Your personal cyber security

Security​There is always something in the news regarding IT security – whether it’s the horrendously scary GO Zeus or remembering to cover your PIN code at the tills, all around us we are being warned about the impact of letting our guard down. But be honest, how many of us still think – It won’t happen to me?

That includes me. Without ever wanting to admit it, my ignorance relating to IT Security plays a part of my total lack of addressing my weaknesses.
But these are real threats and there are huge organised groups out there, incredibly smart and devious, that are ready to take advantage of vulnerable and unsuspecting folk. There are probably a million things that you can do to protect yourself, I sure as hell don’t know all of them – but below are some easy top tips to remember to keep you a little bit safer.
1. First rule – Don’t ever think ‘it won’t happen to me’. It can. Be vigilant and don’t ignore ‘strange’ things even if they seem small and insignificant at the time. If something looks suspicious, don’t ignore it.
2. An old favourite, but be careful when opening attachments or links in emails. If you don’t know the sender, or it looks suspicious – Don’t Click! A little known fact (and not something I am proud of) but I once opened a file from ‘DHL’ – a supplier at the time. I was lucky. My computer was contaminated with a programme that kept taking me to Wowcher or would download 100s of adverts every time I tried to do anything. Like I said, I was lucky it wasn’t something more malicious – but my computer still had to be sent away to get rebuilt and resulted in about 2 days downtime in total. And a lot of embarrassment. But imagine if that spread to the whole business…
3. Practice good password management. And that means, changing it regularly, using a good mix of characters, not using the same one on multiple sites. And don’t write them down. Thinking ‘what a nightmare’ to think of strong passwords and then remember them all? Here is a useful site to help you create memorable passwords.
4. It might sound obvious, but don’t leave your devices unattended. Your computer, tablet, phone etc – if you do have to leave them for any length of time, remember to either lock the keyboard, or lock them away. And this goes for USB sticks and flash drives – if there is something on it that’s valuable to you, then it is valuable. It takes just one opportunist to give you a complete nightmare day.
5. Backup Backup Backup!! My brother owns a Business Tech company, and tells me this is one of the most important things to remember. If it all goes a bit wrong and you find yourself with an empty hard drive – your files will be backed-up somewhere. But remember to do it. Mental note to self – remember to back up….
6. Be savvy about your browsing, and only use a device that belongs to you, and on a network you trust. Non secure networks will mean your data is vulnerable, and you will need to consider what it is you are doing. Make sure your firewalls are up to date, and if you do sign into your local Costa wifi, select it as a ‘Public’ network.
7. You can’t get away from Facebook, Twitter etc etc (I am not ‘with it’ enough to know all the different networks out there, but I am advised that there are many) but don’t forget that these are actually incredibly public, especially if you have not selected the right privacy settings. Therefore, be careful who you ‘link in’ with. If you don’t actually know the person / business you are connecting with, then be aware that they will now have access to a lot of personal information. Not to freak you out, but this will include where you went to school, when you are going on holiday, names of your kids …
8. And so to end on another old favourite – don’t ever give personal information to someone over the phone or internet unless you are 100% confident they are who they say they are. And in any case, if they are legit, you will never have to give this information out.
Hopefully, I haven’t completed messed you up, and this is just a reminder of what we already know. If you want to know more about how Cyber Security affects you, please contact us HERE with your query.
Stay safe people.

Virtualisation – What does it all mean and do I need it?

You may have heard about Virtualisation, perhaps on the Web, maybe from an technology supplier. maybe even me! It’s sounds exciting but what exactly is it and is it something you need or even want? It’s a slightly complex thing to understand but I’ll try and explain it in simple terms.

Typically, you get a computer, with a processor, a hard drive and some memory. The operating system is installed on the hard disk, you load up your software in to the operating system and off you go (whether a laptop, desktop or server).

In the “olden days”, servers were usually tasked with one main task, such as Email, File storage or Database. As processing power became cheaper over time it became worthwhile to look at consolidating some of these services (which led to the release of Microsoft Small Business Server). As server technology became even more powerful the next stage was to look at physical server consolidation hence the birth of Virtualisation.

Virtualisation creates a layer where the client operating system (be it Windows Desktop or Server) is run on a Virtual Machine sitting on some kind of host server. So this leads to the next questions, what is a Virtual Machine? And what is a host server.

We’ll start with the host server as this is the foundation that everything sits on.

A host machine will typically this will be a relatively powerful machine, with large amounts of processing power, lots of disk space and ram. On this we install a base Operating system. The big names in Virtualisation are VMWare and Microsoft. Both offer a free (essentially unsupported) or paid for versions of the software (Microsoft offer it as a component within Windows Server 2008 and 2012) and as a stand-alone product (Hyper-V). We won’t look at licensing here as it’s outside the scope of this article.

Once we have the base Operating system installed and configured, we have something called a Hypervisor, which is the system that allocates and manages resources on the base server for the virtual machines.

Virtualization concept

So what is a virtual machine?

Essentially a Virtual Machine is a collection of settings, such as number of processors, size of disks, how much ram etc. The beauty of this is that physical hardware is now abstracted from the operating system, meaning that a standard (and consistent) set of components are supplied to the virtual machine which makes it hardware independent.

VMWare LogoApple Mac users have been using some of this technology for some time with software such as Parallels and VMWare which allowed them to run a Virtual Windows desktop on their Mac so they can run Windows Applications within their Mac. Microsoft brought it in to the mainstream with Windows 7 Professional and the XP mode which was provided to give some compatibility respite for older applications.

Here at The Engine Room we now use visualisation on almost all of our server implementations. With Windows Server 2012 Microsoft made it possible to run one physical and two virtual machines with one license, thus reducing the cost of having a virtualised environment. This means that with a single license you can have two servers running separate applications, such as one with Microsoft Exchange and run with File and Print services, all for the cost of one Server license! We also like using it because (most of the time) the server Operating system is quite reliable and it’s the hardware that can cause headaches. By removing the hardware from the equation reliability improves as will the process of managing upgrades (such as increasing capacity and performance).


So should you be using it? Server side it makes sense as it faciliates the use of additional servers without always needing new hardware (disk space and memory excepted) and an easy migration path to newer or different server hardware. Desk side it can make sense although really if you need to be using different platform applications I would seriously consider whether you are on the right platform or set up a dedicated machine in that function so you are not trading off performance or capacity for compatibility (see Roman’s article about that here).

What is my IT costing me? And how much should I be spending?

Today I want to explore how much you should be investing/budgeting on your businesses IT, and what the costs can be when you don’t.pounds-cash-mooney_142217

Typically, based on a 3 year lifetime, the cost of providing IT for a single member of staff is around £2100, or roughly £700 per year. This is the cost of the computer itself, a copy of Microsoft Office and the support associated with the machine, and a fraction of the costs providing infrastructure, such as internet, email and file and print services. These costs don’t factor in training on the basis that most people these days have enough knowledge to use Windows and Office.

Let’s assume that a member of typical London office staff commands an average salary of around £25K annually – the cost of the technology is less that 5% of their annual cost.

Now, for a small business £700 per year for supporting a single member of staff feels expensive. If you have 10 members of staff, you’re looking at £7000 per year. With this in mind, we see a lot of smaller companies scrimping on their IT spend as it is considered an intangible benefit and simply a cost.

In our experience, businesses that fail to invest appropriately generally lose efficiency through poor reliability, performance and a disproportionate amount of support. This means in years 4 and 5, the overall cost of the IT becomes significantly higher – this is mostly in productivity lost though maintenance, slowness and in some cases using outdated or aging software.

Another thing to consider is that by failing to improve and upgrade can lead to a crises situation where a complete system failure can lead to a member of staff being out of action for 1 or more days – the salary cost of this is roughly £100 per day, let alone the cost of lost business. If this turns out to be your server rather than a PC, this will hit £1000 per day salary costs (assuming 10 user business), plus the loss of any potential business (we’ll assume that your existing customers will forgive a day or two of being without your services), and the resultant increased workload which can hinder morale and add further cost if you find yourself having to pay overtime to make up a backlog of work. Added to this, last minute or panic IT purchases tend to be more expensive (typically increasing install cost by 50% and hardware by 25%) and the costs start to add up quite dramatically.

So, save yourself some heartache and grief. Plan and budget and appropriately. Failing to do this can lead to problems later that can cost you greatly. If you need some help with this, please come and talk to us. We can help.

Office 2013 or Office 365 – Which one should I get?

So this year saw the launch of Office 2013 and at the same time, Microsoft went all out with their SaaS (Software as a Service) offering – Office 365.

Office 2013Now on the face of it, both appear to be the same thing – one is a boxed copy of Office that you buy outright (roughly £180) and the other is a copy you pay £10 per month per user for.

O365 LogoSo you think…hey – this monthly thing sounds good. But wait, after 18 months it’ll cost me more than if I’d bought the product outright. So why would I want to subscribe?

They are not the same.

For some unknown reason Microsoft saw fit to change the licensing model of Office with the 2013 editions. Previously there was the ability to install (using the same license) a copy of the software on a laptop as long as it was in use by the same individual. Now the license is for one machine and one user. Microsoft originally even decided that once installed on a computer it was tied to that machine too, but backtracked after enough people complained that they’d need to buy another copy if they ever changed their PC.

The second massive change is the method of licensing the software. Instead of supplying a DVD and a key (for install and subsequent activation), with the boxed software you have to go through this convoluted process of setting up a Microsoft ID, entering the key from the box to register, then go to the download page and get a different key to then use to install the software. This is ok if there is just one of you, but if you have (say) 20 copies and want to be able to manage them, then you’re stuck. If you thought you could set up one Microsoft account to manage all of these licenses you’d be mistaken. There is no way to identify individual copies of the software and you’ll find yourself screaming when you can’t tell which key was used on which computer. Microsoft know this and admit it’s a problem but are not forthcoming with a solution. Arrrggghhhhh!

Not OK

In reality Office 365 is a bit more than just a subscription to Office 2013. We’ll explore that when we look at cloud computing but in this instance we’ll just look at the Office Suite itself.

Office 365 is licensed per user; currently each subscriber can install/use the software on 5 devices. So you can install it on your work desktop, work laptop, work tablet and home PC, as well as access it on your mobile device via Office Web Apps. Now if you are, like a great many, a user of several machines, then this makes financial sense, as ordinarily you’d now need to buy a copy of the software for each machine that you use. That could get quite expensive.

The other great thing about Office 365 is that as long as you continue to subscribe you are able to use the most current versions of the software. Availability of the latest version via 365 is not as rapid as via the retail or licensing channels but then you don’t have to pay extra for the privilege. And in any case, you possibly don’t want to be installing the latest version until a few months have passed or when you’re in a position to upgrade all your machines at the same time.

Lastly it is an easy way to standardize the software in your business and fix your software spend on a monthly basis. It also removes software from the PC upgrade cycle cost.

There is one big BUT of course. To use the software you have to continue to pay. If you decide at some point you don’t want to continue with it the software on your computers will stop working and you’ll need to either go out and buy the software, re-subscribe or license via other means.

It won’t surprise me that in the next edition or two, this will be the only way to use the Office suite of applications – the world is moving towards more subscription based models – the mobile phone companies have been doing this for years quite successfully and is now a proven model and indeed tends to tie in customers for the longer term.

How much should I spend on a PC?

This is not necessarily a question we get asked that much, but I do have some thoughts about this. This is going to sound slightly controversial, but most of the time, spending big money on a PC (or laptop for that matter) is often driven by ego (assuming the computer is for work rather than playing games). Not spending enough is driven by a poor notion of perceived value.

Well, where do we start?

The first thing to ask is what the computer is going to be used for. The amount of processing power in recent years has grown so much, that most PCs can run most business applications without breaking into a sweat. If you are doing typical office work, such as using Outlook (email), the other Office applications and surf the internet, then a good mainstream PC shouldn’t need to cost more than, say, £350. HP, Dell and a few others make good basic machines with an Intel Core i3 (Intel’s mainstream) processor, 4GBs of RAM, a decent sized hard drive and Windows 7 or 8 Professional. A good 13” laptop of a similar spec will weigh in at about £450.

HP Desktop

PCs costing less than this tend to be running “Home” versions of windows, or there are other areas scrimped on such as RAM (you don’t want to have less than 4GB these days), processor or the size of the hard drive (although not generally a concern unless you have a massive iTunes library!).

If you are more of a power user (and I’d say those in finance or graphic design fit into this category), then you should aim to spend around £500. At this price point you’ll get a really good bit of kit with an Intel Core i5 (think performance) processor, 4-6 GB of ram and possibly a  bigger hard drive.

Laptops are a slightly different equation as the more you spend (generally) the lighter, slimmer and sexier it is. Not necessarily more powerful but if you travel a lot, then the trade-off between weight and performance may well be worth it. These tend to be at the £800 upwards price point. These can also have features such as SSDs (solid state drive) which are essentially much faster hard drives with no moving parts and therefore  more robust if you travel a lot. HP Spectre Ultrabook

You may also need to budget about £180 for a copy of Office 2013 (and the really terrible licensing model Microsoft have adopted with this) plus a bit of time to get it set up and working smoothly. Generally there is a small amount of disruption with an upgrade such as this as some shuffling of data as well as the PC itself but good planning can avoid much of this.

Spending any more than this is generally not necessary. Core i7 sounds good – it is the top of the range after all, but unless you are using Adobe Creative Suite (and you may well be better off on a Mac in that case) or an Architect using Autocad 2013, these are best left to the gamers who can make the most of the performance.

The last thing is how long you should expect it to last? A later blog will explore the cost of technology in the workplace, but realistically you should be expecting a lifecycle of about 3 years – the machine will slow down over this time, the hard drive will be reaching the end of its reliable life (although they can fail at any time). Unless covered by warranty, it’s never cost effective to repair a PC over 18 months old either, as the cost of fixing almost always exceeds the replacement cost.