Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Apples, iPhones and Business

Over the last 24 months or so I've noticed a trend in some of my clients toward using more Apple devices. Considering the business market and Apple's continuing penetration I guess I should have seen it coming. I have lots of users with iPhones now and while that's annoying (because they didn't ask me before buying them) the more disturbing issue is that they're insisting on having Macs on their desks - to run Windows.

What's up with this? Why are clients buying Apples to run Windows? They're more expensive to buy. They're definitely more expensive to support on a business network. I guess they're more concerned with being trendy than being productive?

A friend of mine is looking for a new computer and getting advice from everyone under the sun. She's a long time Windows user and is seriously considering purchasing a Mac. I did some research on Google using the keywords "Apple Windows Comparison", "Mac Versus Windows" and the like. I found mostly Apple propaganda and enthusiasts and very little in the way of real-world business evaluations of the two.

So, here are some of the considerations I came up with:
  1. The Mac is very different than Windows. You do everything in new ways and will need to learn how to use a computer all over again.
  2. If you’ve never touched a computer before, learning to use a Mac may be easier than using Windows. If you've used Windows before its not.
  3. If you exchange files and interact mostly with people that use Windows, your life will be easier if you use Windows also.
  4. Macs don’t always run the same programs Windows does. If you have computer software you’ve been using in Windows, the Mac may or may not have a version of it. If it does, you’ll likely have to pay again for the Mac version.
  5. I can’t help you with a Mac, so if you get one make sure you have a Mac expert you can call. If the local Apple store offers that for free (or more likely for a charge) then that might help. If you don’t have a local Mac store then you’ll be calling their tech support.
  6. Macs are definitely trendier than Windows computers. (Is this really a good reason to buy a computer?)
  7. Macs are better for people who do graphic design and for musicians that use computers in their art. (Not so much any more, but still somewhat true...)
So, understanding that I'm going to need to deal with supporting Macs and iPhones, one of my techs is now running Windows on a Mac and using an iPhone to connect to our corporate Exchange server. I'm not happy about un-standardizing our environment, but as a service provider we always tend to be test beds anyway I guess.

By the way... iPhones cost $150/mo compared with a PDA phone (HTC Diamond Pro or Palm Pre) at Sprint for $100/mo for comparable unlimited minute/data plans. That's another topic I think. Are iPhones really worth an additional $600/mo per year?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Yet Another Windows 7 Post

Okay, so I have to chime in on Windows 7. I know its been done to death, but I can't help myself. I have no doubt that this is the operating system Microsoft should have delivered instead of Vista. Don't get me wrong, Vista is a step in the right direction, but Windows 7 brings the ideas Microsoft only half delivered in Vista up to par.

So, what do I like about Windows 7? I like how it feels. Maybe I'm just finally getting used to navigating in the Vista interface, but it seems to me that things are more intuitively placed in many instances. There is a lot of counter-intuitive placement in Vista that's still broken in 7 though.

I think what I like best about Windows 7 is the speed. I upgraded my aging Thinkpad T61p with Windows 7 from Vista and it's definitely faster than it used to be... even with spotty beta driver support from Lenovo and other vendors. Yes, I get some driver errors, but I think even so, it's more stable than Vista was on my laptop too. The peppy start up is very nice. Slow laptops especially will benefit from the shorter startup times.

So, with Windows 7 coming on October 22nd, I'm advising all my clients to hold off on new PC purchases if possible. We're going to walk the bleeding edge so we can access some of the new Server 2008 R2 features. Several of my clients are interested in branch cache. I could set them up now with DFSR, but I think BranchCache is a more elegant solution. Many of my customers are interested in accessing their files remotely without starting a VPN client. Combined with RPC over HTTPS (Outlook Anywhere), I think Direct Access has the potential to be a major productivity enhancer.

Finally, I'm excited about a new Microsoft desktop O/S. I haven't had to learn much new on the desktop side since, well... 2002 or so... when XP was released. I think the Windows 7 evolution (not a revolution though) is going to be good for the industry and good for users both. I've seen projections that few businesses are planning to upgrade (still), but with the way that consumers are leading businesses to new technology today (uh, iPhone anyone?) I have a feeling that we'll be seeing more Windows 7 than some of the analysts think, and sooner.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Vocalocity vs. AT&T

Well, we've been officially set up as a Vocalocity Certified Reseller. After Karl Palachuk's recommendation on Cloud Computing Part Three - Moving to The Cloud we decided to take a long look at Vocalocity as an alternative to our current telecom (AT&T) solution.

Here are a couple situations where we think a hosted PBX might be a good solution for our clients:
  1. They want capabilities not available on their legacy system
  2. They don't have capital to invest in a new installed system
  3. They have multiple offices
  4. Remote teleworkers need to interact with the office as if they were onsite.
Our telecom costs look like this:

Grasshopper (another "hosted" PBX service) $25
AT&T local phone, long distance $75
eFax service $17
Total $117

(Note that we're a telecommuting company... there's only one phone line to the office and everyone uses Sprint $99 Simply Everything plans on their cell phones for work. We don't need anything else with a hosted helpdesk and answering service.)

When I plug my requirements in to the nifty Excel spreadsheet provided by Vocalocity I find that I can have: 1 full extension (metered), 2 virtual extensions for cell phones, the default local company number and auto attendant, a virtual mailbox, 3 call groups (sales, tech support, emergency support), and unlimited US faxing for about the same cost. It will cost me $10 more per month to go to the AT&T internet plan without local phone service.

So, for about $10 more per month I get a full fledged IP PBX (hosted) that integrates with my Outlook (something I don't get now), that can grow with my company and that I can now demo for the clients that I think would benefit from the service. Of course, that's the real reason I'm looking at Vocalocity. I get a portion of the monthly recurring billings for all the clients I sign up.

For a company that really hasn't even tested the VoIP phone waters yet, we're doing our best to identify solutions that will allow us to serve our client's needs and keep as much of their revenue within our control as we can. I'm not sure how hosted IP PBX's compare to in-house systems in larger customers, so we may need to look for additional vendors in the medium and enterprise markets... not that we're looking for VoIP phone work in that space anyway.

Monday, July 20, 2009

More Disaster Recovery Thoughts

After much additional thought, we've decided to try the Datto Viridian backup solution. We'll be giving it a try out at a client we just installed a new server at. Datto offers a 30-day money back guarantee, so we're going to install and play with it and if we don't like it we'll just send it back and go back to Zenith's BDR.

For those of you that aren't familiar with the Datto but know the Zenith BDR, here are some comparison points:

There's an article about Datto and Zenith at if you're interested. After reviewing the above, the questions I have are:
  1. Is the service at Datto comparable or better than Zenith? How about responsiveness upon ordering?
  2. Is there any reason why I should prefer a Windows BDR OS over OpenSolaris?
  3. How is the set up process for the Datto? I like that they provide and do the shipping for the initial offsite image. Much better than the draconian requirements Zenith has.
  4. How is the performance on the Datto for virtualization compared with Zenith?
  5. What's the ongoing support experience like with Datto. Do they just fix stuff that needs fixing or do they continuously involve the service provider in thinks that should just work?
Anyway, I like what I see at Datto. Zenith may have been the thought leader here, but Datto may have built a better widget.

Let me know if you have experience with the Datto or if you would like to recommend a feature of the Zenith that I might be overlooking.

* Updated 7/27/09: According to Zenith, they use 2 US-based sites for hosting off site data as well. The table was updated to reflect the correction.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Helpdesk Challenges

How does a small MSP without a large staff do helpdesk, scheduling and answer the phones?

This is one of our major challenges right now. We currently forward our local phone line to a hosted PBX (via an 800 number) that then forwards to either my tech or myself depending upon which department (1 for sales, 2 for tech support, etc.) or which extension they choose. It has follow-me features so that it rings my cell phone first and then the tech for some things and my home phone for other things. It's a great service ( but I'm the operator. Not a very efficient use of my time.

So, I'm looking for alternatives. I started looking in to a plain answering service, but it seems to me that if someone is going to answer the phones I want them to be able to do scheduling for techs and interact with my ticketing system to enter new tickets and forward people to the helpdesk. It might be useful to have them do personal assistant stuff as well. So if a tech is in the field and cannot get to the ticketing system, they could call this person and update a ticket over the phone.

There's lots of other reasons to have a "power answering service" too. Of course this really points to hiring someone to sit in an office all day. That's what companies have done in the past. I don't want to do that. We do have an office, but it's really just a place for our back-end systems to sit and for me to work outside the home when I'm not onsite at a client. I don't want to put more warm bodies in an office. I don't remember who it was, maybe Amy Luby, that was talking about telecommuting all their people. I think this is a great idea. Get together once a week for a staff meeting and then let everyone work from home.

The solutions I've come up with so far are either expensive or lacking. I've looked in to virtual assistants, but I hesitate to engage with one without a recommendation. I've asked my MSPU mentor for recommendations but they haven't come up with anything yet. I've looked on the web, but it's impossible to tell who's good and not. I guess I could start interviewing them like I would an employee. Any recommendations here?

I've thought about talking to Synergy about doing helpdesk for ALL of my clients rather than just the one on my all-you-can-eat MSP offering. I'm not sure if they'd do that or not. They're not really an answering service and I can't imagine they'd do the non-helpdesk stuff.

Today I've been looking at automated call centers. I found AnswerNet and they say they can do what I need for $250 to set up and then $205/mo for 250 minutes of "operator" time. I'm also going to contact Successful Office and maybe XACT Telesolutions to see what they offer. I'd pay up to $300 a month for this type of service I think. The real question is how good a job will they do. It'd also be nice to have the other functions of a all center at my disposal... to do appointment call downs the day before and customer satisfaction calls the day after and such. We'll see.

So, other options... get a part time person to work from home? Maybe an intern from the local community college? If I need someone just for a few minutes here and there but 8x5 I don't see that working well.

How do other small businesses handle this? Give me your input.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Remote Monitoring - To Agent or Not To Agent?

So I've been using Level Platform's Managed Workplace to remotely manage and monitor my client's systems and I'm wondering now whether that was the best or just the most convenient system.

Did I get sold?

I'm starting to look at the other options again. I was turned off by N-able a while ago because they required that I buy this big package up front. I own a small business and don't want to invest more than I have to. If I can buy it as-required and by-the-month I will. There's no datacenter at Redwood. After looking at my options just over a year ago I came upon Ingram Micro's Seismic program and their hosted Managed Workplace. At the time Kaseya was really off the radar for me. I'm not sure why I didn't look in to it further. So, now I have LPI remotely hosted by Ingram Micro. The hosting is reliable although they had some trouble with the upgrade to MW2009R1 and they won't be going to R2 until later this quarter or sometime in Q4 apparently.

Did I miss the boat by not choosing Kaseya or Zenith Infotech? I thought one of the benefits of LPI was that it was agentless. But is that really a benefit? I don't think it'd be a big deal to install an agent on all the machines I want to manage. And if that agent gave me remote management options I don't have with an agentless system it might be worth it. I'm starting to watch the Kaseya demos and wondering what the real cost of this extra functionality is. Here are a couple quick items I've found that are interesting:
  • Kaseya shows you product keys for installed Microsoft product in it's inventory
  • You can message your installed agents
  • Integrated backup & disaster recovery option with virtualization and offsite replication via Acronis True Image
  • Integrated antivirus / endpoint security option
I need to do more research on Kaseya and look at some user reviews before I really consider it. I've looked at Zenith before and I currently use their BDR at a couple clients. I'm not crazy about their offshore support, but I understand that the price reflects their lower cost of providing service... potentially increasing my profitability. But is it really worth it?

I'm not competing with other MSPs on price. Redwood provides an experience that our customers appreciate. We do save them money in some cases, mostly through increased productivity gained through maintenance and automation. In some cases, we replace in-house support and save even more.

What are your experiences with agent vs. agentless remote monitoring tools? I'm not looking for in-depth evaluations of products, really more of a discussion of the technologies they use. Comparisons of individual products will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Blog Location

Welcome to my new blog location everyone. After using a combination of Twitter and online newsletters and various other media, I'm going to settle down in to a blog I think. I know how to write one (I think... I'm sure you'll let me know if you think otherwise!) and I like the format.

I'd like this to be a practical discussion of technologies that SMB consultants and MSPs use. I plan to take my every day experiences managing Redwood Network Services and get community input on what I'm doing well, what others are having good luck with and in general discuss best practices in our space.

Here's looking forward to a productive discussion!

Scott Cameron
Redwood Network Services, Inc.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Disaster Recovery Methods

After reading Karl Palachuk’s blog today – The Reality of Offsite Backup – I thought maybe the discussion could be expanded to include some best practices for disaster recovery. I’ll start off with some of what we’re doing for our clients and I look forward to seeing what kind of comments we get.

So, see if you can guess which technologies are used for the three “backup & disaster recovery” options below. By the way, I know there are many more ways to provide this service. These three solutions seem to be prevalent in our area though.

Option A – Standard file-based backup solution with regular offsite storage of media:
  1. Execute disaster recovery steps to call everyone and initiate access to an alternate worksite if necessary. 4 hours
  2. Replace any lost/damaged equipment. 2-4 business days minimum depending on requirements and vendors.
  3. Bring offsite media to recovery location. 2-4 hours
  4. Reinstall operating system on replacement equipment. 2-4 hours
  5. Restore of the offsite data to the replaced/fixed equipment. 2-4 hours
Access to recovery systems: 3-5 days
Total disaster recovery time: 3-5 days

Option B – Offsite image replication without local recovery equipment:
  1. Execute disaster recovery steps to call everyone and initiate access to an alternate worksite if necessary. 4 hours
  2. Replace any lost/damaged equipment. 2-4 business days minimum depending on requirements and vendors.
  3. Request for offsite data to be shipped to recovery location on BDR appliance. 24-48 hours
  4. Virtualize failed server until permanent recovery equipment is available. 1 hour
  5. (After Hours) Restore of the offsite data to the replaced/fixed equipment. 2-4 hours
Access to recovery systems: 2-3 days
Total disaster recovery time: 3-5 days

Option C – Offsite replication with offsite mount of image as virtual machine and RDP access:
  1. Execute disaster recovery steps to call everyone and initiate access to an alternate worksite if necessary. 4 hours
  2. Initiate offsite backup image mount on a hosted virtual machine. Provide RDP access to systems as necessary either in existing location or an alternate disaster recovery site. 1-2 hours
  3. Replace or fix any lost/damaged equipment with local parts, rental servers or cold spares. 2-4 hours
  4. Request for offsite data to be shipped to recovery location on BDR appliance. 24-48 hours
  5. (After Hours) Take remote virtual machine offline and allow BDR appliance to replicate deltas. 2-4 hours
  6. (After Hours) Restore of the offsite data to the replaced/fixed equipment. 2-4 hours
Access to recovery systems: 4-6 hours
Total disaster recovery time: 3-5 days

Option A uses BackupExec (or similar) with a rotation of weekly offsite drives. Since you’re not doing a CDP you’ll be losing any data since your last offsite transfer. How critical is that data? It would be better to take media offsite daily, but you’re still losing a lot of data in a disaster potentially. Besides busy clients don’t like to mess with tapes or USB drives every day and you end up with missed backups as a result.

Option B is the standard Zenith BDR solution. It’s better than “we’ll back up the most critical 24 GB of data” but has some drawbacks. The first is the amount of time it takes to get replacement equipment. The second is the loss of control over offsite data.

We’ve learned that Option C is better and doesn’t require much more investment. Option C could be a Datto Viridian solution if you don’t have your own offsite hosting facility. If you have somewhere to replicate data to over the internet you might choose a Zenith Arca or SonicWall CDP solution. The trick with Option C is providing immediate access to systems via mounting the backup images. Of course good internet connectivity is required for the RDP to work. This is relatively new technology and you’ll find Sun Virtualbox in this space among others.

In addition, you need to consider whether you'll have personnel available to perform critical functions, where you're going to put them, access to critical services (phone, fax, internet, etc.) in the recovery location and a slew of other items.

It rapidly gets complicated so you absolutely have to plan it out, develop a solution and not just slap together a few technologies and hope it works.

So, how are you doing disaster recovery? Are you providing DR consulting in addition to data backup & recovery? Do you do the DR consulting yourself or outsource it? Do you have a better backup option than we’ve discussed? Maybe you just have comments on one of the technologies I mention.

Let us know your thoughts!

Scott Cameron
Redwood Network Services, Inc.
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