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A Blackout Leads to Better Disaster Preparedness

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This past weekend, the weirdest thing happened - our neighborhood was hit with a blackout.  In my area, this hardly ever happens.  Short of earthquakes (knock wood), we're pretty devoid of the threats the midwest or the east coast face.  And while it wasn't long enough to be significantly impactful (it did end up being about 36 hours), it was long enough to make us seriously reevaluate our disaster preparedness. Because we had a gas stove, we could still boil and fry things, but forget about using the oven.  It did, however, make me rethink how much we take things for granted (ie: the uninterruptible power we've come to so rely on) and further our ability to bounce back.  After the novelty wore off and there was no ETA for repair, my mind started racing through all the "what ifs?"  Which made me think about our clients and their ability to bounce back from a truly impactful business disaster.

But, beyond backup and disaster recovery lies the concept of "business continuity".  A true Business Continuity Plan really goes to how you keep your business running in spite of a disaster. A true Business Continuity Plan is more than the steps required to restore some files.  It's about how to ensure uninterrupted operation of your business or at least minimize as much as possible the interruption you might experience during a catastrophe.  Often times, the difference between the two (un-interruption vs. minimal interruption) is based on cost and assumption of risk more than anything.  Unfortunately, it seems smaller companies commonly ignore the need for a BC plan, which leaves them highly vulnerable in the wake of a disaster. While on the other hand, many larger companies who have BC plans themselves are starting to demand that their suppliers provide them with their Business Continuity Plan. The more critical the parts or service a company provides, the more detailed the plan must be.  This requirement is actually a good thing, since without that push, smaller businesses tend to investigate Business Continuity only after a loss, not before.

Just like every aspect of a consultative approach to IT, the Business Continuity Plan is based on the business' goals and objectives.  An accounting firm may not need to be back up and running for 24 hours (unless, of course, it's during tax season).  But, an investment advisor may lose millions of dollars if they're down at any point during market hours.  Unfortunately, we're living in a time where CEO's still think anything (and everything) can be recovered at any time without any consideration to realistic costs or realistic preparedness.  So setting the correct expectations from the outset is key.  And one of the keys is the foundation of an off-site backup.  Another way to avoid a disaster is to keep your servers elsewhere all the time, relying on virtual desktop technologies, Infrastructure-as-a-Service, or Software-as-a-Service. Keep in mind though, the use of application hosting of any kind makes internet access that much more critical. So you need to consider the added cost of having a backup ISP available. Adding to this complexity is the twist of remote workers working from home. Remote and mobile employees are constantly testing your BC plan.

Which leads to another piece to the puzzle - it’s critical to look at the human element.  In smaller businesses, one person may do four things. You need to understand those jobs and document them so that someone else can take over if necessary. How will you contact employees to coordinate the new working situation after a disaster? Decide on your phone call list now.  Do you have a list of all employees’ home and personal cell phone numbers? Is that list stored off-site?  Also, think beyond the typical IT equipment list. If you’re working from home, can you cut the checks needed? Who cuts checks if the printer is gone? Such back-office operations are easy to forget, and many businesses with older accounting software may be limited to certain printers. Follow the workflow of back-office operations as part of your BC planning.  As you can see, a proper plan requires that all of these complexities have been addressed beforehand.

And conceptually, any BC plan is sort like insurance - you pay for something that you hope you'll never have to use.  But boy, when you need it, you're sure glad that you did it.  And lastly, always, always, always remember to consider where you store this plan and who has access to it.  If you store it on your inhouse servers, it's just like you don't have one!

Just like anyone hit with a disaster, we're now shoring up own our home disaster preparedness.  Candles - check.  Matches - check.  Generator for wifi hot spot - check.  Never having to use any of this - priceless!

Good vs. Evil

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In one of our early training classes here at FPA we have a section called "Good vs. Evil".  In it we explore some of the more blatant differences between how we operate (Good) vs. how many of our competitors operate (Evil).  Things like - "being on time" vs. "showing up late or not showing up at all", "teaching the client to fish" vs. "hoarding knowledge", "over-communicating" vs. "lack of communication", "objective consulting and presenting options" vs. "selling, selling, selling", "legally licensed software" vs. "pirated copies" and "extensive documentation" vs. "no documentation at all".  Since inception, we've tried to live up to these concepts and separate ourselves from the pack and I believe it's one of the things that's been a foundation of our success over the years.  Our "Good vs. Evil" comparison really helps put things into perspective for our staff.  It's easy to comprehend and easy to live by.  The cool part is this concept is used by our staff all the time. 

Recently, these two examples of Evil were brought to my attention - again by my staff touting some of the differences between us (Good) and them (Evil)...

First, a prospective client who was in the process of leaving a competitor (for lack of attention) called and let us know that their Anti-virus system had just expired and was looking for our input on what to do about it.  There were questions like: "should we renew it or move to our recommended solution earlier? or is there a temporary solution we could implement in the meantime? or any other suggestions?"  First, we let them know that this would never happen with us because we manage all of our clients' maintenance renewals, deal with them timely, and make sure they never lapse.  And then secondly, we suggested they contact their existing IT provider and see if they had any suggestions (as we weren't an authorized partner of that software).  Maybe they could renew temporarily.  Or give them a 30 day grace period.  Once they got in touch with them, the other IT provider told them they'd take care of it.  A few minutes later they called the client back and told them everything was taken care of.  They now had another 6 months.  They then went on to say that they took a license key from another client and installed it on their system.  I know - hard to believe.  But a true story.  Our client did ask us, "isn't this illegal?"  Clearly - a big difference between us and them.

For the second example, only today I was emailed a copy of the technical support documentation that AT&T provided after a client of ours upgraded their internet connection.  Literally it was a hand written note of a bunch of IP addresses on the back of the installer's business card.  While we document everything we can, we would never leave a handwritten note.  I'm glad it made such an impression on our staff that they felt compelled to share it with me.

As I see it, this is all good (no pun intended).  Using something as simple as "Good vs. Evil" to communicate the differences between us and them clarifies things around here.  But more importantly, it ultimately helps to ensure that the service we provide is of the highest quality.  And to me that's great!

If you've experienced "Evil" at the hands of your IT service provider, we'd love to hear about it.  Drop us a line!

How Cloud Computing is Like a Drug Company Ad

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I recently attended an IT planning meeting with a client.  And in the midst of all the back and forth, it struck me that while the client was nodding their approval that they were understanding our conversation, it was clear that they actually weren't.  In mid-sentence, I stopped the conversation and bluntly asked them if they could explain the difference between "the cloud" and "virtualization".  We had spent the last half hour discussing different strategies, impacts, and options and how it related back to their business in particular.  And while they hemmed and hawed and tried to communicate these two concepts back to me in plain English, they finally gave in and admitted, "I have no clue". 

Not that I hold them responsible for not knowing.  This isn't their job and shouldn't be their responsibility.  I do, however, have to hold our industry responsible for what seems like always over-hyping the latest and greatest technological solution as the "end-all be-all".  At first it was managed services, then virtualization, and now it's the cloud.  And don't forget BYOD (Bring Your Own Device).  This is another hot topic.  "Everyone get on board!  This is going to solve all your ills!"  This is what we're told by all the big players - Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Apple - all the channel partners, all the pundits reporting on the industry, and everything in between.  And this is what clients hear and then want to implement.  It seems no different to me than what I assume is happening with all the drug ads now on TV.  The end user hears something that's supposed to solve their problem and then tells the doctor what they should prescribe.  And with the ever "dumbing down" (i.e.: commoditizing) of IT - everyone thinks anyone and their brother can setup a computer - therefore we (professional, experienced, and certified) IT professionals are no different and they (our end-user clients) should be running the show.

What it comes down to is not the fact that a client didn't understand the difference between the cloud and virtualization, but rather here are some fairly complex concepts that are being sold as slam dunk solutions.  The reality is that while the concepts themselves might be easy to grasp, the nuances of them and the lack of proper consideration and implementation are making things harder for us and worse for our clients.  Bottom line - beware the panacea.  It usually isn't.

In my next blog, I'll actually define these two concepts.  Stay tuned...

About the Author
Craig Pollack
Craig Pollack Blog Profile Image Craig is the Founder & CEO of FPA Technology Services, Inc. Craig provides the strategy and direction for FPA, ensuring its clients, their business owners, and key decision makers leverage technology most effectively to achieve their business objectives. Craig focuses on ensuring that the technologies implemented by clients are "business centric" and key components of their businesses' success, and that this approach is shared by every staff member of FPA.
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