Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Important Concerns When Moving Your Apps to the Cloud

Internet-based services have been around for more than a decade. Believe it or not, many of us already have a foot in the cloud. For instance, if you use Gmail you are in the cloud allowing Google to handle your email (and Hotmail, and Yahoo). There are also a growing number of tools and applications for businesses available online. More and more businesses are exploring options of moving one or more of their applications to the cloud. If you are thinking of moving to a cloud based solution, there are a few things to consider. Here I will explore the issues of security, reliability, cost, and data backup.

With the recent Amazon Web Services security breach, many companies are concerned about security with cloud providers. Creating a secure environment in-house is typically something businesses invest heavily in. Ultimately, security and management of an organization’s data remains the responsibility of the organization. In order to alleviate these security concerns, companies will need to seek the right provider that will provide assurances for adequate data security. Along these same lines, cloud providers need to be transparent in regards to a security breach and notify their customers immediately. IT departments should have a direct hand in reviewing the cloud provider’s processes in handling problems such as these.

When there is downtime or outages with a cloud based solution, typically many companies are affected. And these periods of downtime become public knowledge, therefore creating a perception that cloud computing is unreliable. Cloud providers typically have Service Level Agreements which state that they will commit to a percentage of time the system can be expected to run without interruption, also known as uptime . Of course, we’d love for it to be 100%, but hiccups are inevitable. When coming up with this percentage, cloud providers typically take into account times for regularly scheduled maintenance as well as unplanned downtime. Most of the time, the percentage shakes out to be somewhere around 99.9%. To be fair, in-house systems make promises on uptime percentages as well. Although, when an outage occurs inside a company the public doesn’t typically hear about it. Moreover, servers can and will fail occasionally, whether they are hosted in-house or in the cloud. If an outage occurs, cloud service providers can usually resolve problems more quickly than small businesses because they typically have multiple data centers to help ensure that a business’ information is always available so as to minimize downtime. Reliability considerations are important for any organization’s ongoing performance and therefore businesses should review a cloud provider’s reliability practices.

The simplest benefit of cloud computing is the lower total cost of ownership. Moving to the cloud means less physical hardware, software purchases and maintenance. The cloud is changing the way people buy software. Many software products use the traditional seat licensing model that can become costly because the minimum number of users required is sometimes greater that what an organizations’ needs are. Cloud based software services use a subscription based model . This allows companies to buy whatever level of service they need and can afford, and many times there is no set-up fee. It enables companies to start cloud services with a small budget and grow as quickly as necessary. Usually companies pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee. Cloud based software can be cost-effective when it comes to application upgrades within a company as well. Upgrades and new features are provided seamlessly on a regular basis with cloud based services. No longer do businesses have to concern themselves with maintaining specific software applications nor pieces of hardware. Furthermore, businesses tend to no longer need a large IT staff to maintain and upgrade these applications across a network.

Data Backup:
It has been said that the most useful feature of cloud computing is its use to backup data. There are many cloud computing providers that will backup and restore your data in the event of a disaster. Many of these providers can also enable you to work through the disaster via the cloud without requiring the need to restore the data. If you are currently using a cloud computing service, it is likely that you are guaranteed redundant backups of your data in real time. Regular data backups are usually built into a service level agreement which helps to lessen disaster recovery concerns. In most cases, recovering data is as good or better via the cloud versus a company’s own IT infrastructure. Still, businesses should find out where the cloud provider stores the data and whether it is backed up in real-time, and how often, to limit loss of data.
The cloud is inexpensive, adaptable, and scalable, but it can also be daunting to move your critical data and applications outside your organization. Security, reliability, cost and data backup are just a few factors that warrant consideration when moving pieces of your organization to the cloud. If you are new to cloud computing but are interested in using some cloud services, maybe a good starting point is email or some productivity applications such as word processing, maintaining your critical applications and sensitive data in-house. Ultimately, use common sense. Find your cloud comfort level.

If you'd like assistance with comparing the options or discussing whether the cloud is right for your environment, contact Kardon Technology!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Data Sharing - Part 2 of 2

Last time, we discussed hardware solutions for data sharing issues.  Software and cloud solutions provide a more flexible way to share data across multiple platforms. They also combine similar ideas to allow for backup, sharing between people, and sharing between your own devices.

Dropbox and YouSendIt are two software solutions that provide the desktop ability to share or move data between multiple devices. There is an added bonus of providing cloud storage for files as backup.

With Dropbox and YouSendIt, a desktop setup allows you to create a folder on various computers that will sync in the background. With such functionality, you can:
  • Share files and documents with clients in a quick and secure way
  • Provide inter-office file sharing without direct network access or a fileserver
  • Transfer documents between home and office computers or mobile devices easily
  • Provide simple off-site backup for the most important documents

Both solutions provide you a folder on your computer that allows for known and simplistic functionality. This usage is straightforward and comforting to beginners as it is simply another folder on your computer. Beginning and advanced users can automatically take advantage of the background synching which provides efficient sharing and storage with limited user interaction.

There have been hardware or physical data sharing solutions and there have been software solutions for data sharing. Now, mobile devices and the idea of the cloud have given rise to a whole new industry. Cloud storage has exploded as it has spread across phones, laptops, tablets, home networks, work networks, and everything in between.

The importance of cloud sharing and storage is seen in what companies are spending money to enter the market. Microsoft and Apple have both pushed their own versions as they move to extend their product stables. Skydrive and iCloud provide cloud backup and data sharing across multiple devices. Both of these cloud solutions provide some level of storage just for signing up for the service (25GB for SkyDrive, 5GB for iCloud).

You are given the ability to store certain files and documents and a website interface to access, view, and manage your stored data. SkyDrive also gives you the ability to email files and documents to someone, while iCloud is a personal storing and sharing solution.

With SkyDrive, you are given free rein on documents or files to share and store. Upload the files and documents that you want and access them on your mobile device or another computer at your pleasure (excluding open music sharing). iCloud restricts usage to Apple-based documents, contacts, and email through the use of Me.com emails, iWork documents, and iTunes based music purchases.

Now, while I just focused on two of the newer cloud storage solutions, don’t forget that there are several to choose from:
Figure 1. From LivEnterprise.com

And, as you can see, the debate is far from over…

There are benefits and drawbacks related to accessibility, security, and ease of use. You may always have the hardware solutions at your fingertips, but a cloud solution may provide mobile use that you’re willing to exercise without giving up any security protections.

The correct decision is as varied as the choices themselves. You can only make the decision based on what is best for you. That decision is made easier, though, by knowing just how many options there are to choose from.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Data Sharing - Part 1 of 2

In today’s busy world, the idea of mobile computing has invaded every aspect of life. Work and play is filled with using a computer on the train, on the couch, in the office, at your house, with a mouse, at the park, for just a lark.

The avenue of information gathering is filled with laptops, phones, tablets, netbooks, and even that trusty desktop sitting at home. Our daily lives are spread across two or three devices. Contacts and calendars can be found on our phone or work computer, but not the tablet or home computer. The music library can be found on the iPod or home computer, but not the phone. That important document, that you finished last night, is sitting safely on your home computer, but you need it today at 11am on your work computer.

Trailing behind the idea of mobile technology is the idea of mobile data sharing. Soon after everyone realized they could take a computer with them in their pocket, they realized they needed to take their documents, music, and movies right along with them.

Data and file sharing can take many different forms. And, solutions can be found to meet anyone’s particular needs. Answers to data and file sharing problems can be found through hardware, software, and cloud solutions.

Hardware solutions are the simplest and most straight-forward way to share data between multiple devices. However, these solutions are only relevant for desktops, laptops, and netbooks. External hard drives and flash drives can be thought of as simply a handy box to throw extra stuff in.

If you need to take a document or file to work, just throw it in the box and take it with you. Obviously, this limits your transfers between computers that have available USB ports, so tablet and smart phones are still out of luck. The range of use for flash drives, though, makes them a needed hardware for any mobile worker. And, with the variety out there, you can find a flash drive that works for you.

Don’t just limit yourself to moving files, too. There are countless mobile activities for a flash drive. Tech Republic provides this list of ten cool things you can do. Make sure to bring your own private internet browser, mp3 player, or many other applications with you on the go. You can even tote a full operating system on a flash drive that is smaller than a stick of gum.

In part 2, we will address software, mobile, and cloud solutions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Email is Absolutely NOT a Secure Way to Exchange Information

If anyone tells you email is secure, don't believe them.  I now explain email security the same way my brother-in-law explained text messages to his teenage son.  "Don't put anything in a text message you wouldn't mind seeing on the front page of the local newspaper."

There are both technical and human reasons this statement is true.

Email is just like a postcard.  If you have ever sent a postcard in the mail you know that anyone who touches the card can read anything written on the card.  An email is the exact same thing.  The biggest difference is so many more people touch your email AND they can make a copy of it to keep each time they touch it.

Email travels from you to the recipient across actual servers on the Internet and in offices all over the world.  Each server that sees the email then determines where to send it next.  It isn't meant for them but they are the middlemen of the Internet world.  Plus, it gets to the other persons email server and you have no idea where that is or who has access to it.  Before your recipient even sees your note there are already unknown numbers of people with access to the information.

Logging into a website does not secure your email just your reading and writing.  Think of HTTPS and SSL this way, they are tools that allow you to pass the note across the room without yelling what you want to say across the room.  All the people who pass the note can still open it and see it but those who don't touch the note can't get to it at all.

Some people believe that they login to HTTPS or SSL site and that makes their email secure.  The only thing that makes secure is your conversation between you browser and the server you are interacting with through the browser.  That keeps people from seeing your conversation as it is being sent to the server but once it gets to the server it can be seen again.

Your email address and contacts are very valuable to Internet criminals.  I have been told that people don't really worry about getting hacked and their security because no one would care what was in their email.  Even if you do make sure you don't include real secure information in an email you should still use a secure connection and password with your email to protect yourself from spammers or others hijacking your account.

Spammers are always looking for accounts they can take over or for confirmed email addresses they know people use.  They will quickly start sending all kinds of email under your name and address to anyone you ever sent an email to before.  Do you really want to risk some of those X-rated emails from a spammer being sent to your Mom from your email address?  Or, what if potential employer you sent a resume to starts to get a rash of "enlargement" emails from you?

Email on your phone makes security even less likely.  If you access your email on your phone you have all that information at your fingertips.  It is great!  If you lay your phone down when you come in the house or on your desk at the office or on the table in a restaurant, you are allowing access to everything on the phone including your email.  These days when someone loses a phone they lose a lot of data!  If you can pick up your phone and open you your email, there is no reason someone else can't and won't do the same thing given the opportunity.  A thief gets so much more than just the physical device when they steal a phone.

Oh My Word, What do I do!?! Yes, that is exactly what you should be saying.  No one can consider they have perfectly secure email transactions but you shouldn't be the most likely to be hacked.  Just like burglars will choose a house with less security precautions, so will Internet criminals.  Make some effort to protect yourself as well as your contacts and you will become a less enticing target.

  • Never, ever send credit card information, social security numbers or anything you don't want on the front page of the local paper in an email.
  • If you must send sensitive information via email than you must use a tool that encrypts the email all the way to the recipient.  There are several, and they all cost money to use regularly.  If you just need to send an occasional one, try using something like this.  They usually require you to have a special email address and website to provide that security.
  • Be leery of any email that requests you to link somewhere and/or enter a password.  It is always better to err on the side of caution.  Ask someone to look into it for you, or look it up on the web first.  If you think you know the difference be sure by taking a quiz to see if you can tell the real from the fake sites.
  • Set a password on your email account that isn't obvious and easy to crack.  
  • Always log out of your email account if you use another persons computer to access it. 
  • Add additional levels of authentication to your phone and computers for accessing your email accounts.
  • Use a password management tool but only those that you have checked out every detail of how it works.  Get some advice before selecting one if you don't understand all the implications those tools entail.
  • Add a password to your phone and set it so the phone will be locked or wiped clean if the wrong code is entered too many times.
  • Set up tools to let you remotely lock or wipe your phone if it is ever stolen
  • Know how to immediately access your accounts and change the passwords without your phone or computer available to you.
  • Use common sense when you leave your computer turned on and logged into your accounts, or your phone is connected and just laying around.  Be careful out there!