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Posts Tagged ‘data’

Protecting Point of Sale Systems from Costly Downtime

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Point of Sale SystemWe do work for several restaurants and retail stores here in Phoenix, Arizona. These shops are all using windows based point of sale systems. While the software and database that run on the computers to transact credit card payments and process menu items are highly customized and supported by the franchise in most cases, the underlying operating system and hardware is not.

We have learned a lot about these systems and can say with certainty that the biggest issues we have run into are lack of proper backups and lack of spare hardware. When a point of sale system goes down for a store, especially a busy store, it is NO FUN. Employees need to process payments manually by hand and write out paper receipts. As you can imagine, the slowdown at the register does a lot to aggravate customers and employees alike. But there are three things that you can do as a retail store business owner to minimize downtime in the event of a system crash.

1. Perform regular system maintenance

Hiring a firm like my PC Techs to regularly maintain your equipment each month can save you from several hours worth of headache and hundreds or thousands of dollars in lost sales. Our technicians will visit your store and examine your systems for irregular performance. System errors, faulty hardware, failing hard drives, botched OS updates, and corrupted data can, in many cases, be identified and corrected before it becomes a larger problem. Dust can be cleaned out (the largest cause of hardware failure), and parts inspected. Unnecessary programs can be removed and system performance improved. The best part of this scenario, the repairs can be performed before or after regular hours, so customers never experience delay.

2. Perform regular, complete data backups

Usually during the same time as the system maintenance, our technicians can perform a complete data backup of all of your POS systems. This is important. When a hard drive crashes, you want to get your system back online as quickly as possible. To rebuild an entire system, restore data from on off site repository, and get all the hardware and software working correctly could take many hours. With a complete system backup, it could be as simple as popping in the right piece of replacement hardware and running a 30 minute recovery.

3. Identify and build an inventory of replacement parts

When a system failure happens, recovery time can be improved considerably when the right spare parts are kept on hand. Rather than buying hard to find computer equipment online, and waiting for it to be shipped, a replacement part can be obtained from storage and quickly installed to replace the broken component. That part can later be replaced to storage, so you always have a backup on hand for the next time disaster strikes.

When you think about the security of your data and your ability to transact business, keep in mind your local computer experts and ways that they can work with you to help improve the reliability of your computer operations. For help with the maintenance and emergency support of your POS systems, contact my PC Techs today. (602) 456-0150.

Faster computers power faster business growth

Monday, September 13th, 2010

The modern office is definitely an amazing thing to watch. Emailing, scanning, printing, digital document processing, online database systems, more. What isn’t done via computer in today’s office? As a business owner or manager in charge of running an office, it’s important to remember that productivity in a digital office is often directly tied to the computers that power the office. Office productivity can be boosted significantly with simple technology upgrades. When is the last time the computer systems in your office were upgraded? What about the network? ISP? Accessories, such as printers, scanners, copiers? How about recently added mobile computing technologies (laptops, smartphones)?

Information SuperhighwayIt is important for your office to stay up to date with the latest technologies. When humans using computers power the majority of the operations in your office, it makes sense that faster computers will allow for faster work and increased productivity. Computers that have become old and slow due to age act as a handicap to your employees, and will hold them back from performing at higher levels. In addition, the speed factor is not the only negative that comes from using old technology. Older computers, networks and accessories are more prone to fail, causing office staff to take time away from work to focus on bugs, viruses, errors, and repairs.

Every office should maintain a reasonable technology budget that allocates a reasonable amount of money to spend, every year, on technology upgrades. When planning this budget, you should go beyond simply looking to replace computers that break. You should be looking to make upgrades that will increase office productivity. Simple things like replacing still working old computers with faster units, installing faster printers, giving employees access to email while in the field via laptops or smartphones. In addition to upgrades, your budget should include regular maintenance. A technician should visit on a regular basis, as often as once per week. Your technician should keep your computers updated, solve minor errors, and perform cleanup tasks to increase performance. That will limit the amount of time office staff must spend fiddling with computers and will allow them to focus on their work.

Ultimately, faster computers in your office will allow your office to perform more efficiently. You will process more work and, as a result, your business will have the capacity to grow further and faster than ever before.

Keeping technology working, so you can too!

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

Can anyone name a small business, or any business for that matter, that doesn’t rely upon technology for day to day operations? Computers play such an integrated role in our lives. Much like automobiles, it is important to maintain your computers and run periodic checks on them to avoid failure.

When doing routine system maintenance, there are several different areas of the computer that should be checked for potential problems. The operating system itself, installed software, updates and patches, anti-virus definitions, the network settings, the system fans, dust levels, hard disk drives, backups, and external devices! Some are more important than others. For example, if your hard drive fails, you could face some very costly data recovery issues. Dust is another one, dust and heat are the biggest killers of electronic components. A competent computer repair firm will have a checklist of items that a technician will run through, the hard drive and dust levels being just one of those, to ensure optimal performance.

Not to get stuck on the automobile analogy, but it’s so easy to do comparisons between that and computer repair. If you forget to change your oil, over time your engine suffers. If you go long enough, eventually your engine will fail. Computer maintenance is the same way. A lot of clients have come to us with failed hard drives. Sometimes we can get their data off pretty easily and recover their systems. In the worst cases, those hard drives need to be sent off to a lab where data recovery becomes extremely costly. Client with crashed hard drives are usually surprised when we tell them that the crash could have been avoided. There are warning signs that most equipment will give when things go bad, and the signs usually begin a while before the actual crash takes place. For hard drives, it could be slow performance, errors while working, errors in system logs, or even clicking or grinding sounds. Most computer fans make noises too when they are about to fail.

Our experts service and repair machines and are experienced in the different ways you can identify computer problems. If you hire a team of professionals that know how to keep your computers working, and have them come out monthly for a quick checkup, you too will be able to keep working. For most people, computer failures usually happen at the worst possible time. Like, right before an important project deadline. If your computer suddenly crashes or the network is not working you may lose work and income. All of this could be avoided with just a couple hours of preventative maintenance per month.


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Customer Service, the On Site Computer Repair Advantage

Monday, August 23rd, 2010

Many years ago when a computer crashed, started running slowly, caught a virus, or lost data, the only recourse you had was to unplug your computer and “take it down to the shop” for repair. Sure, on-site computer repair has been around for some time, but in those days it was extremely expensive for someone come out to your home or business to look over your computer systems. The level of experience necessary for a computer repair technician to perform on-site support is high, and as a result that advanced level of support was only available to companies with large budgets. Each on-site technical worker must be an expert to survive the cutting-edge rigors of working with multiple hardware and software configurations each day. High hourly rates for computer experts allowed physically established computer repair stores to thrive for many years. They could hire one expert, and then employ a large group of less experienced staff for cheap who would work with the expert to learn how to fix the computers that came into the store.

Unfortunately, low prices did not always equate to convenience. The disadvantages to you are high when your only option is to drop a broken computer off somewhere down the road. Forced to crawl around under a desk unplugging cables, hoping that you can remember the correct sequence of cables to plug back in you finally get your computer back is no fun. If you make it past that step without being electrocuted, the next task is to haul the dusty computer and maybe monitor or other accessories out into the heat, rain, wind, or whatever weather we were having that day. Finally, the worst part, handing over all of your sensitive information to the stranger at the counter of the computer repair shop. Do you know the owner or person working at the counter? Great, but do you also know the other people working in the back room? Do they really even care about you or your data? Is your information safe? Just what ARE they doing back there with your stuff after you leave? Will they fix this problem only for you to discover more computer issues once you hook everything back up?

Things have changed considerably over the past five years, all for the better. These days, it’s more affordable for you to have your computer systems serviced on-site in your home or business. The hourly rate for experienced computer repair technicians has come down considerably, changing the playing field between on-site and in-store support companies. What used to be the biggest advantage for the brick and mortar computer store, physical presence, has actually turned into it’s greatest liability. The large operating costs of leasing a physical storefront have made it impossible for old style computer repair firms to compete. As a result of increased operating costs, lease, electricity and other limiting factors, physical computer repair shops are forced to charge more for computer repair services just to cover unnecessary overhead. Efficient on-site computer repair firms avoid these overheads, operating remotely, covering larger areas, and are able to pass the savings on directly to you, the customer. As a result of lower prices, more and more people are realizing the immense advantages to on-site repair, which go far beyond the ability to save money.

A client of ours recently left us a testimonial that sums up the experience quite nicely, “I liked your service, because right away I felt like my PC technician was a friend. He explained everything to me and answered all of my questions.” That is the level of customer service that a physical computer repair shop cannot match. Beyond simply fixing the problem, a technician in your home or business is a real person that is available to answer questions, explain to you what is wrong, and work with you – not just to fix one problem, but several problems all on the same visit. When your original problem is fixed, you’ll probably have time to fix three or four more problems that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about had your computer been in a back room somewhere else. When you encounter a preventable problem, such as a computer virus, a live person there to assist you can not only help you remove it, they can offer expert training and advice on ways to protect yourself in the future. 95% of computer issues most people have can be fixed right there, on-site. In the rare instance that a more time-consuming repair is necessary, the technician already has everything taken apart for you and can take the necessary parts to a central repair facility for you, bringing back the repaired parts once complete. All the while, freeing up your time and allowing you to work on other things. More importantly, your ability to interact face to face with your computer repair technician gives you the advantage of knowing exactly WHO is working on your computer and whether or not you should trust them with your important pictures, business accounting information, emails and passwords.

Everyone likes to save money, and given the opportunity, 9 out of 10 will go with the less expensive option. It’s nice that the tables have turned to favor the customer, making it possible for everyone to experience better computer repair service without extra work or hassles, and at prices those large computer stores just can’t beat.


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Arguing about clouds, a brewing storm or a clear and sunny day?

Friday, February 27th, 2009

The Cloud. It sounds pretty cool, but what does it really mean? There are over 12.6 million pages on Google returned for a search on “Cloud Computing” with thousands more being added every day. The term has been used to describe everything from a web hosting company to a whole package of online tools sold by a small business management company.

Cloud computing is defined by Wikipedia as “the use of Internet based computer technology for a variety of services. It is a style of computing in which dynamically scalable and often virtualized resources are provided as a service over the Internet. Users need not have knowledge of, expertise in, or control over the technology infrastructure “in the cloud” that supports them.” In a nutshell, Cloud Computing is the platform that will make possible a future where everything you need to do on a computer is done over the internet. Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Graphic Design, Email, Instant Messaging, Games and every other basic computer task you can currently think of will simply be an application running on a website somewhere, available through a web browser.

There are pros and cons of this idea, and it doesn’t take very long to find plenty of arguments either way. Proponents of Software as a Service (the cloud) argue that it’s less expensive to maintain than traditional technology, easier to manage, and more reliable. The most popular comments against the cloud point out that it’s not secure, prone to data loss and over the long-term will actually cost individuals and businesses more money than current methods. I’ve tried to take an objective approach to all of this, and with an open mind have highlighted some common arguments for and against the cloud. I will leave it up to you as to whether or not Cloud Computing is good, bad, or something in between.

Read through and leave a comment when you’re done. I am very interested to hear your arguments for or against the cloud.

Argument #1, Data Security

Pro-Cloud: Proponents for the cloud claim that data can be encrypted and stored in the cloud. They say that the encryption offered by these services will leave your data more secure than the same data stored on a traditional computer system. They also claim that you can trust large companies such as Google with your data, because they have more resources to dedicate towards keeping information safe than you could ever afford on your own. They claim that an average business with a small IT staff is more likely to have their data hacked and compromised than a Cloud Provider who’s business model depends on keeping that data secure.

Anti-Cloud: Cloud critics claim that data being stored via current methods resides on secure computer systems behind secure company networks. They believe that it’s much more difficult for anyone to access this type of data as it’s not available to the general internet, and to access the data you would  need physical access to the network holding the data. Typically, only an employee at your company could see this data. Someone you know and trust. Many also believe that, even if data is being encrypted in the cloud, there are ways to circumvent such type of security and as a result you have no privacy. It is feared that the same employees who manage your data in the cloud and are hired to keep that data safe have the capabilities of sifting through all of your personal data. They can read your emails and open your files. The threat of corporate espionage, identity theft and other security challenges are all made greater when the data that defines your business and your life is in the hands of strangers.

Argument #2, Access to Information

Pro-Cloud: Proponents for the cloud point out that data stored in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere in the world. You can use virtually any computer, or any device with a web browser, to access data stored in the cloud. Again, there’s the notion that cloud providers have more resources to keep your data running. With professionals running the cloud data centers, services will never go down, unlike company servers that can crash and take data offline at any time.

Anti-Cloud: Those against the cloud point out that no internet connection is 100% reliable, and at any moment the internet can be unavailable and as a result, all of the information you need to run your business and your life is gone at that moment. Common reasons for loss of access to your data include times when you’re on a plane, in the wilderness where internet isn’t available, or your cable modem has gone out. Other problems exist with network congestion, and there have been several widely reported stories in the news over the years where large data centers have gone offline for hours or days at a time due to power failure or other equipment failure. Critics point out that, in times like these, all of your data in the cloud is unavailable. You have no access to any of your files. Under current methods, data stored as it is now on local computer systems, you can still get your work done without a need for an internet connection. A final concern deals with the ever expanding size of information. What about the 4GB video files, large 10 megapixel digital pictures, etc? Using today’s current technology, it would be almost impossible to operate with this content in the cloud as it could take several minutes to hours to transfer large files over the internet. These files could otherwise be accessed and edited instantly on a modern system. The resulting data fragmentation that would arise as a result of cloud data and large files stored locally would make it very difficult to work efficiently.

Argument #3, The Price

Pro-Cloud: The biggest positives mentioned to hype the cloud usually involve price, and it’s often pointed out that an individual or business can save a considerable amount of money by utilizing the cloud. With traditional technology, the cost for IT support staff, software, modern hardware and upgrades are far more each year than what is being charged by cloud providers for similar services. Additionally, there is no longer a need to purchase or pay to administer your own servers, as all of the data storage and administration is handled by the cloud provider.

Anti-Cloud: There is a general feeling that monthly prices for cloud-related services are only low right now because people have other options. It’s a lot like the early days of the internet where Geocities would give away websites for free just to get you to sign up. Later, as websites became more popular and more people signed on, Geocities started to charge a lot of money for what once was free. Cloud providers need to attract customers now, so everything is free or very affordable. The thought is, once everyone has been taken into the cloud and there are no other options, monthly rates will skyrocket. That leaves all of your data locked in the grips of a hostile company who will take your data away from your if you don’t pay them outrageous monthly fees. It has also been pointed out that a business that has switched to cloud computing in many cases will still need an IT staff to help them manage the services in the cloud and they will still need hardware capable of accessing the data in the cloud. That hardware, too, will need an IT professional to administer as well as the network infrastructure to maintain connectivity with your data online. Beyond all that, since your data is no longer local, it’s not possible to simply download a program to help you manage it. You would need to hire a full-scale web developer to build applications for you if you want customization of your cloud data. At this point, data in the clouds becomes far more expensive to maintain that the current method of local storage.

Argument #4, Reliability

Pro-Cloud: The pro-cloud arguement is that your data can and will be automatically backed up on the servers where the cloud data is hosted. You’ll no longer have to worry about losing a document because you overwrote it, all you’ll need to do is pull one of the automated backup files from your account and extract a recent copy. Additionally, there won’t be any way your information can be deleted by viruses or malware, because it’s all being protected 24/7 by a professional support staff.

Anti-Cloud: A major concern is the complete loss of all of your information. It has happened already to many people and businesses. In one case, a cloud provider went completely out of business and took all of the data with them, including complete records and information for several large businesses. Even if your cloud provider provides backups of your data, many say, what good is that data if the only applications that the files can run on were provided by a company that no longer exists? You would have a raw data file with no means to interface or access your information. That is contrary to current data storage methods, where data is stored in SQL servers that are standard. You could take your data from one server and move it over to another server in an affordable way with little time lost. Not so with proprietary cloud applications.

Argument #5, The Stuff You Can Do

Pro-Cloud: A very large number of people don’t use their computer for much more than checking email, writing a few word documents, looking at a spreadsheet and playing a couple of games. Most of the functionality that you currently do via stand-alone applications can be done now through applications in the cloud.

Anit-Cloud: There is no full-featured anything in the cloud. Google Docs, one of the best known internet based Word Processing applications, pales in comparison when putting it’s list of features alongside those of Microsoft Word or even the freely available Open Office. There are no advanced image editing applications like PhotoShop in the cloud. There would be no way to play the latest demanding game over the cloud or push high definition video. The types of machines that are needed for many tasks don’t jive well with the concept of cloud computing, which really emphasizes low cost netbook-like hardware.

My conclusion and 2 cents: Considering all of the very valid points above (for both sides), I think it’s best  to embrace a balance of traditional technology and cloud/service based technology. The cloud is an awesome idea and provides exceptional benefits on many fronts. For anyone traveling extensively with a need for 24/7 access to information, it’s perfect. It works great for email and collaboration based projects where many different individuals need quick and reliable access to the same data from anywhere in the world. It’s affordable, and making certain types of information available over the internet can be far more cost effective in the cloud than via other methods.

However, it is really only best when used as a small subject to existing, robust computing methods. Sensitive business information is currently best left protected on a secure network, safe from the internet. Internet speeds are too slow to make cloud computing useful for much more than checking email, and until broadband is improved and speeds are greatly increased, there are too many things that are simply impossible to accomplish even over high speed cable internet. The immaturity of the cloud is another huge problem. For Microsoft Windows, you’re looking at a rich history with hundreds of thousands of various applications already written, with an endless list of different features depending on your needs. The cloud is currently very limited, and the applications that do exist are slim on features.

The clouds are building, but they’re building slowly. Far from a storm, we’re only looking at a few gathering clouds on the horizon. It could be at least a decade until there are more cloud based applications than not, and by then most of the problems listed here will have been resolved. Eventually, a large number of companies will have emerged to provide a whole world of functionality to users. Anything you want to do will be available to you for a monthly fee in the cloud. The biggest question remains, how high will that monthly fee be? In the mean-time, I’m going to get the most out of free data that I can. 🙂

What do you think? Please post your arguments for, against or neutral to cloud computing.


 


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