Tech Tips

Time for a Security Check-Up

If the Equifax data breach has taught you nothing else, it should be that any company can be subject to a security compromise if they are not careful. According to news reports, Equifax was breached through a vulnerability that was disclosed and a patch made available 2 months prior to when their system was infiltrated. Given the extremely sensitive nature of the data that Equifax keeps on hundreds of millions of people, waiting at least two months to implement a patch on a vulnerability that serious can only be considered irresponsible at best. However, the relatively simple mistake that Equifax made (not paying attention to the disclosure of a security flaw) is something that many thousands of businesses repeat every single day. It is often only a matter of time before a security vulnerability is exploited for many businesses who do not do their due diligence when it comes to security.

To be sure, most small businesses have much simpler networks and technology systems than a large corporation like Equifax. However, this is no excuse to be lax on security. Many small businesses, especially any in the medical or financial fields, have a lot of information that can be extremely valuable to identity thieves. In addition, any company that works with businesses in the medical or financial industries, as well as those who service governmental agencies, are also vulnerable as their business could be used as a staging point to breach other businesses. Suffering a serious data breach can be fatal for many small businesses so it is certainly worth the effort to make sure that a business has adequate security in place to protect their valuable data, including customer information.

The problem is that most small business owners are not technology experts. How can someone who is very busy running their business and servicing their clients be expected to learn and implement relatively complicated technology security practices? Generally they must rely on either their technology staff or their outsourced technology service providers to do so. Even then, as the Equifax incident has shown, it is possible for technology professionals to fail in their tasks. So what is a small business owner to do? The answer is to have a second opinion on their technology security – i.e. a Security Check-Up.

If you currently have technology staff or an outsourced technology provider, it is in your best interest to review their technology procedures and then have another technology provider perform a security audit to ensure that adequate security precautions are in place. If you are like many small businesses who do not have any professional technology help, then hire a trustworthy technology professional to perform a Security Check-Up as soon as you can!

If you need help with evaluating the security precautions of your business, please feel free to contact me right away. I am currently lining up clients to perform Security Check-Ups for the last quarter of the year so make sure you are protected before a security breach impacts your business.

The Smart Way to Buy the new iPhone

As all the hype for today’s iPhone event ramps up, I wanted to write an article about something I’ve mentioned on some videos previously. As millions of people wait in anticipation of whatever the 10th anniversary iPhone is revealed to be, I can’t tell you what the new iPhone will bring, but I can tell you the smartest way to buy it when it is released.

It seems most people believe they must buy their iPhones from their wireless carriers. In the past this was the best way to do it, as the carriers would subsidize the cost of various phones. However, the carriers would then lock subscribers into a two-year contract in order to recoup the cost of the subsidized phone. In the last two or three years, carriers have started to move away from the subsidized model and instead offer payment plans on pricey smartphones, iPhones included. AT&T calls it their “Next” program, Verizon used to call it “Edge,” but now simply calls it “device payment program,” Sprint calls it a “lease” plan, and T-Mobile “Jump”. These payment plans are generally fair in my opinion, as the carriers do not technically lock subscribers into a contract, but instead simply require the payment of the balance of the phone in the case where subscriber leaves the carrier before 24 payments are completed. There is no interest charged on the payment plan and so at the end of 24 monthly payments, the phone is paid for in full for the same cost as if it had been paid all upfront. Also subscribers have the option of trading out their phone after one year for a new phone and starting over on a payment plan.

Now while the carriers aren’t technically locking subscribers into a two-year contract, the fact that the balance of a phone on a payment plan is required if a subscriber wants to leave a carrier certainly feels like a lock-in. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a payment plan that would allow someone a way to change carriers but keep paying the installments? Actually there is! The ironic thing is that this payment plan has been around a couple of years as well, it’s just that not a lot of people seem to know about it. Apple themselves basically have the exact same payment plan as the wireless carriers offer, bundled with AppleCare+. Apple calls it their “iPhone Upgrade Program.” The key is that the iPhone you get from Apple is SIM unlocked, which in technical terms means it will work with a SIM from any carrier, but in layman’s terms simply allows for the iPhone to be used with any wireless company. So someone that buys an iPhone using Apple’s payment plan can, in fact, change carriers as they wish without losing the installment payment plan. This, of course, assumes that the subscriber isn’t on a contract with their carrier. It appears to me, however, that most people are now not on a contract since the carriers began with their payment plans a few years go.

So to sum up, by purchasing your iPhone directly from Apple using their iPhone Upgrade Plan, you get all the advantages of the carrier’s payment plans without the lock-in. Smart, no? Especially with the expected cost of the new iPhone to be higher than normal, a payment plan from Apple is probably the way to go. Let me know what you think in the comments below!

What Computer Should I Get for My Kid? The Definitive Guide

I get asked a version of this question quite often: “What kind of computer should I buy my child?” This is especially true around this time of year as the school year starts up. The answer can be very simple or a little more complicated depending on the child’s age and particular circumstances. Plus as time goes by, the choices have changed, especially in the last 5 years or so. Today’s main contenders for your child’s computer usage include a Windows PC, an Apple Macintosh PC, an Apple iPad, or a Google Chromebook.

So without further delay, let me offer you my professional opinion on the topic, honed over 20+ years of experience with such matters. Maybe it won’t be “The” definitive guide, but it’ll be pretty close!

TL;DR (or “the short version” for you parents)

Ok, if you really want to get down to it, the answer boils down to one simple question: is an Apple Macintosh in your realistic budget? The Macintosh is going to be the most well-rounded and versatile computer for a child of almost any age. The roadblock for most people is the initial cost. The only time to not get a Macintosh is if the budget simply isn’t feasible or if a very particular circumstance dictates otherwise. However, before dismissing a Macintosh outright simply because of cost, I would advise parents to think about their budgets carefully, considering the expected lifespan of a Macintosh compared to the other devices. Also the particular circumstances that would dictate choosing another device have become increasingly few and far between in the last few years. For more details read on.

Additionally, just to be clear understand that you should almost certainly be purchasing a mobile device for your kid. iPads and Chromebooks only come in mobile forms so that’s a given, but a Windows PC or Macintosh PC should realistically be laptops for most children.

Windows PC

Ah, the old stalwart. The device that symbolized personal computing for most of the lives of people who have kids in the teen or pre-teen age range. It’s the “safe” choice in the minds of many. And it is the the worst choice in almost all scenarios.

While many Windows PCs are inexpensive, the reason they are often so is because they are made with low-quality materials and reduced technical specifications. For a laptop, this can be disastrous in short order as the rigors of the life of a mobile device can take a toll even for adults who are very careful with their computing devices – although I’ve seen many adults who are definitely NOT careful with their technology! Kids and teenagers are notoriously tough on their computing devices, so cracked plastic cases and broken hinges are common ways that an inexpensive and otherwise perfectly functional Windows laptop meets an untimely end. Plus low-end specifications will reduce the useful lifespan of a computer if it does physically last that long. The reality is that a well-made and quality Windows laptop is in the same ballpark price-wise as a Macintosh laptop.

Besides the quality issue, the biggest drawback to a Windows PC is the malware and/or security issues that plague them. Kids are exceptionally adventurous with their computing devices and are prone to getting all manner of malware on their Windows computers. Malware infections can be costly in time and money to fix and I’ve had clients who have had to come back to me numerous times because their kids just don’t practice good habits online. Add to that the general unreliability of Windows computers and you’re setting yourself up for a lot of pain and hassle with a Windows laptop for your kid.

In the past, many parents rationalized a Windows computer for the idea that it was what “the business world” used or that was what the school was standardized on. Today, many schools are quite heterogenous with their technology platforms and real world businesses are just as platform agnostic today. The prevalence of software that is Windows-only is significantly less today than it was in the past, especially considering our cloud-enabled world today, and there are ways to run Windows software on other platforms as well. So long gone are the days where a Windows PC is a de-facto choice. Which truth be told was often the main reason people would buy Windows computers – it’s what they thought everyone else was buying. So with that reasoning gone today, there are extraordinarily few solid reasons to purchase a Windows laptop for a child. One of the only rational reasons involves PC gaming, which I think most parents are not happy to entertain. However, depending on what the child really wants, this is something that should be considered. The specifics of what to look for in a gaming PC is well beyond the scope of this article so that’s something for another time. However, if you have specific questions, please let me know.

Note that my recommendation here also is applicable to the Microsoft Surface “tablets,” which are basically just very thin and light Windows laptops with a removable keyboard and a pen (both things that kids tend to lose and are expensive to replace). However, they also run the Windows OS just like any other Windows computer, and therefore are also susceptible to malware and other reliability issues. That being said, most Surface devices cost more than most parents are willing to spend on a laptop for their children.

Google Chromebook

To be clear, there is no such thing as “the” Chromebook. Just like Windows computers, there are many manufacturers and models of Chromebooks, so choosing the right Chromebook can take a little bit of effort.

That being said, the upside of a Chromebook is the low cost and often thin and light construction. But just like inexpensive Windows computers, build quality can be suspect with a Chromebook. They are designed to be inexpensive and sometimes that results in trade-off with robustness.

Chromebooks are quite versatile in that which they can do, which is to say online activities primarily. There are a variety of apps available from the Google Chrome store, but they are not necessarily the type of software people are used to on traditional computing platforms like Windows or the Macintosh. This is probably the most misunderstood thing about the Chromebook that tends to bite people in the butt. It looks like a traditional laptop, so many people assume the Chromebook will run the same software as other traditional laptops (usually the assumption is Windows software). However, Chromebooks do not run the Windows operating system, but rather the “Chrome OS,” which in very simple terms is basically an operating system that only runs a web browser. However, the fact is that many people today spend most of their time in a web browser and there are many web-based apps that can take the place of traditional software. So this may not be the limitation it first appears to be. Yet there are many people who expect to install their old Microsoft Office CD on a Chromebook and people like this often receive a rude shock when they discover they can’t.

Another bonus for the Chromebook is that it is quite secure from malware. This is a big deal for kids, as they tend to be the worst offenders of getting Windows computers infected with malware.

So the bottom line is that the Chromebook can be a great computing device for a student, but please be aware of what the Chromebook is and isn’t before making the purchase. It can do almost everything a traditional personal computer can, but maybe not in the exact way you’re used to. Because we’re talking specifically about kids, do note that this includes many games that they may want to play (specifically PC games that only run on a Windows or Macintosh computer). If gaming is something that you want your child to be able to do on their computer, keep that in mind before purchasing a Chromebook. There are games available for it, but usually not the types of games many kids play on their PCs (such as Minecraft, Overwatch, or the Battlefield series to name some examples).

Apple iPad

Most of us know and love the iPad. With around 1 million apps available for the iPad, there is very little an iPad can not do. However, it is somewhat surprising to me how many people do not consider an iPad to be a fully functional computing device.

The reality is that similar to the Chromebook, an iPad is an excellent online device. The iPad has never had a malware infect it and it is considered by many to be the most secure consumer computing platform. Even better than the Chromebook, the iPad is bolstered by the quality of apps available for it in the Apple App Store. An iPad can run software from Microsoft Office all the way to games (including a version of Minecraft). However, I believe that old mindsets can be hard for some of us to let go. Many people are stuck in an old way of thinking that a “real” computer requires either the Windows or the Macintosh OS. I consider a “real” computer to be one that can do what the user requires. So an iPad can be just as powerful of a computing device as anything else as long as it can be used to accomplish the user’s goals. Some people also get stuck on the idea that an iPad does not include a keyboard. This is not really a problem. There are many keyboards that work with the iPad wirelessly and the iPad Pro has an option for a connected keyboard. The reality is that when paired with a keyboard, an iPad can go toe-to-toe with many traditional personal computers, especially for the things a child needs.

Think about it: what does a student need in a computer? The ability to research information, the ability to write papers, and the ability to send e-mails/communicate with their teachers or other students are probably the top three functions required. All three plus more are easily capable with the iPad, especially for those in high school or younger. So what more would a student need?

As with the Chromebook, the lack of some particular games may rankle a child. But the iPad is actually quite a capable gaming device, rivaling the quantity and quality of games available on many common video game console platforms. However some kids are picky and want certain games that only run on Windows or Macintosh computers. I leave that decision up to you if PC gaming is a consideration in purchasing your child a computer.

Apple Macintosh

Apple computers have long been associated with education. I myself started my computing journey on Apple IIe computers in schools and libraries long before my family could ever afford one for ourselves. So it really should be no shock that Apple Macintosh computers are heavily used in academia, especially since Apple’s resurgence started 10-15 years ago. Truly I think an Apple Macintosh is the most powerful and flexible computer for a student – or anyone for that matter. The question comes down to whether a parent thinks the added power and flexibility of a traditional personal computer is worth the added cost vs something like an iPad or Chromebook. If this is the case, then it becomes a question of a Windows computer vs an Apple Macintosh computer. Allow me to give you a summary of why a Macintosh is a better purchase than a Windows PC for a child.

  • Quality: Macintosh computers are well built and tend to last a very long time. Usually much longer than cheap Windows laptops.
  • Reliability: The legendary reliability of Macintosh computers will help ensure your child gets to be more productive instead of fiddling with the computer – or asking you to fiddle with it.
  • Lack of malware: Kids tend to be the worst when it comes to infecting their computers with malware and junkware. If you want your child’s computer to be functioning properly when they really need it, you really are best with a Macintosh as they are practically immune to true malware like ransomware.
  • Flexibility: Macintosh computers can run almost every software package that a student would need. In the case that a student requires an application that only runs on Windows (which is becoming increasingly rare) there are ways to run Windows software on a Macintosh computer. You can not do the opposite. So while many people think a Windows computer gives them or their child the most flexibility, since a Macintosh can run the full Windows operating system and Windows software it is in fact a Macintosh that is the most flexible computer.

Really the only downside to a Macintosh computer is the initial price. As I mentioned above, if you don’t need the power and flexibility of a traditional personal computer like a Macintosh, then you should look at something like an iPad or Chromebook first. If you decide you do want a traditional personal computer for your child, then you need to carefully consider the costs.

While Macintosh computers have trended down in price over the years, so has everything else. When most parents look at a Macintosh as compared to most Windows computers, iPads, or Chromebooks, they understandably get a sense of sticker shock. The key to realize is that you get what you pay for with a Macintosh. This isn’t a computer that you’re going to expect to replace in 2-3 years as one might consider with a cheap, plastic Windows PC or Chromebook. If you’re buying one for a freshman (either high school or college) you should expect that it will last them at least the 4 years of their school and possibly a few years beyond. If you’re buying for middle schooler, you should expect that with the right Macintosh and a little TLC, that computer should last them through high school. Also, if you don’t want to put up with the hassles of a Windows computer when your child starts to complain that their computer isn’t working, then you should seriously consider a Macintosh.

Wrap-Up

Even with everything I have explained above, certain circumstances may dictate the purchase of one device over another. It is impossible for me to know everyone’s particular situations and so it’s really hard to make a good recommendation without knowing the details on a case-by-case basis. Take what I have shared with you and use your best judgement for your own purchase decision when it comes to a computer for your child.

What did you think? Do you agree or disagree with what I have written in this article? Feel free to comment below or send me a question.

Live TV Streaming Services Making Waves

In recent months, a variety of new and expanded services have emerged that offer traditional cable and satellite TV channels as streaming options over the Internet. With some services also offering local traditional broadcast channels as well, suddenly this new generation of streaming services are encroaching into the cable and satellite market, making “cutting the cord,” as it is popularly known, a more realistic option for people looking to reduce their TV subscription costs.

What exactly makes these new streaming services so attractive? Besides the obvious fact that TV channels previously only available through a cable or satellite TV provider are suddenly available for viewing on a variety of Internet-enabled devices, the key factor is sports. This issue has been near and dear to my heart for a few years now, and through my research I learned that I was not alone in this. The lack of live sports on streaming services has made cutting the cord difficult for many people up to this point.

To use me as the example, the sporting events that I mostly watch (Cardinals baseball and Blues hockey), are primarily available on Fox Sports Midwest (with a smattering of hockey games on NBC Sports Channel, plus some sporting events on ESPN, etc.). Without this channel as a streaming option, I had to subscribe to a cable or satellite TV provider in order to watch the games I wanted. Now, I have the option to subscribe to a streaming service that offers live TV channels such as Fox Sports Midwest (in my region) and let go of my cable subscription. So yay! I’m ecstatic at the thought!

Examples of some of these new “live TV” streaming services include Sling TV from Dish Network (they run a lot of commercials), DirecTV Now from AT&T (they’ve recently started running commercials), PlayStation Vue, YouTube TV, and the most recent entry is Hulu with Live TV. In fact it was the new Hulu with Live TV that made me really take notice. I had been considering trying out the Sling TV service, but as attractive as their pricing appears at first ($20/month for their “Sling Orange” package and $25/month for their “Sling Blue” package), in order to cover my sporting needs, I would need to get both packages as some sports channels are only offered on one of the packages. So the total cost would be $45/month, which is a little higher than what I’d like to spend. In addition, a nice option of a “Cloud DVR,” which would let you record shows for later viewing and store them online is an additional $5/month. So now we’re at $50 a month and for those who want to cut the cord, this pricing level is starting to get out of hand.

When I found out about the Hulu with Live TV service that was just recently released into “beta” in May, it intrigued me. At first glance the cost is higher than a Sling TV package, starting at $39.99/month (or $44.99 if you want the commercial free option – which I want). However, with this one package all the sports channels I want are included, as well as a nice selection of other TV channels that I have an interest in such as the History Channel, Food Network, and National Geographic among others. In addition, Hulu also includes a Cloud DVR option at no additional cost. Finally, Hulu with Live TV also includes some local TV stations as well. In some markets, all the major networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC) are covered. In my market of St. Louis, only the CBS and Fox affiliates are currently included, but from what I’ve read, Hulu plans to offer all network affiliates in all markets as negotiations are completed over time. I like this feature because as far as streaming services have come, it is still nice to be able to watch certain network TV shows live and/or record them for viewing a short time later (most show episodes that are available on a streaming service are not available until the next day). Up until this time, a cord-cutter’s only options for getting local channels without a cable or satellite service were antenna-based devices and services that while functional, were often tricky to set up (antennas can be a pain) or required additional monthly costs for full functionality (such as expanded guides).

So all that being said, the monthly cost of $44.99 is still a little high according to my own criteria. However, here’s the kicker: I’m already paying $11.99 for the standard Hulu streaming service now. So if we account for that cost already, I will only be paying an additional $33/month to get not only all my sports options, but also a nice selection of TV channels that I like plus local stations that will allow me to eliminate messing with my antenna-based Tablo device (as soon as we get our local ABC and NBC affiliate as part of the service). For the entire package, this seems like quite a reasonable price and I still get access to the Hulu streaming library that I had before. Plus I can drop my cable TV package that is about twice the cost currently and has a horrible DVR (yes, I’m looking at you, Charter). So look for me to provide a review of Hulu’s new Live TV service very soon, as I am literally signing up for the service this weekend!

As for which service you should choose, I’ll link you to an article that does a very good job of comparing the different live TV streaming services and explaining which ones offer the best options depending on your needs. However, the speed in which these services are evolving is quite fast. If you are reading this article even just a few months from when I posted it (July 2017) then there is a good chance that competition has prompted some of the providers to improve their offerings and/or lower their prices. So make sure to review your options before making a choice.

If you have any questions about streaming services or any technology topic, please feel free to ask me on my Question and Answer section of my web site!

 

The One Question That Could Save a Business

I need your help! Please share this article with anyone you know who is a:

  • Commercial Banker
  • Business Lawyer
  • Accountant or CPA
  • Commercial Insurance Agent
  • Commercial Real Estate Agent
  • Provides any type of professional service to business clients

It doesn’t take long to find a news article detailing the latest technology breach or reported security vulnerability. Plus new technologies are constantly evolving. As technology continues to permeate every aspect of our society, it is imperative that business owners stay up with new advances and keep aware of security threats. Of course, this can be a daunting task. Even for a technology professional like myself, it takes a lot of time and research to keep up with all the new technologies being released and all the security threats that become known. Busy business owners can’t be expected to run their companies and also keep up with technology. So they should turn to qualified professionals to help them make sure their technology doesn’t fall behind and stays secure – just like they turn to attorneys, CPAs, and other business professionals to help them manage other aspects of their company.

However, in this age of technology it may come as a surprise that many businesses do not have adequate technology help. Even worse, a lot of business owners simply don’t realize they need it. I’ve been talking with a lot of business professionals this year in an effort to educate them on the importance of making sure their clients work with a qualified technology professional. For example, commercial bankers want to make sure their clients are profitable so they can pay off their loans. If their clients have a professional technology advisor, they are more likely to be using technology to their best advantage and sufficiently protecting themselves from security threats. In both circumstances, this should positively impact the bottom line of a business. It is in the best interest of a commercial banker, as well as other professionals who have business owners as clients, to make sure their clients’ business technology infrastructure is solid.

The good news is that you do not even need to be a professional to help a business owner out. As I’ve been telling those whom I’ve talked to, all somebody needs to do is ask one simple question. This question could prevent a business from making a serious technology mistake or being vulnerable to a security breach. It’s not a stretch to say that a single technology disaster can cause a company to fail, so this one question could literally save a business. The question is simply put, “who is your technology advisor?” In asking a business owner this question, the odds are high that they don’t have one. But it is important to ask the question in the right way. You must say “who is your,” not “do you have a” technology advisor. It’s easy to simply say no to the latter question. But by asking “who is,” it makes business owners consider why they do not work with a qualified technology professional. When a business owner answers that they do not have a technology advisor, you should advise that they find and hire a reputable technology expert. Of course, I would love it if you referred me as someone they can trust with their technology, but I would be happy if you simply helped them out and referred anyone you know that does technology consulting and support for businesses. The more businesses that work with a qualified technology professional, the better it is for all of us.

The bottom line is this: it is the year 2017 and if you are not thinking about your technology, you are not thinking about your business. Help a business owner out and ask them the one question that could save their business. And if you have any questions about technology, please feel free to ask me and I’ll be happy to help you out.

Don’t Forget to Surge Protect Your Garage Door Opener

LiftMaster 990LM Surge Protector for Garage Door Openers

In one of my recent conversations regarding surge protecting your electronic equipment, I was made to realize something that I had overlooked in the past. Jessica Schmitz, co-owner of The Garage Door Shop in O’Fallon, IL, let me know that most people forget about surge protecting their garage door opener and that has caused many a service trip to replace a damaged unit after a storm.

The good news is that an inexpensive surge protector can prevent these types of disasters. Jessica says that any good surge protector is better than nothing, but to fully protect a garage door opener, a purpose-specific unit like the LiftMaster 990LM is ideal. This type of unit also includes protection from the wires that lead to the control panel and safety sensors. These wires can pick up an power spike from a nearby lightning strike that can damage the garage door opener, so it is a good idea to get those lines protected as well. This unit is only about $25 and that is much less than the cost of replacing a garage door opener. You can purchase one online from Amazon, or if you’d rather have it installed professionally, The Garage Door Shop does carry them and can install it for you.

If you have any questions about surge protecting your electronic equipment, feel free to ask me, and visit The Garage Door Shop’s web site if you have questions or need service for your garage door or garage door opener.

Surge Protectors vs Power Strips

In my last article I wrote about spring coming early and the related storms that inevitably come with the spring season. I mentioned that most people do not pay much attention to the type of surge protector they purchase. In fact, many times I get questions about “power strips,” which are not necessarily surge protectors at all! So in this article I wanted to point out specifically the difference between a power strip and a surge protector, plus also show the potential differences in surge protection capabilities.

The one on the left is not a surge protector. It’s usually easy to see when they are in packaging, but out of the packaging it can be hard to tell.

In general a power strip is nothing more than a way to add additional power outlets to a wall socket. They should generally be labeled as power “strips” or “taps” as compared to “surge protector.” However, this distinction can be missed because in general they look very similar. For example, in the pictures to the right, if one weren’t to look at the packaging, it would be easy to miss that one is merely a power tap while the other is a true surge protector. As you will also notice, the surge protector is over twice the price.

Going further, the common form factor of the “strip” shaped surge protector makes many people think that all strips are surge protectors.

The one on the left looks like a surge protector, but it’s not. The two on the right are surge protectors, but they have different ratings and only the middle one has a protection indicator light.

But as these pictures show, a simple power strip is just that and a true surge protector will be labeled as such. In fact, the back of the packaging of the power strip explicitly states that it is not a surge suppressor. So please make sure to read the packaging when buying a surge protector to ensure you’re buying something that will actually protect against surges.

Now I think most people can understand the difference between a strip or tap and an actual surge protector if the device is still in its packaging. However, what about identifying a surge protector when the device is no longer in the package? At that point the device itself should have some sort of labeling indicating if it is a surge protector and the level of protection it affords. But a quick way to determine many surge protectors will be the inclusion of a light that indicates if the surge protector is still functional, usually labeled “protected” or something similar, as a couple of the surge protectors in the above pictures show.

Speaking of the level of protection, surge protectors are usually rated by a number of Joules, as you may notice in the pictures above. This is basically a measure of how much energy a surge protector can absorb before it should be replaced. The higher the better, but if you are protecting a valuable piece of equipment, you may want to investigate specs like clamping voltage and response time. Finally, the indicator light is important because all surge protectors will eventually stop working if they absorb a few big surges. It is a good idea to periodically check all your surge protectors to ensure they are still protecting your equipment and the indicator light makes this easy.

Please do not hesitate to ask me for help if you would like more advice about protecting your valuable equipment from power related events. Just a little investment into a good surge protector can save you thousands of dollars later.

Save Your Technology From Spring’s Wrath

About four years ago I wrote an article about how I warn my clients each year to protect their technology from the storms that inevitably happen every spring and summer. In that article I mentioned how most of the time the advice goes unheeded and people unfortunately suffer damage and even data loss because their equipment was not properly protected. Since that time, the same pattern has continued and people still spend needless amounts of money fixing or replacing equipment that has been damaged by electrical events such as power surges or lightning strikes. I thought about this recently as it feels like spring is coming early this year (the temperatures this weekend in my area are forecasted to be in the low 70’s!). If spring is coming early, that means that storms are coming early, which means that everyone needs to review how their technology is protected as soon as possible.

The mistake most people make is that they believe that simple surge protection is enough to protect their computer technology. While very good surge protectors can protect equipment from power surges or a lightning strike, most power events are not this drastic. The most common form of power problem involve small over or under-voltages, which while not as immediately damaging to technology equipment, it can nevertheless cause equipment to malfunction or shut down. Over time these events can damage equipment and simple surge protectors are not capable of protecting technology devices from these types of power issues. On top of that, most people do not purchase high quality surge protectors and this only becomes evident after their equipment has been harmed by a more serious power event.

The answer is complete power protection from devices called uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) or “battery backups.” These devices not only protect from power surges and spikes, but also condition the power arriving at your equipment so that small variations in voltage do not cause your equipment to malfunction. They also kick in if a complete power outage occurs so that your technology can keep running through short power outages or can give you enough time to properly shut down sensitive equipment like computers and servers. I recommend setting up UPS units on any device that uses a hard drive (or solid state drive) such as computers, DVRs, external storage devices, etc., plus any networking equipment such as your modem, router, and any network switches you may have. This will effectively protect the devices that are most sensitive to power problems and ensure your network connections remain as stable as possible. Battery backups come in different capacities as far as how much load they can handle and should be matched to the load they are protecting. Networking equipment generally uses little power so there is not much need to spend a lot of money on a larger capacity UPS device for networking equipment unless you are also plugging in a computer or two as well. Consult with a qualified technology professional if you are unsure what to purchase.

If you are wise enough to already protect your equipment with battery backups, you still need to review your units periodically as the original batteries tend to only last around 3-4 years before they need to be replaced. If the batteries in your UPS units are no longer functioning, the devices are not properly protecting your equipment. The good news is that the batteries can often be replaced economically, if you know where to find good deals. There are a few local providers of batteries that provide reasonable pricing on replacement batteries, but sometimes it makes more sense to purchase a new replacement unit. Please talk to a trusted technology expert like myself if you have any questions about your power protection strategy.

 

 

2017 Will be a Wild Year for Web Hosting – How to be Prepared

If you’re like most small business owners, the topic of web hosting likely bores you out of your mind – assuming you have any idea what web hosting even means. This is understandable. Most business owners are busy running their companies and have very little time to deal with the technical minutiae of domain names, web hosting, and all that goes with it. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this lack of knowledge come to haunt many business owners because not dealing properly with their web hosting can lead to a web outage or worse, the loss of their domain name! The main problem most business people have with their hosting is that they use a faceless, nameless company like GoDaddy to register their domain and host their web site. When problems arise, they must spend a lot of time on the phone explaining the issue and they have no one they can trust to help them. 2017 promises to be a wild year for web hosting, so it is important for all business owners to get clear on their web hosting information sooner than later.

Why will 2017 be a wild year for web hosting? There are a few factors but primarily it involves the evolution of one underlying web technology called PHP. I won’t get into the gory technical details, but the simple explanation is that many developers of web technologies (such as the very popular WordPress) are pushing for a new minimum supported version of PHP. To comply with the new minimum requirement will require many web site owners to perform an upgrade on their hosting provider, but most people will not know how to do that. In my research, this upgrade won’t even be possible for many people who have had their hosting package for several years and will require they sign up for a new one. Again, none of this is insurmountable, but most people will have no idea they need to do this and if they do, they really won’t have a clue of how to get it all done. For those brave souls who attempt to travel this road, they will undoubtedly spend many hours on the phone. Not to mention, if the process is not done correctly there are many opportunities for problems.

What Should You Do?

The first question most people will have is why bother with all these upgrades? The benefits are that the newer version of PHP helps make many web sites run faster. The downside to not upgrading PHP along with the systems that run on top of it are that security vulnerabilities abound. There are stories after stories of web sites that have been hacked because the systems that run those sites were not updated. Not paying attention to your web site is potentially disastrous for your business. So what can a business owner do?

The very first thing is to make sure you have all current information on your domain registration and web hosting, along with e-mail hosting. This means knowing what company holds your domain registration and which companies manage the servers that your web site and e-mail are running. This could be all one company or three different ones. Regardless, know specifically which company or companies hold your online life in the balance. This includes having working usernames and passwords so that you can log in and make changes and/or update billing information if necessary. If you don’t have this information at your fingertips, do what you must to get this information. Talk to your business partner or employees who may have handled it. If you had a company managing your web site for you, make sure you get this information from them. Even if another company is handling it for you, it is in your company’s best interest to also have this information. If you simply can’t find anything, talk to a trusted technology professional to help you investigate. I’m certainly willing to help you out if you don’t have anyone you trust. Just go to my contact page and send me a message.

Once you have the basic information on your domain registration and hosting arrangements in hand, the next thing to be sure of is to determine if you web site is a “traditional” site or if it runs on top of a content management system (CMS) like WordPress or other similar system. You will likely need to ask the person who created or manages your web site now, whether that is an employee or outside vendor. Again, if you don’t have anyone who can help with this, please talk to a trusted technology professional like myself. Doing nothing only makes your company vulnerable.

Once you know if your site is an old-school traditional site or runs on top of a CMS, you have just a few things left to do. First, if your site is traditional, you should consider moving to a CMS like WordPress. I won’t go into all the details here, but the use of a CMS like WordPress can make managing your site content a lot easier and make available to you many advanced web site functions quickly and inexpensively. I wrote an article on WordPress last year that has some more info. If your site is already running on a CMS then it becomes imperative that you talk to a trusted technology professional about keeping the site maintained from the technical side of things, which includes making sure your web hosting is capable of running the latest PHP versions.

Who You Gonna Call?

Over the last couple of years I’ve been setting up my own domain registration system and private web hosting for my clients. This allows me to bypass all the middle men of companies like GoDaddy and deal with issues directly and expediently. My clients can then contact me to handle any issues that may arise, such as the PHP issue I describe in this article, assuming I haven’t already proactively taken care of it for them. Needless to say, all my clients are already taken care of and do not need to worry about their web hosting in 2017. If you do not know of anyone you can trust to manage your company’s domain registration and web hosting, I am happy to talk to you and determine if my services might be a good fit for you. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need help or have questions.

Be Wary of Bad Technology Reporting

When I see I bad technology news story

When I see I bad technology news story

As a technology expert and someone who is a stickler for details, few things get on my nerves more than when I read an article or watch a TV news story presenting a technology topic with incomplete or incorrect information. Often I assume that reporters covering a technology subject are simply confused (as most people are with complicated technology concepts), but sometimes I wonder if stories are rushed to publication with little regard for accuracy. The problem is that most professional news outlets do not employ their own technology fact checkers. Reporters often will cite technology experts in their reporting, but when the story is finished it seems like no one is checking the final work for technical accuracy or rational conclusions. It is very easy for a reporter who is not a technology expert to present some facts in a story, yet arrive at conclusions that are overly simplistic or flat-out wrong. One recent example highlights my frustration.

A TV news story with an accompanying on-line article covering the topic of Geo-Stalking was recently aired on a local news channel. The basic premise of the story is actually informative: it is possible for people to gather information about someone, including where they live or work and the places they visit, by using the data in their social media postings. The story even includes a handful of accurate technology facts and interviews a security consultant. However, the story as presented makes a couple of crucial incorrect assertions and the recommendation made for how people can protect their privacy is more likely to cause grief than actually protect them. I could go into a great level of detail nitpicking the inaccurate sections of the article, but it’s suffice to quickly point out a couple of mistakes.

The story contends that pictures posted on social media have GPS geolocation information embedded in them and that is how geo-stalkers can track others. It even goes into detail describing the EXIF data format where GPS information can be embedded inside a photo file. The story claims that based on a picture tweeted by the reporter, the security consultant was able to read the EXIF data to get the GPS information and know exactly where she was. The problem with the article’s assertion is that while GPS information can indeed be stored in EXIF data, the simple fact is that when posting to Twitter, this data is stripped out. It only took a very quick Google search to confirm this information directly from Twitter themselves: “Twitter does not store the Exif data from your photo. It is not available to those who view your photo on Twitter.

Now it is certainly possible for a user to intentionally tag their location when they tweet, regardless of whether they are posting a picture or not. It then is true that data can be used by geo-stalkers. It is also possible to use other sorts of tools to piece together information to on a person that does not require the use of geotagging data. So the premise of the article is correct that geo-stalking is something people should be concerned about. However, it is completely incorrect to insinuate that EXIF/GPS data is available through postings on Twitter.

The security consultant was quoted, “When you make a post on most social media, you actually embed geolocation.” The way the story is written, it makes it sound like he meant that all posts contain geolocation and/or EXIF data. Another quick search points out that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and most popular social media platforms all strip out EXIF data of the pictures they post. Again, it is possible to intentionally geotag one’s postings on most social media platforms, but this is a very different situation that the scenario the news story presents, which I believe is taken out of context from what the security consultant intended. It borders on fear mongering to suggest that every picture someone posts on social media automatically shares their GPS location with the world.

The story concludes with a recommendation on how to stop sending out geolocation data. It describes how to turn off location services on iPhone and Android devices which would in fact disable one’s smartphone from providing GPS data to any or all apps. Yes, this would prevent Twitter and other social media apps from using geolocation data. However, this advice is overkill in my opinion. First, as I described above, most social media platforms do not store EXIF/GPS data in any photos posted. One must intentionally tag their location on most platforms in order for anyone to have geolocation information about them in a post. Second, by disabling all location services as suggested, this will cripple some functions of a user’s smartphone that most people may want correctly working. Location services are required to use navigation apps for directions or using an app like Yelp to find a restaurant nearby. Plus I believe most people like having GPS data embedded in their photos for their own personal use. Disabling location services stops that from working. I contend that disabling location services would cause users more headaches than actually doing anything to protect them. Therefore the recommendation given by this article is simply not beneficial and could actually be a disservice to their audience.

Unfortunately there are many stories I’ve seen like this from otherwise respected news sources that ultimately are just letting their audience down. Combined with all the hoax stories about technology, there is a lot of misinformation out there that ends up scaring users and dampening their enthusiasm of using technology for their benefit. So what can you do?

When you see a news story covering a technology topic that concerns you, don’t assume the report is completely accurate. Talk to your trusted technology advisor to ensure that the story is factually correct and arrives at valid conclusions. If you don’t have a trusted technology advisor, you would do well to find one, but if nothing else feel free to share that story with me so I can evaluate it for you. At the very least, please don’t share a story until you’ve had it fact-checked as to not contribute to the spread of misinformation.

Also, put pressure on media sources when they publish incorrect technology stories. Let them know you are not happy they are making mistakes and encourage them to consult with a technology expert to review their finished stories before they publish them. I’m certainly happy to help any media outlets fact-check their technology stories before they publish – or else I’ll need to keep fact-checking their stories after they go live!

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