Networks, the Forgotten Child of Small Business

I have been doing professional IT consulting since early 2000.  When I started supporting small businesses most of them had a computer or 2 and they used a dial up modem to connect to the Internet.  I came into the industry just as computer networks really started to be on the small business radar.  A few businesses had Windows NT servers or even Novell, but most did not.  Many of the businesses I visited used coax networks and hadn’t made the transition to Ethernet based networks yet.  I remember very distinctly this being the time when Microsoft and a few others in the IT world really started to look at small business and see that there was a need for technology that would allow them to compete with large enterprises.  Microsoft launched a “first server” campaign with Small Business Server which was a huge catalyst for bringing major change to the way small businesses used technology.  There was a problem though — small businesses had no experience building networks and decisions were made not strategically and with the future in mind but because an immediate need forced them.  As Ethernet became popular, switches were put in cabinets or on shelves, generally close to the server or a person’s computer that doubled as the “server.”  As the need grew for servers, they were tucked where ever they could go.  Servers were stuck under desks, in closets, storage rooms, next to boilers, or in damp basements.  None of these places were designed to accommodate the needs of the very expensive networking equipment that in just a few short years all of these small companies have staked business on and rely on for nearly every aspect of their daily operation.  15 years later this equipment is still being relegated to whatever dark corner it can be hidden.  It is time to change the way you look at your network and your servers and move this equipment into an environment where it has a chance of working for you longer and with more efficiency.

Server rooms and network closets have 2 basic requirements: power and temperature managements.  The network equipment can draw a lot of power and is vulnerable to outages due to blown breakers as well as surges and sags in the current that is being provided to them.  A server closet should have at least one dedicated circuit on its own breaker that is capable of supporting the power requirements of your equipment.  Depending on the amount of equipment more than one circuit may be needed.  Call an electrician to make this happen, but make sure they understand what you are trying to accomplish.  It is usually a good idea to let them chat with your IT consultant to make sure everyone is on the same page.  Don’t let your electrician go just yet because they might need to supply additional power to run some air conditioning equipment.  All your equipment has a rating for operating on both hot and cold temperatures.  Operating above or below those tolerances can be quite destructive to the electronics inside.  Most equipment has a rating for how much heat it gives off under average operating conditions, usually listed in BTUs.  Adding these up for all your equipment will tell you and someone familiar with heating and cooling like an HVAC contractor how much extra cooling will be needed for the room or closet.  In many cases, a standalone unit is needed to provide the cooling power needed to fight the BTUs the equipment is radiating.

Let’s talk location.  Your equipment doesn’t really care where it is.  It doesn’t aspire to a corner office, but there are a few things you should have and a few you should try and avoid.  Water is a big thing you want to stay away from.  If your equipment is in a basement try and make sure it is away from any water pipes or hot water tanks.  Also, if the basement is prone to flooding or is damp/humid you should avoid this as a good place to have your equipment.  Small closets are not the best because they trap heat, so if you are using a closet make sure you plan for exceptional ventilation and airflow.  The optimum location for your equipment is some place central to all the other devices that will be connecting to it.  This location should be away from exterior doors and windows to help prevent the weather from getting in.  There should be enough room for all of the equipment to be easily accessible.  The area should have a door with a lock, because we don’t want anyone just walking in and accessing the server and equipment where all of your employee’s and clients’ personal information is stored.  Finally, remember the power and cooling we talked about earlier?  It needs to be some place where these needs can be met with minimum difficulty.

If you haven’t updated your cabling since 2003 now is probably a good time.  Cat6 cabling is inexpensive and provides excellent support for fast gigabit data speeds.  When pulling your new cable, bring it all to a central location like patch panels in a rack, which allows for organization that can aid in trouble- shooting later.  If properly bundled it also improves airflow and reduces the amount of heat trapped in the room or closet.  Most switches are designed to be placed in racks, so mounting your switches in a rack above or below the patch panel is pretty straight forward.  When you start looking at racks you have to decide what you plan on placing in the racks and if you think there is a possibility your network might grow.  Experience from the last 15 years tells me yes network growth is certain, but I asked a Magic 8 Ball to be sure and it answered “Signs point to yes!”  A wall mount rack is good for switches and patch panels; however, if you are considering purchasing a rack mount server to replace that old Windows Server 2003 that is going out of support then a free standing 4 post rack is probably your best bet.  You just need to be sure you have enough space for your current equipment and some room to grow.

I have another article in this newsletter talking about backup power, but I want to touch on it again here briefly.  When planning a server room or closet make sure you include planning for battery backup and generator power.  Batteries generate heat just like the other equipment in the room so they should be included in the calculation.  Depending on the size and type of battery you choose they can be mounted to the wall, placed on the floor or even placed in the rack as the power distribution point for the devices mounted in the rack, so make sure you have room for it and perhaps extra batteries and backups as your needs grow.

Small businesses rely on the networks they have pieced together over time and by-and-large they have served their purpose well.  The more we depend on our networks the more important it becomes to have a properly designed network and server room/data center to maintain the efficiency of that technology.  I am not recommending everyone start remodeling their offices in favor of adding a datacenter.  I am recommending however you take a look at where your equipment is located and begin planning on improving the environment in which it works with an eye towards achieving all the things I have mentioned in this article.  The network is no longer a red-headed step-child hid away in the basement but the heart of how you do business, and it is an excellent time to start changing the way it is treated, to begin thinking of it as a core part of the business and a strategic tool to improve the way the business operates.

The Business of Networks in the Cloud

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the data that is stored on the servers here in my office and data stored on my client’s servers as well.  The traditional client server model is fine.  There is nothing wrong with it except that it poses certain limitations when providing access to information outside the office.  More and more business and the work done in the service of that business is being done everywhere but in the office.  The cloud is the perfect tool to leverage for making this transition.  But when you think about how that data will be used and accessed both in and out of the office and how to protect it and manage who can access it complications arise.

Cloud storage is great.  It is cheap and secure, but how do you access it.  In many instances you need an additional application or you need to create one of your own.  The idea of a cloud file server that matches 1 to 1 with the way we use our local file servers seems to be lost.  But in taking a step back and looking at this from different angles maybe traditional file server ideology shouldn’t be what we should be looking for in the cloud.  I am a big fan of Active Directory (AD) and the security and manageability it affords network administrators.  AD gives us the tools to secure the network and the data within.  A single password and user ID is all we need to unlock everything we need to do our work in the office.  But what about outside the office.  This is where the idea of integrating Single Sign On (SSO) provides an opportunity to make life easier for network administrators to integrate cloud services like into the security umbrella of AD. as an example supports SSO integrating with AD allowing you to link box accounts to network user accounts so they sign on to both systems with the same credentials.  Employees rejoice! You don’t have to remember another password.  I use as an example because once you get rolling it has the most in common with a file server.  You can create shared groups of folders, attach and sync them to local hard drives on employees’ computers as folders or mapped drives.  Plus, a non-technical employee could probably set it up with a minimum of support from the folks at  “But Brian,” you ask, “what about office 365?”  Well yes, of course, you have integration with local AD.  I think however that setting up features like these at this point in Office 365 are still a little difficult, so if you want to go with what is certainly an extremely powerful solution make sure you have your IT consultant handy along the path of planning and implementation.

We can get everyone connected, but now what should we store on the cloud?  Well, it depends on what you need.  There are a lot of files on your servers that I am sure haven’t been opened since you installed your first server.  While it would be nice to access these on a whim from anywhere in the world you probably don’t really need to do that.  There are probably records that just by their very nature should be left to continue maturing inside your local server until such time they might be needed.  Things you are actively working on or that you might be referencing in the future — those are your documents you want in the cloud.  Say you are an architecture firm and your structural engineer had to take some time off in the middle of a big project. Well, if your drawings and docs related to the project are all in the cloud you can call him up and ask him to review the latest changes to make sure the structure isn’t going to fall over with the first storm that passes through.  He just logs into the cloud with his work user name and password and nobody misses a beat.

When a project is done it loses relevancy and value very quickly so it doesn’t make sense to keep it at the crux of your active data.  Move it back to your local file server for archival or better yet place it in some form of bulk cloud storage for retention.  Super sensitive data or large files that you need to be able to open quickly will always have a place on the high performance local network, but for most of the stuff you work on regularly the Cloud is the place for  your business .

If you think moving to the Cloud is the next big technology step your business is going to take then it is of the utmost importance that you plan on exactly how you will leverage the Cloud and how you will educate your employees to use it.  Cloud technology is still new.  Most of your older employees might have an idea about using it but they are going to need guidance, because it is unlike anything they have used at work before.  Your 20-something new hires are going to have a different outlook.  They will be very comfortable using the cloud and in many respects expect it to be a tool at their disposal.  Like what I saw in the early 2000’s with servers making their mark on the small business network, the cloud technology of the Internet is here and it is time you began looking at how you can use it to improve the way you do business.

Battery Backup – The Power to Keep Going

I am excited and more than looking forward to the arrival of summer weather, but an individual calling my office recently reminded me that along with summer comes the summer storm season.  Summer storms that blow in in the spring and summer can be unpredictable, ranging from a light sprinkle to raging torrents that bring lightning, wind, and destruction in their wake.  This destruction can also bring power outages.  Storms aren’t the only cause of power outages in the summer though.  Air-conditioning draws huge amounts of power which coupled with high temperatures can put a lot of stress on the power grid.  This stress can manifest in outages or just as damaging to electronic components, sags, also known as brown-outs.

No doubt you have taken steps to protect your network equipment like your servers, switches, and routers from these power conditions.  Maybe you have even taken steps to protect your computers.  This protection I am talking about of course is battery backup.  A good battery backup will protect you from both spikes and sags as well as provide you with time to properly shut off your equipment when power is lost completely.  This extra time is crucial in protecting data and system files from corruption that can occur when devices on your network just shut down.  A battery backup however is only as good as the battery inside the UPS.  If the battery is bad your battery backup might not provide you with the protection you expect.

The batteries inside a UPS are basically car batteries, and similar to car batteries they are being fed a charge almost constantly.  We want this because we want the greatest charge possible on our batteries when disaster strikes.  This constant flow of incoming charge along with the natural chemistry of a battery can cause it to become weak over time. Eventually, just like your car battery, they need to be replaced.  Many UPS manufacturers have special charge circuits they have developed that can improve the life of a battery as well as detect when it begins to get weak.  The UPS manufacturers like APC still recommend you test and service you battery backup regularly.

Most UPS batteries last anywhere from 3-5 years before they show signs of getting weak.  It is a good idea to test your backup annually, much like your backup strategy.  Most modern UPS that fall into a range I would consider “smart” have a test button that will test the health of the battery.  I think though the best test is to stage a test outage where you evaluate if the battery backup is able to provide the expected amount of uptime and if it is sufficient to shut down your systems safely in a real power outage scenario.

Before I conclude I just want to remind you that a battery only runs for so long.  If you need to continue working past the time, a battery backup solution that can provide a generator is a perfect addition to an IT disaster recovery plan.  Your battery backup in this scenario provides you a bridge of power until you are able to get the generator running or it kicks in automatically.  The batteries also help to smooth out the power from the generator which can fluctuate quite a bit.  A new season of potentially drastic weather is coming, and your business should be prepared.

A Cool Sound Solution for a Dance Studio or Your Home

A good friend of mine owns a dance studio.  I like to mix music, so I create custom mixes for many of the numbers the studio does for recitals, competitions, and public exhibitions.  Over the years, the studio owner has amassed a huge collection of music both off the shelf and custom mixes.  Managing that music has become a problem, and as the studio has grown, making sure teachers and helpers have access to the music they need to run classes has become difficult.  Since I know a little something about managing and sharing data I decided I would help him out.

The studio almost exclusively uses Apple products: iPhones, iPods, and iPads.  So the solution we came up with had to be iOS device friendly.  Some other requirements were:

  • The solution had to be able to store a large amount of audio
  • The solution needed to allow audio files to be shared with multiple devices
  • The solution needed to allow us  to be able to update the music remotely
  • The solution had to make the music  available remotely for review and performance use
  • The solution needed to make available on all studio devices music and playlists from iTunes

Here is the solution so far.  A low cost mini desktop computer with iTunes is at the heart of the solution.  We added an external hard drive to store all the music on.  Home Sharing lets us share all the music that is cataloged in the iTunes software.  Playlists can also be created on the machine and shared so that helpers can find a playlist for the class and have all the music organized and together for a specific class.  After you turn on Home Sharing in iTunes you have to add the Apple ID used for Home Sharing to the music settings on the iOS device.  This allows the device to access the content stored on the computer’s iTunes library.  A Netgear wireless router provides the wireless network connection for all of the devices so they can access the iTunes Home sharing service on the PC.  The router also connects the PC and the mobile devices to the Internet.  This is the bulk of the set up and is fairly straight forward.  We also need to be able to update the songs on the PC when custom mixes are completed.  We have been using Microsoft OneDrive for a long time for basically all of our remote requirements so it was an easy decision to continue using it.  We store all the current dance season’s music on OneDrive.  This allows me to sync all the custom mixes between my computer and the cloud as well as back to the studio computer.  Once a song is synced back to the studio computer we can add it to iTunes, making it instantly available to the teachers on their iOS devices.  Because the song is still in its original location it remains synced with the cloud, allowing us to also access all of the current year’s music from any mobile device using the OneDrive app or a web browser.

The solution is almost completely wireless.  The only wires required are stereo aux cables that are used to connect the iOS devices to the speakers.  In the future though adding airplay capabilities to the speaker system or adding Bluetooth receivers will allow the audio to be sent to the speakers wirelessly.  This isn’t a requirement for the solution but might be useful in the future.  This solution with the airplay or Bluetooth speakers could be duplicated at home in multiple rooms or outside on a patio, allowing you to control and play music wirelessly anywhere in your home.