IT Support Blog for Small Business Owners

6 Things The IT Support Tech Does that the Boss Needs to Know About!

Posted by David S. Mulvey on Thu, Oct 23, 2014

Your IT Employee QuitsWith Halloween around the corner the following seems like an appropriate question to ask a small business owner: Here's a scary question most businesses don't think about: what would happen if your IT support guy suddenly quits? Most business owners think it would only be a temporary inconvenience when, in fact, the opposite is usually the case. I get more concerned business owner phones calls once their IT guy leaves than any other motivating reason. Want to know how much you are at risk? Ask yourself the following 6 frightening IT questions:

  1. Do you have written network documentation about your computer network? What software licenses do you own, where are the software license keys stored? What are the critical administrator passwords to your systems and devices and who knows them? How is your computer network structured?  Is there a current drawing? What hardware do you own and when do your equipment warranties expire? Are there cloud vendors for email, online data backup storage, hosted line of business applications, etc. that you don't currently have, who has access? Who is listed as the technical contact for your company domain name? You should NEVER allow a single IT person or IT company hold this information under their full control over you and your company. If they suddenly left for any reason, this could lead to huge negative consequences for your company.
  2. Do you know where your backup files are stored and if they are being stored properly? If you are like most business owners, you're too busy dealing with the "crisis of the day" to think about system backups and probably leave tasks to your IT support expert. If your database gets fried and your tech is nowhere to be found, you might be in a lot of trouble. If there was a data disaster do you know how long it would take to restore your key company applications? Are your employees trained to continue to work without access to the core company applications?
  3. Do you have a written plan for restoring your network fast in the case of a disaster? If you don't have a fully tested disaster recovery plan for your office, you could be at serious risk without knowing it until something happens. You should have a written game plan to account for a power failure, a water leak and flood, and a fire? Creating a business continuity plan can save you in the time of crisis.
  4. Do you know where all of your software is stored? Bad things can and do happen to computers and servers, and the situation can be made worse if you are not prepared. Taking a minute to organize and store your software in a secure place can save you a considerable chunk of money in the event that you need to restore a program on your systems. If you don't have access to the software or don't know where it is located, you might be forced to buy the software again. You should download your important software and burn it onto DVD disks so you don’t even need the Internet to get an application back up and running.
  5. Do you know what routine maintenance is being done on your network? I know that the very idea of learning about and keeping track of all the servers, workstations, and peripherals on your network is about as welcome as a black cat crossing your path, but it is important information to maintain. If your in-house IT expert leaves, who will take over? What are the daily, weekly and monthly processes they are performing on the IT infrastructure? This work should be documented by your IT employee through writing an “IT run book”, then reviewed and discussed with you or their manager.
  6. Do you know how to protect yourself from an ugly security breach if your in-house computer expert leaves? What happens if your company’s in-house IT expert splits with no warning and has access to your company's network? As soon as humanly possible, you should disable his or her access, including remote access to your network and all cloud based application. Do you know how to do this or does someone else in your company know how to disable their VPN access and remove their Active Directory credentials?

So how did you do? If you answered "No," to even one of these questions, you need to get help now before it's too late. During this month I will help you go from answering “No,” to getting a “Yes,” for every question. I will teach you how to do any of these items for free! ANP is offering a free IT Network Assessment this month to companies with greater than 30 PCs. Follow this link and register for your free IT Network Assessment. Please don't let your IT employees' two week notice scare you to death!

Topics: IT Assessment, IT Support employee gives notice, IT support tech quits

What's the Value of an IT Network Assessment?

Posted by David S. Mulvey on Fri, Oct 17, 2014

For a small business owner or IT manager an IT Network Assessment gives you a clear picture of your network infrastructure and the security posture of how the IT environment is set up and being maintained.  If your company is considering expanding your network, an IT Network Assessment is a great means to taking inventory and establishing a baseline of current performance levels.  An IT Network Assessment will identify equipment that is poorly performing or near its End-of-Life and will also reveal the skill level of the IT staff that is configuring and maintaining the IT environment. 

An IT system isn’t just technology for technology’s sake.  Technology should help meet specific business goals and provide value.  An IT Assessment can make sure that the technology is meeting these goals, or provide a blueprint for improving the technology and a specific and measurable template for achieving business objectives.  It can also ensure that IT technology and security is in compliance with government guidelines and best practices.

IT Network Assessment Report

Any business in today’s environment is running on a network of connected computers, servers, printers, and other hardware.  The network is the backbone of the entire company and can become a major bottleneck in business applications.  An IT Network Assessment will provide a network performance review and make recommendations based on traffic, errors, packet loss, and conflicts that can bring a business network to a halt.  Investing in new Servers and PCs is a waste of money if it is attached to a sub-optimal network.

There are any number of reasons that would motivate a business Owner to perform an IT Network Assessment. For example, if an IT employee recently gave his notice, it would be a good idea to have an independent third party assess the IT infrastructure and provide an unbiased report of how the employee is leaving the IT environment; are there any open issues that need to be addressed?  Another common motivator is that the business owner feels the business has outgrown the capabilities of the current IT Service Provider.  No matter what the motivation is; having an IT Network Assessment preformed can help you establish the current health of your IT environment and you receive the added bonus of evaluating the professional service and engineering work of the assessing IT Service Provider.  

Here is a great IT Network Assessment Checklist. A typical IT Network Assessment consists of 5 key evaluation areas:

  1. Server & Desktop Infrastructure: Document the hardware and software on each device, is there missing software license keys or worse yet are duplicate software keys in use?  Is any of the equipment out of warranty or End-of-Life support?
  2. Operating Systems & Active Directory Configuration: An inventory of Operating Systems and an evaluation of how the O/S is set up.  Is Active Directory in place, and is it correctly deployed?
  3. Patching & Anti-Virus/Malware Status: Are the Servers and PCs properly and timely patched? Is there a common Anti-Virus in place?  Is it updating, scanning and quarantining as expected?
  4. Data Backups & Business Continuity: Are your backups running? Can you restore a file, application or server quickly? Do you test your backups to insure they are viable?
  5. LAN/WAN Performance &Security: Are your WAN routers, LAN switches, and your Firewall all manufacturers supported, flashed to recent software levels, and configured to insure good performance and high security?

Let me share with ANP’s IT Network Assessment Process so you gain a sense of what to expect:

  1. ANP will send out on site our account manager to sit down with the Owner or manager in front of their PC.
  2. Our account manager starts a WebEx conference call between the business PC and ANP’s IT Network Assessment engineer.
  3. Once a WebEx session is in place, the ANP engineer will take charge of the business PC and drive through the assessment topics with the business owner watching over our engineer’s shoulder.

A few things are accomplished by taking this approach:

  • The Owner types in all of the passwords into his own PC; ANP never asks for and never sees the business password which insures the business data remains secure.
  • The Owner can actually watch and learn as the engineer evaluates everything in the assessment checklist.  They can see all of the issues with their own eyes.
  • The Owner has an opportunity to gage the technical prowess of the engineer performing the assessment.
  • Once all of the items are assessed, the WebEx session is shut down.  The technical data is collected and the information is reviewed for trends, problems and issues that are negatively affecting your network performance and security posture.  ANP begins the process of writing up our findings to review with the business owner.

Written IT Network Assessment Recommendations

Perhaps the most important deliverable in an IT Network Assessment is the Statement-of-Findings and the Recommended Remediation.  The assessment data is reviewed and compared with best practices, business requirements and common design requirements.  The results from the assessment are then utilized to develop specific recommendations that focus on design, equipment configuration, and security improvements.  ANP will write a Statement-of-Findings and provide you with some specific prioritized recommendations to remediate for the most significant issues. 

Typical assessment issues that are found are software that is out of license compliance or copied illegally which can cause huge fines and penalties to your business.  An IT Network Assessment will evaluate the existing software for compliance and create an audit process for future software.  A software audit now as part of an IT Network Assessment is much more cost effective than an audit later by a software company.

Security of your company data is a top priority.  Proper security measures not only protect the data from outside hackers and disgruntled employees, but the ability to demonstrate good security is essential for new sales and customer retention.  An IT Network Assessment will evaluate and make recommendations to close holes in security and help create a bulletproof computing environment for critical data.

Another typical result of the IT Network Assessment is that your backups are broken or not running at all.  ANP often determines that the wrong data is being backed up, or backup failures are going undetected and therefore not corrected.   Unfortunately most often the backups are not being tested at all and so you really don’t know if the backup copy is viable and can actually restore data when called upon to do so.

Start Today Idea: Once a quarter ANP offers a free IT Network Assessment to the first 5 companies that sign up.  ANP only requests that the company signing up has at least 30 PCs.  If you feel an IT Network Assessment might help you follow this link to see if we are offering a free assessment this quarter.   

 

Request A Free Network Assessment

Topics: IT Assessment, network assessment, IT Network Assessment, IT Network Assessment Checklist, IT Network Assessment Questions

IT Technology Lifecycle Management for Small Business

Posted by Michael Silverman on Fri, Dec 27, 2013

IT Technology ChangeThose who know me know I believe that business requirements drive technology investments (not the other way around).  So let’s assume everyone agrees with me on that, but what about managing existing technology investments?  A few of the more common technology management scenarios we see in small businesses include:

 

  • Upgrading when the existing technology literally fails and becomes unusable

  • When a visiting engineer tells you, “Houston, we’ve got a problem”

  • When introducing a new business application, the vendor “requires” new equipment

     

IT managers, or outsourced Managed Service Providers, should always steer management with technology management recommendations proactively.  Hardware does get older; new software versions come along; hardware and software even becomes obsolete.  Lifecycle management is a subset of technology management and should be reviewed regularly by either internal staff or your outsourced Virtual Chief Information Officer.  I utilize a Risk Assessment worksheet to document everything critical to my client’s IT environment from hardware to software, local and remote technology.  Some of the considerations, beyond business drivers, include the physical age, performance metrics, end of life, and end of support data for hardware and software.

So, you might ask, “what’s the risk to my small business if I’m not managing and attending to my technology’s lifecycles?”  Worst case is you’re exposing the business to unplanned downtime.  One of the most common examples is an expiring agreement.  Virtually every business has a domain name used for accessing a web site and managing the flow of email.  If the registration for your domain name expires, the business is not only at risk of disruption of email flow or access to the web site, but another organization or individual can actually take ownership of your domain name, forcing you to find a new name.  Some other expiring agreements associated with lifecycle management include SSL certificates (equally as disruptive as domain names) and both hardware and software maintenance agreements. 

Second in line to expiring agreements is dated hardware or software.  Let’s start with hardware.  In general, my greatest concerns about hardware reliability occurs right after new equipment is deployed and after 3-4 years of its useful life.  The graph below provides an illustration of the typical lifecycle of a piece of equipment.  During the first 90 days or so, there’s a risk of premature failure.  ANP will “burn-in” new equipment for a series of days to try to catch this potential risk.  Once through the first 3-6 months, failure rates become quite infrequent.  As equipment ages beyond 3-4 years, the risk of a component failure dramatically increases.  This risk can be mitigated through effective business continuity planning.  We’ll typically leverage redundant components and systems in our designs and discuss the cost/benefit relationship to insure the client is making the most prudent business decision.

 


lifecycle management

The last aspect of technology lifecycle planning is driven by the manufacturers and software developers.   It’s referred to as End of Life and End of Support.  Many of the major manufacturers publish End of Life documents.  I’ve included a few common manufacturer links to their lifecycle web pages.  One of the most notable, near term events, is the pending Microsoft Windows XP SP3 End of Support date, April 8, 2014.  This means that as of April 8th, Microsoft will no longer provide automatic fixes, updates, online technical assistance or, most importantly, security patches, potentially leaving your business vulnerable to virus attacks or security breaches.

Technology Management Guidelines

Although every businesses situation is different, the following guidelines provide a good rule of thumb:

  • Upgrade desktops every 5-6 years, including upgrading operating systems and the Office suite.  For the next upgrade, evaluate the feasibility of thin clients or virtual desktops

  • Upgrade key physical servers every 4 years.

  • If you’ve begin to virtualize servers:

    • Upgrade virtual guest servers based upon the application vendor’s guidelines

    • Configure the virtual host servers “N+1” so you can function if one server fails; stagger purchase dates; monitor performance, then replace upon failure of a host unless performance dictates.

  • Storage systems should be evaluated at the 5-year mark
  • Network switches:  At end of support, usually 5 years
  • Routers, Firewalls: At the end of software maintenence

In summary, it doesn’t matter whether you’re large or small, driven by technology, or just consider it a necessary evil; you need to have a Technology Lifecycle Management strategy.  I’ll leave you with a few guidelines and resources.  As always, drop me a note if you’d like to discuss lifecycle strategies, or request a free network assessment to determine where your IT equipment is on the lifecycle graph.

 

Request A Free Network Assessment

Resources

Topics: Business IT, IT Assessment, Business technology, Managed Service Provider, IT Technology, Lifecycle management

The Strategic Value of a CEO Peer Group to the Small Business Owner

Posted by David S. Mulvey on Sat, Dec 07, 2013

CEO Peer GroupIt is lonely at the top and the CEO is expected to have all the answers.  A CEO Peer Group helps the CEO by acting as a sounding board, a brainstorming group, and sometimes as the necessary harsh critic who points out what you can't see for yourself.  We have always heard that many heads are better than one.  Have you considered that a CEO Peer Group might help you become a better leader, make better decisions and get better business results?

Joining a CEO Peer Group may seem like an activity viable only for large corporations that spend thousands on expensive consulting engagements.  But CEO Peer Group benefits extend into the realm of small business as well.  A CEO Peer Group can be the perfect opportunity to share with, learn from, and collaborate with other executives in your region.  The experience can be eye-opening and enlightening and can impart a number of specific benefits; I speak from experience as an eleven-year CEO Peer Group veteran.

First, a broad spectrum of perspectives is one of the most prominent benefits a CEO Peer Group can offer your small business.  A CEO Peer Group will include CEOs in all sorts of industries, with big and small companies.  You might be surprised at how relevant the issues of a CEO in a different industry or region can be to your business.  This fact was counterintuitive to me and was the primary reason why I avoided joining a CEO Peer Group for decades.  How, I thought, could a CEO in the Food industry possibly help me in the IT industry?  A CEO Peer Group will give you the opportunity to present individual challenges or dilemmas to seasoned business individuals who can provide unique and fresh perspectives.  For example, I was encouraged to focus on hiring an Operations Manager from my group as they saw me spending too much time on running the business.  I have also been encouraged to focus on building a stronger management team.

ANP offers a Virtual CIO periodic meeting to our outsourced clients, in many ways it is a peer group of IT professionals providing you and your business with strategic IT advice.  You have a strategic IT professional who can discuss business issues with you and turn those conversations into actionable technology projects.  Or you could elect to sit down and allow ANP to take you through a seven step strategic session to discover your technology gaps.  ANP also offers a free IT audit and network assessment which can report back a snapshot of how your company technology is setup and running, its a free IT report card. The same type of process occurs in a CEO peer group, an issue is brought to the group and "processed," using a best practice methodology providing you with a great amount of value.

Secondly, your CEO Peer Group will give you the opportunity to discuss strategy, vision, and the big picture.  You spend enough time worrying about day-to-day dilemmas while interacting inside your organization, so use this time with your peers to discuss and analyze broader issues.  You have heard the expression that a CEO should work “on” the business not “in” it?  Receiving honest input from multiple sources in your CEO Peer Group can help you form a more accurate picture of your industry and the market as a whole than is possible from the narrow view of your individual business.  Small businesses especially can fall victim to getting too wrapped up in little issues to focus any attention on the big picture.  Don't miss the chance to step out and analyze your company from a broader perspective.

Finally, my CEO Peer Group has created a network of trust and accountability for my professional life.  It would be naive to think that all members of these groups are entirely honest with each other, but when openness is extended by all parties, a unique climate can be established.  Instead of the rivalry and secrecy that often enshroud inter-organizational interactions, you can now engage in encouragement, honesty and accountability with your business peers.  Use your CEO Peer Group to share week-by-week developments.  Explain what things from your last meeting worked and what things flopped.  Encourage others to do the same and you'll find that competitiveness quickly takes a back seat to collaboration.

CEO Peer Groups and forums are an excellent outlet for a small business CEO to share and learn.  With a diverse range of perspectives, a chance to step back and see the big picture, and a climate of honesty and accountability, these groups can help you take your organization and professional career to the next level.  I find that on months when I did not bring up an issue or challenge, I was still able to learn an enormous amount just by listening to the thoughts and ideas of my CEO peers!

CEO Peer Groups often serve as saviors to entrepreneurs who find themselves singing the lonely-at-the-top blues.  As CEOs we are not always going to hear what we need to hear from our employees.  A CEO can join a peer group because other CEOs will tell them what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear.  A CEO Peer Group is really like having an objective sounding board of CEOs whose only agenda is to help you and your business get better.

The power of a CEO group stems from the willingness of its members to share their cumulative experience and expertise.  Collectively, there are no blind spots; some CEOs are great sales people, some excel at product development and some are experts at running global businesses.  Some run local family businesses. What you need is diversity of industry, size and experience; by having that diversity in your peer group, everybody has someone who has been where they are trying to go.

If you would like to know more about a CEO Peer Group company, please fill out the ANP contact form and write “CEO Peer Group” in the notes section. I will personally see that you get a free call from a Vistage Peer Group chair, or simply call me and I would be happy to share my experiences with you.  You can reach me David S. Mulvey at (267) 628-1033. 

Schedule Your Strategic IT Session Now

Topics: CEO Peer Group, Virtual CIO, IT Assessment

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