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September 1, 2015

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Why SMBs are Using the Cloud to Leverage Mobility

One of the core drivers behind the emergence of cloud-based services for small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) is flexibility. Having the flexibility to access applications, data and infrastructure anytime, from anywhere, leads to faster decision-making, improved customer service and responsiveness, greater productivity, more collaboration and more innovation.

 

In fact, a recent study found that 91 percent of organizations using the cloud have at least one employee working remotely. Nearly one in five companies say the majority of their workforce works remotely.

 

SMBs are increasingly turning to an Infrastructure-as-a-Service model in which applications, hardware, software, storage and other tools and services are hosted by a third-party service provider and accessed on virtually any Internet-connected device. These resources can be scaled on demand and shift the financial burden of IT procurement, management and maintenance to the provider.

 

Of course, another big reason for the popularity of the cloud is the popularity of smartphones and tablets. Mobility and the cloud are speeding forward side by side as employees demand the highest levels of performance and reliability when accessing the corporate network from their favorite mobile devices. To meet this demand, organizations are making investments in mobile-friendly infrastructure and ensuring that devices, applications and data are running in the cloud.

 

The cloud fills a very basic need for the mobile workforce – the ability to remotely access files and applications. Documents can be reviewed, edited, stored and sent from any device. Manager approvals no longer require a trip back to the office.

 

Unified communications and collaboration tools allow employees to use a variety of channels to seamlessly communicate with colleagues and customers. Videoconferencing no longer requires high-tech conference rooms and complex planning. All an employee needs is a smartphone or tablet and login information.

 

The key advantage of the cloud – anytime, anywhere access to network resources – also creates a downside. Organizations that rely upon the cloud to support mobility are also relying upon mobile employees to establish and manage their own Internet connectivity. This can lead to service degradation, which prevents users from taking full advantage of a flexible working arrangement. The cost of access to cloud resources, if not monitored and controlled, can quickly wipe out any financial gains of cloud computing. Finally, security can be compromised by users who visit questionable websites, download malicious software, utilize unsecure networks, or fall prey to phishing scams.

 

Mobile policy management (MPM) can overcome these issues by establishing and automatically enforcing policies that provide greater control over how the cloud is used. Networks used to connect to the Internet are prioritized and selection is controlled by policy. This can significantly reduce support costs and optimize data usage while simplifying the user process for accessing cloud resources. From a security standpoint, MPM protects corporate data and applications by preventing the use of rogue networks that are often labeled as “free Wi-Fi.” It also allows users to roam between networks without security or compliance issues.

 

ICG’s IT-as-a-Service (ITaaS) solution is focused on making businesses more flexible and agile. It includes virtualized server infrastructure, hosted email, automated and managed backup, Microsoft Office licensing, remote desktops, and a comprehensive suite of security tools. Let ICG show you how our cloud services can help you take full advantage of mobility and flexible working.

July 16, 2015

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Ignore Disaster Planning at Your Own Peril

Hurricane season has been quiet so far. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from recent history, it’s that it only takes one major storm to turn thousands of small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) upside down. Unfortunately, most SMBs won’t realize just how unprepared they are until that devastating storm takes down their network and brings business operations to a standstill.

 

A new survey from Office Depot found that 27 percent of SMBs closed their doors within the past year because of weather-related issues. Despite that fact, only about two-thirds of small business owners believe a disaster plan is necessary, and just 57 percent believe they’re prepared for a natural disaster. Respondents believe Internet and phone service would be most vulnerable during a natural disaster, and lost customer data would have the greatest impact on their company.

 

Although most people associate network downtime with storms, floods and fires, natural disasters are only responsible for a small percentage of outages. For example, a security breach is much more likely to take down your network, whether it’s caused by a careless employee, outdated security tools or sophisticated cybercriminals. A relatively minor car accident near your facility could cause a power outage that takes days to fix.

 

Organizations of all sizes, including SMBs, must have a strategy in place for restoring access to mission-critical data and applications with little or no disruption to business operations, regardless of the cause of disaster. Every minute of downtime will cost your company in terms of dollars and reputation.

 

The good news for SMBs is that new technology is bringing enterprise-grade disaster recovery capabilities to smaller organizations. Cloud-based backup, storage and disaster recovery services eliminate the need to purchase and maintain equipment onsite and manage a remote backup site. The emergence of mobile enables employees to remotely access data, applications and business systems in the cloud from virtually any Internet-connected device. With the cloud, you pay only for those resources and services you use.

 

Other disaster recovery options for SMBs include server virtualization, which makes it possible to create a remote copy of an entire data center to ensure fast recovery times. Many organizations are turning over disaster recovery responsibilities to an outside managed services provider. This enables an SMB to leverage the provider’s world-class expertise and technology and spend less time on day-to-day disaster recovery tasks.

 

SMBs should focus on backup and security to ensure the effectiveness of their disaster recovery strategy. The data on a server, computer or mobile device is typically much more valuable and important than the technology itself, so you need to make sure that data is protected and regularly backed up.

 

Are you completing backups? Are they working? How frequently are you backing up your data, applications and business systems? How will you access them when the network goes down? Is your security software up to date? Is the network being monitored to detect potential threats? What preventive measures are being taken to minimize the impact of a disaster? When was the last time you tested your disaster recovery plan?

 

ICG can help you answer these and other questions to ensure that your disaster recovery strategy works. Let’s sit down and go over your company’s business requirements, backup processes and security infrastructure so we can help you develop a plan that minimizes the downtime, cost and impact of a disaster.

April 10, 2015

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Why You Can’t Fully Leverage Collaboration without Mobile

Employees are bringing more and more mobile devices into the workplace — the so-called Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) phenomenon. Organizations that encourage the use of smartphones and tablets for real-time, mobile collaboration are seeing measurable lifts in productivity, teamwork and innovation. No longer “nice to haves,” the right mobile devices and strategy are now essential to effective collaboration.

 

Today’s smartphones and tablets offer many of the same capabilities as desktop computers without tying users to a physical office. Larger mobile touchscreens, simpler user interfaces, more reliable Internet connections, and better video and voice over IP (VoIP) features are enabling more effective communication, faster decision-making, greater flexibility and easy content sharing.

 

While a fragmentation of options and a lack of standardization have held back mobile collaboration to a degree, Gartner analysts say most collaboration applications will be equally available on desktops and mobile devices by 2016. The emergence of BYOD, cloud file-sharing capabilities, and readily available mobile applications are expected to drive more widespread adoption of mobile collaboration, according to Gartner.

 

The Shift from Web-Centric to App-Centric Mobility

 

The previously web-centric mobile environment has moved to an app-centric model as mobile applications have become the primary portal for accessing information and performing specialized tasks. This model has extended to the business world, where enterprises are developing apps designed to enhance specific job functions as well as support their customers.

 

Research from Forrester shows that 60 percent of organizations are updating their infrastructure to support mobile applications. Employees are demanding anytime, anywhere access to video and web conferencing, content and screen sharing, instant messaging and presence.

 

In the past these features were underutilized on smartphones and tablets due to a less-than-optimal user experience. However, design and functionality improvements are now enabling organizations to fully leverage mobile collaboration.

 

Choosing the Right Mobile Collaboration Apps

 

Before any discussion about applications begins, you need to assess how your organization collaborates and what tools are being used. Identify strengths and weaknesses, and understand the advantages and risks of utilizing your existing investments. Analyze your most basic business requirements and what capabilities are lacking. Determine how specific mobile collaboration apps will support and enhance specific areas of your business operations. While mobile collaboration can dramatically improve how you do business, a poorly planned implementation will create more problems than it solves.

 

The Future of Mobile Collaboration

 

The next generation of mobile collaboration is being driven by user experience and flexible workflows. Users expect to be able to seamlessly multitask on different devices. They want to create a document on their tablet, and edit and email it from their smartphone. Hardware- and software-based security features such as encryption and fingerprint scanning will become more sophisticated, but not at the expense of user experience and flexibility.

 

ICG can transform your employees’ smartphones and tablets into powerful business communications platforms, and create custom mobile apps that enhance customer service and streamline workflows. Let us help you take full advantage of mobile collaboration.

February 13, 2015

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Cloud Storage, NAS or Both?

The simultaneous explosions of big data and mobility have organizations scrambling to figure out the best way to store and back up data. While the amount of data being produced and the number of devices being used has skyrocketed, storage and backup strategies haven’t been able to keep up. This can have a significant impact on performance, productivity, customer service and disaster recovery.

 

There are two primary storage options for small to midsize businesses:

 

Cloud-based storage has emerged as an appealing option because capital expenses are minimal and storage management becomes the responsibility of the cloud service provider. The provider is responsible for purchasing, maintaining and updating the storage infrastructure. By storing and backing up data remotely, organizations can avoid the cost of constantly adding storage capacity while improving disaster recovery. However, latency and bandwidth issues are common drawbacks of the cloud, especially with the high-performance demands of primary storage.

 

Network-attached storage (NAS) is a storage appliance that has its own IP address and is connected to the network. Primarily used for file sharing and storage, some modern NAS devices can also be used as multimedia, print, email and database servers. To enhance disaster recovery, NAS products can be configured for data backup and monitoring, and a failing disk drive can be “hot-swapped” with a new drive without shutting down the NAS.

 

There are a number of factors to consider when evaluating cloud storage and NAS:

 

  • NAS typically costs more upfront because you have to purchase, install and configure the device. As storage demands increase, you’ll probably have to purchase larger hard drives or add more hard drives. Without careful planning, you could end up buying more than you need. The ongoing monthly cost of cloud storage may be more expensive over time, but you’ll never have to purchase more hardware.

 

  • The cloud offers virtually unlimited storage capacity. When you need more storage, you upgrade your plan. While NAS allows for hard drives to be replaced or added, each hard drive does have finite capacity.

 

  • Features and Expertise. As mentioned previously, NAS devices have an impressive list of valuable features and capabilities. On the other hand, cloud storage enables you to tap into other cloud-based solutions such as compression and de-duplication, both of which can improve storage efficiency. You can also take advantage of a cloud service provider’s expertise and around-the-clock service.

 

  • Security and Control. NAS enables you to host and control your own data, and to use encryption tools and user access controls to secure your information. This can be a double-edged sword as data security requires significant IT resources and expertise. With the cloud, security is the responsibility of the provider, but you must trust an outside party with your data.

 

Instead of choosing between cloud storage and NAS, you may want to consider a hybrid approach. For example, mission-critical data that is accessed and modified most often can be stored in a NAS device, while archival data is stored in the cloud. Many vendors also offer hybrid solutions.

Developing an efficient storage strategy without compromising performance is as complicated as it is important. Let ICG help you analyze your IT environment and recommend a storage solution that meets your specific storage needs now and in the future.

January 5, 2015

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Technology Predictions for 2015, Part 2

This is the time of year when you hear a lot of over-the-top claims about the next big thing as the words “disruptive” and “transformational” are tossed around far too casually. Unfortunately, many of these claims are based on the hopes of a sales department rather than the current and near-future business needs of organizations and their IT departments.

 

We prefer to focus on the trends that we expect to have a significant, immediate impact on business operations. In Part 1 of this post, we began this discussion with predictions about Windows 10, the Internet of Things, wearable technology and enterprise mobile applications.

 

Here are three more technology predictions that we feel organizations should understand and investigate in order to stay competitive in 2015.

 

The cloud will reach a tipping point. The transformation of the data center is well underway as more infrastructure and services are moving to the cloud. However, no organization is completely cloud-based, and they shouldn’t be. A hybrid cloud approach that combines on-premises, private cloud and public cloud tools will become the dominant model that best aligns cloud strategy with business strategy. At the same time, new “cloud first” technology is expected to drive consolidation among service providers and IT vendors.

 

Big data analytics will deliver more business value. Although many organizations are still struggling to gather, filter, store and retrieve structured and unstructured data, the capabilities of data analytics are quickly becoming more advanced. Big data applications make it possible to quickly and automatically provide granular, data-driven answers to important business questions. Using real-time data, predictive analytics drive faster innovation and better solutions for customers. More organizations will reap the rewards in 2015 by integrating these tools into business processes.

 

3-D printing will become a valuable business tool. 3-D printing is no longer confined to demonstrations at business and tech expos. In fact, Gartner estimates that worldwide shipments of 3-D printers will grow 98 percent this year. More printers are being introduced from more vendors, and more products can be printed. As prices continue to drop and new use cases are developed, 3-D printing will emerge as a cost-effective tool for designing and manufacturing business and consumer items, especially replaceable parts.

 

ICG has been in the technology business for more than 35 years, navigating a constantly evolving technological landscape to identify the best business solutions while reducing IT costs. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, the importance and difficulty of these decisions are only increasing. Let us help you take advantage of these and other technology trends to improve your organization’s operational efficiency, agility and flexibility while delivering the best possible customer experience.

December 23, 2014

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How Cloud-Based Antimalware Strengthens Security

An FBI memo has revealed that the type of malware used in the cyberattack on Sony Pictures is capable of using Windows management and network file sharing features to destroy data on Windows computers and attack Windows servers. The malware installed itself as a Windows service, which gave it unrestricted access to the network, and then communicated with attackers through scattered IP addresses from systems likely hacked to hide the origin of the attack.

 

Yes, this is how well-planned and organized today’s criminals are.

 

According to AV-Test, the population of malware increased 35 percent in 2014. 720 security breaches identified by the Identity Theft Resource Center exposed more than 81 million records, an increase of almost 25 percent. The use of ransomware such as CryptoWall, which encrypts data and holds it ransom, is on the rise. Malware like Heartbleed that exploits internet protocols continues to emerge. Spear-phishing campaigns are being used to infiltrate even the most secure networks. Many of the world’s largest brands, including Apple, Home Depot and Sony, have fallen victim to cyberattacks. Reputations and consumer trust are eroding.

 

Security threats are only expected to become more dangerous in 2015 as both the volume and sophistication of malware continue to increase. Some security experts expect to see malware designed to simply avoid detection and collect data for long periods of time. Mobile devices are expected to become both targets and sources of more cyberattacks, while the growth of the Internet of Things provides hackers with millions of potential portals into corporate networks. Retailers, healthcare companies, financial institutions and government agencies are expected to be prime targets for the most sophisticated criminal groups and terrorists.

 

Traditionally, antimalware software, or antivirus protection, has been installed on individual computers and devices. The expansion of cloud computing has led to the introduction of cloud-based antimalware, which offloads most security workloads to a service provider’s infrastructure while maintaining lightweight software on the device. Scans are sent to a cloud-based server for processing and analysis, and instructions for any actions that need to be taken are transmitted back to the user’s device.

 

Cloud-based antimalware offers several key benefits. Instead of waiting for weekly automated software updates, cloud-based antimalware will always be updated and have the latest data. This eliminates the need for software updates on the device, which can be lengthy and cause performance issues. Cloud-based antimalware scans traffic before it reaches the network, which enables better protection, reduces bandwidth congestion, and allows for faster Internet connections. Many service providers even run several antimalware programs to maximize security. Like most cloud services, the cost of cloud-based security is often less expensive than locally installed software.

 

The 2015 outlook for security threats is grim as malware continues to become a primary weapon for both small-time criminals and global terror organizations. The only thing organizations can do is ensure that they are using the best possible security tools and employing the most effective strategy. Let ICG show you how cloud-based antimalware can help fortify your defenses and reduce the risk of a security breach.

October 23, 2014

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Why Your Phone System May Belong in the Cloud

Many small to midsize businesses (SMBs) are using some kind of cloud services, such as storage, disaster recovery and email systems. But there’s another business tool that few SMBs realize can be moved to the cloud — the company phone system. When you break it down, phone system functionality is just an application and voice transmissions are a form of data. As a result, your phone system can be cloud-based just like virtually any other component of your IT infrastructure.

 

Cloud-based IP telephony offers a number of business advantages that are consistent with other cloud services when compared to an on-premises solution:

 

  • Minimal upfront costs. Many SMBs are already using VoIP-compatible phones, and the only other hardware investment may involve some switching and routing upgrades. Capital expenses with cloud-based VoIP are minimal.
  • Lower operational costs. Managing, maintaining, upgrading, supporting and securing your phone system – and all associated costs – become the responsibility of the service provider.
  • Pay as you go. Pay for the seats and services you need now and add more as your company grows and business needs change.
  • Enterprise-class technology. Take advantage of the service provider’s sophisticated telephony technology and features – the kinds of tools few SMBs can afford to purchase themselves.
  • Faster time to value. Changing to cloud-based VoIP telephony is simple, fast and seamless, enabling organizations to quickly deploy the new system and its productivity-boosting features.
  • Improved security. Long a major roadblock to cloud adoption, security is actually more robust with a cloud-based phone system, which uses a private internet connection to secure conversations.

 

One common misconception about cloud-based IP telephony is that the voice quality is inferior to a traditional copper line. Most of these problems were more accurately attributable to connectivity issues. Organizations evaluating cloud-based phone systems should worry less about false misconceptions and focus on cost savings, functionality, simplicity of use, and choosing a provider capable of aligning a system with your business needs.

 

There are several concerns with a cloud-based IP telephony solution that you don’t encounter with an on-premises system. When you move your phone system to the cloud, you’re basically turning over control to a third-party provider, and you must rely on Internet connectivity to keep your phones working. As users and usage grows, so will your monthly costs, and you’ll be tied to the hardware and software used by your provider.

 

With an on-premises system, you have total control of your phone system. A growing business has the flexibility to make changes whenever necessary. If you have well-defined processes, on-premises telephony ensures that your system is aligned with those processes. If you need contact center functionality, cloud-based solutions haven’t quite caught up to their on-premises counterparts.

 

Cloud-based and on-premises IP telephony both have their pros and cons. If you’re looking to reduce capital costs, conserve strained IT resources and add new features to your phone system, you may want to consider a cloud-based solution. Contact ICG to learn more about how your organization can benefit by moving your phone system to the cloud.

 

October 16, 2014

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Is It Time for a Network Refresh?

On average, bandwidth consumption and data volumes in the data center double every 18 months. The number of devices accessing the network doubles every 30 months. Is your network infrastructure built to support such explosive growth?

 

Many networks are not. The refresh cycle for enterprise networking equipment keeps getting longer and has now reached a six-year high, according to Dimension Data’s Network Barometer Report 2014. In fact, half of network switches, routers and wireless devices are either aging or obsolete. Devices that are past end of sale are considered “aging,” while those past end of support are considered “obsolete.”

 

Many organizations have delayed upgrades in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of juice from their legacy network equipment. However, even though certain components of your network infrastructure may still be working, older technology could be preventing your network from properly supporting the latest technologies and growing numbers of users and devices.

 

High-performance Wi-Fi is essential for most enterprises, yet a rapid increase in mobile device density is making it difficult to keep up with heavy bandwidth demands. The wired network plays a key role in wireless LAN performance, particularly with the new 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard. Organizations will likely need to not only rethink wireless network design but to upgrade their wired network, which will in turn make the wireless network function better.

 

Meanwhile, bandwidth-heavy technologies such as virtualization, cloud computing, mobility, video and big data are contributing to an immense increase in network traffic. Aging networks simply lack the capacity, flexibility and performance these technologies demand.

 

In addition to better supporting the wireless, VoIP and virtualized environments, an up-to-date network infrastructure delivers several key business benefits:

 

  • Productivity will be enhanced when employees have access to more reliable connections, inside and outside of the office.
  • Your network will be able to support innovative services and new product features and functionality.
  • Your network will be more efficient, more cost-effective and easier to manage.

 

Fortunately, lower prices for Ethernet technology are making a network refresh more economically feasible. In addition, cloud-based configuration and administration tools are making it easier to manage the network infrastructure. Network switches that provide Power over Ethernet capabilities support wireless access points and VoIP equipment without having to run AC power to each of those devices.

 

The ICG Network Infrastructure team has proven expertise in the design, configuration, installation and support of best-in-class network solutions. Let us assess your network infrastructure to determine if it’s capable of supporting wireless, VoIP and virtualization and other state-of-the-art technologies. A network refresh may be necessary to take your organization to the next level.

October 9, 2014

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How Managed Services and the Cloud Improve Branch Office IT

In a previous post, we discussed the importance of providing branch offices with the same end-user experience, the same access to applications and data, and the same level of security as the main office. The lack of onsite IT staff and the complexity of applications, networking and management systems at branch offices make this a tall order, resulting in lower productivity and increased risk.

 

More and more organizations are turning to managed services and the cloud to overcome these challenges and manage branch office IT more effectively. Managed services turns over branch office IT management to an outside team of experts, while Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) and other cloud services shift the responsibility of implementing and maintaining core infrastructure to a service provider.

August 20, 2014

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Why More SMBs are turning to Cloud-Based Data Backup

 

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How lax are small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) when it comes to data backup? According to a study by AVG Technologies, owners and managers spend more time straightening up their desks or ordering business cards than they do on backing up data. Although 30 percent believe more than half of their data is sensitive, one in four don’t even require a weekly backup.

 

Another study found that 53 percent of organizations don’t conduct daily backups. Approximately one-third of administrators feel this is not an efficient use of their time. These are the people organizations rely upon to protect their data.

 

Finally, a large percentage of SMBs don’t implement a data backup and disaster recovery plan until after disaster strikes, according to the 2013 State of Cloud Backup study from Itronis. That’s like buying homeowners insurance after your house burns to the ground.