Monday, 16 June 2014

Are you still using Windows XP?

Windows XP is no longer being
supported - are you ready?
You may have heard that Microsoft withdrew its support for Windows XP on the 8th April this year.

If you’re using XP then you need to be aware as you will need to take action, either now or in the near future.

Windows XP is the operating system that runs your computers. There are different operating systems such as Windows Vista, Windows 8, Office 365, etc., but this issue only applies to Windows XP. If you don’t have Windows XP then there is nothing to worry about.

Microsoft withdrawing support means that it will never be updated. You won’t notice anything immediately, but over time there will be security vulnerabilities that aren’t fixed and software will be created that doesn’t work on your computer. Software that normally operates fine may start to slow down or fail, websites will not operate the way they were designed to and you won’t be able to open documents sent to you.

In the short-term, companies that provide firewalls, anti-spam and other internet security arrangements are likely to continue to ensure that their updates still work on Windows XP, but eventually they too will stop.

So you do need to take action, but it doesn’t need to be this afternoon.

The action needed is to update your operating system, but that might be more complex than it sounds. The first decision will be whether your existing computer and servers can take a more up-to-date operating system. If they can’t, or won’t work well with it, then you will also need new hardware. You’ll need to do an audit of your equipment to identify which items may be affected.

Then you’ll need to do a full and thorough back-up of everything on your existing equipment before loading the new operating system and re-installing your software and files. But this may create other issues as existing software and documents may not be compatible with the newer operating system, so you’ll have to update them too.

As ever, the best advice is to talk to a reputable IT support company so that you can plan the upgrade, and when the best time to do it is.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Different Forms of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)

VoIP can reduce
the cost of calls
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is a method of making phone calls over the internet, meaning it is much cheaper than ordinary landlines such as you might have with BT. Savings of up to 50% are possible.
In a household environment the most common form of VoIP is Skype, but for a business you need a more robust and expandable solution.
Broadly speaking, there are two methods of installing VoIP for businesses – PBX and iPBX. The main difference is that a PBX means getting your own equipment whereas an iPBX can be delivered as a cloud computing solution.
The provider of an iPBX system will normally supply and maintain all the equipment you need, such as handsets. In return for this, the cost of calls – the tariff – is more expensive.
With a PBX you own the equipment and are usually responsible for its maintenance, but in return for this the cost of calls is much less. We installed a PBX system for South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce in June 2010 and within 18 months the cost of buying the equipment had been recovered in savings from the cost of calls.
But with a PBX system the business does have to be able to buy the equipment, which can be a large initial capital outlay.
So an iPBX has less initial capital outlay but more expensive on-going call charges. Another disadvantage of an iPBX is that because it uses the cloud, it needs a solid, robust, stable internet connection. If the connection went down, the ability to make calls would go with it. Alternatives can be set up more easily with a PBX system to ensure continuity in the event of a disaster, but with an iPBX a leased line might be needed, which might offset any call savings. 
As ever, talk to a reputable IT Support company if you are interested in a VoIP system for your business.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Are Your Internet Sessions Stale?

The flow of data arrives
in peaks and troughs
By this we don’t mean boring, ‘stale’ is a technical term related to the flow of data.

Data, or anything you do over the internet, doesn’t actually come to your computer in a nice neat flow, it just looks that way. It actually comes in like a wave, but with the peaks and troughs happening so rapidly that you don’t notice.

Now imagine that you have several waves happening at the same time. Sometimes a peak and a trough will meet each other and create a process known as ‘interference‘. Basically, they cancel each other out and nothing happens. The data transfer dies, in effect, which is known as a ‘stale session’.

You’ll know when this happens to you when nothing happens. So the pages you are expecting to see… don’t appear. Nothing happens. It’s easy to fix though, if you click Refresh the process will start again and your pages will appear. Non-technical users are often left scratching their heads wondering why nothing happened first time, but did when they clicked Refresh.

It’s a natural process that will happen to everyone occasionally but if it happens often then there is a solution – use a more sophisticated router.

With IT equipment the difference in price between apparently similar items is often due to the quality of the individual components and the functionality built into them. More sophisticated – and therefore more expensive - routers are likely to have in-built software that balances the data transfers to prevent stale sessions – peaks and troughs meeting each other – from happening. This makes internet experiences faster and less frustrating for users. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Enhancing Visitor Security

Beware of the dangers of
allowing access to Wi-Fi
If you have visitors to your premises they will sometimes ask if they can use your Wi-Fi. Usually you will agree as you want to help someone else out or not appear rude.

There is a potentially dangerous security flaw with this though. In effect, it’s like giving someone the keys to your house and trusting them not to steal or damage anything.

The source of the risk is what might be on their computer. So if their laptop or tablet has viruses or malware then you have allowed it access to your server. This is particularly risky if the visitor can send emails using your mail server. It is possible that the malware on their device will send itself to everyone on the contact list saved on the server, meaning you have helped spread a dangerous piece of software and probably getting yourself blacklisted as a result.

Removing yourselves from blacklists is technically complex, expensive and time-consuming but the most immediate impact is that until you resolve it, emails you send will go into spam filters, so may never get through.

But in the worst-case scenario you may have allowed malware with criminal intent on to your server and therefore into your systems.

Prevention is much better than cure in this case and there are two potential solutions if you want to continue allow visitor access to your Wi-Fi. If you don’t, then there isn’t an issue so long as you don’t give them your password.

Firstly, if you have a mail server, configure access so that visitors cannot send email from it. They can still use the server to download messages but not send or reply, which prevents your mail server from transmitting any malware which might be contained on their computer. This doesn’t mean they can’t send email when they are at your premises, it means they will have to use their own ISP's webmail facility instead.

The second solution is to have a router with what’s known as a VLAN. This creates an isolated area that visitors can use, which is separated from your systems. So even if their device is infected with something, it cannot gain access to your system because it is fenced off.

The VLAN approach works whether you have a mail server or not. But if you do have a mail server we would suggest also using the first approach, i.e. configuring the mail server to refuse access to visitors so that they have to use webmail.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Leased Lines for Faster Connections

A leased line offers increased
speed when accessing the internet
A standard broadband connection is usually sufficient for most businesses and organisations. But for heavy users or those where continual, reliable internet access is vital, something more robust is needed, such as a leased line.

A leased line is a dedicated broadband connection for your premises. Costs for this have been prohibitive for most users until now but as more superfast cable gets rolled out and more customers sign up to it, costs have started to decrease noticeably. It is now starting to become a viable proposition for more organisations.

A broadband connection can be thought of like a pipe in that only a certain amount of material can go down it at any one time. The more things people try to put down it, the greater the likelihood of it becoming blocked or running slowly.

Most broadband providers share the pipes across multiple customers, perhaps on a 20:1 or 5:1 ratio. What this means is that 20 (or 5) different customers share the same connection. If everyone uses it at the same time then it will be slow. In effect, you have to wait your turn to use the pipe.

Business contracts tend to be at the lower end of the number of users on one connection (perhaps 5:1) whereas domestic contracts are at the higher end, such as 20:1. This is why business contracts cost more than residential contracts.

A leased line is not shared with anyone else. If you have multiple simultaneous users all trying to access an application over the internet at the same time, a leased line can ensure they get a more reliable service at faster speeds. But because it isn’t shared with anyone else, it means you pay a lot more for your connection. Where a typical business broadband connection might cost £30-£50 per month, a leased line might be more like £800 per month.

But over the last 12 months or so we have seen contracts originally costing nearly £800 dropping to under £500, and are likely to continue to fall further. Although still substantially more than a traditional broadband contract, it does start to open up possibilities for organisations that might benefit from it.

Some of the advantages and opportunities that a leased line can offer to organisations include:
  • Guaranteed access providing greater security of service and assurance of uptime
  • Fewer carriers involved in the process, leading to enhanced Service Level Agreements and a higher level of service
  • The ability to roll-out web-based applications to a greater number of users and still provide guaranteed uptime and service levels
  • Connecting multiple sites together for seamless networking across multi-site operations (using something known as a LES – LAN Extension Service).
So if you are looking at expanding your online operations or need greater levels of assurance and support in your operations, a leased line may be a possibility for you.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Recent Computer Scam of ‘Significant Risk’

Remain Vigilant & Ensure Virus
Protection & Firewalls are up-to-date
Vigilance is always required when looking after your IT systems. There are always new scams trying to infiltrate your systems and damage them, or even steal from you. 
We regularly have to repair systems which have been affected so we encourage everyone to make sure they have up-to-date protection, but users also have to play their part.

One simple piece of advice is to never open an email with an attachment unless you know exactly who it is from and are expecting it. Be particularly careful of .zip or .exe files. Opening these can unleash a piece of software called a Trojan. Named after the Trojan Horse of Greek mythology, a Trojan needs to be allowed in to your systems but once there it can wreak havoc. One classic access route is the user opening a zipped (.zip) or executable file (.exe). An email with an executable file often looks like it contains a software program so might appear to be offering you something useful.

A cunning trick used by some viruses and Trojans is to send itself to everyone on an infected computer’s contact list. So you might receive an email from someone you recognise and think it is genuine, but it could actually be a mechanism for spreading a Trojan. This is why the advice is to make sure you are expecting the file, rather than merely recognising the name. If in doubt, call the person and ask if they deliberately sent it to you or not, before you open it.

One recent example was ‘cryptolocker’, which was serious enough for the National Crime Agency to issue a ‘significant risk’ alert. Cryptolocker encrypts files on your computer, such as photographs, documents, databases, PowerPoint presentations – anything that might be useful to you – and then issues a ransom notice on your computer, giving you 72 hours to pay up. If you don’t, the encryption key will be deleted which means you will permanently lose access to the files. It’s fiendishly clever but also an absolute nightmare if you get trapped by it.

We’ve written several articles in the past about protection, such as Spam and Viruses, Remote Security and Secure Remote Working, but the key pieces of advice are:
  • Make sure you have a high-quality protection system in place with virus protection and firewalls. Speak to a reputable IT support company if you need assistance.
  • Keep your protection up-to-date. A good system will do this automatically in the background but you will need to periodically renew it to maintain your protection.
  • Keep an offsite back-up and perform it regularly. In the event of being held to ransom by cryptolocker, for example, you could dump the old computer and reload everything you have on it to a new one from your back-up. It needs to be offsite and remote though, as cryptolocker will seek out any drives connected to your computer, such as external hard drives or cloud solutions and also encrypt files found there.
  • Exercise sensible precaution as you would do in your own home. Would you let an unexpected visitor into your home without checking their credentials first? You should use the same principles when letting files and data into your computer systems.