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Plan for the Worst, Achieve the Best

November 7, 2017

The weeks blog centres around planning for availability.

Obviously this isn’t an all-encompassing check list for Disaster Recovery (DR) planning, but it should provide a high level starting point.

Availability, or uptime, are priorities for all businesses big and small. The keys to which are understanding and planning. -One important point to bear in mind, you don’t need to have all the information right away, and you don’t need to be overly granular straight away, that will come as the plan evolves.

Understanding: This is an entirely business orientated issue in the first instance.

  • Understand the business topology (departments, sub departments, etc)
  • Understand the way they work, and the tools they rely on.
  • From here you should be able to state which departments are the most important, and how long the business can live without these delivery areas – this helps to define your RPO’s and RTO’s.

At this point you can start your plan. As I’ve already mentioned, don’t get hung up on the details too early, IT is nothing more than a business enabler and as such the technology is arbitrary. Understand what the business does, and what it need to do as a bare minimum to keep operating.

Planning: Once you’ve established the business delivery area’s and their respective recovery objectives you can start to dig into the nitty gritty:

  • Where are these key services located?
  • How are they accessed? (this can play a large part, you need to make delivery of those tools & services as simple and cost effective as possible)
  • How often are they backed up?
  • Where & how are the backups stored? (are you meeting the 3-2-1 rule)
  • It’s important at this point to engage with your product vendors (either through your internal IT department or trusted IT partner) to understand what data is required to recover those respective services back into an operational state.

At this point you should have an understanding of where you are and where you need to be, and you can start putting together a Disaster Recovery plan, this should consist of:

  • Business Topology and the associated tools/services
  • RTO & RPO’s
  • Possible DR Scenarios (don’t get hung up on this, it’s impossible to predict every scenario, focus on the high level: specific localised failures, loss of the business premises, etc.)
  • Where the services will be located/recovered to
  • Vendor Contacts
  • Staff Contacts
  • DR Co-ordinators (who within your business will be responsible for co-ordinating the recovery, vendors and staff).

Now here comes a very important step: TESTING. Test your plan, recover your services in an isolated environment and review. Was it successful? Was it within your Recovery Objectives? If the answer to any of these is NO then you need to work with your vendors & IT partners to understand why and identify changes to address this.

It’s important to note that your DR process(s) is an evolving document. Every time there’s a change to the business, be it strategic or technical, look at how this affects the businesses Recovery Objectives and the DR Plan.

Every businesses DR plan will be unique to them, but as a general rule there are two area’s which can simplify the process and drive down Recovery Times:

  • Native High Availability – ensure your local resources have high availability and are fault tolerant (where possible). Mitigating the start of a disaster is far less costly than dealing with one! Look at moving your services into hosted offerings, Office 365 is a great example, Microsoft have spent billions making a highly available and fault tolerant infrastructure to provide it’s services. Piggy back on this and you can significantly mitigate the risks and impact of hardware and site failure.

As part of investigating this avenue with your prospective vendor, ask about their uptime SLA’s and DR plans, make sure you have confidence that they can meet their promises and keep your business running. It’s also worth looking at having a vendor agnostic backup of your data, at the end of the day it’s your data and keeping a copy in an independent location will help you achieve the 3-2-1 rule and protect your business

  • Implement An Availability Solution Not A Backup Solution – for those of you who read my previous blog you’ll know I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about backups. A backup is a copy of your data stored separately from the production copy of your data. For day to day file recovery that’s great but what about loss of whole services or hardware? Where are you going to restore your failed service(s) to? An availability solution should provide you with not only the backup mechanism but a place with which to recover to, be it local or in the cloud. It also goes some way to making your DR plan a lot simpler as you already have the recovery process in mind as well as a console to orchestrate from. Good backups will be a by-product of a good availability solution.

Written by; Russell Gower-Leech Bsc – Select Technology Systems Senior Project Consultant

Russ has been working in IT with MSP’s for over 10 years, starting as a support engineer and working his way up through field engineer, project engineer and finally found his calling as a Consultant. He really gets a kick out of designing technical solutions to meet, and exceed, Clients business needs.

He is one of Select’s Cloud Champions, helping clients leverage the power and flexibility of the hybrid cloud. He is also the in-house Veeam Evangelist – “I really love the flexibility and resilience of Veeam based solutions, especially as I spent the early parts of my career working with products like Backup Exec.”

Hear no Evil, See no Evil

November 1, 2017

The Insights Team are one of the proactive sides of our services department. We look after the software and tools that assist our engineers in delivering an excellent service. We’re also tasked with ensuring that the essentials, such as antivirus software, patching, cloud based email and backups are delivered consistently and efficiently.

Being proactive means that we operate outside of the regular service desk environment, where the focus is naturally on reacting to, and resolving issues when they arise.  We’re busy behind the scenes looking at how we can prevent the issue from occurring in the first place.

When our service desk processes a support ticket, they will gather as much relevant information as possible. This is not only important in providing a timely resolution, but it assists us greatly in building a better picture of the challenges our clients are facing.

Using our business intelligence tools, we perform regular reviews of the tickets we’ve handled recently. This enables us to identify trends and potential pain points, with a view to providing a solution to the root cause, rather than just the symptoms. If we see that 90% of a client’s tickets relate to failed backups, or there’s a spike in tickets relating to the wireless network, we’ll be asking why. This helps us to provide a truly proactive service. Using this intelligence, we can work with other areas of the business to provide long term solutions, reducing the number of support tickets that the client has to open.

Another area that’s constantly on our radar is efficiency. We’re always looking at better ways to carry out common tasks, which in turn leads to quicker resolution times for our clients. This can range from defining tried and tested processes for our engineers, to scripting the entire solution. Having spent a number of years on the service desk myself, I’m aware that time is limited for developing longer term efficiency savings ‘on the fly’. The priority has to be resolving live issues. The Insights Services team is ideally placed to take on these tasks.

Also hard at work in the background is our Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) software. This is busy detecting unpredictable issues as they arise, such as hardware failures and offline servers. The fine tuning of this system is an ever evolving task for the Insights Services team. We constantly look at ways of automatically healing issues that are detected, meaning there is a resolution long before the end user is affected.

Another important part of our work in Insights Services is carrying out regular reviews of the software and systems we deploy. In a fast paced industry, it’s essential to make sure we’re benchmarking our current packages against alternative offerings. By the same token, we’re always on the lookout for changes, or news within the industry which may affect our clients, such as a recently discovered security threat.

Working within Insights Services is a rewarding role. The changes we make are often subtle, however the benefits can be widespread.

The Consequences of Your (in)actions

October 26, 2017

If you were ever to make the journey down to the Select Technology office, as you walked through the door, you would be greeted by a wall that spells out our guiding principles as a business.

One of these values relates to Innovation. We believe that to be the best organisation we can be, we owe it to our customers to be continually improving. Looking at what we do and how we do it and changing where needed to ensure that we continue to be successful.

Innovation is an interesting concept. Some organisations seem to think that Innovation means change for changes’ sake. Some believe that Innovation and change are essential and will embrace change at any cost. While these viewpoints both have merit, most organisations choose to exist somewhere in the middle, keen to embrace the positive benefits of change but wary of breaking something that is fundamental to the success of their business.

Change, for good or for bad, should in my opinion always be embraced. Meaningful analysis of the impact of specific changes can help highlight the benefits and mitigate the risks. A thorough understanding of what works well within your business (possibly by embracing critical analysis of your business using tools such as Power BI) will help you gravitate toward changes that are positive by nature.

The reality today is that change is a constant. The digital economy means that, no matter how fast we run or how hard we work, someone will always have just worked out a more efficient, more streamlined way to do something, think of Blockbuster & Netflix or Text Vs. Instant Messaging.

Innovation in business can be tough. Wouldn’t we all love the time to be able to stop what we are doing for long enough to be able to analyse WHY we are doing it. However, to ensure that we are always at the forefront of our industry, this is exactly what we must do. We are genuinely seeing the death of “but that’s the way we have always done it.” Sure, there are organisations that believe that is right and will continue to say it, unfortunately for most organisations that think this way the clock is ticking.

Let’s look again at Blockbuster Video. In 1997, when Netflix was formed, Blockbuster was worth $8.4BN. They were utterly convinced that their way was the best way forward. They believed in it so completely and were so resistant to change that when, in 2000, when Netflix approached them about a merger (Reed Hastings was asking for only $50M for Netflix to become part of the Blockbuster business) they sent the internet upstart packing. The rest, as they say, is history. Netflix is now worth $65BN, at the time of it’s demise in 2010, Blockbuster was worth only $24m. Blockbuster did launch its own online streaming service, but by 2006 when it was launched, Netflix already had almost 10 years of experience in the market and Blockbuster just couldn’t compete.

We all owe it to ourselves to continue to have an open mind about how things can be done differently. That organisation that comes to you and tells you they have a new way of doing things should at least be listened to. It might not be the right way for you to go forward but no longer can we simply dismiss these approaches as we have done in the past. That is exactly what Blockbuster did.

Is Your IT Support Like a Leaky Boat?

October 19, 2017

I wrote a thought provoking blog back in August called the “The IT Service Value Paradox – “How not calling your IT Support Company is actually better value for your business

I thought it would be a good opportunity to follow up and put a bit more context surrounding this concept and ultimately what makes us different here at Select Technology.  Those who know me will know that I love a good metaphor, after all, in an often overly complicated world; it is a great way to simplify things and help re-frame people’s perspectives.  So here goes:

Support with no proactivity is like a team sitting in a leaky boat, a vicious cycle of continually bailing out water with seemingly no time to fix the holes while randomly drifting along with no plan for the direction of the boat or its desired destination.

Dissecting this metaphor and applying it in the context of the real world IT Support looks like this:

  • Think of the boat representing a support company’s clients
  • The people are the support team
  • The holes are clients risks and support exposure
  • The incoming water is the relentless incoming support
  • And the boat direction/destination is support strategy.

Of course in this situation any thought regarding proactivity is hampered by the relentless incoming water, the boat is therefore slow to move forward and reach its desired destination and the people are caught in a vicious cycle.

Whether in-house or outsourced, in IT there is always a degree of reactive time but most people would agree that not enough proactive time is available which just isn’t good for the business.

The value of our service is not judged by how many times you call us for help or how fast we react when you do – it’s actually about how we reduce risk and improve your business through our unique processes.  After all, when you call for support it’s because technology is limiting your business rather than complementing it.

We are different at Select Technology.  Alongside our busy Helpdesk – we have dedicated teams and unique processes designed to continuously look after our clients proactively resulting in better results.

  • We have teams whose sole purpose is to find those holes in the boat and devise strategies to remove or reduce them
  • We have teams who spend scheduled time onsite regularly reviewing our clients infrastructure against our best practices to ensure risks are mitigated
  • We have Leadership teams who meet with our clients quarterly to have business discussions and how technology can help achieve their business goals.

Our unique approach brings stronger and more predictable results, which fundamentally reduces business risk meaning we enjoy relationships that are more positive with our clients.  For us it’s about positive actions which lead us all to positive results.

Leveraging the Power of Azure – Dipping Your Toes in the Cloud

October 12, 2017

I was recently speaking at a Microsoft-sponsored Azure workshop held at Select Technology. Talking to the customers it become clear very quickly that lots of them struggle with inflexibility and lack of scalability within their current IT infrastructure.

Unlike some of the enterprises I have worked for in the past, small businesses are not always fortunate enough to have large and redundant server/ network infrastructure which can be used for unexpected workload increase or simply research and development (R&D). Sometimes it can simply down to physical growth, the server room cannot host any more hardware.

In fact, I was recently talking to one of our clients who were looking to upgrade, or even possibly replace, two of their core business applications. The challenges they had were: one, no hardware to utilise for R&D and two, they preferred to test the product before investing in it to establish if its fit for purpose. The only option they believed they had was to put some capital investment into server and storage hardware, to be able to test these applications. We will see later on in this blog how we addressed these challenges for the client, without any investment in the hardware.

In this blog we will see how you can start looking at Azure to migrate workloads. Azure is a truly hybrid public cloud, which gives you the ability to leverage the power of the cloud in conjunction with your on-premise infrastructure.

Hybrid Public Cloud? Another IT buzz phrase?

Not really. How many of you out there are already using Microsoft Office 365, or online accounting packages, and still have files and applications on on-premise servers – if you do, you are hybrid. More and more application vendors are now providing online alternatives for their products, so hybrid environments are becoming more and more common.

So how can you start dipping your toes in the Cloud?

Research and Development – Azure gives you the ability to test new applications by quickly spinning up virtual infrastructure. It gives you the ability to get it wrong – yes that’s right, you don’t have to worry about over or under spec’ing hardware or a solution. Going back to the example at the beginning of the blog, we created 3 virtual machines for the client in Azure to test their new applications and make a decision on whether or not they wanted to adopt the application. It gave the developer the freedom to work on the application and right size the servers before going Live. The biggest advantage that they had was that they could simply turn it off and it will not cost them a penny, but what if the client had invested in the hardware to test the application, and then discovered it’s not fit for purpose?

Storage in Azure – Many of you Infrastructure engineers out there will be able to relate to this. Storage is one of the very expensive components in the IT infrastructure but no one really wants to own the data. People leave but data never leaves, it’s kept for that “just in case moment” and it’s the same with shared and application data. So it makes sense for such archive data to be migrated to Azure storage. Typically for the same amount of SAN storage, you can buy 4 times the Azure storage for archive data.

Extending your current infrastructure – If your infrastructure is at its full physical capacity, Azure becomes an obvious choice as it’s truly hybrid. It supports site to site VPNs and dedicated express routes into the Azure. You can host services into Azure without physically expanding your current server room.

Backup and Disaster Recovery (DR) – Many of the small to medium size businesses operate from a single premises. Data is backed up to a backup server on the same site and most of the time in the same server room. The only form of offsite backups are tapes or external hard drives. Gone are the days when once an evening backups were sufficient. Businesses want frequent backups throughout the day (refer to my colleague Russell’s blog of 16th May here). In addition, what about DR if you don’t have a secondary site? Azure’s site recovery manager gives you the ability to easily and economically have a DR solution without having the need for a secondary site.

Public Facing Apps – Businesses no longer operate in isolation. There is an increasing demand on businesses to share data with clients, partners and suppliers. If your infrastructure has the capacity and your internet lines are fast and resilient, you can probably achieve this internally. But what if they are not? I will give you an example of another client we recently worked for, who was in similar situation. The Customer had a 70-30 split between mobile engineers and office based staff. They were looking to upgrade their “Field Resource Allocation” software, accessed both internally and by the mobile engineers. It made sense to host the software at an easily accessible and central location and Azure was the obvious choice for them. The application is now in Azure, and accessible by both office based and mobile staff.

The sky is the limit when designing new solution and incorporating Azure, due to the hybrid nature of the platform. Above are just a few examples to provide food for thought but just imagine the possibilities of working with more mature workloads such as:

High Performance Compute
Business Intelligence and Analytics
SAP and SharePoint on Azure

At Select Technology we have a hybrid cloud-centric ethos and this is reflected by our Microsoft Gold Small and Midmarket Cloud Solution Partnership. Speak to us and we can help you with the options you have available to leverage the power of Azure.

Written by Mantej Yadav, Senior Project Consultant, MS Office 365 and MS Azure MCP.

With over 12 Years’ experience in Technical Roles ranging in Public, Private and Charity sectors, Mantej brings the experience working in the large corporates and passion for utilising IT tools to achieve business objectives.

With keen interest in virtualisation and cloud technologies, he is the in-house Cloud-Evangelist – “I get a buzz out of working with clients to identify their business IT requirements and design an IT solution which enables them to achieve their business objectives”.  

In addition to the providing IT Consultation to the clients, Mantej is keen on presenting and benefits of modern IT tools and speaking at events like Kent Vision Live 2020 and at Microsoft sponsored workshops.