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I used to work for an IT department at a well-known UK-based global insurance company.control room monering a network

One of the most important pieces of software was our network management system or NMS. This system monitored the network and alerted us when something went wrong. But because the network was designed to be fault tolerant, the users (usually!) did not notice when part of the system failed. So, the senior managers at the company were always bemoaning the cost of the network management system and any time we wanted to implement improvements the reaction was “but nothing ever goes wrong so why are we paying all this money for software that draws pretty graphs but adds nothing to the bottom line?” You can see where this is going can’t you?

Our network had at least two separate connections into each major branch location. If one of these failed, service to the location was unaffected.

Imagine if one of those lines failed and nobody knew about it. Service would continue pretty much as normal. But at some point in the future you can bet the other line would also fail. Then, chaos! The business would be severely impacted for the hours or even days required to locate and fix the fault. That’s where monitoring systems prove their worth. When one element fails, the support team can schedule a repair, the service remains unaffected and, importantly, prepared for the next single failure. Same goes for upgrades. One element can be taken out of service, upgraded, tested, and then reactivated and in this manner the whole network gets upgraded with no loss of service.

Can you say the same about your IT systems?

Fake news is highly topical just now, least of all due to President Trump’s infamous speeches and prolific tweets. It is easy to think that he is talking mince but maybe, once in a while, he is not wrong – who knows?

camper vanI was at a networking meeting last week when I was reminded by one of the attendees of the story of the guy who successfully sued the manufacturers of his motorhome because he crashed when, having set the cruise control to 70mph, he left the driving seat to make a cup of coffee. The motorhome, of course, according to the story, went off the road and overturned. He was subsequently awarded a humungus amount of cash by the court.

Despite the very low probability that he would have survived a crash at that speed, just how likely is that someone could be so stupid? Or that the courts would be so idiotic (well maybe the law is an ass!)

Another story was about a mother who was awarded a massive sum after she broke an ankle when she tripped over a toddler who was running amok in a store. The punch line is, of course, that the child in question was her own! Strangely enough this story was included in an episode of the TV drama Boston Legal (“Tabloid Nation,” original air date 8 April 2008).

So why are we so ready to believe in such nonsense?

Well, generally because it tends to reinforce our built-in prejudices – something the scientific community would call “confirmation bias”. In this case the stories illustrate how daft the legal system is – usually aimed at Health & Safety laws, often aimed at the USA legal system, where litigation seems to us Brits to be particularly aggressive. Something we all “know to be true.”

Great stories and who wouldn’t want them to be true? And, even if proven to be false, who cares – they’re just a bit of fun, right?

The trouble is that when we stop questioning things, we start to believe stuff that is simply not true and the more, shall we say unprofessional, marketing companies profit from our gullibility.

The Internet has made the spread of these so-called Urban Myths much faster and wider than ever before and Facebook in particular seems to be rife with hoaxes and untruths like the recent one that warns not to read posts by a particular person or he will hack you (not possible). The goal seems to be to get us share it with as many people as we can.

But the Internet also provides a ready means to check them out – and I would urge you do so before deciding to pass on a funny, interesting, or possibly scary, anecdote.

The website snopes.com is an excellent resource for quickly checking whether a particular story is fact or fiction. See www.snopes.com/legal/lawsuits.asp for the truth about the two stories mentioned here and more besides. It can be really interesting, and much more fun, when you discover that the unlikely story you just heard is actually true!

We used to say, “don’t believe everything you read in the papers.” Perhaps now it must be “don’t believe everything you read on the Internet” (or hear at networking meetings!)

Working outdoors I was having a meeting with someone (lets call him Jeff) over coffee last week when the topic got onto where we actually do our work. Jeff is your typical office worker who has an office with 2 PCs, 2 printers and is in the office at 9am on the dot and does not leave until 6pm at the earliest. For 90% of his time he is bound to his desk as he thinks he is more productive that way. If that works for him I am not going to knock it but then we got talking about me.

My style of working is completely different to Jeff’s. I have set up ComTech to be a mobile business (just look at the top picture), which means I am not tied to a desk all day unless I choose to be. I have an office setup with my lovely iMac and multiple monitors but I also have a mobile setup which allows me to work from anywhere when the weather is nice or I just fancy a change of scenery. “But how can you help your clients if you are half way up a hill somewhere?” was Jeff’s response to this.

My mobile setup consists of the following:

  1. EE myfi (4G) and Three myfi (3G) which covers my internet needs.
  2. Lenovo 10 inch Android tablet and Acer Chromebook for actually doing the work.
  3. Teamviewer for remote access and Pulseway for remote monitoring of my clients systems
  4. Ankar powerpack for tablet and myfi (Chromebook has 12 hours of battery life)

This setup has proved its worth time and again and multiple clients have been helped when I am out and about. It is a standing joke with a lot of my clients that they ask “Where are you today then?” before they tell me what their problem is!

I am not saying this approach works for everything and yes, there are times when I have to sit at a desk to finish a piece of work or project but most times it gives me the flexibility to choose how and where I do my work. In almost 7 years of business I have never failed to respond to a client with the SLA of 4 hours and I am usually much quicker than this. For those times when boots are required on the ground the car is never that far away either.

Like I said earlier this approach works for me and makes my work / life balance more enjoyable but it may not work for everyone so let's start the conversation. What works for you?

Should broadband now be classed as a right? This is something I have been asked by quite a few people recently and to be honest I am still undecided. You see the problem is when I think of rights I think of shelter, food, water and that kind of stuff. People wanting to access their Facebook page and access to the internet in general doesn’t come in to it.

There is a problem here though, and it is a BIG problem, everything these days revolves around the internet in some shape or form. Everything that effects our daily life – food, money, transport etc is affected by the internet in some way so even if you aren’t online yourself you can guarantee that the things you use will have been influenced by it. Perhaps I am being narrow minded thinking people only want to use the internet for social reasons and should instead look at it as a tool to provide better opportunities for everyone.

So with more and more services going online are people without access to broadband being left behind? Probably is the answer to that but is the answer to give broadband the same status as shelter, food and water? I’m still not sure but if it does get it then enormous amounts of broadband investment is needed.

Discuss!!!!

1980 portable computerIt’s a well-worn phrase that is used, perhaps overused, as an excuse for procrastination. Sometimes it is because business managers have other priorities and only think about their IT systems when something has already gone wrong or when they get an inkling that something is not quite right.

The cost of fixing a problem after it has already happened can often be much higher than preventing it in the first place. To quote Benjamin Franklin, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The longer a problem is allowed to continue or a risk is not addressed, the more difficult (and expensive) it becomes to resolve. Like the untreated stone chip in the windscreen that eventually shatters, a minor annoyance that is easily resolved can quickly become a catastrophe. The chances are that if a computer is running slow or producing the occasional error message, you have already missed the opportunity to prevent the problem, or at least mitigate it.

So what should you do?

The most important thing to do is act in a timely manner. An independent health check will help you to identify potential issues in time to enable corrective or, better preventative, actions to be taken. Those actions may need to be implemented quickly and efficiently, so be honest about your own capabilities and availability – if you need help, get it!

Even if there are no major problems uncovered by the exercise, there is almost always a payback in terms of opportunities for improvement. This is where the external perspective can really help.

Finally, let me leave you with this thought: the 1980's portable computer in the image worked fine at the time...
helping individuals and small businesses with their IT challenges.

flat tyre on a carA few weeks ago I went to an evening networking event about 50 minutes drive from home. Not long after I got onto the motorway, I noticed that the car was running a bit “rough”. It felt like a faint vibration from the engine. It wasn’t terrible, but knowing the car so well, I could feel it.

As I got near the venue, it got worse and soon I heard a loud rubbing and banging noise coming from the back end. Now I was worried.

I parked and as I suspected the rear tyre was flat. The event was due to start soon so I went into the hotel and found the conference room. I met some friends (and made some) had some coffee and did all the networky things.

By the time it was over, it was dark. It had started to rain; that drizzly dampness that seems so light but permeates everything. I got out the jack and extracted the spare from its hidey hole under the floor. I removed the wheel – it was heavy – did I say it had big, wide, alloys? Using the light from my phone, I finally got the wheel changed and inflated it to the correct pressure. I wrestled the old wheel into the boot, threw in the jack and other bits n’ bobs and headed home.

Turns out the tyre could not be salvaged. It had probably already been soft and leaking air when I left the house, hence the vibration I’d misdiagnosed earlier. If I’d known that, or recognised the symptoms I might have saved the tyre (and £120)!

So, what’s this got to do with IT?

I have now fitted a tyre pressure monitoring system. From inside the car, I can see the pressure in each tyre on a small display. It even alerts me with loud bleeping if it falls too low.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could be alerted when something started to go wrong with your computer – maybe even before there were any noticeable symptoms? It might save you money. It might even save your business. Maybe it will just give you peace of mind.

Well, you can.

At ComTech we use a system that allows us to monitor our customers’ servers, PCs, and other IT equipment and software. It continually measures hundreds of parameters and alerts us when something is not right whether it be a runaway program using too many resources, a hard disk on its last legs, or a broken cooling fan. It lets us know when backups didn’t complete successfully. It even tells us when software updates and security patches are needed and lets us implement them remotely – before disaster strikes.

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