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4 Tips For Keeping Your IT Project Under Budget

People hate paying more for something than they expected or can afford, and yet that is often what happens with IT projects. While the best defense against unexpected surprises with your systems is a good relationship with a good provider, here are a few things businesses can do to control the cost of their projects:

When possible, buy refurbished equipment

Many reputable resellers sell completely functional refurbished items at 20% or more off. A Galaxy S8 phone, for instance, can be purchased now for $490 new, but for only $390 manufacture refurbished. The refurbished phone might have some nearly invisible scratch that your new phone would have a week after you unboxed it, but is perfectly functional. Bargains can also be found on desktop computers, servers, TVs and most other equipment.

Know what you need

An HP computer with a high end I7 processor can be bought on Amazon for $1,000. It also comes with only 4GB of RAM which is insufficient and will make the computer nearly unusable for most business users. A Dell with a more mainstream I5 processor and 16GB or RAM can be bought for $550. The second computer will be a better fit than the first for almost all users. For software development, knowing what you need is even more important. An incorrect design can lead to thousands of dollars spent on developing the wrong thing. Which leads to…

Think twice before developing software

There are many good off the shelf packages out there. If you are going to reinvent the wheel, you should have a compelling reason for doing so. Many software development projects come in late and over budget. This is not primarily the fault of shady operators. Software development is hard and is also hard to make accurate estimates about. If there is something out there that can handle most of your needs, it is worth asking whether you can live with the parts it can’t rather than go through the pain of customized software.

Get a fixed price quote

If you are doing project work that you have set budget for, you can shop it around or negotiate with your current MSP (managed service provider) to set a fixed price for a given scope of work. It is important when doing so that the scope of work is well defined (see 2), or you will be fighting with your vendor before the project is finished. Given the healthy margins in technical work, the vendor should be willing to accept some of the risk in a large project.

If you keep these four things in mind, you can save yourself money and frustration. Combining 1 and 2, for instance, I was able to buy a very functional computer for $254. If all else fails, get a second opinion. IT service providers want your business, and will often give you free advice to prove that they know their stuff. This can lead you to a better provider or at least intelligent questions to ask your current provider.

Extremely Sophisticated New Gmail Phishing Scam Is Here

A new, sophisticated phishing scam has been stealing users Gmail passwords. Like all phishing scams, it works by convincing users to enter their login credentials into a fake, but realistic, Google login page.

While the specific technique is new and more advanced, the take home message is the same as it has always been. Be vigilant and aware of your digital surroundings.

How you can protect yourself

Look at the URL:Although the website looked like the real Google sign in page, the url did not. Instead of starting with a normal “https://”, it started with “data:text/html.” People who noticed that did not hand over their information.

Two-factor Authentication: Setting up two-factor authentication is one of the best actions you can take to secure your accounts. This requires you to confirm your identity in a second way in addition to your password, often a text message to your cell phone.
Ease of use and comfort around your computer system are values that should not be minimized. The same is true of your home. In both cases, however, if someone asks you to unlock your door, you better know who they are and why they are asking. If you are not sure, ask yourself how badly you need to see whatever it is that is being sent. Are those cute cat pictures really worth compromising your machine?

Here are some of the most common ways people get hacked:

  1. Opening infected attachments in email (aka trying to open cute cat pictures)
  2. Phishing scams that collect login information (aka trying to download cute cat pictures)
  3. Getting infected from malicious website (aka surfing the web for cute cat pictures)
  4. Using open/unsecured wifi (aka surfing the web for cute cat pictures or anything else while using the internet at a coffee shop)
  5. Bad passwords (really nothing at all to do with cute cat pictures)

I once received an automated call saying that there had been suspicious activity on my credit card and that I should call a certain number to discuss. I checked my card, and the 800 number on the back did not match the number from the call. I called the number on the back of my card and confirmed that the call had been legitimate and there were fraudulent charges. What I asked my credit card company, and what I want you to think about, is how could I know that the original call was not a scam? They had no answer, and were basically training their customers to be foolish. Never call a number given to you that way that you cannot verify. Never click a link in an email to login to one of your accounts. Be vigilant, be aware. Our online lives are becoming almost as important as our offline lives. Don’t just let anyone into your home.

Choosing The Right Smartphone

Not a Blackberry.

But seriously. Smartphones come in such a bewildering array of choices that it can be difficult to know what to get. Here are a few tools for thinking about smartphones that can help guide your decision. The breakdown I am going to use is functions, features, operating system, and carrier.

Functions

A smartphone is a computer. Because computers are general purpose, smartphones are also. Nevertheless, a pocket-size computer with specific components and an always on internet connection does lend itself to certain tasks. In no particular order these are:

  • Phone/Messaging/Email
  • Web browser
  • Camera
  • GPS unit
  • Calendar/Organizer/Address book
  • Gaming device
  • eReader

Every smartphone available now will provide all of these functions. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. A large screen, 4G LTE capable (fast internet) phone will give a better web browsing experience than a small screen, 3G phone. The small screen 3G phone might have a better camera. If you can figure out which functions matter most to you, you are in a much better position to get a phone that excels in those areas.

Features

Is it waterproof? Shatterproof? There seem to be an endless list of features to sort out. Here are the ones we think are the most important:

  • Screen size
  • Screen resolution
  • Memory
  • Processor speed
  • Wireless speed
  • Waterproof/water resistance
  • Ruggedness
  • Removable battery
  • Expandable memory
  • Quick charge

Some of these features involve trade-offs, some do not. For instance, if you have poor eyesight a large screen phone will be appropriate, but it will be heavier and less pocketable than a phone with a smaller screen. On the other hand, a phone that charges to 50% in 15 minutes is just better than one that takes an hour. Sometimes the trade-off is more subtle. While a phone that has a crisper, higher resolution display may seem like a win, it often comes with a shorter battery life as those screens use a lot of power. Again, as with functions, if you know what matters to you, you are much more likely to get it.

Operating System

This one matters less than most people think. There are really two choices, Android and the iPhone Operating System (IOS). While they were two distinct products when they launched, years of stealing ideas from each other has left them more alike than different. Having said that, if you value ease of use and predictability, IOS is probably your best choice. If customization and options appeal to you, Android would be a better fit. Also, if you are strongly tied to one ecosystem (for instance, iTunes, a Mac and an iPhone), you might want to stick with what you have. Making transitions from one ecosystem to the other generally require effort, expense, and aggravation. If you are not married to one or the other, Android provides better value overall.

Carrier

Most people pay less attention to this than they should. While a new phone may cost you $800, the wrong plan with the wrong carrier can cost you hundreds of dollars a month. Of the large carriers in the US, T-Mobile is generally the best value, Verizon may edge them out in terms of coverage but at higher prices, and AT&T and Sprint have fewer compelling arguments in their favor. Another factor to consider is whether the carrier uses GSM or CDMA. The first is better supported internationally and is less locked in. So, if you buy an unlocked phone from Best Buy, it will likely work on T-Mobile and AT&T (GSM) but probably won’t on Verizon and Sprint (CDMA). If you are happy with the coverage/service of your current plan, it can be risky to switch as you may discover dead zones in places you frequent. However, if you are on any carrier and have been for a few years without changing your plan, you owe it to yourself to call and find out if there are better plans available. I recently spoke with someone who is paying $250 a month for a Sprint plan for two people. Sprint is currently advertising $90 for a two person unlimited plan.

I hope this has provided basic guidance on how to buy a smartphone and choose a plan. If you need more information, feel free to call.

What Is A Browser? (And why should I care?)

I love analogies. They can explain the otherwise unexplainable. Here is a nice one:

Lying is like entering the labyrinth of the minotaur: the farther you go, the harder it is to find your way back.

Today however, I want to explain that your browser is like a TV set. It is a window to the web in the same way that a TV is a window to stations. While no analogy is perfect, this one is pretty close. It is so good, in fact, that you can answer technical questions with it.

For example:

Question: Can I view google using Firefox, or do I need Chrome?

Equivalent question: Can I watch NBC using a Sony TV set, or do I need a Toshiba?

The question answers itself when phrased the second way. The browser is just a window to the world. The web pages are the world. What makes the question seem interesting is that the companies that make browsers also have web pages, so it seems sensible to ask whether Google.com (a website) requires Chrome (a browser made by Google). It doesn’t. I have had clients call me believing that the internet was down because they got a website could not be found message when they started their browser. Most browsers are set to go to a specific page on startup, so that message could mean the website (MSN.com, for instance) is down, not the entire connection to the internet. It would be like turning on your TV and getting static on channel 4 and not trying any other stations. If you get a web page not found error, try a different page.

Imagine you and your significant other cannot agree on what is watchable TV. One of you likes nothing but sports channels, the other cooking channels. If you had two TV sets and you each used one exclusively, you could program them so that the favorite channels matched what you actually watch. The same is true of your browsers. If you both have Gmail accounts, one of you could use Google Chrome as your browser, and the other could use Microsoft Edge so that both of you could be logged in at the same time. Otherwise, you are forced to logout and login to switch accounts. (You could also achieve this with different user profiles, but that is often overkill.) I have two different Amazon prime accounts, one for personal use and one for my business. I keep them logged in on two separate browsers (Chrome and Edge). Favorites on each browser can match different users’ preferences, or even personal versus business needs of one user.

As for which browser you should use, these days it does not matter much. All current browsers (Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, Opera, etc.) are capable and should serve you well. In a Windows environment, I will choose Chrome if it is available, but am fine with any of the major browsers. If on a Mac, I will usually use Safari or Chrome. Every once in a while, you will encounter a website that wants you to use a specific browser, but that is a rare occurrence. Basically, your browser is a TV.

Why You Should Outsource Your IT

All people have birthdays. Some people have weddings and christenings and bat mitzvahs. All those events generally require cake. So why doesn’t everyone have a personal baker? “That’s crazy,” I can hear you thinking, “I only eat cake a few times a month, what will she do the rest of the time?” So let me ask a different question, why not have a personal chef? Everybody eats multiple times a day. Your objections now would be less forceful, but you still might wonder if you could keep her busy. Well, maybe you could give her other things to do. I know a family that hired a chef but convinced themselves it was not a problem by calling her a housekeeper. Their food is delicious, but their books are dusty.

So hiring a full time person to fill a job for which you have only part time hours doesn’t work so well. You have overshot your target. What about undershooting? You could bake the cakes yourself? Well, given the right skill set, time, and inclination that will be a fine solution for your child’s birthday cake. And that wedding cake? Probably not a job even a talented amateur should do.

Your IT is no different. Everyone has IT needs, but they also don’t need an IT expert hovering at their shoulder 24/7. In fact, after many years of servicing various companies technical support issues, I can tell you that a typical user requires about an hour of technical support a month. If you go the full time support person on staff route, you will need approximately 173 employees to keep her busy. Even then, things can get tricky. The woman you hire to support your infrastructure will be capable of doing desktop support for your users, but she won’t be challenged or engaged in it. It would be like hiring a wedding cake specialist to make your 3 year old’s birthday cake. If you decide to support your users yourself, you likely will find your most technically savvy person ends up becoming your SABD (system admin by default). The SABD will likely be able to solve a large portion of your issues, but what do you do when she can’t? How does it affect your company’s profitability when someone hired to do one job spends time doing another? How is efficiency affected when a problem an expert could solve in 20 minutes takes an amateur 2 hours to figure out?

Outsourced IT, and outsourced anything else really, works when it allows individuals with specific skill sets to be matched appropriately and efficiently to jobs that utilize those skills. That is what we can achieve with our clients. Our infrastructure specialist supports infrastructure, our desktop specialists support desktops, and we are all available 24/7 for that one hour a month when you really need us.

To learn more about how we can help your outsource your IT needs, contact us for a free consultation today!

When to Replace Vs. Repair a Device

Murphy says it’s going to break and Moore says you should throw it away.

Murphy has become famous for his law stating that anything that can go wrong will. Unfortunately, electronics are not an exception to that rule. The good news is that Moore’s law suggests that replacing that broken electronic device will likely cost less than the item originally cost you.

Gordon Moore made a fairly accurate prediction about microchips and the doubling of their processing power. This has led to the continuous reduction in cost for ever more powerful electronics that are both smaller and lighter. For example, the computer purchased five years ago for $2,000 will now cost approximately $500. Therefore, depending on the age of a device and the problem with it, the best course of action may be to replace rather than to repair.

Even if your repairs are cheaper than replacing the computer, it’s important to consider what the price difference is and look ahead at the company’s future needs. If new software requirements coming out in the next one to two years are likely to push your systems to the limit then investing in a new computer now may be the better option.

You can also use the computer breaking down as an opportunity to save on taxes. You can write off the broken computer as a loss and investing in a new computer can be used as a tax shield via depreciation. Furthermore, the cost of the broken computer should not be factored into this decision making as it is a sunk cost.

A rough guideline for how quickly a device has become ‘obsolete is as follows: TVs 5+ years, computers 3+ years, and tablets/phones 2+ years. This guideline is looking at your run-of-the-mill device; it doesn’t take into account a computer that is built at the extreme high-end that is most likely equipped to handle new software for the next 5-10 years, nor is it looking at an extremely low-end computer, either.

If you’re uncertain what the best decision is, feel free to contact us and we can provide you with our opinion and provide a financial breakdown behind that reasoning.

End-Users and the Weather

I want to start with an IT Joke:

Q: How is an end-user like the weather?

A: Everybody complains about them but nobody does anything about them.

 

Simply put, end-users are the biggest hole in most security systems. Security breaches are rarely the result of some elite hacker exploiting a tiny hole the size of a thermal exhaust port on the Deathstar. It’s far more likely that an employee clicked on a link in a suspicious email and invited the hacker inside.

Security professionals have known this forever but have rarely done much about it. Plenty of companies have no training program at all. Only slightly better is “herd your users once a year into the break room, keep them awake with coffee and donuts, and give them a “death by PowerPoint” awareness update.” This means users continue to choose bad passwords, install sketchy apps, and sometimes open phishing emails that expose their computers and the whole company’s network to an attack. This last method was the way a recent big attack (WannaCry) got into various systems.

At Netfix, we have begun helping our clients secure the weakest link in their IT security–their users–with an innovative new solution being provided by a company called Knowbe4. Using the same social engineering techniques the criminals use, Knowbe4 phishes end-users. When users open emails they shouldn’t and click on links they shouldn’t, the system can direct them to a website warning them of risky behavior and also direct them to training videos. Moreover, the system produces reports of how the various users behaved allowing the appropriate department (IT or HR most likely) to address the issue.

The reason nobody does anything about the weather is because they can’t. For a long time many IT professionals have treated end-users the same way. They don’t have to anymore.

If you’re looking to improve your company’s IT security, contact us today for a free consultation.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Email but Were Afraid to Ask

But how does it work? And how can knowing how it works allow you to better use it? I hope by the time you are finished reading those questions will be answered.

Have you ever wondered what happens when you are sent an email and all your computers, smart phones and tablets are off? Where does it go? The answer to that question depends on your particular email system but generally can be boiled down to two places. Either it goes to the cloud (which I will explain shortly) or it goes to a local mail server (which I will also explain shortly). If your email address is [email protected], emails sent to you will land at a server (a fancy name for a computer) somewhere in the world where Google has decided it wants to have servers. It also gets copied to additional servers in case a disaster should destroy a data center (a fancy name for a place with lots of servers). The same is true of Hotmail, AOL, and any other large, reputable email provider. This is what people are talking about when they talk about the cloud. The other possibility is that your company hosts its own mail server. This would mean that in a server closet somewhere in your office is a server that is always on and receiving email. These systems rarely have the redundancies that the big providers do, but they also have some advantages, the most obvious one being the ability to add new users for free.

When you turn on your computer or smart phone or tablet, the device reaches out for the mail server (whether Google is hosting it or you are hosting it yourself) and asks for any new mail that may have been sent. It then updates the device with the new messages. Depending on the specific system, it may or may not leave a copy on the server, but if you have ever experienced an issue where you only get a single copy of an email (if it is on your phone then it isn’t on your computer or if on computer not on phone) then you have a system that is not keeping a copy and should be fixed (unless you like that sort of thing).

Imagine for a moment that it is the day after Hurricane Sandy. Your office is in downtown Manhattan, there is no power to your building, and you are hosting your own mail server. What happens when someone tries to send you an email? The answer is it bounces back to the sender because your server is offline (the power is down). If your mail were being hosted by Google, emails would still come through. That means your phone and your home computer would be available as a stopgap until the blackout was fixed.

Conversely, imagine your office of 300 users’ Internet line failed and you are hosting your own email server. While no incoming mail from outside the office will get through, those three hundred employees will all be able to communicate with each other. If you were being hosted by Google, others would see your email as up but you would have no access to the emails nor be able to send internal ones.
Lastly, let’s talk about cost. An email address will cost you around $5 per user per month at a cloud service provider. An email server will cost you $5,000 and ongoing maintenance costs of about $200 a month. While there are outlier cases where one might want an in-house server even at a smaller company, I would suggest that if you have less than 100 users you should almost certainly outsource your email. Which service to use is a question that I could write an entire article on, but for now I will suggest that you narrow your choices to Office 365 and Gmail. Of the two, I find Office the more elegant interface, but both provide top quality services at reasonable prices.

While I have tried to touch on the basics, as always, there is a lot I can’t fit into a blog post. If you have additional questions that weren’t answered, we’ll be happy to answer them!

If You Don’t Change Your Ringtone, We’ll Kill This Dog

The world is filled with problems and annoyances, big and little, that we cannot control. Natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes happen. So do MTA delays and the Mets. So it seems particularly strange when we don’t fix the problems we can.

Who has been in the following situation?

You are standing in a crowded room when a cellphone rings. Suddenly twenty people all reach for their pockets to see if it is for them. Ten seconds later nineteen people put away their phones.
I sincerely hope that if you have been in that situation you weren’t one of the twenty people.

Modern phones make it easy to change your default ringtone. If you want to be lazy, you can change to one of the included ringtones. Even making that small change makes it far less likely that yours will match another phone ringing nearby, meaning that you will have to reach for your phone far less often. If you are more adventurous, you can use a sound clip from a song or other audio file to completely personalize your phone. I use a clip from a band called The English Beat. The odds that someone else is using the same clip are minuscule.

Diving into the deep end of the pool, you can customize the rings for various contacts. I use the song Mother and Child Reunion for my mother, Crazy Little Thing Called Love for my wife (that will get you extra brownie points) etc. Now when my phone rings, I know who is calling before I even reach into my pocket.

It’s funny. When I first discovered the custom ringtones feature, I thought it was goofy, a vanity plate for your phone. I was wrong. Custom ringtones are one of the simplest productivity tools available, and not enough people are using them. Change your ringtone and there will be one less. Here are two links with instructions for changing ringtones on iPhones and Android phones.

Why You Should Move Your Company’s Files To The Cloud

As the cost of storage continues to decline, the viability of moving your business’s files and documents to the cloud increases. Storage costs that were once hundreds or thousands of dollars a month can now be had for less than $20. This decline in cost means that even small companies with heavy data requirements like video production companies can move their files to the cloud in a cost effective manner.

 

The Benefits of Cloud Storage

There are numerous benefits to moving your company’s files to the cloud. One of the biggest advantages is that the likelihood of your data being lost is near zero. Big companies that offer cloud storage solutions have multi-redundant systems, so your data is far less likely to be lost than if you were storing it locally.

Another important benefit is the ability to access your company files from any device anywhere in the world. With remote work more common than ever, being able to access important company files from the road or at home is vital. You are also able to manage permissions so that your sales team can access sales documents, your marketing team can access marketing materials, and every other team can access only the files that are relevant to them.

Cloud Storage Options

A wide range of players exist in the cloud storage space, and most major tech companies offer some version of cloud storage. The biggest options include Microsoft’s OneDrive, Google Drive, Box, and Dropbox. There are advantages and disadvantages to each option, and it is important to find the solution that fits best with your current business operations. Businesses that run on Google Apps, for example, should opt for Google Drive.

The Drawbacks of Cloud Storage

While the benefits to using cloud storage are extensive, there are some drawbacks to consider. One issue is that migrating your company’s file system to the cloud will require an upfront time investment both in terms of moving files over and organizing them, but also getting users setup, teaching them how to use the system, and ensuring each person has the appropriate permissions.

Another potential drawback is security. Your cloud storage is only as secure as the least secure password & user. An administrator whose account is compromised can endanger all the files on the system, so making sure strong security protocols are in place is imperative.

Using cloud storage for your business’s files is a net positive allowing your team members to be able to access what they need, when they need it, where they need it, and protecting your data from loss. While the setup can be time intensive, the long-term efficiency gains more than make up for that investment.

If you’d like to explore moving your business over to cloud storage, contact us today for a free consultation.