Productivity tools for the office

January 21, 2011

I have made several posts about Cloud services and the dangers involved with them. There are several services that are worth knowing about and how to use them that don’t incur significant or any risk. Here is a quick list of a few that I use with a description of what they do and how I leverage them to be more productive and effective both professionally and personally.

WordPress – This is the service that I use to create my blog posts. I tried another, blogger, which is a google tool but switched and like this one better. It is a great tool to use to get information to others. If you are a CPA you can let people know about tax issues. If you are in lawn care you can give tips to have a better lawn. You can become the subject matter expert and it keeps you top of mind when someone is looking for an expert in your field. I highly recommend blogging!

Linkedin – This is just like Facebook but designed for business professionals. I have used this tool to find sales professionals for our business, create connections with other business leaders and as a medium to let others know about my blog, charity work and alike. I am part of their open network where anyone can connect to me. Just click on my profile on the right side of the screen and link in to me.

Mozy – This is an online backup service. I have used it to backup my home system for a couple of years. Another similar service is carbonite… I have never used it but I understand it is good too. There is a corporate offering, Mozy Pro, that we offer as a “managed” service offering where we monitor and manage the operation. It isn’t recommended that this be the only backup process for your company and we have seen many make this mistake and pay for it later.

Snapfish – I store my digital pictures with this service and occasionally pay for prints. I have made photo books and calendars which make really great gifts and really not that expensive. It has a great interface that is easy to use even if you aren’t creatively gifted like myself. I have also seen corporations use this to show off pictures of them recieving awards and other news worthing events (i.e. company picnics, customer events, etc.)

Istockphoto.com – this is the service that I purchase all of my digial stock images from for my blog, website and other marketing material.

OpenDNS.com – This service is for filtering websites. I set it up on my home network for $10 per year and keeps my nephew from showing my son where to find naked pictures of girls. It also helps cut down on infections getting onto our computers. We offer the corporate offering as a “managed” service offering at a price point that is less than you could get on your own. It has proven worth the investment.

Google Calendar – I have used the free google online to keep schedules with different groups of people. It is pretty neat in that it is compatible with my new Droid phone so I can add these calendars and choose to view the events in different colors. The biggest problem is getting everyone to get on board with using it but if they do it really comes in handy.

Twitter – This is a tool that seems to me is more like an information overload but can be useful. It has helped with search engine awareness and could be used to quickly contact people kind of like a mass email. I have used it to direct traffic to my blog with some success. I could also see where our company could use it to alert customers of outages and other important information if our email system were to fail. If I could get everyone to “follow me” on twitter this could be possible. You can easily do this by clicking on the little bird on the right side of the screen.

If you have a productivity tool that you have used or still use and like let me know about it. I’m always looking for ways to get things done smarter, better and faster.

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The Cloud – Another dot com bust in the making?

December 29, 2010

It is a proven fact that the better part of 98% of all businesses will fail within 5 years of inception. As part of our marketing strategy here at Sklar we don’t advertise or market to businesses that haven’t been in business for at least 5 years for this very reason. Another proven fact is that technology has a life cycle, typically 3-5 years. I mentioned this in a previous post “The Cloud – Will I save money?” that as stated in the book ,“Inside the Tornado” by Geoffrey Moore, all technology has a predictable life cycle and WILL commoditize. So if we are already about 1-2 years into this “Cloud” technology (hosted providers have actually been around for several years) we should start to see a sharp commodization in just a couple more or probably sooner. I argue that the process has already started and just as Cloud provider finish creating their offering they will be shutting down at the same time.

When this starts to happen, and it will, how will it impact your business? Will you suddenly have an issue of dealing with your provider going under. What if they have your data and you can’t get it back. This message is repetitive from previous posts but could it actually be more like what we saw a decade ago when we saw the “dot com bust“. I’m not sure it will be that serious but I’m certain there are going to be serious issues as the commodization process begins.

Two choices… take your chances and wait and see or keep your assets in your possession and play it safe. Considering the benefits of moving your data to the cloud really hold no incredible value I think the choice is obvious.


Questions and concerns facing CPA businesses in 2011

December 21, 2010

Last week we spent a few days at the Don Farmer CPA event in Richmond. We hosted a booth and after-hour party for the attendees. In speaking with many of the business leaders that we met several had the same concerns . Since we specialize in helping CPA firms most of these were similar to the concerns we have heard in the past.

1. How can we ensure our data is secure?

2. How can we minimize down-time and data-loss if our system experienced an unexpected failure?

3. Should we consider moving our data into a hosted or “cloud” providers data center?

4. How can we make sure our systems will perform optimally during this critical time?

5. Can we setup our system to be securely and easily accessible from our home systems?

6. How can we be sure home systems are secure if they belong to our employees and not the firm?

7. I heard about the TeleworkVa grant, how do I learn more about this?

8. How can we control and monitor internet usage on our systems to ensure our employees aren’t getting trapped in time wasters like Facebook?

Most of these questions have been addressed in my previous posts and I will continue to address these concerns as they exist in most businesses that we work with.


The Cloud – Who is responsible if the data is lost or compromised?

December 10, 2010

YOU ARE! It is your responsibility so you might want to refer to my previous post “The Cloud – Will my data be safe?” for some good ideas on making sure you engage with the right provider if you choose to try to make this change in your organization. This is illustrated in the recent Wikileaks.org vs Amazon.com saga where Amazon kicked Wikileaks off their servers for violating their terms and conditions. So Wikileaks just moved their site to another provider in Sweden. Originally they moved their site to Amazon to elude an attack on their site referred to as a Denial-of-Service (DOS) attack. A DOS attack basically is where an internet connection (in this case their web site) is made unavailable due to the fact that some source(s) is flooding it to the point that the site is overwhelmed, this has happened to Google not to long ago leaving their email and other services unavailable for about 6 hours. My point… The Cloud isn’t all safe and secure and problem free like the commercials you see on TV. It is loaded with security issues and providers not willing to take any of the heat when the data is breached or lost. They will just kick you off their system and tell you to read the terms and conditions of their agreement (if there was an agreement).

And what is worse!? Cyber criminals are licking their chops at the idea of all of this data floating around on the the World Wide Web. The next five years should be very interesting…

Take a look at my latest Tweets (twitter.com/randysklar) to watch some really cool videos I have found on You Tube for you to help you better understand what cloud is and how it could impact us (according to some visionaries).


The Cloud – Will my data be safe?

December 8, 2010

Once you put your corporate data in the hands of a cloud provider you lose control over how much care is put into keeping the data secure and handled correctly. Here are some suggestions and ideas to help ensure that your data is handled carefully.

1. Personnel – Get as much information as you can about people that are going to be handling your data. Ask about hiring procedures, if through back ground checks are performed, maybe even interview some of the employees, etc.

2. Compliance – Request a Risks Assessment or some type of security assessment. If the provider won’t provide this then it is an indicator that this provider should only be utilized to host non-critical or non-sensitive data. In the end you are responsible for the security and integrity of the data, not the provider.

3. Visit the site– Ask the provider for some type of documentation stating where the data will be stored and if it is going to be moved that you must be notified so you can decide whether you are comfortable with the changes being made.

4. Data separation – The provider is obviously hosting data and applications for many other clients. It is important that your information is stored separately and securely from these other clients. You should be able to have your own virtual or even physical server just for your use only.

5. Recovery – A few years ago I was visiting a local data warehouse where many local providers shared space from Cavalier Telephone to provide hosted services to their clients or for themselves. This space is called a bunker and is located right behind Cavalier Telephone here in Richmond, Va. As I walked down the isle I couldn’t believe how many tape backup systems I saw in the enclosures. There were other people there and it seemed like most of them were there to change out tapes. Tapes! Are you kidding! Don’t they know how unreliable tape backup is and how long it takes to recover from a failure with tape. It is vital to ask about the recovery process and how much data could be lost and how long the system will be down should it fail.

6. Business stability – Ask the provider to show you that they are going to be around. Ask for financial information, ask for references, do a credit check (this is very inexpensive) and see if this is a stable business. Ask them how you will get your data back if you decide to pull it out later, what is the procedure for this, how long will it take?

Take these measures to be sure that your companies most valuable assets aren’t going to be at risk.


The Cloud – Will I save money?

December 7, 2010

The short answer to this question is almost definitely not. The only cases I have seen a savings is in very small organizations or single entities (1-3 systems). This is because, in most cases, the capital expense required for a server, back office software, network equipment, backup, etc. is just not affordable or practical for these small guys.

So why would a hosted provider even sell it based on a return on investment (ROI) value proposition? Well because they have no choice. Once a provider makes the initial investments and starts to offer cloud (hosted) services they are forced to push every and all clients to it regardless of whether is it what is the best option or not. They really have no option, it is sink or swim and selling the capacity in their cloud environment is critical to the success and profitability of the organization. Of course as time goes the investment required to get started will commoditize but the reality is that it already has. Before these small providers put the last server in they are already dead. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Rack Space… these guys will kill them. Their cost is so low because they have already sold the capacity and like all technology life cycles it will be a commodity probably in just a few years. Some will survive and some might find a niche but most will parish.

Of course I don’t have any concrete information supporting my predictions but there is a history of this happening. Remember when you had to pay $5 per month per email account? Google, Yahoo and alike offer it free now. I even remember selling Netscape web browser for $100! Imagine purchasing your web browser or email account today, not going to happen. How about when the local computer store, ours included, would custom build a PC for your home or business? There is an interesting book called “Inside the Tornado” by Geoffrey Moore that illustrates the predictable life cycle of technology.  Time and time again the theory that all technology, in time, will commoditize. The average time for technology to commoditize is 3 to 5 years.

Going back to answering some of my questions in my post “The Cloud – What are your rights?” I ask the question, What if the provider goes out of business?, well since most business don’t make it past year one and 98% or more never get past year five this is a RED FLAG WARNING! If you think they will call you to tell you that they are folding their business I wouldn’t bet on it. Our recommendation… keep your digital assets in your possession unless it is just not affordable.


The Cloud – What are your rights?

December 1, 2010

As hosted service providers continue to take on more and more corporate data there are certainly going to be an overwhelming number of legal issues that come up. It is surprising to me that all providers I have subscribed to are only required to throw up a 90 page user agreement (I have never read one) that requires only for the user to check a box and click next and with that everything and anything that is put on that providers systems is theirs to do as they wish with. With most smaller providers there probably isn’t any agreement and certainly if there is one there is likely nothing in it that protects the customer, most agreements are designed to only protect the provider. Even with a legal document in place it doesn’t mean that a provider won’t break the agreement and force the consumer to resort to legal action… and that is where the problem will begin… what are the legal rights? Are there laws in place to protect you?

For example according to the Facebook user agreement, Facebook can “use, copy, publicly display, publicly perform, reformat, excerpt and distribute it.” Certainly losing or having someone use your Facebook, GMail or Snapfish information would be horrible but what if the same legal policies for your corporate data where treated the same way… the fact is they are!

Here are questions that any asset owner must be asking themselves before putting their data and the data of their clients in a hosted or cloud environment outside of their control.

1. What if the provider goes out of business?

2. What if the system fails and is offline?

3. What if the provider where to lose your data?

4. What if they hold your data hostage?

5. Should you have the legal right to know where your data is being stored?

6. Should your clients know where you are storing their data (i.e. tax returns, medical records, etc.)?

Are we not just treating our data, the information that drives our businesses, like a utility when we put it in a hosted environment. Is the information only as important as we think of our telephone or power service?

As an owner of this information you must consider these questions.


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