Archive for January, 2011

Clouds in an Azure Sky

January 30, 2011

[tweetmeme source=LANSystems only_single=false]Clouds are made of increased bandwidth and storage blended with the advances in virtualization and remote access. Today’s technology allows us to compute anywhere, anytime. The sky is clear blue for cloud computing, but it hasn’t always been that way. 

Cloud computing grew out of the centralized or mainframe model. For those who remember mainframes, it was the only way to compute. We had remote access, but it was cumbersome, slow and expensive. Programmers got in the habit of coding all night long when rates were the cheapest. Then those long, sleepless nights were replaced by distributed computing, a computer for everyone, but somehow programmers still program all night. 

The distributed computing model was embraced rapidly. With amazing graphics and Internet availability, the computer became a household appliance.  But distributed computing had its drawbacks, it was hard to interface disparate systems and collaborate in real-time. Recently, 100% availability and remote connections at LAN speeds have resurrected the centralized computing model with a new name. You could say that computing has come full circle back to a centralized computing model that we call Cloud Computing.  It is provocative, exciting and revolutionary. 

New technology holds a dilemma as most computer users don’t really care about the technology; they just want it to work easily and reliability.  And business owners are only slightly interested in the merits of a distributed or centralized computer model. They want computer systems that are economical, productive and work without needing a staff of IT gurus. 

The cloud or hosted computer solution (called ASP, SaaS, Cloud Services) has been around for years, but has enjoyed only limited success.  Most of the early adopters had sophisticated IT experience and the trained staff to develop and manage cloud solutions. Today, even popular hosted applications have reduced features online or make it difficult to migrate out of the cloud. Microsoft has addressed these issues with Azure.  It is powerful enough to host your world-class enterprise datacenter with the reliability, efficiency and agility you demand, yet provides simple, scalable, portable services. 

Microsoft Azure supports three roles: Web role, Worker role and a Virtual Machine (VM) role.  Enhancements are planned for the Web and Worker roles that have been used by many companies for programming and development. The new VM role will provide a generic environment that can be used for test or production.  It will also compete with Google and Amazon offerings. Learn more about Microsoft Azure and Cloud Power.

Azure SQL provides high-availability, fault tolerant relational database services in the cloud. You can serve local or cloud-based applications and only pay for what you use. Administration is simplified. You don’t have to install, setup, patch or manage software. Built on SQL Server you can leverage the same development and management tools used locally. Learn more with SQL Azure videos.

Azure has great appeal to programmers and developers as is evidenced in the keynote and sessions at PDC10, but for users the cloud is still a confusing concept. Perhaps the average user will never really understand or be awed by the technology that fuels cloud computing, but it will be widely used because of its economy and availability. 

Cloud computing will enjoy widespread use until the next technology revolution replaces it with another better, faster and less expensive solution. Who knows what that might be, but it might look a little like distributed computing.

For more technical notes and information go to: www.lansystems.com/technotes.html

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Managing Rows and Columns in Excel

January 27, 2011

Excel[tweetmeme source=LANSystems only_single=false]Guest author David H. Ringstrom, CPA, www.accountingadvisors.com

Users often hide rows or columns in a spreadsheet to conceal private data, or perhaps just to keep a large spreadsheet manageable. This is a helpful feature in Excel, but many users often go about managing rows the hard way:

Excel 2007 or later: In the Cells section of the Home tab choose Format, Hide & Hide, and then make a selection as to what to hide or unhide.

Excel 2003 and earlier: Choose Row or Column and then Hide or Unhide, respectively. 

Hiding rows is fairly straight forward, as you can select the rows or columns, and then carry out the aforementioned menu command. To unhide rows or columns, you must select rows above and below the hidden section, or columns to the left and right of the hidden section, and then carry out the menu command.

Constantly navigating the menus to hide and unhide rows or columns can put unnecessary wear-and-tear on your wrists, but there are some easier alternatives. For instance, these keyboard shortcuts work in all versions of Excel:

  • Press Ctrl-9 to hide a row or , as oppoCtrl-Shift-9 to unhide a row.
  • Press Ctrl-0 (zero) and Ctrl-Shift-0 (zero) to  hide or unhide columns.

In both cases, make sure to use the numbers at the top of your keyboardsed to the number pad at the right of your keyboard.

Many users are particularly bedeviled when they need to unhide selected rows or columns within a hidden area of a worksheet. Typically they unhide all rows and columns in the affected section, and then rehide what they don’t need. Consider this surgical approach in all versions of Excel instead:

  1. Press F5 to display the Go To dialog box.
  2. Enter the address of the cell or cells that you want to unhide, such as A1 if you want to unhide a single row or column, D1:G1 if you want to unhide several columns, or A5:A10 if you want to unhide several rows, and then click OK.
  3. Use the keyboard shortcuts or menu commands I mentioned above to unhide the desired portion of your worksheet.

If you need to frequently hide and unhide sections of a spreadsheet, try the Group and Outline feature instead. First, select one or more rows or columns, and then carry out these steps:

Excel 2007 and later: On the Data tab of the ribbon, choose Group in the Outline section.

Excel 2003 and earlier: Choose Data, Group and Outline, and then Group.

Once you do so, a button with a minus sign will appear outside the worksheet frame. Click this button to collapse (or hide) the rows or columns. The minus sign will change to a plus that allows you to expand that section. Or use the 1 and 2 buttons at the top left-hand corner of the screen to expand or collapse all grouped columns or rows in the spreadsheet. To remove the outlining, select the grouped rows or columns, and then choose the Ungroup command on the aforementioned menus.

David H. Ringstrom, CPA heads up Accounting Advisors, Inc., an Atlanta-based spreadsheet and database consulting and training firm. Contact David at david@accountingadvisors.com or visit www.accountingadvisors.com.

Updating your Microsoft Windows System

January 26, 2011

[tweetmeme source=LANSystems only_single=false]Protect your system by investing the time to update Windows. It is quick and easy.  In order to prevent attacks, you have to keep your computer updated.  Most infections are preventable and occur because of unpatched security holes.  Don’t let your system fall victim, spend a little quality-time with your computer today! 

Check your update status – Go to Microsoft Update and choose the Express option.   This works for 99% of the systems.  It will evaluate your operating system status and recommend the necessary updates. Microsoft will identify the high-priority updates needed for your system. If you haven’t updated your system recently, there may be several listed.  Be sure to apply all the recommended critical updates.  From this dashboard, you will be able to review your update history and get support. This is a good time to verify your backup or restore point. 

Turn on automatic updates – If your computer is not set to receive notifications when new updates are available, turn the feature on. You will see a screen message to “Help protect your PC” on the right-hand side of the Welcome to Microsoft Updates screen and can turn on the Automatic Update feature by clicking the box  Choose a time to install automatically or choose when you will manually install updates.  Critical updates may require a reboot so choose a time that your computer will be on but will not interrupt your work. You can also complete these actions from Control Panel. Screen shots are Windows XP, Vista and Windows 7 look a bit different.

For LAN Systems support customers, these tasks and checks are done for you but it never hurts to double-check your settings.  Updates are essential for your home system.  Most attacks are against home systems because they are more often out-of-date. 

For added protection, use Microsoft Security Essentials. Take a few minutes to update your system and if you have questions or need help, please feel free to contact us at 770 662-0312 or HelpDesk@lansystems.com.

Top IT Trends for 2011

January 11, 2011

[tweetmeme source=LANSystems only_single=false]Compiling our list of the top technology trends for 2011 was enjoyable. We got to review our 2010 predictions and look ahead with optimism. Unfortunately, economic woes continued through 2010 delaying the expected IT expenditures and slowing growth.  Again, the trends haven’t changed much year-over-year as technology is a quiet revolution. But don’t be disappointed, those same trends are driving new models that will revolutionize the way we do business.  As technology advances, the numbers continue to drive IT investments. Businesses will implement common sense infrastructure improvements and avoid the glitz. The glitz will come from consumer electronics this year as mobile devices become better, cheaper and faster.

Cloud Computing – The Application Server Provider (ASP) and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model is Cloud Computing.  More than ever, this is a technology in search of a moniker that will catch on and become a household name.  We all cloud compute even if we don’t quite grasp the concept. From our social media sites to our online backup to our online applications, each monthly subscription is a testament that cloud computing solutions work. This way of computing through the Internet will continue to grow offering more and improved services at competitive prices. 

Mobile Devices and Applications – SmartPhones are considered one of the hottest items for consumers.  The use of mobile applications has gained such acceptance that an explosion of development, hoping to cash in on commercial success, will bring even more mobile apps to our handhelds.  Context-aware computing which has been around for over a decade may see 2011 as its breakthrough year.

Business Analytics – The amount of electronic data is now over a zettabyte (that’s a one with twenty-one zeroes) and there is no end in sight. But data has a shelf life and it has to be processed before expiration to make sense of or profit from the analysis. With increased computing power, a terabyte of data can be processed, measured and interpreted in real-time allowing for quick business decisions. Computer programs, algorithms and models will take advantage of the processing speed to give timely information. Business strategies and marketing tactics will be altered immediately to reflect patterns revealed by the numbers.  Business acumen is essential as the numbers will continue to be governed by GIGO (Garbage In – Garbage Out).

Work from Anywhere – Fueled by the growth and availability of bandwidth and Cloud Computing, we will be able to conduct real business from anywhere.  Files and documents will be migrated into the cloud so that workers will have anytime, anywhere access. Productivity tools will aid the worker while providing efficiency measures to the employer. Communications from just about anywhere will allow us to buy, sell and converse seamlessly. Tasks considered too complicated to be mobile will be done routinely on-the-go.  Speech recognition will provide the necessary hands free environment.

Social Media – The transformation of the way we communicate, personally and professionally, will continue unabated. Social Media continues to be the darling of marketing. Certainly, the players will change as Fortuna spins her fickle wheel, but online social interaction is the future of human communications. We will find ways to make it more significant and efficient, but there will continue to be spam, scams and information overload, just like it was in the old way of communicating – remember junk mail! Demand for social media consulting will continue and the best opportunities are likely to be for small companies providing services to the Fortune 500.

Absent from the list is Green IT and Smart Grid Computing.  Green IT certainly has its place but economics have taken precedent over stewardship. Smart Grid initiatives are quickly developing but the crystal ball is too cloudy to see if it will take root this year.  We will continue to watch Smart Grid as it is a promising technology trend.

Disclaimer:  Like horoscopes, our predictions for the Top IT Trends of 2011 are general in nature and for entertainment purposes only.

If you have your own trends, send to me at mary@lansystems.com.

For more technical notes and information go to: www.lansystems.com/technotes.html

Living on the Edge with Your Data Backup and Recovery Strategy?

January 5, 2011

[tweetmeme source=LANSystems only_single=false]One of the biggest risks you can take is not backing up your data.  Sure, you may never experience a disk failure, but if you do it will be a disaster.  Ask anyone who has suffered a data loss and they will tell you about the distress and panic when they realized that the data was gone forever.  Data loss can devastate your operations and cripple your organization.  But for a problem with such disastrous results, it has an easy fix. 

Backing up data is relatively easy and economical on the front side and provides an easy recovery method in case of a disk loss or failure.  Backup costs are a fraction of recovery costs and sometimes no amount of money or effort can recover data from a severely damaged disk.  

Today’s technology provides many cost-effective ways to protect your data.  For a business system, start with a strategy that uses the concept of redundancy to duplicate data, employs a serious backup method and includes disaster recovery.  Your data backup strategy should be proportional to the value of your data.  Don’t cut corners, be sure to include any data that is essential to your business or would be difficult to reconstruct.

So why doesn’t every business have a good backup plan that works?   Either it’s too expensive or too complicated.  Backup doesn’t have to be expensive, but it has to be executed and verified on a regular schedule.  If you manage and verify your backup daily then you can choose less expensive technology.

Backup doesn’t have to be complicated, but automated solutions cost more. If you want a solution that takes most of the guess-work out of backups and gives disaster recovery protection, they are available but will cost considerably more. 

It is important to choose the technology and strategy that works for you.  Always be diligent in performing and storing your backups. Below we discuss some of the most used concepts and technologies.  

Disk Redundancy – Writing to two or more disks at the same time, provides data protection in case of a disk failure.  A redundant array of inexpensive disks (RAID) will divide and replicate data so that a single or minority of disk failure does not cause data loss.  RAID technology is mostly employed on servers and data storage devices.  It can be hardware or software configured.  Although RAID does give a level of protection against data loss, it does not replace backing up your data.

Primary Data Backup – The data storage or repository can be tape, disk-to-disk and/or virtual tape using an external drive (SAN, NAS or USB) used to store the backup. The backup scheme can be full, incremental, differential or continuous.  Each scheme has individual requirements that may include software to create the storage archive. 

Secondary Data Backup – This is usually an offsite disk-to-disk or online backup plan, but can be another method that gives a second copy of the repository. Online backup services are very affordable and keep a near real-time copy of files.  A limitation of online backup is bandwidth.  For large stores of data, the initial upload can take considerable time.  Some services allow you to send a disk with the base files then only changes are uploaded. 

Disaster Recovery – This allows you to build your system from the ground up.  Often a disaster recovery plan includes an image (complete and exact copy of the disk(s) on your system) and a current backup.  Images include the operating system, configuration, licenses, applications and data.  Images are often called a “bare metal” restore because they allow you to overlay the image onto a new system without any prior installation of an operating system or software. 

Protecting User Data – Users should save data to a shared network drive and be included in the backup.  If there are files that are only on a laptop or desktop, they should be backed up individually. This can be done easily with an external drive or online file backup.

 A common data backup and recovery configuration for a server:

  1. Data Redundancy as RAID 10 – Mirrored and striped sets in a 2 disk array.
  2. Primary Data Backup – Network Attached Storage (NAS) using Windows Server 2008 Backup.
  3. Secondary Data Backup – Online backup service backing up all critical files.
  4. Disaster Recovery – Full image stored offsite. 

This is not an exhaustive list of available backup methods.  Data backup has many parts, facets and options.  For a good data backup strategy, start with an overview of your system and decide your level of involvement.  From there, you can build a backup strategy and disaster recovery plan so that in the event of a data loss, you are protected. 

If you have comments or need help formulating a plan, contact me at mary@lansystems.com.

For more technical notes and information go to: www.lansystems.com/technotes.html