Google Suite for your startup office needs

If you are a startup or even a large corporation, you can do worse than use Google’s Office Suite. It can read most Word, Excel and Powerpoint files from Microsoft and it can definitely export to them for compatibility with clients.

All you need is a Google email account which is still FREE last time I looked.

You are allocated a few Gb of space BUT here is the trick, any documents you create in Google are NOT added to your file count. So what I do is upload the Word document, convert / save is as a Google Document and then delete the Word one – zero bytes in use ๐Ÿ™‚

Try it out and be amazed.

Outsourced IT

Years and years of trying to find the right it solution for my businesses has had me doing some amazing and really stupid things.

I ran my own servers from my own data centre for many years – until someone stole a server! Yes, they stole a server. Thank goodness for encryption and backups but I can tell you it was my worst nightmare. Then the Internet got a bit better and we could move some computers to other people’s data centres – better security, better UPS facilities and, dare I say it, better support.

Then it all got way too expensive – charging for bandwidth – chocking bandwidth and the list goes on. Back to my own systems. Well, not exactly, it was a migration from my hardware in someone else’s data centre, to virtual hardware anywhere in the world I wanted it located, with unlimited bandwidth and free upgrades. The downside – well at first there wasn’t one – I had RAM, HDD which they converted to SSD for better speed and many, many processors. The support was first rate and the control was all mine.

Then along came the privacy laws, data protection laws and EU directives – now we had to get permission from people and in some cases governments to be able to host somebody’s personal information outside of the country they were resident in. Mass panic as we moved the data back within the borders almost tripling our infrastructure requirements.

As electronic security got better and the data protection laws were understood, it got easier to have data in one place provided you had all the right security and permissions in place. I now have a full set of IT Infrastructure that is all outsourced, secure and complies with many ISO standards, EU directives and US and UK data privacy laws.

If you want to know more about how we can help you with your infrastructure, help desk, application hosting or data backups, please drop us an email and we will arrange a consultant to give you a call and assess your requirements.

Why are you reinventing the wheel when it comes to your website framework?

I have recently been approached by various people who have had their websites ‘designed’ by a custom website building professional. The reason, they want to make changes, add a blog and the ‘designer’ is either too busy, too expensive or on holiday in Nepal for a month ๐Ÿ™‚

I do apologise to the all website designers and builders for my blatant sarcasm and apparent disapproval of a very legitimate business model. My issue is not with brilliant bespoke websites, nor the brilliant designers and builders – my issue is with the way we as customers go about choosing an appropriate solution.

For me, a bespoke website comes after you have had a website online, figured out what is working and finally realised that you have such a unique offering or requirement that you need a bespoke solution, not the other way round.

I think ego has as much to do with it as well as just lack of knowledge in this particular area. Nobody wants to research for months on end and nobody wants to buy something that they will throw away in a few days (aka cheap hosting solution website builder models). We also all want the best, most unique and quirky possessions out there. The thing with websites is that they need to work, be easy to adapt or change to a changing market and they need to be easy to maintain.

For this reason I recommend using a framework of sorts – preferably one that is open-source, has a decent community and is regularly upgraded. WordPress is just such a framework and whilst there are plenty of detractors and also plenty of issues if you just click and install without understanding the security, these frameworks are still way better than trying to pay for something that must be built from the ground up.

So to get started setup WordPress site, play with it, see what works, find add-ons or plugins and experiment. Then, and only then, you can make a decision on how different your needs are – my guess is you would have to have some very technical or very specific requirement that cannot be dealt with by a framework before you would need to move away from something like WordPress.

Be sure to read this article about Taking Control of your Web Presence BEFORE you rush off and get yourself a website.

I Donโ€™t Have To Like The EU To Still Vote Remain

The process of the EU Referendum has stirred deep division and has been very frustrating for supporters on both sides of the argument. While we may have the facts about life in the EU today, when it comes to what the future holds if we #Leave or #Remain there are very few real facts. It becomes a matter of opinion. It’s not surprising how strongly the two sides disagree, and how each side calls “lies!” at the other’s claims. It makes convincing anyone to change their mind through debate of the issues practically impossible. And if you’re still undecided I feel your pain!

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Your own Private Dropbox

I recently had a customer ask me to sync files automatically to their website from a program on a laptop. Not too difficult I thought, Dropbox or Google Drive does that without even blinking.

So I set the service up in Dropbox BUT when it came to accessing the files, I could only access the file I had a link for – fine for file number one but the link within file number one to another file within the same directory structure was not available. Ugh.

This is a second edit – what I forgot to mention was another requirement, they needed the uploaded files to display as html files in a browser, not be downloaded or saved or anything like that. Dropbox can do that with a ?raw=1 option – good to know if you ever need to link to a file that needs to run in a browser. I couldn’t get it to work with Google Drive. Please bear in mind my IT technical skills are that of of a mainframe programmer from the early 80’s ๐Ÿ™‚ so I know how to find the stuff and implement it but don’t ask me to actually figure it out!

A quick Google search (I love the Interweb) and I find that if you have a Public folder in Dropbox you can share files and the relative file links are valid too. Oh wait, you needed a Dropbox account prior to 2012 to have a Public folder that works like this. Ugh.

Fortunately I have one, but unfortunately my client can’t write to it without an upgrade. Ugh!

So I started looking for a Windows equivalent of rsync, then realised I need to figure out how to do cron jobs in Windows and then decided to just kill myself already. Seriously, my eyes were melting and my brain was fried at the disregard purveyors of solutions have for us mere mortals. They install all sorts of shyte, assuming their software is the only software that needs to run. I killed 3 installations of Windows before giving up. I’m not a moaner so I won’t publish their names BUT be forewarned.

I then stumbled upon openCloud. An open source, free alternative to Dropbox and Google Drive. Wow, it installed within 4 minutes (the initial install I did was 4 hours because I installed a full linux server on a VM box and did update, upgrades and all that jazz). When it came to production time, I installed it on my production Linode server in exactly 4 minutes with an apt-get install command. Done! Configuration took another 10 minutes. I even figured out how to share another directory on the server so that the website and the local software program were looking at the same data – absolutely fantastic.

I won’t even attempt to try and explain how to do it here – read their documentation – if you can install an app you can install this baby. It works on local networks, the Internet and anywhere you need two directories synced. You need a server but your Mac OS X machine can be that if you want it to.

My quick spread of love for open source – I have a happy client and I have just discovered a new way to run all my project documentation without the need to beg the staff to send in the files, or backup or ever worry about losing info.

So pop over to http://opensource.org/ and start taking control of your files on the Internet.

Using a wiki to manage unstructured data in your business

You know Wikipedia – yes it is very structured so why mention it? Actually it is not structured at all. It is a mere collection of information scattered across pages, categories, tags and indexes. The way the data is presented is about as free format as you can expect.

Ok – so maybe it isn’t truly unstructured data but it is unstructured enough to be useful to someone who is trying to manage a bunch of information about their organisation without buying terribly restricting software.

Have a look at MediaWiki – the wiki that Wikipedia uses and have a look at Redmine wiki – it has some additional project stuff attached to it and uses slightly different technology (ruby-on-rails as opposed to php).

The thing about wiki’s that excite me is that within a few minutes you have a publishing platform that can capture anything from your working process documentation to those training videos that are laying around the office. I’ve even seen some resourceful people use them for discussion forums on projects.

I have recently used wiki’s to kick-start the documentation process for the multitude of policies and procedures a company has to deal with. The good thing about his is the automatic version protection with the historical stuff in place. Also being able to protect a page was useful but the most useful thing was the fact that people can change things that are wrong and it is effective immediately within the organisation – it is wonderful. With the plugin to print books I can produce process and procedure manuals at will so those people who still rely on paper to communicate get to be happy too.

vTiger 6.2 is out

As a CRM system I have always liked sugarCRM and vTiger CRM. vTiger has released version 6.2 which is meant to address some of the stability issues from before. sugarCRM is still the first rate CRM it always was. They both have the same roots.

We recently implemented this version of vTiger at a client on a remote machine with very little memory. The system works very well, the customisable fields are fantastic and the import facility worked well as long as we kept the import records below 500 at a time.

Using the mass email function caused us some issues so we bought a German add-on for 50 Euros which really helped with the “From” settings and gave use the ability to use nicer templates and an unsubscribe function. It took some figuring out but as long as you actually change the codes to exactly what they show in the example it will work – their default codes were rubbish. IT took our staff the best part of 4 hours to figure that out ๐Ÿ™‚

We are experimenting with memory on our server to see if it will speed up bulk actions. At the moment we try not to make our lists nor bulk action deal with more than 200 records at a time. This does cause some slow down during peak mailing and data cleaning exercises but as the client didn’t want to spend money on memory they won’t normally use we live with the initial compromise.

CRM is important for any size business and if you don’t have a regular place to keep tabs on your communications with clients, may I suggest you install or get a hosted version of vTiger and change your customer experience forever.

With vTiger you can even do help desk and customer portal activities and there are modules for invoicing and product management which we haven’t even started exploring yet. These are our next steps.

Operating Systems

In the world of open source the variations of Linux operating systems that are available are staggering. Beside Linux there are some Unix systems that are also available, many are FREE too.

Starting with my favourite Ubuntu Linux is a class act to follow. They have server editions, desktop editions and they are even talking about getting into phones operating systems – how cool is that?

There is a great article here: How-To Geek website which will cover most of the stuff you need to know about Linux and the distributions such as:

Ubuntu – my soul mate
Mint
Debian – close second in my life
Fedora
CentOS
openSUSE
Red Hat
Mageia
Arch
Slackware – Arch and Slackware are minimalistic distros without any fancy installs, etc
Puppy – this is a distro that can help revive some old computer hardware

I really just want to give you a resource to look up Linux distributions. As with an choice of operating system you must make a strategic decision based on your requirements and not on the features of the system. Figure out your requirements first and the choice will be obvious.

Some myths around open source

The following is just not true about open source software:

  • Open Source is always FREE;
  • FREE is always inferior;
  • Open Source is always appropriate;
  • Open Source is for technology hippies and layabouts who donโ€™t want to spend money on the real thing;
  • Open source is limited to linux and itโ€™s variations.

While the majority of open source software appears to be FREE there are some amazing products that are open-source BUT not FREE. Microsoft even claim to have open source ERP systems.

Just because you don’t pay for something does not mean it does not have value. One of the easiest ways it to try and equate the value of say Gmail to your local email provider. With Gmail you get: SPAM filtering and prevention (value?), backups of your email (value?), hardware to leave your emails on (value?), 24/7 support (questionable value) sometimes. Now Gmail is not an open source solution but rather a FREE solution – I use it just to make a point. Take Ubuntu Linux distribution as FREE open source software. Within the Ubuntu suite of products you will find servers and desktop operating systems that rival the best in the world. They are secure, user friendly and very relevant AND they are free. You can download them for free, you get free updates, security advisories and new versions. They even have proper deployment and version plans with long term support for enterprises who don’t want to be on the bleeding edge of technology AND you are free to change whatever you want in the kernel, the applications and any of the utilities. Pretty neat I’d say.

Just because you can get all this open source stuff it does not always follow that it is appropriate to insist on open source. There may be time when you want an application that is not open source and does not need to be – think of it more as an appliance – it is used for a specific purpose, there may be many variations or options available to perform the same task and your life is by no means inconvenienced because you can’t see the source code. It is perfectly acceptable to be using ‘closed’ software for a variety of tasks – as long as you have considered all your requirements, there is only your preference – the rest is opinion and conjecture ๐Ÿ™‚

If you think you are not going to spend money implementing open source software then you may just be the best techie ever. I think the association of people dabbling in DIY with open-source has given the open source community an image of back-room shed techies who sleep by day and drool by night. This can be no further from the truth – just take a look at Canonical, Sun and even Google and see the effort that people put in to ensure the systems are world class.

Finally, any system can be classified as open source if the developers readily supply you with the code for the system. This is not a phenomenon that is banished to the Linux world at all.