Tag Archives: Business Practices

The Great Superfishing Expedition of 2015

In a move that will probably end up in the top ten technology blunders of the year, Lenovo decided, starting in September 2014, to pre-install Superfish VisualDiscovery software on some of their PCs. (Fortunately for most of the readers of this blog, it appears that it was primarily the consumer products that were affected, not the business products.) The “visual search” concept behind Superfish is interesting – the intent is that a user could hover over a picture in their browser, and Superfish would pop up links to shopping sites that sell the item in the picture. I could see where that would be some pretty cool functionality…if the user wanted that functionality, if the user intentionally installed the software, and if the user could easily turn the functionality on and off as desired. But that’s not what happened – and here’s why it’s a big problem.

In order to perform this function when a user has an SSL-encrypted connection to a Web site, Superfish has to insert itself into the middle of that encrypted connection. It has to intercept the data coming from the shopping site, decrypt it, and then re-encrypt it before sending it on to the browser. Security geeks have a term for this – it’s called a “man-in-the-middle attack,” and it’s not something you want to willingly allow on your PC. In order to do this, Superfish installs a self-signed trusted root certificate on the PC. That means Superfish has the same level of trust as, say, the VeriSign trusted root certificate that Microsoft bakes into your Operating System so you can safely interact with all the Web sites out there that have VeriSign certificates on them…for example, your banking institution, as most financial institutions I’ve seen use VeriSign certificates on their Web banking sites. (Are you frightened yet?)

But that’s not all. Superfish installs the same root certificate on every PC that it gets installed on. And it turns out that it’s not technically difficult to recover the private encryption key from the Superfish software. That means that an attacker could generate an SSL certificate for any Web site that would be trusted by any system that has the Superfish software installed. In other words, you could be lured to a Web site that impersonated your bank, or a favorite shopping site, and you would get no security warning from your browser. You try to authenticate, and now the bad guys have your user credentials. (How about now?)

Hopefully, you’re at least frightened enough to check to see if your system was one of the ones that Lenovo shipped with Superfish pre-installed. You can find that list at http://news.lenovo.com/article_display.cfm?article_id=1929. Again, it appears that the majority of the Lenovo systems on the list were consumer models, not business models. If you are one of the unlucky ones, you can find an uninstall tool at http://support.lenovo.com/us/en/product_security/superfish_uninstall

You should also note that security experts are divided as to whether simply running uninstall tools and deleting the root certificate are sufficient. Some have recommended a new, clean installation of Windows as the safest thing to do. Unfortunately, this may require you to purchase a new copy of Windows if you don’t have one lying around…as just re-installing from whatever recovery media may have come with your new PC will probably also re-install Superfish.

Meanwhile, Lenovo has stopped pre-installing Superfish, and is doing its best to control the damage to its brand. We wish them the best of luck with that – from what we’ve seen, they make some great products…and at least one really bad decision…

The Case for Office 365

A year ago, in a blog post targeted at prospective hosting providers, we said, “…in our opinion, selling Office 365 to your customers is not a cloud strategy. Office 365 may be a great fit for customers, but it still assumes that most computing will be done on a PC (or laptop) at the client endpoint, and your customer will still, in most cases, have at least one server to manage, backup, and repair when it breaks.”

About the same time, we wrote about the concept of “Data Gravity” – that, just as objects with physical mass exhibit inertia and attract one another in accordance with the law of gravity, large chunks of data also exhibit a kind of inertia and tend to attract other related data and the applications required to manipulate that data. This is due in part to the fact that (according to former Microsoft researcher Jim Gray) the most expensive part of computing is the cost of moving data around. It therefore makes sense that you should be running your applications wherever your data resides: if your data is in the Cloud, it can be argued that you should be running your applications there as well – especially apps that frequently have to access a shared set of back-end data.

Although these are still valid points, they do not imply that Office 365 can’t bring significant value to organizations of all sizes. There is a case to be made for Office 365, so let’s take a closer look at it:

First, Office 365 is, in most cases, the most cost-effective way to license the Office applications, especially if you have fewer than 300 users (which is the cut-off point between the “Business” and “Enterprise” O365 license plans). Consider that a volume license for Office 2013 Pro Plus without Software Assurance under the “Open Business” license plan costs roughly $500. The Office 365 Business plan – which gets you just the Office apps without the on-line services – costs $8.25/month. If you do the math, you’ll see that $500 would cover the subscription cost for five years.

But wait – that’s really not an apples-to-apples comparison, because with O365 you always have access to the latest version of Office. So we should really be comparing the O365 subscription cost to the volume license price of Office with Software Assurance, which, under the Open Business plan, is roughly $800 for the initial purchase, which includes two years of S.A., and $295 every two years after that to keep the S.A. in place. Total four-year cost under Open Business: $1,095. Total four-cost under the Office 365 Business plan: $396. Heck, even the Enterprise E3 plan (at $20/month) is only $960 over four years.

But (at the risk of sounding like a late-night cable TV commercial) that’s still not all! Office 365 allows each user to install the Office applications on up to five different PCs or Macs and up to five tablets and five smart phones. This is the closest Microsoft has ever come to per-user licensing for desktop applications, and in our increasingly mobile world where nearly everyone has multiple client devices, it’s an extremely attractive license model.

Second, at a price point that is still less than comparable volume licensing over a four-year period, you can also get Microsoft Hosted Exchange, Hosted SharePoint, OneDrive for Business, Hosted Lync for secure instant messaging and Web conferencing, and (depending on the plan) unlimited email archiving and eDiscovery tools such as the ability to put users and/or SharePoint document libraries on discovery hold and conduct global searches across your entire organization for relevant Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint data. This can make the value proposition even more compelling.

So what’s not to like?

Well, for one thing, email retention in Office 365 is not easy and intuitive. As we discussed in our recent blog series on eDiscovery, when an Outlook user empties the Deleted Items folder, or deletes a single item from it, or uses Shift+Delete on an item in another folder (which bypasses the Deleted Items folder), that item gets moved to the “Deletions” subfolder in a hidden “Recoverable Items” folder on the Exchange server. As the blog series explains, these items can still be retrieved by the user as long as they haven’t been purged. By default, they will be purged after two weeks. Microsoft’s Hosted Exchange service allows you to extend that period (the “Deleted Items Retention Period”), but only to a maximum of 30 days – whereas if you are running your own Exchange server, you can extend the period to several years.

But the same tools that allow a user to retrieve items from the Deletions subfolder will also allow a user to permanently purge items from that subfolder. And once an item is purged from the Deletions subfolder – whether explicitly by the user or by the expiration of the Deleted Items Retention Period – that item is gone forever. The only way to prevent this from happening is to put the user on Discovery Hold (assuming you’ve subscribed to a plan which allows you to put users on Discovery Hold), and, unfortunately, there is currently no way to do a bulk operation in O365 to put multiple users on Discovery Hold – you must laboriously do it one user at a time. And if you forget to do it when you create a new user, you run the risk of having that user’s email messages permanently deleted (whether accidentally or deliberately) with no ability to recover them if, Heaven forbid, you ever find yourself embroiled in an eDiscovery action.

One way around this is to couple your Office 365 plan with a third-party archiving tool, such as Mimecast. Although this obviously adds expense, it also adds another layer of malware filtering, an unlimited archive that the user cannot alter, a search function that integrates gracefully into Outlook, and an email continuity function that allows you to send/receive email directly via a Mimecast Web interface if the Office 365 Hosted Exchange service is ever unavailable. You can also use a tool like eFolder’s CloudFinder to back up your entire suite of Office 365 data – documents as well as email messages.

And then there’s OneDrive. You might be able, with a whole lot of business process re-engineering, to figure out how to move all of your file storage into Office 365′s Hosted SharePoint offering. Of course, there would then be no way to access those files unless you’re on-line. Hence the explosive growth in the business-class cloud file synchronization market – where you have a local folder (or multiple local folders) that automatically synchronizes with a cloud file repository, giving you the ability to work off-line and, provided you’ve saved your files in the right folder, synchronize those files to the cloud repository the next time you connect to the Internet. Microsoft’s entry in this field is OneDrive for Business…but there is a rather serious limitation in OneDrive for Business as it exists today.

O365′s 1 Tb of Cloud Storage per user sounds like more than you would ever need. But what you may not know is that there is a limit of 20,000 “items” per user (both a folder and a file within that folder are “items”). You’d be surprised at how fast you can reach that limit. For example, there are three folders on my laptop where all of my important work-related files are stored. One of those folders contains files that also need to be accessible by several other people in the organization. The aggregate storage consumed by those three folders is only about 5 Gb – but there are 18,333 files and subfolders in those three folders. If I was trying to use OneDrive for Business to synchronize all those files to the Cloud, I would probably be less than six months away from exceeding the 20,000 item limit.

Could I go through those folders and delete a lot of stuff I no longer need, or archive them off to, say, a USB drive? Sure I could – and I try to do that periodically. I dare say that you probably also have a lot of files hanging around on your systems that you no longer need. But it takes time to do that grooming – and what’s the most precious resource that most of us never have enough of? Yep, time. My solution is to use Citrix ShareFile to synchronize all three of those folders to a Cloud repository. We also offer Anchor Works (now owned by eFolder) for business-class Cloud file synchronization. (And there are good reasons why you might choose one over the other, but they’re beyond the scope of this article.)

The bottom line is that, while Office 365 still may not be a complete solution that will let you move your business entirely to the cloud and get out of the business of supporting on-prem servers, it can be a valuable component of a complete solution. As with so many things in IT, there is not necessarily a single “right” way to do anything. There are multiple approaches, each with pros and cons, and the challenge is to select the right combination of services for a particular business need. We believe that part of the value we can bring to the table is to help our clients select that right combination of services – whether it be a VirtualQube hosted private cloud, a private cloud on your own premise, in your own co-lo, or in a public infrastructure such as Amazon or Azure, or a public/private hybrid cloud deployment – and to help our clients determine whether one of the Office 365 plans should be part of that solution. And if you use the Office Suite at all, the answer to that is probably “yes” – it’s just a matter of which plan to choose.

Choosing the Right IT Provider

A few months ago, we wrote about how business leaders could determine when it was time to use an outside IT vendor. (See “When Should an IT Leader Use a Vendor, Part 1” and Part 2.) Once the decision has been made to seek outside help, the logical next question is how to choose the right IT vendor. Before you begin that selection process, you need to assess your organization’s needs:

  • Do you have an in-house IT staff and just need a consultant for specialty work? Or do you need to outsource a broader spectrum of services, such as comprehensive help desk support, fixed fee monitoring and support services for your workstations and/or servers, and consulting services to help you establish future technology direction? A consultant may have different pricing approaches for different types of IT projects, while the broader spectrum of services is probably best handled via a fixed-fee monthly support contract.
  • What, exactly, are you looking for? Do you need a single project completed? Are you looking for design services, deployment services, post-deployment support, or some combination of the three? Do you want your vendor to provide a complete package consisting of hardware, software, and services, or only part of the solution? Will the project be built on premise, or do you want to go to the Cloud? IT providers frequently specialize in different aspects of the IT world, so make sure you have a talk with any company you are considering to determine if they can fulfill all of your needs, or if you will need multiple providers to achieve your end goal.

After you’ve determined your needs, you will want to identify IT providers that offer the services that you need. Some providers are very specialized, and others have boad offerings. You will want to do your due diligence by checking out the provider’s own Web site as well as supporting sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, etc. But don’t stop there – dig deeper and examine their credentials. Look for case studies, testimonials, and references. Ask if you can actually speak to the customers who are profiled in these case studies, testimonials, and references. If you’re looking for a comprehensive support agreement, ask to review the contract to make sure all of your needs are covered and that the proposed Service Level Agreement (“SLA”) meets your requirements. Some of the questions you’ll want to answer are:

  • How qualified is the provider’s staff? Are they certified with the vendors whose products they will be working on in your environment?
  • How big is the provider’s company? Size and reach matter – you don’t want to have a service emergency and discover that the only person who knows how to work on your systems is gone on vacation. On the other hand, if your organization is small, your business may be less important to a very large provider and you may get more attentive service from a smaller one.
  • What geographical areas does the provider cover? This is obviously important if your own organization operates in more than one area, but will also be important if you’re considering a potential move or business expansion.
  • Does the SLA include a guaranteed response time? More importantly, does that guaranteed response time meet the needs of your business? It might be nice to have a one hour guaranteed response time, but shorter guaranteed response times are likely to be more expensive…so if your business really doesn’t need that SLA, why pay for it?
  • If you’re signing a support contract, make sure you clearly understand what services are covered, what is excluded, and what your cost is for items that are excluded from coverage.

Did we miss anything that you have found to be important? Let us know in the comments.

The Year of Mobile Computing: BYOD Trends to Expect in 2015

Guest post by Jennifer Birch

Bring Your Own Everything

Photo Credit: Dennis Callahan via Compfight cc

As people become more mobile reliant, the trend toward “bring your own device” (BYOD) becomes more common in today’s highly technologically dependent world. In fact, Gartner research revealed that 50 percent of companies will require their staff to use their own devices for work purposes in 2017. “The benefits of BYOD include creating new mobile workforce opportunities, increasing employee satisfaction, and reducing or avoiding costs,” according to Gartner vice president David Willis.

With the continuous demand for mobile computing in the business sector, it’s important to know what’s next in this sector. In this post, let’s introduce you to the top BYOD trends to watch out for this year.

More Mobile Security Apps
Security will remain as the main concern that slows the widespread growth of mobile computing in the office. However, as the famous saying goes, “there’s always an app for that.” A mobile security application is one of the most important apps that each gadget owner should acquire. For companies, one of the major concerns is the safety of their servers and crucial business information that can be hacked easily, given that these devices can easily be stolen and accessed by anyone remotely. It’s best to follow some of the common tips for mobile data security such as installing security apps, deleting cache and history, and turning on the device’s access pin code system. [Editor's note: Mobile Device Management systems such as Citrix XenMobile can offer organizations ways to enforce security policies, even on employee-owned devices.]

Rise of Wearables
Some of the much-awaited devices this year are in the form of wearables, particularly smart headsets such as Google Glass. Through its potential to provide augmented and virtual reality technologies, various industries are given the opportunity to work remotely, maximize innovative solutions, and acquire real-time data right at their eyes. “It [smartglasses] could provide access to repair manuals and larger schematics, helping engineers, technicians and architects to make more informed, quicker decisions,” Steve Pluta wrote in the news section of O2. As smartwatches have become powerful as well (with their ability to be standalone devices), it is not impossible that these gadgets will also be included in the next wave of BYOD technologies.

High mTech Demands by Employees
As stated previously, there will be an increase in the number of companies requiring their employees to use their own smartphones and tablets to work remotely. However, demand coming from their staff will also be apparent, such as the following:

  • The option to choose their own type of gadget.
  • Demand for a 4G connection.
  • Free access to work-related apps.
  • Pre-installed Cloud apps (such as Dropbox or iCloud), access to company Web site, and more.

Tracking Tools to Monitor Mobile Usage
Since there will be widespread adoption of mobile devices in the office, businesses will then have to control and monitor their usage. With the help of analytics tools, companies will have concrete insight into the content that their employees are accessing. Some may regard this action as a way to control their employees, limiting the activities they can partake of using their gadgets. However, experts say that applying a mobile monitoring tool must be discussed openly with colleagues to avoid any hurdle in the process.

BYOD has completely revolutionized the business sector, with its various advantages in terms of faster computing processes. Although security will remain to be of the utmost concern to most companies in making the shift to mobile processing, it will continue to grow as more devices are being produced that are focused on making work more efficient and cost-effective. What trend are you expecting to come up in BYOD this year?

Exclusive for VirtualQube

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What’s Your Password?

Earlier this month, we posted a couple of articles on the state of cyber security. Of course, one of the biggest problems with cyber security is that too many people don’t take it seriously enough. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this:

In the words of cartoonist Walt Kelly (on Earth Day in 1971): “We have met the enemy and he is us.”