Category Archives: Software

Is Cloud Computing Right for You?

Are you interested in migrating your internal systems to ‘the cloud’ or implementing a hosted service? Hosted solutions aren’t right for every company but ACS can help you decide the best solution for your needs.

When considering moving or introducing a hosted solution there’s a few basics you can check yourself to get started….

Your Internet Connection

cloud computing
Is cloud computing right for you?

If you have quite a number of people connecting to your data from one place then you need to make sure you have a decent Internet connection to support them, similarly if you are looking to implement a hosted PBX or VoIP telephone system.

For data use you need to ensure you have a fast enough connection for all your users to be able to download and upload the files and data they need. The bandwidth needed will depend on your individual business – whether you have mainly small sized documents or larger CAD drawings and the number of people that will be connected, as well as anything else you use your Internet connection for.

For telephony use, you don’t necessarily need a fast connection but it must be stable as voice traffic can easily be distorted or dropped if the connection varies in speed and quality (we would always recommend having a dedicated broadband connection for voice traffic)

Your Data

Banks-of-servers
Where is your cloud data stored?

Not all files and folders can be uploaded to a multi-tenancy
environment such as Microsoft’ Office 365 service.  This is because the data is stored in a Microsoft SharePoint environment (basically a database) and therefore there are certain characters that cannot be included in file names, limits to the size of files and also the length of file names that can be uploaded.  There is also a limitation on the amount of data that can be uploaded in a Company Wide file location as opposed to an individual’s folder and this can cause problems as your usage grows.

These issues are not so much of a problem if you go for a dedicated hosted server or remote solution as the service is configured to your needs rather than you having to conform to a particular service, however this costs a lot more.

Network Security

If you want to get rid of your server altogether and moving everything to the cloud then you need to consider network security. If you are based in an office environment, as opposed to people working remotely from individual locations, your server will do a lot more than just hold your files.  It’s the server that manages each users login details, shares devices such as printers and manages your data security.  Moving away from a Server Active Directory environment means each PC or laptop acts as an individual device, with individual logins. This makes it much more difficult to hotdesk and manage things like password policies.  Also, devices such as printers have to be set up individually on each machine and everything is maintained individually rather than from one point.

In this instance you could go for a fully hosted Virtual Desktop environment where your network security, devices etc are managed all in the cloud environment and nothing is held locally on the PC’s (like the old dumb terminals) or you could look at a hybrid environment where you combine a lower specification and cheaper server with Cloud services for Email and other line of business applications.

The Cost

When considering moving or implementing hosted services do consider and add up all the cost implications. Cloud is not necessarily cheaper.  If you base your TCO over the average life of a server (5 years) do a like for like comparison between on-premise and hosted services to see what offers the best deal.

Yes, you save the upfront costs of purchasing hardware and software licenses but this can be spread with finance agreements.  Also, don’t be fooled by the ‘no support needed’ USP!

IT Support
Your on premise equipment still needs support

You still have your individual PC’s, laptops, printers and Internet Connection which need maintaining (and that is where the majority of our support calls come from) plus hosted services need maintaining too. If you have a dedicated server, this needs the same software patching and maintenance as on-premise (though you don’t have to worry about the hardware).  Some companies will manage this as part of your package but it generally costs a lot more.

With a service such as office 365, all the updating and patching is managed for you however you don’t usually have much of a say as to when this happens. Plus there is still the day to day maintenance of maintaining security and user accounts, managing data etc.

So, is Cloud suitable for your business? For many it offers a cost effective way of moving their business forward and having access to enterprise level software they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford but for some it has been an expensive learning curve.  Before you embark on your flight, let ACS help you plan and manage your project to make sure you get the right solution.

Contact us today for a no-obligation consultation.

Web Design – First Steps

WebsiteEvery business can benefit from a Web presence. Whether you want to promote your products and services online, sell online, provide a service for your customers online or just provide basic contact details for people that want to get in touch there’s a solution for you.

So, if you are looking to get a web presence or want to update your current offering where do you start?

What do you want to do?

First of all, decide what you want to do online as this will determine the structure of your site and how it is developed. If you just want a basic brochure site then that’s fine and virtually any host will be suitable for you. If you want to add blog or news sections that you can update yourself, an e-commerce section or other interactive content then it’s easiest if you plan this from the start – even if this side of the site won’t be developed straight off.

Design

Then comes the design. If you are having your site built for you then the company should come up with 2 or 3 options for you. The design should represent your business with regards to colours and logo but must also be easy on the eye and easy to navigate.

If you are building your site yourself, take a look at similar businesses to yours to get some ideas and see what works and what doesn’t. Most of the main hosts such as 1and1 and GoDaddy will provide some templates which will get you started but do try to customise them rather than sticking with the ‘out-the-box’ designs.

Some Website Designs
Courtesy of www.wix.com

If you are using a system such as WordPress to design your site, again, there are many different templates which can be used as a base for your site.

You should use a template page to base your other pages on. This means that if later on you want to change a menu or some part of the design, you only need to update the template page rather than every other page individually!

Content is King

So you have a design, now you need to write your content. This is your opportunity to catch your site visitors’ attention and encourage them to make contact. You only have a few seconds to do this so keep it short and catchy but informative. You are better off creating several shorter pages, each about a specific subject, than trying to cram everything on to one or two.

Google searchContent needs to be unique for each page and also unique from other online material you may have. Search Engines now recognise identical content and your Search Engine rankings will suffer if you simply copy and paste from other online sources.

Also, remember that your visitors may enter your site at any page of your site so make sure visitors can easily navigate around from every page and that your contact details and call to action are included on every page.

Use images wherever possible but keep the image file size small. Moving graphics and video are great to grab attention but again, keep it relevant and the file size small. A lot of people still have poor internet connectivity and lots of large images and animations will mean your page takes longer to load and the visitor gets a bad experience.

Finally, remember that the beauty of online marketing is that you can change it simply and easily. Keep your site up to date, especially if you promote offers, have news items or testimonials.

If you are looking to re-design your website or would like help getting started, please contact us.

Choosing an Accounts Package

Choosing an Accounts Package

Pile of coinsCashflow and finances are the backbone of all companies. It’s important that businesses can manage their money in a way that is easy, understandable and legal!

But with the number of different accounts packages available, choosing the right solution can be daunting.

As with anything relating to IT (and any major business decision) planning is key.

If you are looking to move from paper records or simple Excel spreadsheets, then now is a perfect time to think about what you want from your accounts package. These days, accounts systems can do a lot more than raising invoices and reconciling the bank statement!

If you are looking to change your accounts system then write down what you like and dislike about your existing system and the additional features you require. Also consider how easy it is to export and import data from one system to the other and whether this will incur additional costs from the supplier or whether you will need external help to do this.

Here are a few pointers for consideration:-Pencil and calculator

  • If you manufacture, build items or hold items for sale, would some level of stock control or bill of materials system be useful?
  • If you are a labour-based business then a system that allows you to allocate employees time to jobs and then calculate bills based upon those figures may be helpful.
  • Do you require a purchase ledger side to your accounts? Not every company will need this if they do not resell items as part of their business.
  • If you employ staff, would incorporating Payroll into your accounts package either save you outsourcing costs or time entering data into 2 systems or manual calculations? Make sure the system allows for Real Time Reporting to HMRC of payroll data and can manage end of year reporting.
  • Are you VAT registered? If so, make sure the system you consider accounts for the different types of VAT reporting available and allows for online submissions
  • Do you require a system that can cope with multiple currencies? Many do not do this as standard!
  • Do you require a system which is installed locally on your PC or could you use a hosted solution, which you access via the Internet?

Accounts softwareGenerally, accounts systems will be available in different levels, depending on the functionality required, or will be modular, allowing you to bolt on different functionality. The more features you need, the more expensive the system will be. If you don’t need a feature right now but may do in the future, make sure that there is a cost effective and easy upgrade path, or that your base version will accept the particular add-on modules you are considering.

Make sure you understand the licensing structure. Some systems will be based upon concurrent users; for example, you may have 5 members of staff but only 3 ever access the system at once, so 3 licenses will be required in this scenario.

Some software will be based on actual users, so in the scenario above you would require 5 licenses.

There may be a licensing model per company, so if you manage accounts for more than 1 trading entity you may require additional licenses or a different version of the product.

Finally, make sure you get a fully functional trial of the software you are looking to purchase to make sure it meets your requirements, and make sure you use it with real-life scenarios! Run systems in parallel for a week or so as the only way you will ensure the system meets your needs is by using it!

If you need help choosing a system or installing a new accounts package, please contact us.

Outlook – much more than Email!

Outlook – much more than Email!

Outlook 2013Many businesses use Outlook as their email client but how many of their Staff are using all the functionality? Many people get the Email functionality, after all, that’s usually what Outlook is installed and configured for, but what about all its other features?

Outlook is a complete communications and organisation tool, with Email accounting for about a quarter of its functionality. Let’s look at some of the other features!

Calendar

The calendar allows users to schedule meetings and appointments, Diarynot only for yourself but for other people too – and they don’t even have to be in your organisation. Create a new meeting and complete the onscreen form to record time and location details as well as invite attendees and give details of the event itself. Then set a reminder for either a few minutes, hours or days before the start, which will pop up on screen and remind via any mobile devices that synchronise with your mail client.

Tasks

Like an online To Do list, Tasks allow you to schedule different items, again for either yourself or other people, and keep track of progress and when items have been completed. You can include start and end dates, priority and % completion information as well as details of the task itself. From within the task you can also send status reports and then finally mark an item as compete when it’s done.

Contacts

Hand holding a business cardThe contact list in Outlook is not just there for keeping track of email addresses! If completed in full, contact records can be used for creating labels and mail merges and even for instigating telephone calls if you have a compatible phone system or softphone.

You can group your contacts in Distribution Lists if there are people that you mail regularly and can also choose to share and forward contacts with other Outlook users.

Other features

There are plenty of other functions which can be used across all 4 areas of Outlook.

Categories can be used to colour code and group all Outlook objects. This can be useful if you want to see or search for all items related to a particular project, event or product.

Flags can be used to quickly set follow ups for all items and also mark as completed. This can be useful for shared mailboxes. If a person sees a mail to be actioned and is going to take ownership they can click on the flag to mark it and everyone can see that mail is being dealt with. When completed, it can be marked as such so everyone knows that particular enquiry has been dealt with.

OneNote is an application included with most of the modern office suits. It is like an electronic log book or journal and is a good place to collate information on particular projects or ideas. Any Outlook item can be sent to OneNote using the button on the toolbar.

If you would like to learn more about the features of Outlook, why not contact us about our custom training courses?

On Premise vs Cloud – Which is Best?

On Premise vs Cloud – Which is Best?

This is a question we get asked time and again! When customers are thinking about replacing old servers and equipment the temptation is to cut those costs as much as possible and avoid any hefty upfront fees.

For some companies, a totally cloud solution will fit the bill perfectly, but for most people we speak to it’s not the best way to go. So how do you choose?

Write Down Your Requirements

It sounds simple but many people we go to see have not thought through what they actually need to do in their business with regards to their IT. They think they have to have technical knowledge to define any form of specification whereas in reality, any IT Provider needs to know what you use your computers for now, what you would like to do and what your plans are for the future.

This doesn’t need to be in technical terms but from a practical viewpoint i.e “John needs to be able to check his email wherever he is” or “we need any staff member to be able to access the data and email in the office should they need to work from home occasionally” or “We are looking to bring on a new sales guy next year and he will be mainly based from home”

This will help to determine which applications and services you need, from here we can determine if these are suitable for a Cloud environment or if you will need to have some data and applications on-premise.

Review Your Disaster recovery Strategy

Most smaller companies don’t even have a DR strategy so now’s a good time to think about it. How important are your computer systems to you? If your server was offline for a day or even a week, what impact would that have on your business?

Could you work from home if your office was unavailable or is this not practical (because you need other equipment, files, telephones)

Much of the monthly fee spent on Cloud Solutions is for the data Centres that host the servers and the security they provide. Yes, there are other benefits, which we will come on to later, but you are paying for redundancy of servers, multiple power and data network feeds and 99.99% uptime. If this is necessary for your business, maybe for compliance or because your business relies so heavily on your servers that any outage would be disastrous for you, then a Cloud solution would work out more cost effective than trying to implement these sorts of security and resilience features yourself.

How Good is your Internet Connection?

There are still plenty of places in the UK with a mediocre Internet connection. There is no point trying to implement a Cloud solution without a reliable and fast broadband connection. The size of pipe you need will depend on the number of users and the applications and data they are using but for a small office of say 10 people you would want a good BT Infinity 80/20 connection at least. This should be dedicated to your data traffic and not shared with VoIP phone systems or connections from Branch offices.

If considering a Cloud solution for all or part of your infrastructure you must make allowances for a good Internet connection. If your systems are vital to your business then you will need to consider investing in a dedicated line, which could add £2000 – £4000 per annum to your costs but will ensure good SLA’s to resolve any faults and a fast, reliable, dedicated connection.

Where’s Your Data?

Most of the larger Cloud Service providers these days offer regional hosting, which meets with the data regulations some industries enforce where data must be held within certain jurisdictions. Smaller, cheaper hosting options do not offer this though and your data could be held in servers all around the World.

With an on-premise server, you know your data is there, in your offices and you can retrieve and delete as you want, move it to other hardware, you have full control.

In a hosted environment, do you know where your data is? What happens if you’re hosting company goes bust or you have a falling-out? Could they hold you to ransom over access to your data?

Who else has access to those servers? Again, the larger hosting companies have very stringent security but what about the cheaper, smaller solutions?

On-Site Security & Networking

This is the area we have most difficulty with in purely Cloud environments. If a company gets rid of their on-premise server completely they are getting rid of their central network controller. It’s like going back to the 1990’s with simple Workgroup networks and nothing to offer any central security or management facilities.

It’s more difficult for users to share PC’s, unless they use generic login details. Peripherals such as Printers take longer to set up as they have to be configured individually for each PC and possibly each user on each PC.

For Companies that have mainly home-based workers or users with laptops this isn’t too much of a problem but in an office with 10 PC’s where they want the ability for any user to log in to any PC it’s virtually impossible to manage.

For many Companies, a Hybrid environment is the best solution, with a small server onsite to manage network security and other services such as Email, CRM and File Sharing based in the Cloud.

Which is Cheapest?

The simple answer is that a good, stable solution, either on-premise or in the Cloud, will not be “cheap”.

On projects we have compared so far, a good Cloud solution will have a higher TCO over 5 years than an on-premise solution, though there are other trade-offs to consider such as always having the latest versions and ongoing management of the core systems.

An on-premise solution will require higher up-front costs (though these can be managed with a finance or leasing solution). It will also fit into the Capex side of your budget. You will also have assets registered on the books and depreciation of those assets over the next 3-5 years.

A pure Cloud solution will have lower upfront costs, though don’t expect installation and configuration to be any cheaper than an on-premise solution. The majority of these costs can be put against Opex and you will not have the assets or depreciation.

With regards to ongoing support, again, don’t expect to make substantial savings on an outsourced support contract with a cloud solution unless you want to be managing this with the cloud provider yourself. Protection and support for the PC’s and laptops is just as important in a Cloud environment and, although you don’t have a physical server to support and maintain, User support is still as important in a cloud environment as with on-premise.

So, which is best?

The simple answer is that Cloud, on-premise and hybrid are all good solutions if they fit your needs.

Take time to consider your options and your requirements and do not just consider the bottom line figures. It will be more costly if you make the wrong choice!

Choose an IT provider which has experience of all 3 scenarios so they can give an unbiased opinion based around your needs and not their margins.

Be honest about how much time and technical ability you have in house to dedicate to implementing and supporting a new solution. Some Cloud services are advertised as ‘out of the box’ small business solutions. In reality, they take time and expertise to set up properly. Can you afford a week out of your business to dedicate to setting this up or would you rather concentrate on running your business?

If you would like more information on any of the solutions discussed here or would like an informal chat about your future plans, please contact us.

Windows 8.1 Pro for Business

Windows 8.1 Pro for Business

With the end of support for Windows XP looming, many businesses are replacing their older PC’s and laptops to ensure compliance and maintain security.

Many Company owners and IT Managers are worried about the impact of Windows 8.1 Pro on their businesses. How will employees react to something that looks so different? Will training be required? Will existing software and hardware be compatible?

All are good questions which should all be considered in the early stages of planning an upgrade, however big or small. Many SME’s do not have an IT strategy with planned replacement of systems. They also often do not maintain support contracts with line of business applications, so a major upgrade every 5 – 10 years can become an expensive and protracted exercise with changes not only to PC’s and laptops but Servers, line of business applications and peripherals such as printers and scanners in order to maintain compatibility.

On the basis that existing line of business applications and hardware such as printers are compatible then businesses should not have any fears about moving to Windows 8.1 Pro. Yes, the design is a little different but, if moving from XP, users will need to get used to a new Operating System anyway.

There are also a lot of additional and new features that would be beneficial to most businesses.

Bitlocker

BitLocker and BitLocker to Go provide a built in encryption solution for both the computer’s hard drive and also removable hard drives and USB sticks. This can be extremely useful if users must transport data via USB sticks or other removable media and also for laptops where they may contain data or links to a corporate network.

Assigned Access allows for a device to be locked down on a user basis to allow access to just one application. Upon logging in, that application opens and allows no other interaction with the system.

Remote Business Data Removal allows for data to be marked as Corporate, encrypted and then removed or made inaccessible when the relationship between the corporate network and that device ends.

If compatibility is an issue, then the licensing of Windows 8.1 Pro allow for the system to be downgraded to Windows 7 Professional (if supplied with a new PC or via Volume Licensing). If you do need to downgrade, make sure your new systems are supplied with Windows 8.1 Pro licenses and downgraded to Windows 7 Professional as this will give you the ability to upgrade later on when you are ready for Windows 8.1 Pro without having to purchase additional software licenses.

If you are looking to upgrade your systems or would like training for the new Windows and Office systems, please contact us and we would be pleased to help.

CryptoLocker Ransomware – Don’t get Caught

CryptoLocker Ransomware – Don’t get Caught

Man desperate with PCI am sure most people are aware that there are some pretty nasty bugs and malware being sent around the Internet.

Some hijack your email and send spam to your address book, others are designed to sit secretly in the background and simply use your systems resource and internet connection as a gateway to send spam or process tasks in the background. Some try to steal your identity or personal information either through logging your key strokes or duping you in to entering personal details into a fake website. Some will try to ‘break’ your system by changing settings or files .

Now, these are not nice and can be a nuisance to get rid of. Generally, any decent anti-virus product will protect your system and stop these programs from running or at least stop them in their tracks. You can then restore any damaged or missing files from your backup, though normally any data will be retrievable anyway, even in the case of a complete reload of the system.

There is one virus however, which can cause the loss of all your data and files and for which there is currently no known resolution apart from paying a lot of money – and even that will not guarantee a return of your data.

The CryptoLocker virus sits dormant on an infected machine until that system is rebooted. This then triggers a file to run on restart which secretly works its way through your files encrypting them and making them unreadable. Not only will it work its way through your hard drive, but it will search through any mapped network drives or connected USB drives encrypting them also.

screenshot
CryptoLocker screenshot

As a final nail in the coffin, it will attempt to delete and disable any historical shadow copies, just to make doubly sure you have no way of retrieving your precious data.

Only when it has finished will it display its message on your desktop to tell you your system is infected and with details on how to pay and retrieve the key to decrypt your data.

So, how can you protect yourself? Generally the virus is transmitted via an email attachment. These are appearing more and more genuine and those we have seen include Companies House submission reports, Bank statement notifications, delivery instructions from major courier companies and HMRC tax return notifications. The attachment pretends to be a pdf document but is in fact an executable file which runs and then infects.

bullguardFirstly, do not open or even preview an email you are not expecting from these sort of sources. If in doubt, delete it.

Secondly, make sure you are running up to date, valid anti-virus software. This will help to pick up any known executable files as they run on your system.

Thirdly, there is a small application, written by FoolishIT LLC which can be installed on a PC to help protect against this particular threat. It stops certain file types running in certain locations on your PC. This will help to protect against the virus but may possibly impact some other 3rd party software also. You can download CryptoPrevent from the following page: http://www.foolishit.com/download/cryptoprevent/

backupFinally, make sure your system is regularly backed up but, if you back up onto a USB disk, do not leave this permanently attached to your PC. Depending on how you back your files up, this could become encrypted also should you be infected.

Should you be unfortunate enough to be a victim of this virus, and you simply must try to retrieve your information, you have a limited time to follow the instructions and decrypt your files. Currently, there is no other alternative to retrieving any encrypted data. Success rates vary and paying the ransom does not guarantee your files will be saved. If you do want to take this route, then do not make any attempt to clean your system until you have tried to decrypt your files. If you remove the key files from your system then you could end up having to pay more money or not be able to decrypt your files at all.

For more information on keeping your systems safe and secure, please contact us.

Are you ready for Windows XP End of Support?

Windows XPOn April 8th 2014 Microsoft are retiring all support for its Windows XP operating system and Office 2003. XP has been a reliable and stable operating system for more than a decade, but increasing demands for faster, more secure, highly functional computing have now brought about its demise. In fact the last major upgrade Service Pack 3 was released in April 2008 so XP computers are generally at least 4 years old and we know of some systems that are 10 years old and still working!

If you are still a Windows XP user and it does all you want; “So what” you might say. “I can do all I need with my current computers and don’t want to spend money on replacing or upgrading.”

The first thing we would say is that you can’t expect your computer to last forever, one day it will fail and will need to be replaced (possibly urgently). Compatible spare parts will become even more of a rarity as time moves forward so repairing becomes less of an option.

Putting aside the possibility that you may have lost all of your historic data if you haven’t been diligent in regularly backing up, users will have a steep learning curve to cope with the most modern Windows operating system; currently Windows 8.1. There are also compatibility issues with other software and devices to consider and, if replacing a PC in an emergency situation, this can turn into a costly exercise when discovering that printers or accounts software also needs to be replaced in order for it to work.

Microsoft issued “security patches” are designed to plug holes in their operating systems (and applications) where “hackers” are trying to compromise the program for their own uses. You could ask “why isn’t the product 100% secure from its initial launch” but when you consider there are billions of programming instructions in multiple languages it is an impossible task. You also have to consider that hacking tools have been greatly advanced since the release of Windows XP and what was secure a decade ago is no longer so. In fact all Microsoft operating systems have improving inbuilt security as you move towards the current releases.

What are hackers trying to do on your computer?  Primarily extortion, getting their hands on your money, or using your computer to impact the operations of larger corporate organisations. Wide publicity on the impact of hackers is routinely seen in the press and having good quality fully updated antivirus is a must as a first line of defense.

Windows 8 laptopUsing scare tactics, we could be quite justified in saying that from 9th April 2014 Windows XP computers are open field for hackers. It is believed that areas of Windows XP have already been exploited but the hackers are keeping a lid on these loop holes until they know that a fix will not be issued; i.e. wreaking havoc on all XP users. Conversely we could point you back to the beginning of this century when it was suggested that many computers would become vulnerable to hackers due to their inability to roll over the date from 1999 to 2000. Commonly known as the “Millennium Bug”, it really turned out to be a non-event.

Undoubtedly XP computers will be targeted by hackers and really the impact is unknown but there is most definitely a greatly increased risk of infiltration and possible exposure of personal information.

The purpose of this article is to highlight these risks so you can make a judgment on what to do. Are you prepared to risk that this will be a non-event and can be ignored or do you need to take action.

If you decide that action is required the import thing is that this is a managed process. Give yourselves time to assess which PC’s need to be replaced or upgraded, assess if any compatibility issues will arise and get users trained on new systems.

Putting aside the scare factors, due to age XP computers will fail and need replacing. Managing this process on your timescales and budget will be a far easier and cheaper transition than picking up the pieces in a disaster scenario.

ACS Technologies can help your migration from Windows XP in a variety of ways and manage the process from initial assessment to installation and training if you require.

1. Assess your current IT systems and review which systems need to be replaced and any systems which may be suitable for upgrade

2. Look at associated hardware and software to confirm compatibility

3. Put together a quotation and project plan. This can include finance options and roll out plans for staged migrations on larger projects

4. Supply, install and configure new systems onsite

5. Train users

6. Provide ongoing support to cover the hardware, software, network and users for trouble-free IT infrastructure.

We are currently offering FREE initial review sessions if you would like to discuss upgrading your systems and find out any implications. Please contact us if you would like to book a session with one of our consultants. We do have a limited number of free sessions available so please don’t delay!