No Time Like The Present…For a System Review

IT isn’t this magic box in the closet — it is a system, a conglomeration of moving parts and processes working in concert to perform tasks, much like a car.  A car has an engine, doors, lights, and numerous other systems.  Some of these systems depend on each other and some stand alone.  They all share a commonality — wear.  Everything on a car eventually wears out and breaks.  Some of these breaks are more critical than others, like the engine or the brakes.  You regularly have these systems serviced and when necessary parts of them are replaced when the time comes.  You take your car to a mechanic and on his professional recommendation perform the regular service as needed.  Why then do most of us refuse to maintain our IT systems?

There is no time like the present to start though.  With Windows Server 2003 on the way out, the Windows 10 desktop operating system on the way in along with new versions of server products from Microsoft, not to mention the never-ending march of new hardware like firewalls and switches now is a great time to review your systems and to get started on a regular plan of maintenance for all of your IT systems.

A system review is a great place to start.  Much like a car inspection or a checkup at the doctor’s office, a system review is a chance to take stock of your systems, gage wear, and develop a plan for upgrades, repairs, and even replacements.  I like to start with the part of IT everyone sees every day — the computer sitting on the desk.  Taking a full inventory or even a sampling of systems to determine how old they are, RAM installed, and storage available are the first things to check.  Take a look at the operating system.  If it is Windows XP make note, because it is past time to replace those machines.  Take a look at the operating system and see if updates need done.  Take stock of any software being used that might be obsolete and need updated.  Taking a log of complaints at this point is also recommended as it helps point you toward problems employees have that are affecting productivity.  Now do the same thing for the servers.  Knowing the software installed, the hardware specifications, status of the operating system, and the age of the system will help you determine the best course of action here in your maintenance strategy.

Moving on to looking at some of the more exotic parts of the IT system like switches, routers, and firewalls should also be included on your maintenance check list.

If you can determine how long a device has been in service that is a bonus.  Many of these devices are “smart” and run an operating system called a firmware that occasionally is updated by the manufacturer.  Finding out what the latest version of the firmware is and if the version doesn’t match your device you probably should add this to your maintenance plan.  These devices also typically have a support lifetime.  If you have been running the device for 5 or so years and the manufacturer has ended support for the device planning for replacement is probably a good bet.

One area you might not be thinking about is your data.  We store huge amounts of, for lack of a better term, stuff on our servers.  Much of it has a very short useful life and can be readily deleted.  Other things are more important and though we might not ever need to look at them again except in special circumstances need to be saved.  This data can be archived onto an external drive or DVD and stored so it is no longer using up storage and backup resources allowing backups to cost less and complete faster.

Armed with this information and a few pointers, it is time to plan and implement.  Create a maintenance plan for the next 6 months or even year that is prioritized from most pressing to least.  Start working through the plan.  Don’t do all this work only to let the plan languish.  Put someone in charge of making sure it gets done.  Use your favorite consultant, maybe even set up a day or 2 a week for them to spend on site working through the plan, but please make sure it gets done.  I cannot stress that point enough.  My work more often than not centers on putting out fires and recovering from disasters, but you know that I am happy to see that work diminish because your business is changing its metaphorical IT oil.  You will be surprised how much better everything runs when you do.

Cyber Security – Not Just an IT Problem

Current IT-related news is a non-stop parade of data theft and cyber security breaches.  It isn’t really that the threat of attack has gotten worse as much as accountability expectations have risen due to exposure by the media.  Since the big Target breach nearly 2 years ago the media has reported on an ever growing number of breaches and the cost of dealing with those breaches after they occur.  This media coverage is making a lot of business leaders sit up and take notice, though maybe not for the right reasons.  The potential risk to operations in real dollars has caught the attention of nearly everyone.  Recovering from the 2013 breach has cost Target over $200 Million.  That is a serious threat to investors and the bottom line.  Target isn’t the first to be caught having to deal with these unexpected blows to their wallets and they won’t be the last.  Target does however seem to be the tipping point that has pushed cyber security out of the sole domain of IT and into the domain of operational risk management where frankly it should have been all along.

Presidents, CEO’s, and boards of directors are calling for strategies to manage and mitigate what they now perceive and understand to be a real risk to their companies.  Small businesses too are starting to take notice of the very high cost of a breach and how devastating that cost would be to recover from a breach.

It is a very long road from where most businesses are in developing cyber risk management policies and where they need to go.  One stop gap measure that has gained traction is the purchase of cyber risk insurance.  These policies cover costs related to data breach and data loss that are incurred when going through the data breach notification process as well as some compensation for loss of business due to loss of customer confidence.  While this is a great first step in protecting the business from risk it doesn’t reduce or manage the risk it just offloads it someplace else.  A strategic approach to managing, mitigating, and minimizing risk.  This strategy needs to take a holistic view of the business and the data within.  Prioritizing this data and the processes that are the most sensitive will help to manage the cost and reduce time and resources wasted securing systems and data that don’t need as much attention.

Once you have a clear strategy, the next step is to begin implementing best practices and reviewing the outcomes.  This is where a cyber-security framework would come in very handy.  Most businesses have to develop their own starting nearly from scratch for each new project.  In 2014 the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST released a Cyber Security Framework in an effort to fill this need though adoption has been slow due to the limited resources available to support it when it is implemented.  The framework does have merit and is built on a clear repeatable structure with clear goals and measurable outcomes that the business leaders want to be able to see.  The NIST framework is built on 5 core functions and relates to managing and mitigating cyber security risk: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, Recover.  These functions are supported by a number of existing IT governance frameworks like COBiT and ITIL as well as Industry best practices that have been categorized under each function.

Using existing best practices and implementing them as well as governance frameworks as part of a cyber-security risk management strategy will reduce the cost over time of implementing the strategy and when used as part of a cyber-security framework will give IT a clear way to track outcomes and data related to the effectiveness of the strategy to business leaders who now need to make decisions about cyber security risk they once left up to IT.  Cyber security is not just an IT problem and now more than ever communicating with business leaders about cyber security in a way they understand is of the highest importance.

Microsoft’s Edge Browser for Windows 10

Microsoft is breaking away from Internet Explorer with the upcoming release of Windows 10 — well mostly.  Windows 10 will ship with the new Edge browser preinstalled, which is nearly an entire rebuild of IE.  IE has been around forever it seems and it has been collecting a lot of baggage over the years for the sake of backwards compatibility.  This has made the application bloated and slow compared to other modern browsers like Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.  Microsoft says they are done. Edge is the proof.

Edge is a fast clean browser designed for what Microsoft says is interoperability.  In the past they focused only on standard compatibility which according to them made it difficult to support the ever-growing set of web technologies.  Microsoft has trimmed huge legacy portions of code from the browser and removed support for features that have been a part of IE for a very long time.  One major technology they have removed is support for something called ActiveX which allowed developers to add Windows application features to web pages.  Many enterprise applications have relied on ActiveX to develop the web based applications many of their employees use every day.  Edge is going to be a stumbling block to Windows 10 adoption…or is it?  On January 12, 2016 Microsoft will stop supporting IE 8, 9, and 10. IE 11 will still be supported; however, security updates will be the only active development done for the browser.  This means IE 11 will be available for Windows 10, giving ActiveX users and users of many of the other technologies Microsoft has cut from the feature list of Edge a bridge, which will enable the migration to the new operating system.

In an article I read recently, the latest build of Edge ran twice as fast as IE 11 and also beat beta builds of the latest versions of Chrome and Firefox.  The look and feel of Edge is more simplified.  Microsoft calls it immersive.  They have stripped away a lot of the menus and menu bars filled with add-ins, taking the webpage nearly to the very edge of the screen.  Edge includes support for Cortana, so she knows and understands your web browsing habits and interests.  You can add notes to any page and even write and draw on a page with a touch screen.  These notes are saved to the computer and reappear when you return to the page later.  You can even share the notes with other Edge users.  And the final big feature is one that other browsers like Chrome have supported for a long time and that is extensions.  Extensions are programs that can be added to the browser that can be used to customize how certain pages are viewed and add functionality to sites like Reddit for example.  This feature isn’t part of the initial release but will be added via an update after the release.

Why is this new browser so important? Well the browser we use is generally out interfaced with our cloud applications and the experience we have with those apps and services is largely dependent on the functionality the browser supports.  IE is one of the most used browsers on the planet and when things change with IE it is like there is , to borrow a quote for a movie, “a great disturbance in the Force.”  The effects of these changes are felt far and wide by users, developers, and IT departments as they scramble to find solutions and workarounds to keep everything running, until they can figure out how to work with the change.

Technology and Society Today

I love technology.  I surround myself with it every day.  So far this year we have been given a look at what I think is the coolest advancement in virtual and augmented reality in the form of HoloLens from Microsoft.  Computers have gotten smaller and what amounts to the latest iPhone/iPad fits on your wrist.  Wearable technology is starting to blend the use of technology into the background of our lives.  There is still a problem of technology getting in the way of our lives and how we interact  socially, but I feel like that is going to fade as we learn to manage and consume information and entertainment in different ways.

Technologies like computer vision and gesture recognition as well as voice activated digital assistants are allowing us to interact with technology and the virtual world in new and different ways that are more like how we as humans interact with each other.  It has been a long road to get to where we are today with technology and there is still a long way to go before we reach many of the goals the dreamers of science fiction have set for us.

I sometimes like to take an outside-looking-in view of all the technology and it gives me perspective — on how technology has changed and how it has changed the average person.  30 years ago the image of bald men in thick glasses wearing lab coats was the stereotype when someone was talking about computer technology.  Today technology is approachable by people from all different disciplines.  This has given rise to computer technology not only being functional in more ways than  anyone could have imagined 30 years ago but  it is also being more aesthetically pleasing, allowing it to blend into our everyday lives.

It amazes me how comfortable my kids are with technology.  My kids are curious and are always asking me questions, quite often questions to which I don’t have the answers.  When I don’t know the answer they say, “Well Dad, let’s search it on the Internet or ask Siri and see if she knows.”  They are never far away from the information and the content that they want and I see how it is able to augment their learning and interaction with others in ways I would sometimes never even think of.

I hope that the articles that I share with you all each month are informative and useful and serve to perhaps in some cases spark your interest in technology not only for your business but in your personal life.  Technology is a part of who we as a society are becoming and I hope everyone finds something they love and enjoy about technology or perhaps how it improves or augments the things they enjoy in life.  I would like to hear back from you about your favorite app or gadget or some piece of technology that you are using to augment a hobby or other interests you have that maybe just a few years ago you never would have dreamed would have existed.  Visit our Facebook page at http://www.facebook/JacobsCompanyBITS and share your comments.