Networking the Office to the Cloud

If you have more than one person working in an office, you inevitably run into the need to share files on the computers.  Back in the late 80’s there were networks available, but they were very, very expensive.  In the mid 80’s I was in the Air National Guard, and I did a one year active duty tour at Andrews AFB.  We had a mainframe based network system that included e-mail, and awful word processor, and a spreadsheet application that was not much better than useless – it was the Wang VR system if I remember right.  It had e-mail, but my inbox was mostly invitations to retirement ceremonies for Colonels I never heard of, so I never used it.  I then went to work in the late 80’s for what would become a very large engineering firm (ECS Ltd), but at the time we were pretty small.  We used what my boss called a “sneaker net”.  Our computers had removable hard drives, which the secretaries could remove and move from computer to computer.  They kept them locked in their desks at night for security.  It worked pretty well as long as you could get to the disks and the secretary downstairs didn’t need to use the disk you needed upstairs, and of course as long as you didn’t have a hard disk failure, things were fine.

In the 90s I went on to work full time for the Air National Guard up in Pittsburgh.  This was where I first ran into a network that worked with PCs.  By the mid nineties we had good e-mail, and pretty good applications.  If I have to criticize the system, it was the speed.  I couldn’t use it for CAD files, it was too slow and the IT guys got mad at me for hogging what was then valuable hard drive space.  We kept our files on floppies, which was not real secure.  Again, you had to know where everything was, hope nothing failed, and sharing work was difficult.  However, the network allowed us to easily get to various regulations and references, and provided a level of security for whatever was on it.  The system was still less than perfect.  By the end of the nineties I was writing for the Motley Fool, and we had something called a VPN (Virtual Private Network).  We could access the servers at our main office through the Internet much like you access the server on a network in the office.  However, it was slow, and I discovered that I could see the hard disks on every computer attached to the network.  I never tested to see if I could get in the drives (I wanted to keep my job), but I suspect I could.  That can be a major security flaw, and I hate to think what a really angry disgruntled employee could do to his or her coworkers.

In 2005 I had Runkle Consulting, and we were growing.  We moved to a large office, and we had a decent sized staff.  We installed a server, and it was fast.  The hard drives were inexpensive and it automatically backed up every night to tape and it also backed up online.  I figured how to set up a VPN, which technically would allow me to work from home on stuff on the server.  I could work on a drawing at the office, go home and finish it later that night or the next morning.  I could write letters and reports and save them to the office network from the comfort of my home.  Except I couldn’t.  It was really, really slow.  Not slow in making a microwave meal in 2 minutes instead of 2 and a half minutes, but slow as in waiting 30 seconds for a response every time you hit a key on the keyboard slow.  It just wasn’t practical at all.  There was also the issue of maintenance and security.

If you have a server, everyone has to have passwords.  One of my employees had the ingenious password of 3333.  I didn’t think anything of it until I took a trip to China, and coincidentally when I got home my server got hit with brute force attacks.  Someone would try to hack into my server thousands of times a day with various combinations of user names and passwords.  I tried all sorts of things to stop the attacks, but they continued for a long time.  I don’t think anyone got in my system since I had limited access into the server to only myself and I had a very long and difficult password.  Still, the potential of damage was disturbing.  There of course was the hassle of updating the software on the server, keeping up with its back ups, and taking care of the hardware.  I once had to run into the office late at night because we had a long power outage and my power backup was very limited and if the server went down it could mess things up. Then I ran out of space on my hard drives.  Changing over hard drives on a server is not easy.  Then I had a hard drive failure, which was an annoyance but not a disaster because I had backups.  However, replacing it and getting everything back up was a very BIG annoyance.

Going fast forward the Great Recession hit and “we” became “I” as the business retrenched.  “The Office” became my dining room, and “the network” was one PC.  As a result of the Recession, I began to seek work out of state, and that required a laptop.  I carried my files with me on a thumb drive, and the hassle with that is that I had to remember to download the updated files to the computer when I got home. Then one day I left for a project in Upstate New York, and I had forgotten my thumb drive.  I found I could download the files I needed from my backup service (Carbonite).  That was a revelation – I no longer had to carry around a thumb drive.  I also had subscribed to Google for its cloud drive, so I could simply upload the finished to Google.  Pretty cool.

As all good things have to end, so did the Great Recession.  “I” has become “We” again, and “The Office” is The Office.  However, I kind of liked working from the Dining Room.  If I had to get a project out, I could jump up out of bed and get right to work.  If I had to work late, I was home, and when I got tired I could just stop.  So, how should this be handled?  I looked at the idea of getting a network again and setting  up a VPN.  With faster Internet speeds, it ought to work.  However, there were some issues.

First is security. I hired an employee that didn’t last very long (a few hours actually, but that’s another story).  He chose as his password “Pass2041″.  Well, that would take about 30 seconds longer for a good hacker to figure out than “Password” or Pass2014″.  The damage a hacker could do to my system is phenomenal.  I could protect the files easily enough with them synchronizing to Google Drive and a separate online back up service, and that was the key to my problem, but let me work up to it.  I looked into what it would take to get a server again.  I would have to buy a server, get it fit with the right hard drive configuration, and buy large hard drives.  Then I would have to get the software, which is expensive, and set it up, which is time consuming and/or expensive.  OR, I could skip all that.

Google Drive was pretty good in that it constantly uploaded my files up to the Cloud.  What I didn’t realize was I could set it up to synchronize the files on my computer hard drive with what was on Google Drive.  I can also share certain files on Google Drive with the employees.  I could share the project files, the reference files, and database files with them, and they could have them synchronized to their computers through the magic of Google Drive.  I could synchronize everything to my computer at work and the hard drive at home.  My employees could work from home if they wanted to, a coffee shop, or a hotel room.  No longer are we dependent on “The Office”.  “The Office” became anywhere we were.  This was perfect.  The physical office is now a place to meet and collaborate, not a place have to spend 8 to 12 hours a day of our lives at.  Perfect.

Oh, and for security.  Someone stole my laptop shortly after I set the system up.  I changed the password to Google Drive, and I had a hard password for Windows on the laptop.  My files are safe.  No one got into the system.  As for finance files – we use Quickbooks Online, so there are no finance files on the computer.  If the office burns down, I lose some cheap furniture and maybe my laptop.  It’s a minor annoyance, not a disaster.  If we have an extended power outage I don’t have to run to the office to shut down the server.  If and when we need more drive storage, we sign for more storage from Google.  There is no changing hard drives.  I don’t have network software to keep up, or the need for antivirus software on a server to maintain.  If an employee opens the wrong e-mail it won’t set loose a virus to get across everybody’s computer and destroy everything.

The system still is only as good as the people involved.  If someone has a password of “3333”, there is a good chance that a hacker can get in and mess up the files on your Google Drive. That’s why I also backup with another service.  Also, if I didn’t have a password on my laptop that got stolen, or a weak password, someone could get sensitive information.  That can be an issue.  It is not advisable to have sensitive files up in Google if they are going to be synchronized to a laptop.  Laptops are highly pilferable, and if you travel with one, it will eventually be stolen.  Also, the synchronization takes time, and sometimes stops and has to be restarted.  So, your files may not always be up to date.

However, at the state we are at with technology, this is the best solution for our needs.  Two years from now, there may be a better system, and when it comes about, we’ll switch over to it.

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