SOHO / Small business computer setups Archive

Different kinds of cloud IT systems–what to be aware of

Apple iPad Pro 9.7 inch press picture courtesy of Apple

The iPad is seen as part of the cloud-based mobile computing idea that Silicon Valley promotes

Very often “cloud” is used as a Silicon-Valley-based buzzword when describing information-technology systems that have any sort of online data-handling abilities.

This is more so if the IT system is sold to the customer “as a service” where the customer pays a subscription to maintain use of the system. It also is used where the user’s data is stored at an online service with minimal data-processing and storage abilities at the user’s premises.

It is because small business users are being sold on these systems typically due to reduced capital expenditure or reduced involvement in maintaining the necessary software. It also allows the small business to be able to “think big” when it comes to their IT systems without paying a prince’s ransom.

What is strictly a cloud system

Single Server online system

Single Server online system

But, strictly speaking, a cloud-based system relies on multiple online locations to store and/or process data. Such a system would have multiple computers at multiple data centres processing or storing the data, whether in one geopolitical jurisdiction or many depending on the service contract.

This is compared to the single-server online IT system sold as a service that implements at least a Web-based “thin-client” where you work the data through a Web page and, perhaps, a mobile-platform native app to work your data on a smartphone or tablet. Typically, the data would be held on one system under the control of the service provider with this system existing at a data centre. It works in a similar vein to common Internet services like email or Web-hosting with the data held on a server provided by the Wehhost or ISP.

Hybrid cloud systems

Hybrid Cloud online system

Hybrid Cloud online system with primary data kept on premises

One type of cloud system is what could be best described as a “hybrid” system that works with data stored primarily on the user’s premises. This is typically to provide either a small private data cloud that replicates data across branches of a small business or to provide online and mobile functionality such as to allow you to manage the data on a Web page or native mobile-platform app anywhere around the world, or to provide messaging abilities through a mobile-messaging platform.

For example, a lot of NAS units are marketed as “cloud” NAS units but these devices keep the user’s data on their own storage media. Here, they use the “cloud” functionality to improve discovery of that device from the Internet when the user enables remote access functionality or data-syncing between two NAS devices via the Internet. It is due to the reality that most residential and some small-business Internet connections use outside IP addresses that change frequently.

WD MyCloud EX4100 NAS press image courtesy of Western Digital

WD MyCloud EX4100 NAS – one of the kind of NAS units that uses cloud functionality for online access

Or a small medical practice who keeps their data on-premises is sold a “cloud-based” messaging and self-service appointment-management add-on to their IT system. Here, the core data is based on what is held on-premises but the messaging functionality or Web-based user interface and necessary “hooks” enabling the mobile-platform native app for the self-service booking function are hosted on a cloud service built up by the add-on’s vendor. When a patient uses the mobile-platform app or Web-front to book or change an appointment, they alter the data on the on-premises system through the cloud-hosted service.

It may also be used with something like an on-premises accounting system to give business functionality like point-of-sale abilities to a mobile-platform device like an iPad through the use of a cloud-based framework. But the core data in the on-premises system is altered by the cloud-based mobile-platform setup as each transaction is completed.

Full-cloud systems

Full Cloud online system

Full Cloud online system with data processing and storage across multiple different computers

On the other hand, a full-cloud system has the user’s primary data held online across one or more server computers with minimum local hardware or software to work the user’s data. There may be some on-premises data-caching to support offline operation such as to provide transaction-capture if the link is down or simply to improve the system’s performance.

The IT infrastructure for a full-cloud system will have some measure of scalability to allow for an increasing customer base, typically with the service provider annexing more computer power as the customer base increases. Such a service will have tiered pricing where you pay more for increased capacity.

Client software types

The user-interface for an online or cloud IT system would primarily be Web-driven where you work the data with a Web browser. On the other hand, it could use native client software that works tightly with the client computer’s operating system whether as a “thick” client with a significant amount of local data-processing or storage on the endpoint computing device or a “thin” client which just has a window to the data such as simply using a Web browser.

Public vs private cloud

Another concept regarding cloud-based IT is the difference between a public cloud and a private cloud. The public cloud has the computing power managed by another firm like Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services while the private cloud has all its computing power managed by the service provider or client company and effectively isolated from public access through a separate private network.

This can be a regular server-grade computer installed at each of the business’s branches, described as an internal cloud, Or it can be multiple high-grade server computers installed at data centres managed by someone else but available exclusively for the business, known as a hosted private cloud.

Data Privacy, Security and Sovereignty

Another factor that comes in to question regarding cloud and online computing is the issue of data privacy, security and sovereignty.

This covers how the data is handled to assure privacy relating to end-users whom the data is about; and assurance of security over data confidential to the IT system’s customer and its end-users. It will call out issues like encryption of data “in transit” (while moved between systems) and “at rest” (while stored on the systems) along with policies and procedures regarding who has access to the data when and for what reason.

It is becoming a key issue with online services thanks to the European GDPR directive and similar laws being passed in other jurisdictions which are about protecting end-users’ privacy in a data-driven world.

The issue of data sovereignty includes who has effective legal control over the data created and managed by the end-user of the online service along with which geopolitical area’s rules the data is subject to. Some users pay attention to this thanks to countries like the continental-European countries who value end-user privacy and similar goals heavily.

There is also the issue of what happens to this data if the user wants to move to a service that suits their needs better or if the online service collapses or is taken over by another business.

Cloudlets, Fog Computing and Edge Computing

Edge Computing setup

Edge computing setup where local computing power is used for some of the data handling and storage

This leads me to the concept of “edge computing”, which uses terminology like “fog computing” or “cloudlets”. This involves computing devices relatively local to the data-creation or data-consumption endpoints that store or process data for the benefit of these endpoints.

An example can be about a small desktop NAS, especially a high-end unit, on a business premises that handles data coming in to or going out to a cloud-based online service from endpoint devices installed on that premises. Or it could be a server installed in the equipment rack at a telephone exchange that works as part of a content-delivery system for customers who live in the neighbourhood served by that exchange.

Qarnot Q.Rad press image courtesy of Qarnot

Qarnot Q.Rad room heater that is a server computer for edge-computing setups

Similarly, the Qarnot approach which uses servers that put their waste heat towards heating rooms or creating domestic hot water implements the principle of edge computing. Even the idea of a sensor drone or intelligent videosurveillance camera that processes the data it collects before it is uploaded to a cloud-based system is also about edge computing.

It is being touted due to the concept of decentralised data processing as a way to overcome throughput latency associated with the public Internet links. As well, this concept is being underscored with the Internet of Things as a way to quickly handle data created by sensors and turn it in to a form able to be used anywhere.

Conclusion

Here, the issue is for those of us who buy service-based IT whether for our own needs or for a workplace is to know what kind of system we are dealing with. This includes whether the data is to exist in multiple locations, at the premises or at one location.

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At last Australian small business buying new IT equipment benefits from a tax break

Articles Small businesses - Belgrave shopping strip

Fringe Benefits Tax on all portable devices used for work abolished | SmartCompany

Federal budget 2015: Fringe benefits tax abolished on tablets, laptops and mobile phones | Australian Financial Review

From the horse’s mouth

The Hon. Joe Hockey MP, Treasurer Of The Commonwealth Of Australia

Growing Jobs and Small Business Package Press Release

Relevant Material

Small Business Technology page

Buyers’ Guides

Product Reviews: Laptop, Notebook And Netbook Computers

My Comments

Lenovo Thinkpad G50-70 Laptop

A 15″ work-home laptop that is now eligible to be paired with a..

As part of Australian tax law since the late 1980s, companies were required to pay a fringe-benefits tax on non-cash supplementary benefits they gave to their employees. The same situation also ensnared sole-traders who chose to run their businesses as a company and buy capital equipment like vehicles or computers in the company’s name but use it for business and personal / community purposes.

This has caused various tax-compliance quagmires for all businesses but there has been some special treatment for small businesses in relationship to them buying portable computer equipment. Previously, it was seen under fringe-benefits-tax law that if a company gave an employee two computers like a “work-home” laptop and a tablet computer or ultraportable, they could only see one of these devices as FBT-exempt because they did the same function.

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

.. tablet computer, “2-in-1” or other ultraportable without FBT risks for small buisness

Now, as part of the 2015 Federal Budget, the Australian Government have installed a tax break for small businesses with an annual turnover of under AUD$2 million by making the supply of all work-related portable electronic device not subject to FBT. This measure, which applies from April 1 2016, would allow for the supply of a regular 15”-17” laptop as a “work-home” computer along with a tablet, “2-in-1” or ultraportable, and a smartphone to an employee and the technology can be used for personal use without dealing with any further red tape.

This, along with a tax deduction for newly-purchased individual assets less than AUD$20,000, has been part of a series of measures that Treasurer Joe Hockey, who has had small-business experience through his family life, that make things easier for start-ups and small businesses.

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Lenovo puts fresh blood in to the Yoga lineup

Articles

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Successors to come to the Lenovo Yoga lineup

Lenovo Refreshes Yoga Series with New Laptops and Tablets | Tom’s Guide

Lenovo’s New Yoga Laptop And Tablets Are All About Touch | Gizmodo

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 range

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 targets both Windows and Android | Mashable

Lenovo Announces 8- and 10-inch Yoga Tablet 2 for Windows and Android | Laptop Mag

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro

Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro Wants to Be Your Tablet and Big Screen TV | Mashable

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is Thinner and Lighter with Adaptive Software | Laptop Mag

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 14

Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga 14 Makes Business Flexible | Laptop Mag

My Comments

There has been so much doubt in the concept of the convertible notebook but Lenovo is one of a few who are keeping it alive in the form of the Yoga lineup. This is a lineup of 360-degree convertible computers that fold over on their back to become either a laptop, tablet or something in between.

Recently, I reviewed the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro and found that this 13” convertible was capable and able to do many different tasks, whether creating new written content, playing basic games, browsing the Web or watching video content. As well, Lenovo had run some “Yoga Tablets” which had a kickstand which worked in a similar way to how the Yoga laptops worked.

Lenovo has refreshed the Yoga Tablets by adding variants which are delivered with Windows 8.1. These use Intel Atom quad-core “classic microarchitecture” horsepower and work with 2Gb RAM. Their network connectivity is primarily the 802.11n Wi-Fi but some market-specific variants will come with 4G wireless broadband. Secondary storage is in the form of 16Gb SSD for Android variants or 32Gb SSD for Windows variants with add-on storage in the form of a microSD slot. They will come in the choice of an 8” or 10” screen for each operating system. One feature that Lenovo had integrated was a hole in the kickstand to allow it to hang from something like a cup hook in the kitchen.

They also fielded the Yoga Tablet 2 Pro which is the largest Android tablet, clocking in at 13.3”. This also has an integrated pico projector which can comfortably throw a 50” image and has an 8-watt sound system with an integrated bass driver, a feature being pitched at consumer or business use. But its hardware abilities are similar to the Yoga Tablet 2 which has the Atom processor working with 2Gb RAM, along with 32Gb SSD storage and add-on storage abilities courtesy of a microUSB “On The Go” port and a microSD card slot.

The Yoga 3 Pro has an aluminium chassis and a hinge similar to how a metal watchband is constructed. This is to make it easier to fold this 360-degree convertible between a tablet or a laptop or anything in between. It is slimmer than the Yoga 2 Pro and has that same 13.3” screen but the resolution clocks in at 3200×1800 pixels fulfilled by an integrated-graphics subsystem. It runs with Intel Core M-70 horsepower and can work with 8Gb RAM. As well, the maximum storage available is 256Gb SSD like the Yoga 2 Pro review sample along with a “4-in-one” memory card reader. There is the similar connectivity to the Yoga 2 Pro, including 2 USB 3.0 ports, a microHDMI port, a headphone/microphone audio jack as well as a power socket that can become a USB 2.0 port. It runs Windows 8.1 but also comes with Lenovo Harmony software that optimises it for the task in hand.

Business users who like the “work-home” laptop need not fret that they are being left out in the cold. This is because Lenovo have fielded the ThinkPad Yoga 14 which has the Yoga 360-degree convertible abilities but has the ThinkPad credentials like the excellent keyboard, thumbstick and a long battery life. This comes with a 14” Full-HD screen that is serviced with NVIDIA GeForce GTX840M discrete graphics. It has the latest generation Core i5 processor and can work with 8Gb RAM. For secondary storage, it comes with a 1Tb hard disk and has most of the same connectivity as the Yoga 3 Pro, except for a full-size HDMI port.

What I see of this is that Lenovo won’t give up easily on the convertible notebook computer even though a lot of naysayers are running the line that the computing world is just tablets, especially the iPad.

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5-Year Special: Portable Computing is Mainstream

5 Years Special iconThis is the first of a series of posts to celebrate the last five years of the connected lifestyle which has been covered on this Website.

Laptops

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible notebook at Phamish St Kilda

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro convertible Ultrabook

Over the last five years, the 15”-17” clamshell-style laptop computer has overtaken the traditional “tower-style” desktop computer as become the preferred computer style for most households.

There are even users, some of whom I know, who will operate these computers in conjunction with an external screen, keyboard and mouse for their primary office-based computing locations while being able to use just its built-in screen, keyboard and mouse for computing while “on-the-road”. In other cases, the laptop bas brought with it the appeal of the dining table or kitchen bench rather than a home office or a desk in the corner of the family room as a workspace due to the ability to stow it away when you are using that space for other activities like meals.

Dell Precision M2800 Mobile Workstation courtesy of Dell USA

Dell Precision M2800 – an example of a mobile workstation

With this class of computer, there has been the rise of “workstation-grade” and “gamer-grade” laptops that are tuned for increased performance, especially with graphics-intensive tasks or even “full-on” games. This has also displaced the desktop workstation computer or “gaming-rig” for these applications and allowed for increased portability when dealing with CAD, multimedia or games.

Windows 8 with its tile-based “Modern” user interface has legitimised the touchscreen as a control surface for the computer and has opened up a plethora of touchscreen-enabled laptop designs. For example, the Sony VAIO Fit 15a that I reviewed last year underscored the concept of adding touch abilities to a 15” mainstream laptop even as I let a friend who works in enterprise IT play with this machine when I had visited him.

This has also led to the arrival of convertible and detachable computer designs that switch between a traditional laptop design and a tablet design. There are even these convertibles that have 13” or, in some cases, 15” screens which may be considered too large for tablet use by one person but are the right size for creating content. In some cases, this size can appeal to those of us who want to let another person have a look at the same content.

The trend has led to a fusion of regular desktop-style computing and mobile computing with some laptops running Android whether standalone or on a dual-boot method. As well, some small tablets are being sold with Windows 8.1 as an operating system and it is being harder to differentiate between mobile and regular-grade computing capabilities.

Mobile computing

One main trend over the past five years has been the arrival of platform-based mobile computing, which was commercialised by Apple with their iPhone platform.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 press picture courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 – an up-and-coming Android smartphone

It is where devices like mobile phones and tablets are built around an operating system which has many third-party programmers writing software for these devices. Typically the software is supplied through “app-stores” operated by the company who develops the mobile-computing platform and these “app-stores” are typically one-touch away from the user. The software, which is referred to as “apps”, typically ranges from productivity software like email clients or note-taking software, through utility programs like calculators or unit converters, and mobile front-ends for online services to games for whiling away those train journeys.

Google Play Android app store

Google Play Android app store

If the programmer wants to monetise their creation, they have the ability to sell it through that app-store which has an integrated e-commerce setup, sell modules for that software through “in-app purchasing” where the user can buy the option within the app’s user interface but via the app-store’s storefront or make use of an in-app display advertising setup.

Some of these app-stores or the apps available in them provide access to content-retail services where you could buy music, audiobooks, e-books and videos to enjoy through your device. For example, the e-book has appealed mainly to women who like to read romance fiction without that “tut-tut-tut” from other people about what they are reading.

The performance calbre of these mobile-computing devices is approaching that of the regular computing devices, especially when it comes to playing hardcore games or watching multimedia content. Here, we are seeing mobile devices being equipped with 64-bit ARM-microarchitecture RISC processor units or some Android devices being equipped with IA-64 microarchitecture chips similar to what most laptops are equipped with.

Smartphones

These devices have changed since the arrival of the iPhone with customers being spoilt for choice in device capabilities, operating systems and even screen sizes.

Firstly, you can purchase smartphones with a screen size of up to 6 inches and these are the same size as an advanced-function pocket calculator such as a scientific or financial type. As well, some of the premium smartphones, especially those from the Samsung stable, even implement the OLED display which is a different self-illuminating display technology to the LCD display which requires LED backlighting to illuminate it.

As well, there are smartphones that run Android or Windows Phone operating systems available from many different manufactures. For that matter, the smartphones that are considered “cream of the crop” nowadays are most of the newer Android phones made by Samsung, Sony or HTC.

Tablets

Toshiba Thrive AT1S0 7" tablet

Toshiba AT1S0 7″ Android tablet

The mobile tablet has been made commercially viable thanks to Apple with their iPad lineup. Here, we are now seeing tablets at various different price ranges and screen sizes courtesy if intense competition. Some of these units, when paired with a Bluetooth or USB keyboard have been able to become a viable alternative to “netbook-size” small laptops.

Firstly, I had seen the arrival of the 7”-8” mini-tablet that could be stuffed in to one’s coat pocket. These have appealed as units that can be useful for reference-type applications when you are out and about and have effectively displaced the e-reader as a device.

Secondly, the 10” tablet has become more of a household content-consumption device especially with video but also has served some basic computing tasks like checking email or Web browsing. Apple and Samsung have raised the bar for this product class by improving the display calibre with the former using a high-resolution “Retina” display on their 3rd-generation iPad lineup and the latter offering an AMOLED display on a 10″ mobile tablet.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10" tablet - Press Photo courtesy of Samsung

Samsung Galaxy Tab S 10″ tablet

But, as I said earlier, the tablet and laptop are bridging together as a portable computing solution. This has been brought about with the convertible and detachable computers that can be a tablet one moment or a laptop another moment. Similarly, Intel and Microsoft have pushed the classic desktop microarchitecture and Windows 8 in to the field of the small-sized tablets with chipsets optimised for portable computing and the availability of Windows 8.1 for free with small-screen tablets.

Moble-Platform apps

The mobile platforms have seen a cottage industry of developers write programs or “apps” for these devices that can fit in with our lifestyle. Some of these apps have become mobile “on-ramps” to various online content services like social networks. As well, the e-reader has been displaced by the “e-bookstore” apps written for the mobile platforms so one can use a tablet or smartphone for reading whatever they want to read without worrying.

Recent controversies have arisen regarding how these apps are sold such as the issue of “in-app” sales of downloadable content or virtual currency for games that appeal to children or ad-funded apps that may host advertising that “commercialises” childhood like the sale of toys or junk food. As well there have been issues raised about the quality of apps sold through the app stores with computing “old-timers” relating them to the download sites, bulletin boards and magazine-attached disks of yore.

Wi-Fi an important part of the home network

For that matter, the most important feature of any network, including a home network, is a Wi-Fi wireless-network segment. This has enabled us to do more around the house with laptops, tablets and smartphones yet use cost-effective fixed broadband Internet.

These networks have increased in speed and security courtesy of newer technologies like 802.11n, 802.11ac and use of both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. The setup procedure has been simplified for these networks courtesy of WPS-PBC “push-to-connect” setup and the upcoming NFC “touch-to-connect” setup technologies.

Increasingly more networked devices are being designed to work primarily or solely with the Wi-Fi network segment because of the “no new wires” concept that this technology provides. This technology also appeals to the mass-market retailer as an easily-saleable “backbone” for the home network even though there are issues with the radio-network performance.

Mi-Fi devices and the portable Wi-Fi network

Another class of device that is becoming popular is the “Mi-Fi” router which is a portable battery-operated Wi-Fi router for a mobile broadband service. These have appealed to those of us who use temporary network setups with Wi-Fi-only tablets and laptops or simply want to run a mobile-only communications setup.

This has also extended to the arrival of portable NAS units that work as extra storage for smartphones, tablets and laptop computers but work as their own access points for these devices. Manufacturers are even pitching them as a way to store video content on the mobile NAS unit and having people like children view the content on their tablets via the small network that is created by these devices.

The next part of this 5th-anniversary series will liook at the concept of “connected” communications and entertainment and how the home network is playing a strong part in these activities.

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Even small businesses can benefit from a standard operating environment

Article

Even small businesses can benefit from a standard operating environment

My Comments

HP Elitebook 2560p at Intercontinental at Relto, MelbourneWhat is a standard operating environment?

A standard operating environment is a set of hardware and software specifications required for computer systems operated in a business or other organisation. This can range from a particular hardware build for the regular computers, through a particular version of the computer’s operating systems to the mix of application software that runs on these computers including the version of these programs.

Small businesses who run a few computers may find the concept of a standard operating environment very foreign because their IT situation tends to work on an organic basis. This is typically where computers and peripherals are purchased one at a time on an “as-needed” basis.

Where is this often seen?

Large organisations who maintain many computers run the computers on a standard operating environment in order for make the task of deploying or supporting these computers easier for the organisation’s IT staff. Some of these organisations also place value on the standard operating environment as a way to assure system and organisational security along with employee productivity.

Similarly, IT contractors and value-added resellers who set up computing environments for small businesses such as POS systems for retail work on a standard operating environment when supplying these systems. This is more so if the systems are being offered on a “turnkey” basis.

Why is this advantageous

The advantages offered by a standard operating environment mean that it is easier to diagnose problems that crop up on these computers, train users on how to operate these computers and deploy any newer computers.

This is facilitated with practices like installing software on a new computer from a baseline disk image that you keep or specifying to an IT supplier the make-up of your machines that you are buying. The use of group policies and similar functions supported by the desktop operating systems can be used as a tool to lock down the standard operating environment.

There is also the ability to test new software on a few machines to “smoke out” any problems with the software or test-drive new hardware specifications before you call it as being part of your environment.

Can multiple standard operating environments exist?

You can create multiple standard operating environments for particular computer-usage functions.

One way this can be achieved is through a “modular” standard operating environment that has a baseline specification for hardware, operating system, Web browser, security, office-productivity and other software; along with a list of other software that matches the computer’s function such as accounting, video-editing or other software. This would work well if your computing equipment is based on the same platform such as Windows or Macintosh.

Another way would be to create a few standard-operating-environments which can pertain to particular hardware platforms such as creating a Windows environment, an Apple Macintosh environment and an Android tablet environment. These would appeal to organisations that work with different platforms based on their prowess.

What to avoid

Inability to roll out system-improvement patches and updates

A mistake that can be easily made with a standard operating environment is to “freeze” the software specification to the exact version you are running. This habit may preclude the deployment of critical updates, security patches and other incremental revisions  that are necessary to keep a system that runs smoothly and is secure in your business environment.

There was a situation where a video-surveillance system with cameras that ran older firmware that couldn’t work with anything newer than an older version of Windows server. This system’s server which was on its own network with the cameras had been compromised due to a weakness in the software.

To avoid this, make sure that when you call a standard operating environment, you use the major versions of the software as your defined versions. As well, assess the standard operating environment every few years so you can run newer software in to the equation.

Systems that shirk the established software interfaces and device classes

Another mistake that can occur is avoiding updates or upgrades that don’t touch established interfaces for hardware and software.

Currently, we are seeing class-wide interface specifications for particular hardware and software like the Mass-Storage Class, Audio Class and Human Interface Device classes for USB connections; A2DP/AVRCP Profile, Headset/Handsfree Profile and Human Interface Device Profiles for Bluetooth; along with SMB/CIFS, DLNA and WebDAV for network-based setups.  These have allowed the use of devices that do the job better with a standard operating environment because it is feasible to upgrade the devices to suit one’s needs without deploying new software that could break the setup.

This is also important as newer hardware that will supersede your existing hardware becomes part of the equation and you find existing hardware approaching the end if its useful life. Here, you may have to run software components to allow your legacy software to benefit from the industry standards or, as I have mentioned before,, factor in the industry standards when you revise the standard operating environment.

How to go about it

This could be applied by using “downgrade rights” for operating systems that are supplied with computers if your organisation runs an earlier version of that operating system. It can also include buying equipment from the same dealer such as a business-focused computer store rather than Harvey Norman or the like.

Also identifying a “mix” of hardware and software that is working together yet is able to take the latest updates and patches that assure security, stability and performance can be a useful method for determining a standard operating environment. For a small business, this could mean identifying a computer like a laptop that you can tolerate as a “testbed” computer and using that to take updates before organising mass updates.

Similarly you can use this machine to test-drive new software versions to see how they run and whether it is worth it to deploy them in to the standard operating environment. This, along with flexibility to use particular productivity-boosting tools avoids the creation of a standard operating environment that is reminiscent of that ordinary old Ford station wagon.

One way that I would prefer for establishing a standard operating environment is to call a baseline software specification for each computing platform you are using i.e. Windows, MacOS X, etc. This covers the operating system and the desktop productivity suite that you run with. As for the class of computer to use, you could call a baseline specification for the different hardware classes such as desktops, laptops, etc. For function-specific software, you can then call a mix of software that does the job to full effect and this may be assisted by an IT contractor which focuses on the business class you are representing.

Conclusion

The idea of a standard operationg environment can come in to its own when your business matures and you start to acquire a significant number of computers and could be a way to describe a business “growing up”. But there needs to be a proper way of going about it and allowing for software performance, security and stability updates.

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Should I buy a mobile printer for my laptop?

HP OfficeJet 150 mobile multifunction printer copying a document

HP OfficeJet 150 mobile all-in-one printer

A device that you may consider purchasing for your portable computer would be a mobile printer.

What are these mobile printers

A mobile printer, like the Canon PiXMA iP100 single-function printer or the HP OfficeJet 150 all-in-one that I reviewed, is typically a compact inkjet or thermal printer that is able to run on internal batteries or AC power or, in some cases, car DC power through an external power supply. These typically are the size of a shoebox and connect to the host computer through a USB wired or Bluetooth wireless connection. In some cases, some of the thermal variants are the same size as a stick of wood.

These printers typically use either a dual-cartridge colour inkjet or a direct thermal printing system which can be costly to run if you use them frequently.

As for features. the current inkjet models have ended up with various forms of functionality that allows them to be of service to gadgets like digital cameras without the need of a computer. For example, they will have PictBridge printing ability so you can print from your digital camera using the camera’s control surface. A few of the printers like the HP OfficeJet 150 have standalone “print from removable media” ability so you can print from a USB memory key or SD card.

Some of the printers that have the ability to scan documents will typically have the ability to scan them to the computer or, increasingly, to removable media like an SD card.

Why do they exist

If you wish to use a printer at your customer’s or business partner’s site, you need to make sure that your laptop computer has the printer drivers for that printer. This problem hasn’t been rectified with a universal graphics-capable printer driver that can work with all printers yet.

As well, a lot of places which offer public-access printers can charge a princely sum for you to use these printers and a lot of us don’t want to impose on a client’s resources for our hard-copy needs.

Who would need to use these printers

Canon PIXMA IP-100 mobile printer

Canon PiXMA iP-100 mobile printer

If you use a computer on the road but always need to be able to turn out hard copy like invoices, receipts or contract documents that you give to your customer, these printers would suit your needs.

A printer with PictBridge or “print from removable media” abilities may come in handy if you need to turn out a draft print of a photo you took with your digital camera. An example of this may include photographing something you need to highlight to your customer and you want the large print so they can see it easily.

The scanning feature would come in handy for anyone who wants to take a hard-copy document to electronic form. Some applications may include sending a receipt or work-consent form that was signed by the customer via email to the office for filing.

Similarly, scanning a fuel-station’s till receipt to electronic form could be par for the course when it comes to keeping track of work expenses using your bookkeeping software and these printers could make it easier to do this chore “there and then” when you fill up your vehicle for example. This can then avoid the situation where you have a glove box full of fuel receipts yet to be “booked in” to your accounting system.

What you should know about using these printers

The mobile printers are best used as secondary or auxiliary printers that are intended for on-road use rather than as the main printer for your computing life. The reasons I would give for this is that they typically use consumables that are more expensive than regular desktop printers.

For example, the inkjet printers use a two-cartridge colour-printing system where you have to replace the colour cartridge if you run out of one of the colours. The thermal printers may require you to use thermal paper that comes as A4 cut sheets rather than as the classic “fax roll”.

Similarly these printers would take a longer time to print or scan the document than a regular desktop printer due to the use of smaller low-powered motors optimised for battery-powered use. The also can continuously feed a small number of sheets of paper which may make them unsuitable for turning out large documents.

At the time of writing, these printers don’t have any support for network-driven document printing so they wouldn’t be able to work properly with the typical smartphone or tablet that uses a mobile operating system.

Conclusion

The mobile printers are a fantastic computer accessory for your laptop computer but they don’t work well as a primary printer device when you are at home, at the office or at the shop. Rather they are best suited for printing small documents at the client’s site or in the hotel room.

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A CCTV hacking incident could be a lesson in system lifecycle issues

Article

How A Prison Had Its CCTV Hacked | Lifehacker Australia

My Comments

In this article, it was found that a prison’s video-surveillance system was compromised. The security team checked the network but found that it wasn’t the institution’s main back-office network that was compromised but a Windows Server 2003 server that was affected. This box had to be kept at a particular operating environment so it could work properly with particular surveillance cameras.

The reality with “business-durable” hardware and systems

Here, the problem was focusing on an issue with “business-durable” hardware like the video-surveillance cameras, point-of-sale receipt printers and similar hardware that is expected to have a very long lifespan, usually in the order of five to ten years. But computer software works to a different reality where it evolves every year. In most cases, it includes the frequent delivery of software patches to improve performance, remedy security problems or keep the system compliant to new operating requirements.

Newer software environments and unsupported hardware

The main problem that can occur is that if a computer is running a newer operating environment, some peripherals will work on lesser functionality or won’t work at all. It can come about very easily if a manufacturer has declared “end of life” on the device and won’t update the firmware or driver set for it. This also applies if a manufacturer has abandoned their product base in one or more of their markets and leaves their customers high and dry.

Requirement to “freeze” software environments

Then those sites that are dependent on these devices will end up running servers and other computer equipment that are frozen with a particular operating environment in order to assure the compatibility and stability for the system. This can then compromise the security of the system because the equipment cannot run newly-patched software that answers the latest threats. Similarly, the system cannot perform at its best or support the installation of new hardware due to the use of “old code”.

In some cases, this could allow contractors to deploy the chosen updates using removable media which can be a security risk in itself.

Design and lifecycle issues

Use standards as much as possible

One way to tackle this issue is to support standard hardware-software interfaces through the device’s and software’s lifecycle. Examples of these include UPnP Device Control Protocols, USB Device Classes, Bluetooth Profiles and the like. It also includes industry-specific standards like ONVIF for video-surveillance, DLNA for audio-video reproduction

If a standard was just ratified through the device’s lifespan, I would suggest that it be implemented. Similarly, the operating environment and application software would also have to support the core functionality such as through device-class drivers.

Provide a field-updatable software ecosystem

Similarly, a device would have to be designed to support field-updatable software and any software-update program would have to cover the expected lifespan of these devices. If a manufacturer wanted to declare “end of life” on a device, they could make sure that the last major update is one that enshrines all industry-specific standards and device classes, then encompass the device in a “software roll-up” program that covers compliance, safety and security issues only.

As well, a “last driver update” could then be sent to operating-system vendors like Microsoft so that the device can work with newer iterations of the operating systems that they release. This is more so if the operating-system vendor is responsible for curating driver sets and other software for their customers.

The device firmware has to work in such a way to permit newer software to run on servers and workstations without impairing the device’s functionality.

As well, the field-updating infrastructure should be able to work in a similar way to how regular and mobile computer setups are updated in most cases. This is where the software is sourced from the developers or manufacturers via the Internet, whether this involves a staging server or not. This should also include secure verification of the software such as code-signing and server verification where applicable.

Conclusion

What this hacking situation revealed is that manufacturers and software designers need to look seriously at the “business-durable” product classes and pay better attention to having them work to current expectations. This then allows us to keep computer systems associated with them up to date and to current secure expectations.

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Achieving a failover printer setup in your business

Brother HL-2240D compact monochrome laser printer

Brother HL-2240D compact monochrome laser printer – an example of a workflow printer

I have come across situations with small offices such as clinics who run one or more dedicated laser printers that turns out receipts, invoices and other documents as part of the customer-facing business workflow. Some offices may run the printers also for some back-office requirements like preparing reports or balance sheets for that workstation.

But there is the situation where the printer can break down, usually with a mechanical failure like frequent paper jamming. This can happen more frequently as a machine ages and is worked hard in a busy office. It is analogous to that situation most of us experience when a car gets to that point in its life where it frequently lives at the mechanic’s workshop and drills a hole in your pocket because it is always breaking down.

This situation can impair the business’s workflow especially as one has to work out how to rectify a paper jam or, in some cases, reset the machine. As well, no woman would want to ruin their beautifully-done fingernails knocking them on the machine’s internals while removing jammed up paper.

In these situations, it is a good idea to set up a failover printing arrangement where you have other printers that come in to play if the workstation’s primary machine fails. This is easier to achieve if all of the printers accessible to the office or reception area are linked to the network.

For example, you could use a multifunction for this purpose even though each workstation computer has a dedicated laser printer like the Brother HL-2240D or Dell 1130n. The multifunction printer, which is often expected to serve as the main copier and fax machine for the organisation, could be a machine like the Brother MFC-8370DN or HP LaserJet M1536dnf for a monochrome variety or a Brother MFC-9460CDN or HP LaserJet Pro Color M475 Series for a colour variety. Even one of the high-end business inkjets like the HP OfficeJet Pro 8600 could do the job just as well.

Some environments that have two or more workstations may prefer to have one workflow printer per workstation. Here, it would be preferable to connect the printers via the network rather than directly to the workstation computers. Here this can allow the other workflow printer to be used as a failover measure.

HP LaserJet M1536dnf monochrome laser multifunction printer

HP LaserJet M1536dnf monochrome laser multifunction printer – an example of a multifunction expected to be a small business’s copier and fax

But what you would have to do is to set up the workstations to use the printer that is local to them as well as this main multifunction printer or other workflow printer. This may be as simple as adding the driver set for the main printer to the computers or it may also require the line-of-business software to be set up to allow the use of two or more printers.

As far as default printers are concerned, you would have to set the primary dedicated printer as the default machine, then have the users select the main multifunction printer as a secondary printer whenever their primary printer fails. This can be done as part of ordering the print job in most software or going to the Printers option in the operating system and setting the multifunction printer as the default while the single-function workflow printer is out of action.

If you run a server-driven printing environment, it may be worth looking at options that allow failover printing so that print jobs that come from one workstation appear at particular printers in an order of availability.

Once you look at this option for setting up multiple printers in your office or reception area, you could then be sure of an arrangement where a printer failure doesn’t impede on your business workflow or affect how your business is perceived by the people your business benefits.

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How can the Occupy campaigns and cloud computing help the small or midsize business

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HP Blogs – How can Occupy Wall Street and Cloud Computing hel… – The HP Blog Hub

My Comments

The recent “Occupy” movements, which were assisted by the Social Web to create the critical mass, had an intended effort to highlight the resource disparity caused by big business to ordinary people, and small and midsize businesses.

This occurred at the same time that consumers and small-to-medium business were made heavily aware of the concept of “cloud-computing” and computing-as-a-service. In some ways, this can assist in making certain computing services that would be out of the reach of the 99% accessible to this group rather than the 1% which represents the “big end of town”.

When I visited the “Big Picture Experience” computing conference that was hosted by Microsoft in Melbourne this past Wednesday (AEDT), there was a lot of emphasis on this kind of cloud-computing and computing-as-a-service to effectively make a flexible workforce. Applications that were promoted included shared-document management and unified communications; with these applications linking to the business via Internet connections.

They even proposed that small and medium business who can’t afford their own servers have this functionality by renting these services from other companies in a similar way that we can rent disk space for our Web sites from Web-hosting companies like GoDaddy. It is also in a similar way to how some small business operators can work out of a garage yet are able to rent a self-storage lockup from Fort Knox or Big Yellow for storage of extra goods or hire a competent truck form Budget or U-Haul when they need extra trucks.

These concepts can open the door to the feasibility of smaller operations expanding without costing them an arm and a leg. It is because it could allow concepts like telecommuting or shared-desk business, which could lead to reducing the physical size of the business’s premises.

Cloud computing and computing-as-a-service can open up “big-business” paths to smaller operations. Examples of this may include hosted archiving-for-compliance or access to sophisticated business systems and practices like multi-tier loyalty programs for independent business.

This kind of computing can then become the big tide that lifts many boats up and yield flexibility across business sizes. In some ways, it could allow “big-business” hopes from small and medium business owners.

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What about having IMAP4 as a standard email protocol

Introduction

Most email services, especially those offered by consumer ISPs, use the old POP3 / SMTP protocols as the backbone for their email services. This works properly when only one computer is working as an email client because there is an expectation for the email to be downloaded off the mail server to that one computer.

Now the reality has changed due to Moore’s Law allowing for the ISP to offer email storage capacity to their customers in the order of gigabytes. As well, the computing paradigm has shifted towards people viewing their email from multiple devices. This has been brought about with small business owners having an office computer and a home computer, as well as the increasing popularity of smartphones, tablet computers and secondary-tier notebook computers like netbooks and 13”-14” ultraportables.

What does IMAP4 offer over POP3?

The IMAP4 technology requires email to be stored on the server and allows a copy of the mail to exist on the client devices. When the email client connects to the IMAP4 server, it simply synchronises all the email between the client and the server. This includes synchronising the client outbox to the server outbox in order to have emails being sent.

There is the ability for an IMAP4 setup to support “header-only” downloading, which would be of importance to people who use portable devices or low-bandwidth connections. As well, an IMAP4 setup can allow the user to operate in “offline” mode where synchronising is done when the user explicitly goes online so that users can prepare their email where Internet access is unavailable but synchronise when it is available.

Compared to POP3 / SMTP, this allows for increased flexibility when it comes to maintaining a mailbox from different email clients. Primarily, the contents of the same mailbox appear in all client devices that can access that mailbox. An example of this benefit would be that the Sent folder contains all messages that are sent from all of the clients rather than from that particular client. Similarly, one could “rough-out” an email using a smartphone or other portable device, then “finish it off” on the desktop because the email will be held in the Drafts mailbox folder.

It also supports the ability to create mailbox folders which will allow you to file the email in a manner that suits you, yet see the same filing arrangement across all your client devices.

It is also worth knowing that IMAP4 is the basic email protocol that OMTP have called as part of their standard for mobile “visual voicemail” services. These services allow a user to manage voicemail that they receive on their mobile phone in a similar manner to how they manage email on their computer or smartphone.

The status quo with IMAP4

IMAP4 is a free open-source technology that is independent of any licensing requirements; and nearly all email clients for desktop and mobile operating environments offer IMAP4 support as standard.

It is even though most of the consumer ISPs don’t offer it as an email protocol to their customers. This is while an increasing number of these providers are now offering mailboxes with gigabyte file capacities to new customers and upsizing existing customers’ mailboxes to these capacities. As well, the current range of data-centre equipment that works as mail servers can handle IMAP4 easily.

Some of these providers would rather offer a “hosted Exchange” service which would require the user to use Microsoft Outlook in Exchange mode. These services are more expensive to provide and may cost more for most personal and small-business users.

What could be done

An Internet service provider could offer IMAP4 mailboxes as a standard option for new customers or customers opening up new mailboxes. As well, they could offer it as a free upgrade option to existing customers, with information on how to convert from POP3 / SMTP to IMAP4.

This kind of setup that IMAP4 offers can allow telcos who offer Internet service and telephony as a bundle or triple-play services to provide a unified messaging environment where customers can manage their voicemail, fax and email from the same terminal. It also opens up ways for these companies to add value to their telephony and Internet services.

It also is a way of supporting the Internet-usage reality which is a reality driven by multiple-computer setups and portable computing.

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