Thursday, 1 June 2017

Backups

TL;DR
  • Backups are not often considered important
  • Cloud storage services can mitigate risk of data loss
  • External drives and NAS are other options for backup
  • Test backups and keep a copy offline

For most people, backups are the sort of thing you don't pay attention to until you need them. A number of clients have recently required specialist data recovery as their hard drives had failed and they wanted to get back their precious photos and documents. These services can cost upwards of $1000 so it is generally the last resort. The reality is that hard drives and storage devices do fail, so it is always worth have at least 2 copies of your data. Fortunately there are a number of ways you can do this these days.

Cloud services such as Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive or Microsoft's OneDrive are all ways that you can store documents and photos somewhere other than your PC. Most cloud services offer a free service but this is usually limited to a few gigabytes of storage. This won't last long as photos and videos will easily fill that space in a very short time. Paid options are worth looking at (especially compared to the price of professional data recovery) and if you are bundling in your subscription with other services, this can be good value. In the case of Drive and One Drive, if you are paying for the G Suite or Office 365 packages then you will get increased storage bundled in with those plans (see https://gsuite.google.com.au/intl/en_au/pricing.html and https://products.office.com/en-au/office-365-home). The other benefit of cloud storage is that you can access your files from other devices and locations. Be aware though that you will need a reasonable internet connection and data quota in order to sync your files to the cloud. 

A more traditional option is to backup to an external drive. These are readily available from Officeworks, or other tech stores, and a reasonably sized 2 TB portable drive will cost around $100.  Windows PCs and Macs require require an initial setup to connect the external drive for backup, but once this is done, they will automatically backup after that. The guide to backing up in Windows 10 is available at https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/help/17143/windows-10-back-up-your-files and for Macs you can access this at https://support.apple.com/en-au/mac-backup.

Another option for local backup is to use Network Attached Storage (NAS). These are essentially hard drives that connect to your network and can be used as centralised storage for backups and file sharing (photos, videos etc.). The benefit of NAS is that you can backup multiple computers to the same storage on the network. QNAP and Synology are popular brands and their products start from $150. You may need to purchase the hard drive separately so consider this when evaluating these options. To backup to a NAS device, you will typically use the software that comes with the product. Ensure that your router is fast enough to support the network traffic (at least gigabit ethernet). For more information go to https://www.qnap.com/en-au/ and https://www.synology.com/en-global/support/nas_selector.

Cloud and local drive backups are not exclusive and I would recommend using both. Having multiple backups can reduce the risk of losing your data to a ransomware attack or other failure.  It is also worth testing your backups by restoring a file every now and then. You don't want to find out after the fact that your backups are not working, so test these regularly. So before your computer storage fails, make the effort and get a good backup, fast!

Monday, 1 May 2017

NBN Address checker

If you were wondering when the nbn will be available at your home or business, the nbn have recently improved their address checker on their website (http://www.nbnco.com.au/connect-home-or-business/check-your-address.html). This will now give an estimate of the availability of the nbn at your address and the type of connection you can get. It is based on nbn's updated three year construction plan. If a rollout is not planned or underway then you will be advised that you can access the skymuster satellite service. This is an improvement as previous searches only advised when building may commence and did not give a detailed description of what you may be able to access. 

In the Chittering Shire, the address checker advises that nbn fixed wireless services are planned to be available in March 2017 in Upper Chittering. It should be noted that these plans are subject to change, but this is looking promising for that area. Lower Chittering and Bindoon are slated for October to December 2017 and will also be receiving fixed wireless within that coverage area.  Building has also commenced in townsites throughout the Gingin Shire, with some sites already available.

The nbn coverage map is useful if you would like to see how far the fixed wireless coverage goes in your area. It will also show the progress of the fixed wired technologies and can be accessed at the nbn website (http://www.nbnco.com.au/learn-about-the-nbn/rollout-map.html). 

Tech for non-profits

If you are involved in a not-for-profit (NFP) or income-tax-exempt (ITE) organisation, then it may be possible for you to get discounted technology for the use within that organisation. TechSoup is a global alliance of technologies companies that provide discounted products to NFP organisations. Donor companies include Microsoft, Google, Cisco, Symantec and Adobe, to mention a few. In Australia, Connecting Up is the Australian partner of the TechSoup alliance and you will need to register with them to access these discounts.

Some of the examples of products available under the program are all of Microsoft's licensed products including Office suites and Desktop and Server licenses. There are some limitations as to the number of licenses that can be redeemed within a two year allocation cycle. Similarly, Google's Apps for non-profits (G Suite) is available and this provides access to Google's cloud services for business, such as docs, email, calendar etc. There are also security products available and discounts on accounting software. In addition discounted hardware can also be redeemed, including laptops, desktops and networking equipment. A full list of donors and products can be found here https://www.connectingup.org/discounts. Connecting UP also offer a premium membership model which costs $150 per annum. In addition to accessing the partner program (which is available under free membership), you will also be able to access events, mentoring and promotional facilities provided by Connecting Up (https://www.connectingup.org/membership/benefits).

Joining Connecting Up is as simple as registering your details and providing information about the NFP. Within three working days, your details should be validated and if successful, you can then start ordering from their site. Being listed on the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission Register or income tax exempt on the Australian Business Register will help with qualification for the program. In addition, donor companies may require other criteria to be met for their products. Details can be found at https://www.connectingup.org/help/will-my-organisation-qualify-connecting-ups-donation-and-discount-program.

Once you have qualified and your account is setup for purchasing, you can place a donation request through the Connect Up site. Not all products are free. Some are discounted from retail pricing. In addition, there may be an administration fee charge by Connecting Up when making donation requests. Some partners restrict the number of requests that can be made. The details are available at https://www.connectingup.org/help/how-often-and-how-much-can-i-order-from-each-of-your-partners


So if you are involved in a NFP group that may benefit from reduced tech purchases, I would recommend taking advantage of the discounts offered by Connecting Up. For more information go to their website https://www.connectingup.org.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Square Up POS app

I have previously written about mobile payment options for merchants provided by the major banks and PayPal. In this edition I am going to discuss another point of sale solution which provides a lot of functionality for a shopfront.

Square Up is an online provider for payments and point of sale. They started with an Apple only app but have now expanded that to Android devices. The square app can accept payments through these devices using a card reader which you can purchase from them ($59 for the contactless card reader or $19 for the chip reader). Credit card payments processed through Square attract a flat rate 1.9% fee. The benefit of square though is not just in the card processing. In fact, you don't even need to use the payment gateway to access the extensive features of the point of sale app.

The app provides extensive ability for creating shop items and can track insights on purchases and repeat customers (if the details are added). Customer feedback is incorporated into the receipts provided via sms or email. If you already have a payment gateway then you can record the transaction as a paid item and this is tracked against your sales. 

Logging into the Square Up web portal provides details on sales history and sales items. This is a very useful resource for small businesses as it provide insight into the top sales items and sales times as well as a number of other metrics. It is also possible to expand the solution to multiple locations (if you have a number of shopfronts).

Square Up also provide an employee management function for $3 per month per employee. Employees can log their time into the app and it also allows restriction of access to certain functions per employee. This may be useful for more complex businesses that have multiple employees. 



So for a free app it provides a lot of functionality and can either be used as your payment gateway provider or with an existing provider if you have one. For more information go to the Square Up site at squareup.com.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Anti Virus and Privacy

It is common these days for software to be available for free. While this has made it easier to access software, vendors still need a business model that generates revenue for them to support the development and maintenance of these products. Anti virus products have followed this trend and there are now a number of free and paid products available. Most of these free products work on the basis that you get basic real time scanning protection with additional functionality available as paid options. Yet these products have deep access to the operating systems and as a result are capable of gathering a lot of information about your computer. The information they gather can be used for marketing purposes and this is of commercial value. Some vendors bundle 3rd party products into their installations to make the products commercially viable. So the question becomes how is your personal information used by these vendors?

AV comparative's performed analysis of 21 anti virus products and documented the results in their Data transmission in Internet security products report (http://www.av-comparatives.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/avc_datasending_2014_en.pdf). To evaluate how well the products rated on information disclosure, they reviewed the privacy policy and the end user license agreements (EULA), monitored the information that was sent from the computer and sent a questionnaire to the vendors asking for details of the information that is captured by their products. The information was then collated and vendors were rated on the level of protection provided for user privacy. It should be noted that AV vendors do require some information in order to manage their product licenses and to improve virus detection rates. The main concern though is if that personal information is collated and sold on for marketing purposes. As an example, web sites can be tracked by AV software to ensure that known malicious sites are blocked. Yet it is also possible that this information can be kept and data mined by the vendor.

The AV products that were rated best with respect to personal information disclosure were:
  1. AhnLab
  2. Emsisoft
  3. eScan
  4. BullGuard
  5. Fortinet

Products rated the worst (or vendors did not disclose what information they kept):
  1. McAfee
  2. Microsoft
  3. Symantec
  4. Trend Micro
  5. Webroot
  6. AVG

There were many products that had a mixed rating for personal information disclosure. The products rated best for privacy considerations overall were:
  1. AhnLab
  2. Avira
  3. eScan
  4. Fortinet
  5. Panda

It should be noted that this report was release in 2014 so may be out of date with respect to the latest product versions. In general, it is worth reading through the EULA and privacy policies to understand how your information can and will be used by the vendors. Also be wary of any 3rd party software that is bundled with the free AV product as this may disclose your personal information too. It is usually best to untick the box for add-ons and other products when installing these products. While privacy seems to be a commodity we are happy to trade for free stuff, it is worth considering the implications of what is done with your information. If you are interested in how you can better safe guard your online information take a look at the EFF's surveillance self-defense site at https://ssd.eff.org/en.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Paper replacement apps

Despite the promises of a paperless office it seems that we are printing and producing more paper documents than ever. I don't think that will change any time soon but there some apps that can be used to replace the handy paper pad. I have been trying out a few apps that are suitable for a Windows 10 tablet with a stylus. There are a number of options available from the Windows Store, but I have whittled down the choices to three apps: Nebo, Bamboo Paper and Graphiter.
Nebo, by MyScript, is my favourite as a paper notebook replacement. You can organise your notebooks into folders and create separate notebooks for different uses. One of the best features is that Nebo can convert your handwriting into text. It does this on the fly and seems to be very accurate, even with my scratchy handwriting. You can also draw boxes and shapes in diagram mode as well as math formulas. This can all be exported to Word for further editing purposes. I did find that the layout of converted text can be tricky to manage but this is not a big deal if you export it.
Bamboo Paper, by Wacom (who are known for digital pen editing), is a worthy mention. For simple note taking, this a very useful app. It doesn’t provide text recognition but it is easy to use and feels very natural when writing. Paid features allow you to add highlighters, crayons and paintbrushes as well as a variety of colours for each of these tools. This is handy if you want to use the app for sketching and drawing as well as note taking. This is a good all round pen app but if you want a specialised sketching app then Graphiter may be a better choice.
Graphiter provides a pencil for free use but the value of the app comes from the paid options. This allows you to use coloured pencils, pens and a blending tool. The ability of this app is only limited by your own sketching prowess. The demo shows very detailed real life drawings that are possible with the app. You can customise the heaviness of the pencil as well as the pencil width to allow for detailed sketching.
Overall I have found that Windows 10 tablet mode with a stylus is very useful and there are many choices of apps to make the most of this mode. For further information follow the links below.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

Broadband for Regional Areas

Broadband (or internet access) can be delivered in a variety ways. These are ADSL, Cable, Fibre, Wireless (fixed or mobile) or Satellite. In regional areas, the nbn network is providing a wider range of choice when it comes to Internet service providers. This is because nbn is the wholesaler and they sell access on to retail service providers (RSPs). Your location will determine what is available. To see if you are able to access the nbn network go to nbn.com.au and enter your address to check nbn coverage. Most properties will be able to access nbn's satellite service (Sky Muster) but if you are in a townsite or a new development you may have other options. Smaller towns (up to 500 premises) will get fixed wireless. Larger communities may get wired options which can be comprised of many different technologies.  Regardless of the technology used, connection speeds will be a minimum of 12Mbps which is suitable for web browsing and email. This is also equivalent to many ADSL services that people are currently using. Faster connections will allow for video streaming (netflix etc.) and better online gaming performance. Speeds can go up to 25, 50 and 100 Mbps but this will depend on the technology that is available in your area.  

Another factor to consider when choosing an internet plan is the amount of that that is included in your plan. If you want to be able to stream movies or have a lot of people in the house that will be using the internet, then you are better off choosing a more expensive plan that includes enough data for your usage. There are many RSPs to choose from so compare the plans and determine what you will need for the best deal.