Behind the Clouds

It is no secret that over the past several years moving data to “The Cloud” is an industry trend that is gaining a lot of publicity.  But what exactly is “The Cloud?” The answer isn’t as simple as you may think. The Cloud isn’t one set place or thing.

Simply put, “The Cloud” is a term used to describe the place where you move your data and servers so they are no longer in your office. Essentially, you are moving everything somewhere else to be accessed via the internet from your office.

Where is “The Cloud?” This, too, is not an easy answer, because “The Cloud” is almost everywhere. Essentially, you can host your data from a separate office and it can be considered in “The Cloud.”  This is also known as a “Private Cloud.”  Your data is in “The Cloud” anytime it is not located in the same building or on the same network as your computer or anytime you have to use the internet to access it.

However, the more common definition is that “The Cloud” is any datacenter that hosts your information and manages the hardware for you, reducing your workload when it comes to IT management. There are many “Cloud” providers and almost every datacenter offers some form of cloud services, as do many IT providers.

“Should I move my services to “The Cloud?” This question is a very common one that gets asked often, and it truly depends on your unique situation. There are many advantages to moving to “The Cloud,” but also disadvantages in some cases. To truly know if you should move your data to “The Cloud,” you need to consult with your IT provider, who has the knowledge and expertise to break down the pros and cons of moving your data to “The Cloud” and be able to help you make that transition, should you choose to do so.

Office 365 iOS App

Earlier this month I felt like Carnac the Magnificent. We held another Office 365 Event, and in that event the question came up: “Can I use Office 365 on my iPad and iPhone?” My answer was “Yes, there are several apps that let you edit Office documents and other apps that let you sync files with Office 365 services like SharePoint and SkyDrive Pro.” I also said that I expected that very soon Microsoft would be releasing apps for the iOS devices, cue the Carnac moment. The very next day Microsoft released their new Office 365 app for iPhone. This native app connects to Office 365, allowing access to documents stored in Skydrive Pro and in Sharepoint. The app shows a list of recently opened documents in a single list from both Skydrive and Sharepoint. The really neat thing about this is that this isn’t just documents recently opened on the device, but from your laptop or desktop.

The Office 365 app is able to view, edit, and create Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents. Viewing these documents is great. Documents load quickly and navigation through the document is fluid and responsive. Editing and creating documents however is still a little weak. Word for example allows you to change font size and color though the colors are limited to 3 colors. You can bold, italicize, underline, strike through and highlight text. Again, the highlight colors available to you are limited. Editing and creating content in Excel and PowerPoint are also equally limited. While these limitations are very disheartening, I expect Microsoft will continue to improve and update the app to make it more powerful.

You may have noticed that at the beginning of this article I said specifically that Microsoft released this app for iPhones. That is because there is not an app designed for the larger format iPad. The iPhone app, like any other app, will also run on the iPad in normal size or zoom mode. Microsoft however recommends using the Office 365 Web Apps in Safari on the iPad for editing and creating content. As part of their announcement, Microsoft also stated that enhancements have been made to the Office 365 web apps to better support Safari on iOS, giving iPad and iPhone users a better user experience.

I am very excited about the iPhone Office 365 app despite its shortcomings. This app signals to me a move to deeper support for Apple mobile devices using Microsoft technologies than ever before. I love the Office 365 platform. The value Office 365 brings to businesses of all sizes is greatly enhanced by the ability to access, edit, and create documents and collaborate on more devices in more places whether you use the new iPhone app or the Office 365 Web Apps.

Rise of the Smart… Everything!

Some of you may have gathered that I like projects, especially DIY. There is a growing wave of interest around making things at home on your own, rather than going out and buying a commercial product. The people who are part of this growing trend even have a name — Makers. Inside the maker community is a thriving electronics community whose interests run from 3d printing to making wearable electronics fashionable. These tinkerers tend to like to keep their eyes on their creations, send information to them and even get messages back. Lately, some of these gadgets have started to not only talk to their Makers but to one another, sharing data and making decisions based on this data. Now the machines have not taken on a mind of their own, but have been connected as part of the grand designs of their makers. Over the last several years, there have been articles and books published about what has been dubbed the Internet of Things, devices that share information connected over wired and wireless networks.

Commercial manufacturers are starting to get into the act. Now I am sure if you have been into an appliance store recently you have seen the word Smart pinned in front of nearly everything you can imagine: Smart Refrigerator, Smart TV, Smart Coffee Maker, etc. All of these devices in general have one thing in common. They are “connected” or have some feature that uses a sensor or timer to do things for us to improve their operation or reduce their cost. One of the smartest devices on the market today, in my opinion, is the Nest. Nest is a smart thermostat that is connected to the Internet. It allows you to control the temperature in your home from a web browser anywhere in the world, but it is also smart. Nest will detect when you are away from home and adjust the temperature to conserve energy. It learns your routines and will adjust the temperature back to your preferred settings before you return home. Nest uses motion sensors to see if you are home and temperature sensors to detect the temperature in the house. I believe I even read it can check the weather and will make decisions about how to manage the temperature in the house based on the forecast. Smart, right?

More devices are coming to the market or are being built in the Maker community almost daily that connect to each other and make decisions based on our preferences in order to make our lives and experiences better. Devices that turn off the oven if you leave the house or, like the Nest that improves the efficiency of our heating and cooling systems. We are building systems of devices that coexist and communicate, moving us into a world that a few years ago could only be found in science fiction. Voice controls, facial recognition that recognizes you when you enter a room, touch displays that can manage it all and connect you to the Internet — the world of the future is here today. So when you are shopping, even though “Smart” might seem like the newest buzzword to move the latest kitchen widget, be aware that that coffee pot might just be smarter that you think. What’s next? Robots that do chores like in Star Wars? Oh wait, the Roomba does that!

Microsoft’s New Office

Microsoft Office got an upgrade in January — Office 2013. To say that Microsoft has its “head in the clouds” is an understatement. The new cloud-connected, cloud-delivered, cloud-centric Office is a testament to Microsoft’s dedication to moving to the cloud. Available right now, Microsoft Office 365 Home Premium is all about the cloud. This new Office is a subscription-based service, available to home users for $9.99/month or $99.00/year. In addition to Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, the subscription gives users access to Outlook, OneNote, Publisher, and Access. Microsoft throws in free with the subscription an extra 20GB of cloud storage on their SkyDrive service and 60 Skype world minutes a month. Because the Home Premium subscription is a site license, you can install office on up to 5 PCs or Macs.

What makes this new version of Office so “in the cloud?” All of the documents you create default to being stored on your SkyDrive in the cloud. The latest updates to the applications, which are expected to roll out several times a year now, are available for subscribers to install as soon as they are released, so you always have the latest version. Not using one of the 5 computers covered by the subscription? Don’t worry! All of the Microsoft Office apps can be “streamed” to the computer you are using, and when you are done automatically removed, leaving almost no trace of their ever being on the system. You can also choose to use more fully-featured Office web apps directly in your browser. There are a lot of features missing from the web apps; however, new features are being added and updated all the time, allowing you to work fully in the cloud.

Also available is a subscription for college and university students, faculty, and staff. The subscription is only $79.99 for 4 years of use and allows you to install the applications on 2 PCs or Macs. Besides these 2 differences, the University subscription has the same features as the Home Premium subscription.

Students and home users are not the only ones to get a new Office subscription service. On February 27, the Office Small Business Premium subscription will be made available. This subscription gives users access to several apps and services not available to the home and educational users. Small Business Premium adds Microsoft Lync and InfoPath, as well as video conferencing, online document sharing, shared calendars, 25GB of email storage, 10GB of shared document storage, and 500MB of personal storage per user. The Small Business Premium Subscription also differs from the Home and University subscriptions in that it is a per user subscription, so for each user in your business it will cost either $12.50 per month or $149.99 annually per user.

Not interested in jumping on one of Microsoft’s new subscriptions? Microsoft has also released perpetual license versions of their Office suites and individual applications. These perpetual licenses are what we are used to seeing and buying preinstalled on our computers; however, they do not benefit from many of the extra cloud features or services associated with the new subscriptions. My guess is that over a relatively short period of time, Microsoft will begin retiring these perpetual licenses and in a few years the only choice will be one of their cloud subscriptions for Office. Personally, I think this is the way to go though I do look to Microsoft to reduce the cost of the Home Premium subscription just a little more before it becomes as attractive to home users as this model is to large corporations.

An e-Sign Of The Times

Paper credit card receipts, pens with ink, bills signed into law with flesh and blood pushing the pen — all going by way of the Dodo (you know, the flightless bird that became extinct because it was not able to change with its surroundings)! I recently read an article stating that President Obama has signed several bills into law electronically. Granted, the technology that the President used is not quite exactly what you might be using with your clients, but it does signal an on-going shift to electronic or e-signatures.

E-signatures are continuing to gain momentum every day. Almost everyone has e-signed something at this point. If you don’t think so, take this into consideration: Have you ever signed for a UPS package? Have you ever used the little pen and pad at the store to sign for a credit card purchase and your signature was printed on the receipt? Odds are you said yes, which means you have digitally signed a document. Digital signature capture is not the only way to electronically sign a document, though it does seem to be the way we are most comfortable with today. There are a number of cloud services that allow you to send an electronic document to an individual or group of individuals, allow them to sign the document by verifying their identity and recording their intent to sign the document and then return it to you and no one ever had to pick up a pen. The service providers have various ways of preforming these tasks, but the most important part is that the process is secure. Another way to sign a document is to attach what is known as a digital certificate to it. Think of this as being similar to a scroll bearing the seal of an individual, such as a king or noble in medieval times. This process not only allows the signer to show intent to sign the document, but also provides a way to secure the document so that changes to the document render the signature void, protecting the signer from changes being made after they sign the document.

These methods of signing documents have been tried and tested to hold up in courts all over the world. Government agencies are adopting technologies to sign documents internally and from the public, such as the IRS and your electronically-signed and submitted tax returns. Times are changing, and the world is becoming more digital every day. E-signatures allow a company to be more efficient and to use less paper. If your business uses contracts or any other type of document that requires a signature, now is the perfect time to make the transition to e-signatures.

Manage Security In The Cloud

In the past, businesses would purchase security software like antivirus as a stand-alone application for each PC. For better control and to ensure that computers were updated, a server application was also purchased to monitor and maintain this software, making sure that the software was running and up- to- date. Today, the management of security and anti-malware applications has made its way into the cloud. This cloud-based delivery of software and applications is sometimes called SAAS or Software-As-A Service.

This is how it works. A company buys a license to run a security client on their computers. This client application typically includes firewall and anti-malware tools. Once the client is installed, it begins to communicate with servers in the cloud operated by the application vendor. A network administrator or managed service consultant can then log into the cloud-based administration portal to manage and maintain the client applications on each computer, as well as monitor them for problems. Full featured reporting and monitoring tools in the cloud can be set up to notify the appropriate person of an issue, even if they are not actively monitoring the clients.

Cloud-based management has several advantages over on-site management. Teleworkers and other corporate road warriors devices can be managed anywhere they go, insuring their laptops are always protected and security is up-to-date. Cloud-based management is generally very easy to set up and configure. Management, monitoring, and reporting can be done from anywhere in the world a connection to the internet is available. Because the management application is not installed locally, you do not need to maintain a server or use your own server resources to run the management application.

Today, most of the major developers of security and anti-malware applications have cloud-based security management solutions. I recommend talking to your IT professional or trusted IT advisor about switching to cloud managed security and evaluating a few for yourself to find out if the potential cost savings and other benefits are a good fit for your organization.

Moving Your Files To The Cloud

As the number of businesses that plan to move files and applications increases, the cloud grows at a very high rate, as well. What is the cloud you may ask? The cloud is any network of computer systems whose borders and makeup are not well-defined, which means that accessing resources on a network such as word documents or applications such as databases is less about being physically connected to the network and more about being able to access those same resources easily and seamlessly from anywhere in the world.

There are three types of clouds. The public cloud is a cloud solution that hosts resources entirely on the internet and none of the data is stored on your physical network or local hard drive. Access to resources is usually through a website-based, content management system like SharePoint or Joomla. In direct contrast to the public cloud is the private cloud. All of the files and applications are located on servers and computers directly managed by you or your company. Resources are made available to remote users via a VPN or other secure remote connection technology. Often applications and data will be replicated to other locations managed by you or your company to improve disaster recovery. Content management systems like the ones mentioned earlier can also be used to organize and provide access to data. In contrast to the earlier scenario, these content management applications are entirely controlled and managed by internal staff. And somewhere in the middle is the hybrid cloud. Data is stored, accessed, and replicated between sites managed internally; however, some data if not all is also replicated to a public cloud service either for backup and disaster recovery or for access from outside the local network.

Vendors such as Netgear, Iomega, and Cisco offer simple network storage devices that let small businesses quickly implement private and hybrid clouds. Public cloud solutions like Office 365 from Microsoft or offerings from providers like Amazon and RackSpace are also available for businesses of any size to build their cloud solutions. No matter what type of cloud you choose, the goal is still the same: to improve reliability and accessibility for workers across multiple devices like tablets and smart phones. Proper planning is the first step in taking a leap into the clouds, and working with a trusted, knowledgeable technology partner will make the leap easier.