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Posts Tagged ‘Small Business IT’

Office 365 to Server Essentials How-To

I was at the Microsoft Partner Summit in Mississauga last week and ended up in a discussion with a gentleman about Windows 2012 Server Essentials and Office 365. Windows Server 2012 Essentials replaces the SBS and does not include SharePoint or Exchange, but you can connect to an existing Exchange server, hosted Exchange service, or Office 365, as I outline below.

SBS 2011 Essentials and Windows Server 2012 Essentials are my go-to server installations for small companies (less than 25 accounts). They’re great operating systems for smaller companies that needs a server for LOB applications, file shares, and backups. Plus, you can easily access your server files and desktop using the Anywhere Access feature. In this post I’ll outline how to integrate Office 365 with Windows Server 2012 Essentials. I used an existing Office 365 account that I currently have access to, and it could not have been easier.

First from the Dashboard, select the Email option.

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In my case I wanted to integrate with Microsoft Office 365 and not an Exchange Server, but if you have an Exchange server, either hosted or on premise, you could integrate with it.

You will be presented with the Getting Started window. Again, because I already have an existing subscription, I selected this option. If you do not have a subscription, uncheck the box that indicates you do, and the wizard will help you set one up.

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I then provided my Office 365 account information.

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Next, agree to the password policy. We should all be using strong passwords anyway!

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Then wait until the configuration is complete. I didn’t even have time to get a coffee.

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And we’re done! How painless was that?

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The next time you open the Dashboard, you will notice the check mark beside the Office 365 integration and a new tab labelled Office 365.

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Selecting the Office 365 tab will display your account information.

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Now that the two products are connected we can easily manage both accounts.

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We can either Add or Assign Office 365 accounts from the Users tab in the Dashboard.

To add or connect existing Office 365 accounts, select the Add Office 365 Accounts link.

If the account names are the same, the application will automatically match the accounts for you. Brilliant! 10

Click Next.

A report stating success and/or failure is now presented. If the installation was a success, you now have the associated server accounts.

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If you already have the Office 365 accounts created, you can easily add them to the Windows 2012 Essentials server.

Select Import Accounts from Office 365 from the Users tab in the Dashboard. Again, the application will create server accounts based on the Office 365 account name.

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A status report is once again presented after the accounts are created.

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You can also add users using the Office 365 web portal. Create the account as you normally would in Office 365.

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Once the account has been created, access the Add a User Account from the Windows 2012 Essentials Dashboard. 16

In the above example I assigned the previously created Office 365 account to the user account (option 2). You can also create an Office 365 account and assign it to a user account (option 1). You can also leave the account alone and not assign it to a matching user account (option 3). The account will then be added to the server users.

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This is a great solution for the small business (less than 25 users). Users can easily be managed by the company, saving them time and money. The one thing I would love to see added is easy integration from SharePoint component to Office 365 to internal folders on the server. I thought this was possible but I haven’t been able to determine how to connect the two. If you know how to do this, please add the solution to the comments. Thanks!

P.S. I’m hoping to turn this into a series of Essential How-To’s.

IT – How Pennywise Would’ve Done It

Screaming like a little girl

Screaming like a little girl

Warning: some material may not be suitable for unqualified IT professionals. Some IT pros may be easily scared by the following scenario. Viewer discretion is advised.

Sometimes you walk into a new client’s site, and are amazed by what you see! I have walked into sites where everything is like a bright, sunny day; but I have also walked into some and it was like walking into a horror movie. Unfortunately, I see more bloodcurdling IT infrastructure than I’d like to. Here’s a classic that Hitchcock could have used:

Before we get into the scary details, this client is an awesome company and they are doing great work in the community; and I am very humbled and honored to be a part of their team. The first time I walked in was because the “server” wouldn’t work. (This situation was the basis of my Microsoft Technet blog post, “My IT Guy was Hit By a Bus“). Needless to say, their IT guy went missing. Locals say he was last seen walking into the fog.

What I saw scared me. I wasn’t just a little worried, I was terrified of their setup; and if I were religious, I would have said a prayer.

Their “server”, which was hosting the shared files for the 10 employees, was a homemade box (nothing wrong with this) with a mysterious copy of Windows Server 2003 installed, but not configured for server use. What made me panic like a little girl watching The Shining (with the lights off), was that all their data was stored on a portable USB drive, with a Post-It note, just barely hanging on (much like a severed limb), reading, “Do not ever remove”. Yes, you read that right! All the data was on a USB drive. Talk about a cold sweat. To ensure that nothing would happen to their data, I hunted for a backup. Go ahead, guess what I found. If you guessed “no backup,” you would be correct. This went from The Shining scary to The Exorcist scary.

By following the steps below, you are guaranteed to have a haunted server, and risk data death; and you’ll be playing the lead role in your own horror movie.

1. Server-rated hardware is overrated, just grab the first desktop you can get your bloody hands on.

2. We can always revive your hardware with electrocution, don’t bother with backup strategies.

3. Mirrored drives (and RAID) are only good for funhouses. Make sure to exclude them from your server.

4. Proper licensing is scary (it really is). Avoid it entirely! You don’t need that in your life.

5. Only hire the undead, and unqualified, IT professionals.

For the client in this situation, we immediately ordered new server hardware with a proper and current server operating system. Until the new system was in place, I manually backed up their data weekly to ensure that if the USB drive was ever possessed, we had a backup of their data.

Both the client and I sleep better at night knowing that they now have the proper safeguards in place. Your IT infrastructure should never look like it was put together by Hannibal Lecter. If opening the server closet is scarier than being slashed through a shower curtain, please have your qualified IT professional come in and rescue you from the horror of it all!

Can you find all the scary references? And which movie scares you the most?

PS: I love scary movies, but seriously, your technical infrastructure should not be a scene out of one.

Are You A Prisoner To Your Tech Support?

It’s Monday morning and you come into the office to discover that your network is down for unknown reasons.  You call your IT Professional, only to find out that he/she has been in a serious accident and is in critical condition.  You quickly Google for another “tech” in the area, and call and explain the situation to him/her.  As each moment passes, you are unable to do your job.  Later that day, you see your “geek angel” in the front lobby and you are immediately relieved knowing your problem is going to be fixed.  He/she takes a look at your infrastructure, and tries to access some resources.  He/she suspects it’s a problem on the server, and needs an account with administrative privilege to resolve the issue.  You look at the specialist, and with a sinking feeling, you realize that you don’t have passwords, account information, or any other useful documentations, and the situation quickly goes from bad to worse.

Those of you who know me will hear me refer to the “hit by the bus file”.  This is a file, paper or electronic that documents your entire IT implementation.  Consider this…one day you need IT support and you call your “IT guy” and find out he was crossing the road and was hit by a bus.  You now have to bring in someone else who has never seen your systems or implementation before, and this new person will have to figure out how your tech fits together before he/she can even start to assist you.  He/she can’t start to take anything apart to troubleshoot if they don’t know how to put it back together again for your implementation.  It’s very much like a completed puzzle.  You can see how all the pieces fit together, but without the picture on the box to refer to, the puzzle may not easily go back together again if some of the pieces need to be modified.

Your IT support person is also not un-replaceable.  Any person who holds your IT structure to themselves is (in my opinion) either selfish, lazy, or is hiding something.  Yes, this may sound harsh, but in my experience, it almost always comes down to one of these three factors.

1. Selfish – they want to feel like they are a key element of your companys structure.  You and your data are now hostage of your IT support.

2. Lazy – they don’t want to take the time to document your structure.  This should be part of the contract, and a professional will always include this.

3. Hiding Something – they might not use legitimate/legal software and this could be their way to hide it (follow-up post to come).

You are now at the mercy of whoever holds your information.  You are trapped.

As a small business owner, you need to be responsible for both your data and network.

Your trustworthy IT Professional should be leaving you:

  1. All usernames and passwords for all equipment
  2. A list of all service providers, including ISPs, and any hosting service
  3. A backup number to call
  4. A network schematic
  5. Documentation for custom application
  6. A list and location of all software installers
  7. Backup procedures
  8. Router configuration

This file should be updated whenever there is a change to the infrastructure.  For example, you change your ISP, or add a new file server.  As someone trying to help you, there is nothing more frustrating than realizing the documentation you have is not accurate.

Keeping your documentation current and accurate is critical in protecting your data. If your IT specialist (either on contract or on payroll) does not provide this information, you are at risk of becoming a “prisoner”.  Take the case of Terry Childs, the network administrator for the city of San Francisco.  He refused to give up the administrative passwords to his supervisors, and it cost the city almost $900,000 USD to regain control of their own network.  This is an extreme case, but it demonstrates what can and has happened.

What is the cost of your systems being unusable?  What if those systems are down for an extended period of time?  What would it cost for someone to have to figure it all out before fixing it?

If you don’t have current IT documentation, call your IT Specialist and ask, or if need be, demand that this documentation is updated or created.  Don’t be held captive by your IT support.

Image courtesy of worradmu / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Why Skimping On IT Will Cost You Money

ImageOne of my biggest challenges as an IT consultant is trying to convince small businesses to upgrade their hardware and software.  IT is looked at as an expense, and because we are all trying to save a few bucks, you may think that keeping your older hardware and/or software is the best cost-saving solution; but trying to hold on to old equipment or outdated software may cost you more in the long run. Here are 5 reasons why:

  1. Productivity – If users are waiting for a program to load, or can only run a specific number of applications, they are not nearly as efficient, and worse: they can become very frustrated trying to do their job because the older and limited technology is slowing them down.
  2. Security – As technology advances, so do the threats.  Old and unsupported software may not be secure and patched, therefore putting your data and company at risk.
  3. Maintenance – The cost of keeping old equipment up and running is expensive.  After a few visits from your IT Professional, you could have replaced the equipment at the same cost, and you wouldn’t have to worry about it later on. On average, desktop PCs should be replaced every 3-5 years.
  4. Support – As software ages, the “experts” who know how to manage older software become harder to find, and because of this, will charge more. It also becomes much harder to acquire older components.
  5. Functionality/Compatibility – Updated versions of applications and software are easier and faster to use.  In some cases, older versions of the same software may not be compatible with newer versions.

I am not recommending that you toss out your current IT infrastructure, but I do recommend you evaluate what you own and consider updating/replacing older equipment. Start with a plan to replace/upgrade the oldest systems in your office.  Your IT Pro can help you design a roadmap for updating your systems and software. He/she will be able to assist you in creating cost-effective solutions for your budget, customized for your current needs and workflow.

By taking the time to be proactive now, you can save yourself many future issues, including unforeseen costs, hardware failure, and other unpredictable difficulties.  You never know what could happen when you are using out-of-date equipment; and it is always better to have a plan in place than to be hit with a huge and unexpected IT bill.  Take the 5 minutes and call your IT Pro today to determine how to best protect your company’s future plans.

ISP Routers and How to Bypass Them

In a recent blog post, I documented how hard it was to have my clients ISP detail the instructions to “bridge” the ISPs provided router.  Life before when ISPs started providing router hardware was so much easier.  We controlled everything on the network and the ISP provided nothing but the connection. The ISPs started to provide their own hardware to make our lives “easier”.  They could look after things for us.  What they did not tell you was that they could now access your router.  Yes, they probably aren’t going to do anything except reset your password for you when you forget it, but in principal, it’s like giving your house keys to your neighbour: all you can do is hope they don’t come into your house and poke around in your stuff, but the possibly is always there.

There are several other reasons to use your own equipment besides just keeping the ISP out, including having more control over your network traffic, configuration for specific VPN connections, parental filtering and just using overall better hardware.  Personally, I don’t want my ISP to access their equipment in my home, so I am finally going to add a new router (with the functionality and control I want) into my home network.  I require parental controls and guest network access, which are not options on my ISP-provided equipment.

In order to use your own equipment, your ISP router/modem will have to be put into what is called Bridge Mode.  Bridge Mode enables traffic to pass through without restriction, allowing the equipment you supplied to control your data to your needs.  Depending on your ISP and equipment, this may not be an obvious setting.  Some ISPs would prefer that you don’t use equipment other than theirs.  Refer to the user manual or contact your ISP for assistance on how to do this.

My ISP-supplied router has a setting which easily allows me to turn on Bridge Mode.  This may not be the case with your equipment.  If you are unsure of how to change from Router to Bridge, contact your ISP or IT Professional.  If Rogers is your ISP, I have documented how to change to Bridge Mode in this article.

Bell Cisco Bridge

Enabling Bridge Mode allows all traffic to pass seamlessly to my router and I can fully control how it is handled.

Typical network layout for 2 routers. This could apply to your home or small office.

Don’t get me wrong, using the equipment supplied by your ISP is fine for your home and office, as long as you take some precautions:

  1. Change the router username and password
  2. Disable all unnecessary services and ports
  3. Change the Wi-Fi username and password
  4. Ensure the Wi-Fi encryption setting is set to at least WPA.

For more information on router security please see the article How to Secure your Router.

Also be aware that most ISPs will not support your connection if you are not using their hardware.  If you do require assistance you may need to set your router back to its original settings.  Also note that if your router is reset, all your settings will have to be re-configured.  It’s a good idea to either backup your settings (if possible) or write the settings down.

Enjoy taking control of your data and knowing you have made it one step harder for someone to access your network.

As with any changes on your network, please use best practises to safeguard your data. If you are unsure of how to secure your equipment, please contact your qualified IT Professional for assistance.

Does Your ISP have Control Issues?

Earlier this week one of my clients called, saying “The Bell technician just installed an upgraded internet service and now we don’t have Internet”.

I head down to find that the Bell technician had installed a new router and left the patch cable hanging. By hanging I mean not connected to anything.  I didn’t even know if the new equipment had been tested.

Not only was their patch cable home-made, it was not crimped correctly, which could have caused network disruptions, and considering what the client pays for this service, at the very least they should have been left with a proper patch cable.

Notice the difference?  The image on the top is properly crimped. The sheath (blue) is under the pressure point, whereas the one on the bottom (the actual cable the Bell technician left) the sheath (yellow) is not. The individual wires are crimped, causing damage and this connection makes it much easier to pull the cable away from the conductive ends which pass data, resulting in intermittent or no connectivity.

My client currently has a VPN router, which allows them to connect to another office.  Bell provided a new router which meant the VPN would not work with the new hardware without modification to the new equipment Bell provided.  If you want all technical jargon give me a call, but for the purposes of this post, I am keeping it straightforward and simple.  The new hardware had to be configured for Bridge Mode, but the router documentation did not explain how to do this, and I couldn’t find the answer online.  After several attempts to contact Bell (on hold for 30+ minutes, and still no answer), I finally had a technician that would assist with this.  (The first technician insisted I be on-site when configuring the router, but he would not provide instructions otherwise.)

I understand why ISPs do not want to have their customers using equipment they can’t access or monitor (that is a whole other rant), but they should not keep the instructions “hidden”.

Since Bell doesn’t believe in providing documentation on how to Bridge their devices, I have outlined the instructions below.  There is no reason why this should not be available.  Hopefully another small business isn’t stuck in the same position my client was in, because Bell has “control issues”.

Configuring Bridge Mode

Please note: if the unit is reset, it will need to be re-configured for Bridge mode

Steps for setting up Bell Router/Modem Bridge mode:

  1. Connect to the router 192.168.2.1
    1. Username: Admin
    2. Password: Admin
  2. Click on Network

  1. Then Disable DHCP.Save
  2. Re-connect
  3. Click Internet
  4. Remove User ID and Password. Save

The router should now be in Bridge Mode and data should now pass directly to the internal router.

Hope this helps!

Keep IT Simple Book

Watch this blog  for excerpts from my book Keep IT Simple. The book is for Small Business Professionals who need to understand the basics of backups, passwords, hardware, etc; but don’t have the time to learn IT, pay the consulting firm for IT, or are uncomfortable with the unqualified friend configuring IT.

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.

Is Your Small Business Ready for a Server?

Are you or your employees sharing files by walking across the office with an USB stick? Are you emailing the same document to each other for editing, then emailing it back? Does your company use a shared calendar or just email a weekly schedule to one person who in turn emails out the details to every employee?

When your small office starts to grow, using the “sneaker net” becomes tiresome and inefficient. When this happens it may be time to consider installing a server in your office. Today’s server operating systems offer a variety of options and scalability.

Adding a server to your office will provide:

  • Networking
  • Security
  • E-mail and calendar capabilities
  • Database and line-of-business support
  • Document and printer sharing
  • Remote Access
  • Backup Support

You will be able to take advantage of these benefits and more depending on the server operating system and the needs of the office. As your business grows additional functionality can easily be switched on.

Server operating systems can be Mac OS X Server™, Windows Small Business Server™ or Windows 2003/2008 Server or even Linux. You would choose the operating system which is best suited for your current operating environment. For example, if your users use Mac OS X, a Mac based server operating system would be a better fit. This is not to say you could not use a Windows operating system, but it may require further tweaking in order to make all the pieces work together.

Mac OS Server™ and Windows Small Business Server™ have been designed with the small business in mind. Both are easy to setup and configure, but if you are unsure it is best to work with your IT Specialist. A server installation should make your life easier not create hours or days of frustration. An IT professional can configure your server that best meets your needs. When dealing the Linux, Windows 2003 Server or Windows 2008 server I would suggest you have a certified IT Professional configure these systems.

Once you have settled on the operating system you will need to select the appropriate server hardware. Your server will be handling many different processes and users at once therefor e using proper server hardware is imperative. Server hardware has been optimized for server operating systems which will provide the best performance. This is a situation providing inadequate hardware resources can seriously compromise performance and efficiently.

Adding a server can significantly increase the workflow in the office. The benefits will outweigh the initial costs very quickly. Spend the time and do the research or hire and IT Specialist and you and your small business will enjoy the benefits of a collaborative work environment.

Small Office Network Growing Pains

Do you add equipment to your office network on the fly? Are you ready to expand your network but unsure how to?  Usually the small office network has been added to as needed, without a plan for future growth.  I recommend having a plan for your technical growth and modifying it as needed.  By having a plan, you can easily add components with little disruption and downtime.

Most small businesses will have the same basic network layout when starting out. You should have a business grade Internet package, see article Taking the Less Expensive IT Route..Is It Worth It. Your connection will then connect to a router which will probably have 4 network ports and wireless connectivity. For the very small office, this is all you may need when you start out. As you grow, you will need to add additional equipment for this growth.  This may mean adding networked printers, scanners, desktops and shared file storage.

Have you decided to add additional devices but find you do not have enough network ports to accommodate this? A switch can be installed which can add 12-24 additional network ports to your existing network structure. I would recommend all fixed devices (printers, desktops etc.) be connected with a network cable. See article on Wired and Wireless networks to determine which devices should be wired.

Are you emailing documents around the office or using the “sneaker net” to transfer files? Adding a file share on your network can greatly reduce the amount of time you run a USB key to your co-working computer. A file share can be as simple as a NAS (network area storage) or even a re-purposed XP system with a shared folder. This will reduce the amount of wasted time, running files from one computer to another.

Are you hiring additional staff? Or do you requiring remote access to the office? Then it may be time to consider a server solution. Windows and Apple both provide sever solutions for small businesses. Adding a server can allow you take control of your network and devices.  A server can provide remote access, share files and provide backup storage for your computers. Watch for a follow up a blog post discussing the advantages of adding a server to your office.

These are just a few examples of hardware that can be added to expand your network. As your small business grows, your technical and network needs will also grow. Your IT Specialist can assistance you in planning and minimizing disruption when growing your network.

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