General Business

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.

Building Your Own Computer

The computer, almost complete

Last week we realized we needed a new computer, and after a bit of debate, we ended up building our own.  The old one wasn’t able to properly handle the 3d graphics we are going to, and the processor was outdated.  We use some pretty calculation intensive software for the container design, and more and more we are designing in 3d.  Also, my son in his undergraduate curriculum is studying computer programming and game design, so the stuff he is using pushes the limits of just about everything.  The first idea was to upgrade the processor, and replace the graphics card, but when we went to the computer store (Micro Center), there was a sale on mother boards.  Then, after getting back to the office, we discovered the motherboard didn’t fit in the case of the old computer.  So, it was time for another visit to a computer store down the road to buy a brand new case.

We put everything together, and discovered Microsoft Windows didn’t want to work.  That kind of makes sense, all we had left was the hard drive.  Time for another trip to Micro Center to by Windows 7.  Then there was another discovery – the original plan was to use the hard drives that came off our old server.  They were fairly new, and large (1 Terabyte each) and we had two of them laying around.  However, they were formatted for the old server, a three disk RAID array.  The operating system would not install on them.  So, we had to install the old drive from the computer we had scrapped, install Windows on it, and then format the other two drives.

The end result was an entire weekend spent building a computer from the ground up.  How was the price?  We saved $400.00.  True, the hard drives were cannibalized from other computers, but if we bought a computer off the shelf, those drives would have sat unused.  Given my son and I are technology nerds, the weekend spent building the computer was kind of fun.  Other than the cost, if you build your own computer you can tailor it to exactly what you want and need.  So, if you feel brave, let me outline how you can do it based on my experience.

The computer, almost complete

First, unless you build computers day in and day out, it will take you much longer than you think it should.  It’s like fixing a toilet.  In my early years I worked as a plumber’s helper.  I have rebuilt I don’t know how many toilets.  However, since I don’t do that every day, I always forget something at the hardware store, and I have to make multiple trips.  One time in New Jersey the lady at the hardware store actually got mad at me because I came back twice (go figure?).  It will probably be the same for you if you build your own computer.

Also, if you don’t buy the stuff at the right place, the computer can quickly cost you much more than buying one off the shelf.  I actually was surprised this time, because previously I was able to buy computers already made that were exactly what I wanted that were cheaper.  I found in the Atlanta area that Micro Center in Duluth is very cheap for parts.  However, you may want to see what they have on sale on the floor first if saving money is your object.

Just to illustrate the price issue- we put Windows 7 Professional on the computer, and we bought the OEM version at Micro Center.  The cost?  $135.00.  Checking online, you can buy Windows 7 Professional Full Version at Office Depot for $299.99.  Understand, if you are building a new computer, you CAN’T use a Windows 7 Upgrade version.  What’s the difference between OEM version and “Full Version”?  The packaging is rather plain on the OEM version.  OEM version is to be sold to computer manufacturers.  The “Full Version” is meant to be sold to the public.  For an extra $170.00 or so you get a nice box.

Now, for the technical stuff.  Don’t expect to reuse the case your old computer came in.  Brand name computers tend to have smaller cases.  It’s probably to cut shipping costs down, and they really don’t care if they provide you with the space you might want to add stuff.  Buy a new case, and get a big one.  It will take up space, but it will be easier to work with.  You need at least 500 Watts of power for a computer with high end graphics, and a case that is well ventilated so you don’t overheat.

The next thing is the motherboard.  Don’t recycle an old one – generally motherboards are inexpensive, and the ones you buy are going to be much higher quality than the one that might come with a computer from a retail store.  Make SURE the motherboard is for the processor you are buying.  You don’t want motherboard that is for the Intel I7 processor and you are buying an AMD processor.

Obviously, you need a processor. The difference in prices for different level processors is very little until you get to the top of the line.  Then you might see as much as a thousand dollars jump in price.  It depends on what you are doing that determines the processor speed that is required.  For the most part an Intel I5 processor is good.  The higher speed processors are needed for more intense applications.  If you are using 3d software like Softplan, Revit, or other packages, get the I7.   For engineering applications, most programs will work just fine with an I5 processor, unless you are using a program that does Finite Element analysis.  Then you need an I7, because again your calculations will be intense.  There is a lot of argument about whether to use AMD or Intel.  AMD processors are much cheaper, but many people swear by Intel.  The last computer I bought has an AMD processor and I am happy with it.  My son refuses to consider anything but Intel.

Most motherboards come with graphics chips embedded in them, so you really don’t have to buy a graphics card. unless of course you are using some sort of 3d package.  CAD programs are fine with whatever comes on the motherboard, 2d graphics like you get with AutoCAD are not that intense, so this is one area you can save a lot of money.

You will need memory.  Don’t skimp here.  Even if you are just using your computer for web surfing, word processing, and bookkeeping, get a lot of memory.  Get 16 GB of memory, it will help prevent your computer from crashing if you have too many applications open, and everything will work much more smoothly.

The final thing you need is hard drives.  Generally, I don’t recommend recycling the old hard drives.  Hard drives are mechanical items, they are the one working item on your computer other than the fans that actually move.  There is a spinning platter and a moving arm that goes across the platter.  At some point in time the thing has to fail.  The longer you use the hard drive, the greater the chance it will fail.  I know I recycled older hard drives into the computer I built, but you should probably do as I say and not do as I do.  Hard drives are cheap, so risking data loss to save a few dollars is probably not worth it.  We back all our data up to an online service, so it’s a risk we are willing and able to take.

Now, as you put it all together, you need the right tools.  That means you need a good phillips head screw driver, and… well that’s about it.  You won’t get much in the way of instructions on how to put stuff together, so here are some important items:

1.  There are small brass spacers that come with your case.  They go between the motherboard and the case.  You need to use them to prevent your motherboard from shorting out on the case.

2.  Put the processor on the motherboard before you put the motherboard in the case.  There is a fan that goes on top of the processor, it has plastic connectors that go through the motherboard.  Make sure these are properly seated, otherwise the fan won’t cool the processor properly and your computer will shut itself down.

3.  Put the hard drives in the case before you install the motherboard.  That way you won’t break anything on your motherboard trying to squeeze your hard drive in.

4.  After you put in the hard drives, install your motherboard.  Remember to use the spacers.  Hold off on putting in any accessory or graphics cards, or memory.

5.  Attach the power to your hard drives and motherboard.  Attach cables from the SATA connections on your motherboard to your hard drive.

6.  Now you can put the memory, graphics card, and any expansion cards you have.  Don’t force anything, if you do you will break things and it will probably be a serious problem.  Look out for how the graphics card installs – there is a plastic locking mechanism on the motherboard that holds the card in.  I have successfully broken it on every computer I’ve worked on.  Things will still work, but the card won’t stay in well.

7.  With the computer case you should get some plastic ties.  Use these on the wires after everything is installed to keep them out of the way of fans and other items.  Pepper (my dog) got ahold of mine and I think she ate them.  Fortunately I had spares (I have a drawer of common computer stuff for emergencies).  So, it goes without saying, watch where you put stuff down and keep it away form dogs and small children.  Don’t close up the case yet.  You need to make sure everything works.

8.  When you start up the computer, it probably won’t work.  Expect this, and don’t worry (too much anyway).  You probably connected the power supply cables wrong, you’ll have to experiment on what gets connected where.  The connectors are fairly idiot proof, but there are still a number of ways you can hook power to the motherboard, and only one way will work.  There probably won’t be any documentation to tell you how to do it either.

9.  It’s fine to experiment with the cable connections.  However, disconnect the power from the computer before you change connections.  Otherwise you run the risk of frying everything.

10.  The final step – use the install software for the motherboard and peripherals to get everything working.

This whole process should take about two hours maximum, which means it will take you two days or longer.  Unless you build computers every day, that’s just the way it is.  Is it worth it?  I think it is, but the answer is dependent on how you like to spend your time.

For more information, check this series of videos on You Tube

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPIXAtNGGCw[/youtube]