection though it is created by software communicating over an insecure network.
A group of computers delegating authentication and authorization over the network to a particular server or group of servers
The protocol by which a computer can delegating authentication and authorization over the network to a Microsoft Windows Domain Controller
A full featured personal computer that stays in one location, typically one's desk, lab bench, studio etc. See also: Thin Client