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IT Outsourced  

Full circle

Before personal computers were made popular in the 1980’s, computing usually involved large, expensive ‘mainframe’ computers with a multitude of terminals for operators who performed various tasks. Mainframes were expense to purchase and were seen in large facilities with full time technical staff to perform maintenance and routines. The personal computer allowed individuals and businesses to utilize many of the benefits of a computer without the high initial cost and overheads of a mainframe. As time progressed, this desktop computer was adopted into many departments and the need to share information evolved into complex networks of computers and servers to host services that can be shared across the entire organization. The latest advances in technology have brought us right back to the start again, with the development of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure.

Virtual desktops are like any other workstation that you are familiar with the exception that they do not exist in the physical world. Virtual desktops are created on a server either at your business or at a hosting site somewhere in the world. You can access a virtual desktop from your mobile device, a special terminal called a ‘thin client’, or a personal computer. Virtual desktops increase mobility and also provide a stable platform in a controlled environment. Why would you access a virtual desktop from a personal computer?

  • Existing workstations are often utilized as ‘terminals’ to the virtual environment.
  • Local workstations can act as a backup to the virtual environment should the system fail.
  • Virtualization has increased reliability over a traditional network.

 

Thin clients are special devices that look very much like a computer, except they are much smaller. They have ports to plug in a network cable, keyboard, mouse and even USB devices like printers. A good thin client can run for $300 and up, but have no local storage or ability to work independently. Thin clients are regarded as having a much longer life than computers, and are better able to handle harsh environments.

Virtual desktops have a much longer life span because they are separated from the physical layer. You are limited by the capacity of the server you put in place. Virtual desktops are not much different than a regular computer and can run everything from Windows XP to Windows 8.1. Virtual desktops are similar to regular computers in the fact that they can have all the same problems you would have on a regular desktop computer, but recovery times are much shorter since virtual desktops can take minutes to recreate.

A small office of 10 workstations might cost anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 to setup. A virtual environment of similar size is going to cost 25% to 50% more than this but the virtual environment is more stable, has lower maintenance costs and provides access for a mobile workforce. Virtualization is dropping in cost all the time as demand increases. Vendors are also starting to provide workstation access as a service from central ‘cloud’ based centres allowing companies to expand without investing in infrastructure.

Receptionist phones in sick? Someone from accounting moves to the reception desk to cover but is still able to perform many of their tasks. Have the flu but can’t afford to get behind? Stay at home, remote from your mobile device or home computer. Virtual Desktops may not be a solution for every business but there are more and more organizations starting to evaluate and consider this technology.



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Is no UPS actually an oops?

UPS’s (Uninterruptable Power Supply) are designed to keep your computer running during a power outage, and also provide a cleaner level of power to your electronic equipment. These can range from about $100 and up depending on the features and application. Several years ago, I was talking with a person new to the Okanagan and he asked if the power always failed this often. I guess in the lower mainland they have a better infrastructure and power failures are less frequent. I think we have grown used to it but there are some things you need to be aware of.

UPS’s provide protection during power outages. Often you can continue to work for a short period of time, and shut down your computer in a normal fashion if the outage is longer than the battery life of your UPS. UPS’s are designed to provide a certain level of wattage and the biggest problem I see is people overloading their UPS. A standard computer and monitor will run for about 5 min on a entry level UPS. Printers draw a considerable amount of power and should never be plugged into a UPS, or at least not a base model.

Some UPS’s have special plugs that do not provide short term power, but do provide surge protection. Lightning strikes can cause massive surges, but even things like turning on lights and equipment can generate a surge or spike.

Advanced models can also provide power conditioning, meaning the power that comes to the equipment is more consistent and will greatly extend the life of the device. The most expensive UPS’s actually provide full time power to the electronics continuously and are recharging at the same time if power is available.

UPS’s are critical I will not setup a server without one, but are they a cost effective solution for most businesses at the desktop level? Let’s look at a typical setup. Say you have 4 computers in the office, and you buy decent quality equipment for about $900. Many years ago, A friend of mine in the telephone industry said a PBX system in the Okanagan would last about 7-8 years without a UPS and 10-12 years with one. For arguments sake, I’m going to say a UPS extends the life of electronic equipment by 33%.

4 Computer Office:

  YEARS EXPECTED LIFE COST 12 YR. AGGREGATE
No UPS 12 3 $3600 $14,400
UPS 12 4 $3600 $10,800
UPS Costs 12 3 $  500 $  2,000
        $12,800
Estimated Savings over 12 years       $  1,600

...or better put, about $30 per year per computer.

If you do the calculation for 4 year expected life without a UPS and 5 years with a UPS, the cost savings are almost zero. People will keep their computers longer than 3 years, and in fact it’s usually a productivity issue that prompts replacement before failure. One cost I cannot calculate is the cost of lost productivity when the power goes down. Some programs like Microsoft Word will actually create a backup while you are working that you can use to recover a document if the power was to fail. My recommendation is to have a UPS on each computer, but it’s not a recommendation I find customers are likely to follow and realistically it’s the productively costs that are the only real factor in using them for workstations. Servers and all your centralized network equipment (routers, switches, etc) should always be protected, as these failures can take days to repair, and affect all users.



Who's your daddy?

Most companies these days have a website, or are in the process of establishing some sort of presence on the web. People all over the world start up their computers and connect to the internet using some sort of browsing software. Popular browsers are Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Firefox. Often you use a search engine like google.ca to find websites that match your search but you can also type in a domain name of websites you see in various media. As a business owner there are three critical pieces of information you need to know about your presence on the web;

  • Who are you registered with (called a Registrar).
  • Who is the administration contact.
  • Who is the technical contact.

When you open a browser and type www.castanet.net, your computer requests an IP address of this domain. Occasionally you can run into localized issues with this, but generally, everybody will get the same information back. The Registrar determines who owns and controls a domain name and what information is given out when requested. There are several companies who provide registration services, with www.GoDaddy.com currently being the most popular. There are fees associated with domain registration and competition is very high. Registrations are usually annual. When you fail to pay your registration, you run the risk of someone taking control of your website. Once you lose that control there are processes in place where you can take control back, and you can even seize control of domain names via the court systems.

If changes are requested to the registration or payment is due, it is the administrative contact that deals with this. This is critical, since the administrative contact controls who makes changes to the website, and who controls the website. Where I work, we highly recommend that you maintain this control. Allowing an outside company to be listed as the administrative contact can jeopardize your website presence. Relationships change and the individual or company who set up your domain may no longer be available or reliable.

The technical contact is the person or company responsible for making changes to the records contained at the registrar about where your website is, and where things like your email go. The resource records direct traffic to various locations based on the type of information. Website hosting companies will often request an A Record for the domain. For instance, www.castanet.net is actually located at 162.159.248.113, which is the IP address of the domain. Emails to Castanet would go to a different location and be handled by different servers. Some of the records related to email flow can be very complicated and require high levels of knowledge.

It’s very important to manage your domain by paying your registration and maintaining the correct administrative contact information. Imagine driving to work one day and several billboards, and even the very building you work in, give false information about how to contact your company. If you have a website, you need to make sure the information presented is correct, and that you control access to it.



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Poor communications

Poor communications have caused a lot of problems over the years. Fortunately for you I’m not a therapist and this isn’t a self-help column, so we’ll be limiting ourselves to communications of the kind that happen between computers. You think we humans have communications problems…

Let’s start with a simple history lesson on computer communications. The precursor of modern networks started with hubs, and a cable running to each computer. Network cabling contains the signal, and each computer acts like a radio station, and we call this Ethernet communications. Each computer listens at the cable, and if they hear nothing, they would try and broadcast their information for all the others to hear. The computer the broadcast was intended for receives the information. If two computers try and broadcast at the same time, the whole system resets and randomly restarts. A network cable contains 4 pairs of wires and only two pair are used. Theoretically, this could carry 10 million bits of data per second (mb/s), but with the system resetting so frequently on busy networks, it was more realistic to say it carried about 4 mb/s. If you had 10 pictures from a good digital camera, and were transferring them over the network, you could expect it to take about 80 seconds.

Hubs have been replaced with switches, which isolate traffic, allowing multiple computers to broadcast at the same time. Technology improvements allowed computers to send and receive at the same time, using the pairs of wires differently. Data speeds on most networks today are capable of 100mb/s, and in the last few years, most computers are capable of 1000mb/s or 1 billion bits of data per second. Those same 10 pictures can take 8 seconds, and less than a second, respectively. So, if things are so much faster, how come it doesn’t feel any faster?

Network cabling is not like running electrical wire. Just because you have a connection, doesn’t mean it’s going to work well. Imagine a lamp getting half or a third of the power, and burning dimly. Any computer you buy today should be capable of 1000mb/s or Gigabit Ethernet. Many offices have replaced their switches with new switches capable of supporting Gigabit speeds. Unfortunately, I would estimate that 80% of the cabling I see is poor. It might work, but you can’t expect that it will be fast just because it connects. Running at these high speeds is only possible when the cabling is excellent. The network drops down to lower speeds in order to communicate efficiently when conditions are poor. The process of negotiating or switching speeds also causes delays, causing further problems.

Common signs of problem cabling:

  • Metal staples securing cables - Staples cause problems and are not used by professional installers.
  • Cabling kinked or bent to sharp angles - Kinks and bends disrupt the twists in the cable causing interference.
  • Data cables alongside power or florescent lights - Cables can run across lights or power, but not parallel.
  • Cables have identification printed on them that say Cat 5 or Cat 4 - These are older cables and not designed to support higher transmission speeds. Ensure you have Cat 5e as a minimum.
  • Cable ends should terminate in a jack and should not have an end crimped on - Homemade cables are prone to failure and indicate a poor quality installation job. Patch cables between the jack and computer are very reliable and cheap.


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About the Author

Mark Smed started as a self-employed consultant, integrating computers into small business in 1989.  The range of work expanded into installing networks and consulting with businesses on the fast paced changes in technology.  As his career progressed he taught Network Administration at a small business college and continued to build his base of clients. 

Today, Mark works for Northern Computer Inc. (http://www.northerncomputer.ca) as a consultant, specialist and technician.  His client base continues to grow and many of his clients have worked with him for over 10 years now.  In 2001, Mark joined the Network Professional Association (http://www.npa.org) and now sits on the board of directors and is responsible for publishing the Network Professional Journal for the association.

Mark can be reached at [email protected]erncomputer.ca.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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