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Saturday Night, Popcorn, Wine and Backups

Saturday night had finally arrived after a long week of nonstop work.  I was comfortably dressed in sweats and a tee, complete with fuzzy slippers.  The family was getting ready to watch The Avengers, which none of us have seen before. The popcorn was popping, a bottle of red had been opened (for the adults), and I was just finishing up some emails.  Then it happened.

My work phone rang.  I looked at it, then the wine, kids and hubby who was just finishing up the popcorn.  Do I answer it?  I had been working 14-18 hour days for the last few weeks and was beat.  Downtime was a necessity at this point.  But I answered it anyway.

An acquaintance was calling about her laptop.  It had just crashed, and she needed to retrieve her files ASAP.  The client’s Monday morning presentation was on it, and she desperately needed those files, and she had not done a single backup.

Ever.

After some discussion and a few attempts of pushing power buttons and pulling the battery, I knew I would have to be on-site to recover the data.

I packed my bag with my recovery discs and off I went, looking at the wine, listening to the family settling in to watch what happens when Bruce gets mad, and smelling popcorn as I closed the door behind me.

I arrived at the client’s house and, luckily, I was able to boot the laptop.  Our first priority was to backup her critical files to a USB key.  But we both knew that a local backup was not enough, and she needed an off-site backup as well.  We quickly created a Dropbox account and moved her files to the cloud.  Her laptop will probably fail any day now due to a hardware issue, but at least she knows she has a copy of her files that she can access from any Internet-connected device.

 

Here are 4 quick, easy and free cloud solutions to backup your files to:

  1. Cloud Storage – Dropbox offers 2 GB of free storage (there are similar online services, such as box.com).
  2. Google Drive – another cloud solution.  Sign up for a free Google account and take advantage of the 5 GB available to you.  A great addition to this service is Google Cloud Connect.  This add-on automatically syncs your Office documents to your Google Drive storage.  Personally, this is what I use and I can’t count the number of times it has saved me.  I have mine setup to automatically save to Drive every time I save the document.  I then have at least 2 copies, one locally and one in the cloud.
  3. SkyDrive – this is the Microsoft alternative to the Google offering.  You can access 7 GB of free online storage (but as far as I am aware, this currently does not have the same Office Suite sync feature that Google does).
  4. iCloud  – the Apple solution for those who enjoy the iDevice ecosystem.  It has 5 GB of free storage, and has similar (but not identical) sync features as the Google and Microsoft solutions.

Luckily, with today’s technology and resources, off-site backups, or just backups in general, are easy and very inexpensive.  Call your IT Professional (during the day) to discuss a backup strategy that works with your budget, files and workflow.  Trust me, it’s much cheaper than calling on a Saturday night.  But if you do end up having to call me on a Saturday night, a good bottle of red would be nice.

I prefer a shiraz.

Small Business Server 2011 Essentials & Integrated Office 365 – Big Business Tools for the Small Business

I recently installed Microsoft SBS 2011 Essentials with Office 365 integration and was more than pleasantly surprised with the outcome of integrating the two products.

A Little Background

I have been working with Microsoft Enterprise servers for many years of my career, but moved into the Small business Server space a few years ago as a solution for my small business clients.  Microsoft Small Business Servers are designed specifically with the needs of the small business in mind.

Key benefits of SBS include:

·         Simplified Small Business IT

·         Increased Business Productivity

·         Protect Business Data

·         Reduced IT Costs

For a full list of features visit the Microsoft SBS website.

Microsoft Office 365 was released in June 2011. Office 365 provides Microsofts business productivity products, Exchange, SharePoint, Lync, and Office Web Apps as cloud services.  This reduces the need to host these services on-site, greatly reducing IT costs.

  • Exchange Online: enables the sharing of email, contacts and calendars
  • SharePoint Online: allows the users to securely host their documents from any internet-connected device.  Also included are templates to easily create and host your public facing website
  • Lync Online: a real-time collaboration tool
  • Office Web Apps: a web-based Office suite

Client Details and Requirements

The client, for this installation, has a small office with 4 full-time employees.  They use a custom third-party application that requires a “server” type of installation, which was installed on a Windows 7 computer.  They share files in the office, but email, calendars, and contacts were not easily shared.  They wanted to be able to effortlessly share email, calendars, etc., between staff members and be able to access company documents from outside the office. 

The Solution

We decided to implement Small Business Server Essentials with Office 365.

SBS Essentials is a slick little operating system designed for the small businesses.  It is easy to setup and once configured, very easy to manage.  It provides the security and the basic functionality of its big brother, Microsoft Server 2008; but in an easy to use, slimmed-down package.

SBS Essentials offers:

  • Remote Web Access
  • Data Backup and Restore
  • File and Printer Sharing
  • Easy connection to the Microsoft “cloud”

For more information, please visit Microsoft SBS Essentials webpage. In late 2011, Microsoft provided an Office 365 integration module with SBS Essentials.

The Implementation

We moved all their email and webhosting to Office 365. This provided the sharing required, plus real-time collaboration using Lync and SharePoint for securely sharing documents.  The client can also rebuild and maintain control over their website, which they didn’t have before. 

The Office 365 Outlook integration provided a seamless Outlook experience for the client, whether they were using it on the desktop, laptop or web.

We moved the 3rd party application to the new SBS server, which has increased performance of the application itself, since it is now being hosted in a proper server environment on appropriate hardware.  All the computers in the office are backing up to the server, and file-sharing was enabled.  By far, the most beneficial feature for this client is the Remote Web Access feature (which was very easy to setup).  The client can securely access her desktop from her laptop with a click of the mouse.  She is currently on vacation, easily accessing her office desktop and server.

Final Thoughts

Combine SBS Essentials with Office 365 and now you can leverage some of Microsoft’s most powerful big business tools into your small office.  Your small office can now be on the same playing field as big business without the IT costs and frustrations. Well done Microsoft.

Example of a Typical Small Business Office Network Implementation

Background

A 10 year old company specializing in custom medical devices sold worldwide. At the time of this writing, the company had 10 full time employees. Five employees worked in the office on desktop systems connected to a hub and router.

The other five employees were outside sales reps all using company laptops. Two of the sales reps came into the office weekly. Two would be in the office a few times a month. The fifth lives in another province and is only in the office once a year.

The office has a business Internet connection. The connection was and still is a satellite and is prone to disruption. Satellite is the only cost effective and viable option at this point in time. Fibre will be available in the area in a few years. The office was hard wired with Cat 5 cable and two access points available for wireless connectivity.

Users had individual copies of pricing spreadsheets and quotes. When a user needed a file, the file was either emailed or copied across the network to a shared folder on the users’ desktop system.

A desktop computer served the CRM then shared via the network to the other users in the office.

A convoluted backup solution was in place. The backup solution was never tested. This was discovered after a hard drive failed and we were unable to successfully restore the users’ data.

Also, installed was one network printer, one NAS (network area storage) and a standalone fax machine.

The client requested we keep costs to a minimum to remain within their budget. They did not require or want a large, complicated system and do not have the staff or resources to manage it after implementation.

Requirements:

  • Easily share files between in house users
  • CRM must always be available
  • Reliable backup

Optional:

  • Easy access of non-confidential files (mostly customized drivers and documentation) for the outside sales reps and clients.
  • Allow all employees access to the critical files and CRM from outside the office.

Solution:

Requirements Met:

We installed a server operating system on a spare computer. This computer met the minimum requirements but had limited disk space. I expected this solution to meet their needs for 18-24 months. This was 3 years ago, and we are only now looking at upgrading, due to hard disk space limitations. The server houses all the shared files and the CRM which all users can access depending on their permissions. All sales reps have an offline CRM database on their laptops which they update daily and then sync with the office.

Critical files on the server (in this case financial files) are backed up to an USB key daily and rotated off site. All additional server files are automatically backed up to an external drive daily. Weekly backups are moved off site. Desktop systems have native OS backup software installed. These backups are kept on a NAS. Weekly, a staff member manually moves the backups to an external hard disk and keeps it off site. This requires a few hours, but can be done in the background. Once the office has a faster, more robust Internet connection, cloud bases backups will replace the current in-house solution. Until then, the current implementation is working well, and most importantly, when files had to be restored we were able to do so.

All users with laptops are responsible for their own backups on an USB drive.

Email and website hosting are outsourced. We choose this option due to connectivity issues at the local site. It would have also added additional costs to host internally in both hardware and administration.

Optional Met:

User can access files and the CRM database via a VPN connection. The server software controls the remote access permissions. Each employee has an account and permission to various files and/or options.

A networked printer and a networked multifunction device have since been added. The stand alone fax was removed.

In addition, an unused Windows XP system became a FTP server. The internal users can add non critical or non-confidential files to the FTP site for clients or other outside sales reps to access. Clients and outside staff can only download from the FTP server. Uploading is strictly controlled.

In order to keep the costs down, older equipment was re-purposed where possible. Printers and a new fax machine had already been budgeted. Total cost less than $1000 for the server operating system.

Current Status:

The users are very satisfied with the current implementation. As stated above, the hard disk space on the server is running low and we are in the process of adding additional hard disk storage to the server. We have looked into upgrading the current satellite Internet connection, but due to location of the office it is cost prohibitive. We will re-evaluate the connectivity issues in a few years when fibre will be available in the area. I suspect, within the next couple of years, the company may have move to a larger location in town as they keep growing. If a move or the employee growth trend continues, it would then be an opportune time to re-evaluate their needs. If and when this occurs a new server with an upgraded operating system and a more comprehensive backup plan would be added.

This outlines the basics of a typical small business office and what can and needs to be done to meet the needs of the users. As you can see from the above example we worked within a limited budget and provided the functionality they required.

PS Since this was originally written some of those expected growth changes are planned this year. I’ll do a follow up post as this company moves forward.

Backup Options for the Small Business

 

We have all heard the stories “my hard drive crashed and I cannot recover the baby pictures”. What if instead of baby pictures or videos it was your all your company records. Imagine losing all of your contacts, emails, financial records, and contracts etc. Your data is one of the most important items in your company, without your files you would not be able to run your business. If your office was destroyed today, how long would it take you to recover and get your business back online? One day, one week, one month, ever?

 

Backups are not exciting and are sometimes forgotten but, in my opinion, backups should be considered the most important item in your IT infrastructure. I am going to present a few backup options that could work for a small business depending on your needs and budget. No matter which backup option or a combination of options you choose, your backups will be worthless unless they tested and are moved offsite. If your backups cannot be restored your safety net will be lost. I recommend speaking to your IT support to develop a backup plan which would have your company up and running as quickly as possible if the “unthinkable” did happen.

 

There are several ways in which you can back up your important data files.

 

External Hard Drive

These tend to be a good backup solution for most small businesses. A hard drive is placed in an enclosure and this enclosure is then connected via an USB port to you system. These units are inexpensive and can be easily moved off site. You can also configure you operating system to backup automatically to the external hard drive. If you decide to use an external hard drive please be aware that these devices can also fail as they are no different than an hard drive in your desktop or laptop. The bearings on hard drives can seize if the unit has not been used for some time. To avoid this plug your external hard drive in regularly. I would not recommend a hard drive as a long term backup plan but it can fit well into your overall backup solution.

 

USB Flash Drive

These are “sticks” of memory that plug into the USB port on the system. Sizes range from 256 MB to 128 GB

There are several advantages to using these drives for backups. They are inexpensive, data transfer rates are fast and it’s easy to move the data offsite.

USB drives are easily forgotten in a system or lost in a bag if you are not careful. To help me “remember the key” is use brightly coloured USB sticks. It is hard to miss the fluorescent pink USB key in a beige box. When using this solution I use several keys which I would rotate daily or weekly. As with the hard drive solution, I would not recommend USB keys as your only backup option.

 

Optical

This can be another backup option for the small business. The data can be kept for several years; optical media can hold 4.7 GB to 50 GB depending on the type of media chosen. The media itself does not take up a lot of space and it’s an inexpensive solution for long term backups. By using a high end DVD or Blue Ray Disc which is kept safe in a jewel case your data may recoverable for up to 30+ years. This is a nice option for backups, but may require more user intervention as the disks will need to be manually replaced depending on your backup strategy.

 

Tape    

Tape has been making resurgence over the past few years. The technology and size of the tape (LT0-5 holds 1.5TB of data) has increased while the cost has decreased. Of all the options this tends to be the most expensive solution. If you have a large amount of data this may be the best option. As with the optical option, the media will have to be manually rotated daily, weekly etc.

 

 

Off Site/Cloud

Your data is transferred directly to the solution provider of choice via your internet connection. There are many providers, with a variety of features and various price points. You will need to match the service provider that best meets your needs. There are several advantages to using cloud backups the most important being your data is offsite. Cloud backups usually do not require any user intervention as the backups are scheduled to run during specific times. There is no media to be changed therefore ensuring the current backup will not overwrite a previous one. Your data can and should be encrypted during transfer; this will prevent anyone from “seeing” any date during transport.

Of course as with the other options there are also disadvantages to using the cloud for backups.

As mentioned above backups are done over the internet which can be bandwidth intensive. If you do not have the sufficient bandwidth or are capped you may not be able to use this option without upgrading your current service. You also have no power over who handles or controls your data. Another possibility is the backup provider you choose may cease to exist for one reason or another. Take the time and do the research before selecting a backup solution provider.

    

Network Backup

This solution is typically a computer system or a NAS (Network Area Storage) on your network which stores your company computer backups. Usually all the systems in the office will be backed up to this one central location over the internal network. Backups can be scheduled to run during off times without user intervention. The collection of office backups will then need be copied to a hard drive, USB or burned and then moved off site.

 

 

 

 

I have suggested a few ideas for backing up your company data. The options outlined here should fit the small business with approximately 1-10 office employees but as your company grows you backup needs will also grow and you may find you will need to update, expand or replace your current solution with a more sophisticated one.

 

One question I am always asked is “how often should I back up?” I always recommend a backup rotation that includes a daily backup, a weekly backup, a monthly backup and a yearly backup. You should discuss your backup requirements with your trusted IT support person to determine which method or combination of methods (either suggested above or others) best meets your company needs.

 

Remember the best backup solution is one that ensures backups are completed, tested and removed from the site.


 

Categories: backups, Small Business IT
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