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Has Your Company Outgrown Your “IT Guy”

By Ken Presti, Contributing Columnist

It starts with a nagging suspicion that things aren’t in synch, and kind of grows from there.  Symptoms include long response times, an inability to scale, and sometimes just an all-out failure to keep things working.  At one time or another, every company faces the question of whether they have outgrown their IT guy.

The causes can be many, but typically fall into one of two buckets.  The most obvious one is the inability of said IT guy to keep up with the changes of the industry and grow with the job.  In these situations, the answer may be as simple as getting some additional training, as opposed to looking for someone new.  But very often, it’s far more complicated than that.  In some ways, Moore’s Law has now been applied to human resources.  Managers are expected to get more from the people they’ve got, and next quarter they are expected to get more still.  And if you think that’s bad, just wait til the quarter after that.  So very often, it is not a lack of ability or a lack of willingness on the part of the employee, it is simply a matter of trying to get too much done with too few bodies.

When faced with such difficulties with your IT support, there are a couple of different ways you can go.  The least advisable option is to keep bumping along with the situation you’ve got, due to the budget requirements at hand. Unfortunately, a lot of companies go this route, and they do so at substantial risk. The best choice, of course, is heavily dependent upon how much wiggle room there might be for that line item.  For example, you may be able to bring someone onto the team, either as a full-time employee, a part-time employee, or a contractor of some type.  In many cases, you may find channel partners in your area who are ready, willing, and able to either meet your IT needs, or at least add additional resources to the equation without increasing your headcount.

But the important part is that management recognizes the critical role that IT plays in the organization, and is willing to provide the extra support, and least as a defensive maneuver to help protect the company’s ability to deliver on business-level objectives.  In this situation, it may be necessary to make some pretty difficult choices.  But assuming that IT is mission-critical to the company, making such a choice is critical to the bottom line.

The good thing about working with a channel partner is that you can usually find some level of supplementary service that suit’s your company’s budget, whatever that might be. And sometimes the effects of just a little bit of help can far exceed the incremental cost.

Thus, with a little bit of planning, and a little bit of flexibility, you can bring a higher degree of IT efficiency, and oftentimes accomplish that goal while leaving your primary team intact.

Ken Presti has extensive experience in channel program analysis and development.  He is the founder of Presti Research.  His company  focuses on channel and go-to-market programs and strategies in order to help our clients build successful and profitable partnerships with compatible companies.

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The Cisco Small Business Blog Has Moved!

Welcome to the Cisco Small Business Blog.  We write about small businesses using technology to improve their business.  It’s our goal to help small companies learn to leverage their technology investment for maximum business impact.  If this is your first visit, I’m Dawn Brister and I’m the editor for our blog.  I’ve been with Cisco, working with small companies for 11 years.  I will share my experiences with you and help our team of subject expert bloggers communicate what they know.

If this isn’t your first visit to our blog, you may notice it looks a bit different.  Life is full of change!  We have moved to a new platform that will help us deliver richer blog content.

Read More »

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6 Ways to Protect Your Voice Data

Minimize data loss due to security threats by making sure you have the right measures in place

A couple weeks ago, Dawn Brister discussed the four most common threats to your IP phone system. Now that you know what the risks are, it’s time talk about how to protect your voice-over-IP (VoIP) network.

VoIP offers plenty of benefits to small businesses; unfortunately, it also presents many opportunities for hackers to cause harm to your voice network. IP-based voice networks are vulnerable to the same risks as data networks. But you can use many of the same security techniques and technologies for your VoIP network that you may already be using on your data network.

The Information Systems Control Journal of ISACA, an independent association that provides education on information systems assurance and security, has a useful article about security within VoIP networks.

Following are six tips for securing your VoIP network and voice data:

  • Lock up your servers: As with your servers and other central IT equipment, make sure your VoIP servers are under lock and key.
  • Encrypt voice traffic: To avoid unauthorized access to calls and unauthorized changes to voice messages and other VoIP content, encrypt your voice traffic. All good VoIP systems should have built-in encryption capabilities to protect against such threats as man-in-the-middle attacks and unauthorized snooping of voice data.
  • Install firewalls: Since VoIP traffic and data traffic all travel on the same physical network, protecting your data network helps protect your VoIP network. For example, the Cisco SA500 Series Security Appliances and Unified Communications 500 Series have security features to protect the entire network, both voice and data traffic, and use VLANs to virtually separate the two traffic flows from each other on the same physical network.
  • Separate voice and data traffic: The ISACA Journal article recommends using separate servers for your voice and data traffic. This way, you can minimize the risk of voice and data loss in the event that your business is the target of a distributed-denial-of-service attack.
  • Filter unauthorized traffic: Configure your switches, routers and firewalls to monitor and filter your network for unusual voice and data activities. For example, voice traffic should not be allowed on your data network and vice versa.
  • Setup dial plans and user profiles: You can use VoIP system features to identify users, the type of calls being made and restrict unwanted traffic, such as outbound international calls. Traffic limits can also be set to ensure call quality and maximum voice and data network performance.  These features can also be set to log caller activities and events.

In addition to these measures, you should also put strong passwords in place for your VoIP servers. You should also make sure you to sign up for updates to your VoIP server operating system from the manufacturer. These updates often fix security vulnerabilities that may have been found in the software and should be installed as soon as you receive the alerts.

Following these steps should protect your voice data and ensure that your VoIP network runs smoothly. What measures have you employed to secure your VoIP network?

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Retail Businesses Gear Up for the Holidays!

8 Days ’till Small Business Saturday and 36 Shopping days ’til Christmas
It’s that time of year.  Right now this blog post is the only thing between Thanksgiving vacation and me.  I can almost smell the pumpkin pie.  I love the rituals of the holidays; parades, football games I don’t watch, cooking for my family, and I’ll admit it, shopping.

I’m particularly excited going into this holiday season. I have a very silly Christmas purse exclusively for gift shopping  (which my husband makes fun of).  I’m going to a party with an “Ugly Christmas Sweater Contest.” I’ve already watched the Grinch Stole Christmas once this year, and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

According to the news recently, for the first time in a few years retailers can also look forward to the holidays.  The National Retail Federation is expecting holiday sales to reach $447 Billion!  And this year American Express is hosting Small Business Saturday, offering shoppers a $25 credit on their bill if they patronize a small business on November 27.  They have over 430,000 fans on Facebook!   It’s looking like a bright holiday season!

So if you are in retail, or any other business that may benefit from Christmas shoppers (perhaps a wine bar in the mall, coffee shop, restaurants)  Now is not the time to have your network go down.  Charles Nault, author of “Risk Free Technology” says that companies on average lose 3.6% of gross revenue due to network downtime. That’s on average.  What happens if you lose your ability to sell on one of the busiest days of the year?

I’m very excited about Black Friday AND Small Business Saturday.  I’ll be trying to burn a hole in my credit card in search of the perfect gifts for my friends and family.  I’m going to stay away from the malls as much as I can because I like the small businesses I know.  I also feel more in the holiday spirit when I’m shopping at a cozy boutique vs a “big box” store .  But, like everyone else during the holiday season, I’m going to be in a rush and if I can’t get what I need right away, I’ll look for it somewhere else.

Call your local IT reseller (Cisco partner) right away for a network assessment.  It’s like having your regulator serviced before a diving trip; it makes sense to check up on the equipment your life, or business, depends on before you stress it.  102 feet below the surface of the ocean is no place to discover that you had a faulty gasket anymore than the holiday shopping season is the time to find our your network isn’t up to the demand you are putting on it.

Whatever holiday you celebrate this season, I wish you peace, the company of those you love and a stress free season of happiness.

We’ll be back the week of 11/29.

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If you Want to Cut Costs, You Want Remote Access

And if you want remote access — You NEED a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

If you are thinking of cutting costs, offering remote access may not be the first thing that comes to mind.  It may even seem counter-intuitive to add a service to cut costs.  However adding remote access to your network not only increases productivity by allowing employees to work when they are not in the office, it also allows you to cut costs by reducing real estate requirements and even allowing you to use more contract workers which can mean a reduction in benefit costs.

It’s no secret that people like to work at home.  I work at home.  I love working at home.  I have zero commute, I put less that 5,000 miles on my car last year; I don’t have dry cleaning expenses and, sometimes, yes it’s true; I work in my PJs.  Some jobs necessitate that employees are in the office and but there’s more room for creativity than you may think.  I once stayed in a hotel where the long-time concierge had to move for family reasons.  Rather than let her go, the hotel set up a video conference solution for her.  She could do everything from home even printing reservations and directions for guests who loved the novelty of the situation and also were impressed by her vast knowledge of the city.  Had the hotel not made this arrangement, they would have lost her expertise.

What is a secret about remote access (shh, let’s keep this between us) is that remote workers cost less! My director’s budget is charged for every cube in her department.  Not mine though.  I don’t run up cell phone costs traveling between buildings.  My **** never leaves my seat, so my co-workers can always reach me.  Even if your company budget isn’t as prickly as issuing department charge-backs for office space, you still need to pay for facility space.  My company doesn’t pay for my copy paper, paperclips, printer, office furniture and so on.  I don’t call in sick to work, I don’t miss work due to inclement weather and I’m never late because of traffic. (though things can get pretty intense around the espresso machine if my husband and I are there at the same time).  Right now over 34 million people work remotely for at least part of their jobs according to Forrester Research, by 2016 over 43% of U.S. workers will be telecommuters.

OK, so telecommuters aren’t drinking your coffee, using the washroom, or stealing paperclips, how does all that add up in savings? According to the Telework Research Network a teleworker saves the average company $10,000 per year (they have a customizable savings calculator on their site).  And the employee saves anywhere between $1,800 and $6,000 per year in commuting expenses.  One of our customers, Chorus, eliminated all office space by going completely remote.  This saved them $400,000 per year in office space.  They also saw an improvement in customer service, employees working from home were more efficient.  As Rick Boyd, vice president of infrastructure for Chorus said “When you take the commute out of the day, people work longer but are happier.”

What is a VPN?

As part of a small business security solution, A VPN sets up a private Internet (IP) connection that uses encryption  and authentication to protect the communications traversing it. Acting  like private and exclusive tunnels from one place to another, VPNs  extend your business to wherever it needs to go: home or satellite  offices, shared workspaces, coffeehouses, or anywhere else your workers  use their laptops, PCs, or IP phones. These private tunnels protect your data to ensure that it’s secure.

How much  does a VPN solution cost?

I posed this question to Ryan Halper, CEO of Cynnex Solutions, a Cisco Select Partner in Seattle, WA that specializes in small business solutions.  He told me that there are several factors to consider such as  the number of VPN users [Remote Workers], the  degree of redundancy (the backup technology), the type of connectivity  (data, video, and/or voice services; software or always-on hardware  solutions), and the network security hardware already in place. He says  that many companies start with basic systems and then later upgrade to  solutions that include redundancy and voice service.

I asked Ryan to be more specific and he told me that it’s not as expensive as you might think.

  • For a company that has a few dozen users and has a VPN device such as a Cisco Adaptive Security Appliance in place licensing would roughly run $80 to $120 per user
  • If you need to purchase a device a Cisco ASA 5505 would be about $1000 for 10 users

If you can save $10,000 a year per teleworker that’s a really great investment!  Now, how many of your employees and contractors could perform their  work remotely? How much will this save your business in overhead  expenses? A Cisco partner can help you select the VPN solution that’s right for you.

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