Paperless Office is For Everyone

Ever since the first bit of data that was spit out by a computer, the idea of eliminating paper in the office was born but never really took hold.  The “paperless office” became a dream that has been hard to adopt even by the largest companies.  It has been called “paperless office”, “e-filecabinet”, “document management” and a few others.

The term ‘paperless office’ conjures images of an office environment that runs totally without any paper what so ever anywhere.  Where in some industries this can be obtainable but for most companies it is really out of reach.  The term ‘reduced paper office’ is a more realistic approach for just about any company regardless of what industry it is in and no matter how large or small the company is.  Even home owners can utilize and reap the benefits of a reduced paper office as well.

What really hinders the making of a true paperless office is that there are certain regulatory forms that must be in paper.  Not all vendors are paperless and will still send out paper invoices, statements and packing slips.  A lot of legal documents must be in hard copy as well as well as many utility bills.  So we can quickly see that a true paperless office is a difficult task to obtain.  So we have to settle for a reduced paper office instead.  But for discussion sake we will refer to the term of paperless office.

Some of the advantages of having a paperless office are:

  • Reduce the need for file cabinets and reclaim usable floor space or even reduce the size of your physical location thereby saving on rent and utilities. A smaller place generally requires less to heat and cool.

    file cabinets

    Imagine the floor space recovered by eliminating file cabinets

  • Save on printing costs by not needing cases of paper, a stock pile of toner, and buying new printers every few years. By reducing the need for having cases of paper and all those toner cartridges you again reclaim storage space and never have to worry about running out.
  • Considering how paper burns pretty easily, by not having paper in the building can increase the chance of reducing the risk of fire and could make a fire easier to extinguish.
  • Document collaboration is a snap by having team members able to access the documents instantly. Even across the globe.
  • Security can be increased by limiting who can gain access to certain documents by the click of a mouse.
  • No more lost documents which is a real big advantage since they will always be available. No more of the ‘who’s got such-and-such document’ scenario which is so popular in many offices.
  • Disaster recovery can be greatly enhanced especially if a hosted solution is in place. Mission critical documents can be safely stored and retrieved at any time in the event of a disaster as long as you have an internet connection.

But a paperless office is not fully a bed of roses for there are some disadvantages as well, but a lot of these are easy enough to overcome:

  • Security is possibly the most important aspect. You need to be very diligent on who has access to the documents and how secure your network infrastructure is.
  • Like file cabinets, storage can be an issue. The hard drive of a computer can hold just
    Internal-Drive-720GB-icon

    Space is still an issue but hard drives are cheap today

    so much data.  Here you might think of using a Network Area Storage (NAS) or Storage Area Network (SAN) device where you can add drives as needed to increase the capacity or look at a hosted solution to hold the images.  Thankfully hard drives are fairly cheap and take up very little physical room so adding storage to a NAS is really a non-issue.

  • If your building is destroyed and your paperless office solution is in your building then you are in as bad a shape as you would be with paper. Here a hosted solution would be the best course of action.  Of course you need to review their service level agreement before taking them on to ensure uptime and accessibility.
  • Not all paperless software solutions are alike. They each have their own little quirks and learning curves.  And they all come in a variety of prices from under $200 to several thousand for custom made ones.  Unless you are comfortable with and know databases then you can make your own solution which is not that hard to do.
  • There are various documents that due to regulatory constraints must be in physical paper form, but those are dwindling down. Here you will need to consult with your lawyers and accountants to see what physical documents you need to keep.
  • End users love paper and retraining will be needed to reduce the amount of paper that they do indeed print. Granted there are times paper will need to be used but with proper training this can be greatly reduced.

Not that long ago only the largest companies could afford having a paperless office.  But as technologies improved and computers and scanners have gotten cheaper even the smallest businesses can take advantage of having a paperless office.

Let’s start with a simple office.  All the documents that you create on your computer are already in the paperless format as well as digital photos and email attachments which are

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A flatbed scanner can get you started with a paperless office

stored in a folder on your computer or server.  All that is needed is to migrate the documents into your paperless office.  As far as paper documents you need a scanner that can create .pdf, .tiff or .jpg images.  Most copiers and scanners today have that capability with the software that is bundled with the machines plus the software will run Optical Character Recognition (OCR) on a PDF document to make it searchable.  These documents then can be migrated into your paperless office.

 

The fax machine is not dead, at least not yet and many companies still use them.  By connecting the fax line to a computer or server with a modem installed, add the appropriate software like eFax® and now all of your incoming and outgoing faxes will be paperless.  These can also be incorporated into your paperless office after ‘e-printing’ them.

You will need to research the various fax software package for some like eFax® limit how many free faxes you can make and require you to have a monthly or annual subscription.  Plus if you have several computers that you are going to fax from then multiple licenses are going to be required along with the subscription fees.  Best way around this is by setting up a simple print server that handles all of the faxing.

A lot of office copiers will have electronic faxing built into them so it might pay to discuss that with your copier supply company.

Home-Server-icon

You need to store you e-documents someplace like on a NAS

Of course you need someplace to store the images or e-documents like on a computer, server, NAS or hosted storage.  Most importantly you need the paperless office software and selecting one can be a daunting task since there are so many on the market like PaperPort Professional® and others.

 

If you decide make a paperless office it would be to your exact needs instead of having you adjust to premade software.  Plus the potential savings in purchasing and licensing costs.  In addition even though there are providers that will build and host one for you they still can have a very high cost to set up plus monthly fees as well which can add up at the end of the year.

Of course there are other advantages to having one built and hosted for you.  Like uptime in the event that a disaster destroys your building, the host takes care of hardware and software upgrades, the host also backs up the data to help prevent loss on their end.

If you are knowledgeable in databases then you could conceivably make your own version of a paperless office.  But you would be responsible for all of the maintenance, upgrades and backups.

If you are up to the task of building your own paperless office you need some form of

FM11Logo 2 2

FileMaker Pro is just one DBMS that you can use to create a paperless office with

database management system (DBMS) like SQL Server, MySQL®, FileMaker Pro®, MS Access®, Oracle® or SAP®.  These can run from free like MySql to the $400 price range for MS Access® and FileMaker Pro® standalone version, to about a thousand for SQL Server to the hundreds of thousands for Oracle® and SAP®.

Next you need someone who knows the DBMS you wish to use to do the creation of the system.  Next a webpage designer to create the front end which is what the user sees on their PC unless the person who does the database work knows html, especially if you want web access to it.  But that can be optional depending on how you want the paperless office setup.   FileMaker Pro® and MS Access® plus a few others will allow you to create a front end that the user sees.

You can even do this on your own but you need to take classes on database and the particular DBMS first plus a course on webpage design would be in order as well.  None of this is rocket science and it is within the scope of just about anyone to get a grasp on.  Plus you can get various tutorials on the internet covering databases as well with many of them being free or very low cost.  Not to mention there are tons of textbooks you can purchase from places like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

In my own home office environment I wrote a simple paperless office using FileMaker Pro® that we use on a daily basis.  It is not loaded with all kinds of bells and whistles to be sure.  But it does the job that we need and I confess although I have a good grasp of databases I am no guru.

And like any other paperless offices you still need some way to scan your documents into

Printer-Scanner-Photocopier-Samsung-SCX-6545-icon

Most copy machines have scanning capabilities

your computer.  This can be from a simple flatbed scanner all the way up to a copy machine or high speed scanner.

 

And finally like all data you need to back it up nightly either in house or with a cloud provider.

So building your own paperless office is an undertaking that you may decide to tackle.  It will take time and will come with some frustration but it is something that is very doable.

For a few hundred dollars any small business or home owner can have a paperless office solution in place.  Of course you can still spend thousands for a very robust system that has unlimited storage.  Paperless Office technology has been dramatically improved since the early days of computing to a more efficient and user friendly tool.  Now anyone can implement one in their environment.

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Make Your Own Paperless Office?

I have been asked this question several times:

“Can I make my own paperless office solution instead of buying one?”

I can see why this question is asked.  If you make one it would be to your exact needs instead of having you adjust to premade software.  Plus the potential savings in purchasing and licensing costs.  In addition even though there are providers that will build and host one for you they still can have a high cost to set up plus monthly fees as well which can add up at the end of the year.  Fairly understandable reasons for building one that cannot be argued with.

Well the answer to the question is a surprising ‘Yes’ you can make your own paperless office solution.

First you need some form of database management system (DBMS) like SQL Server, MySQL, FileMaker Pro, MS Access, Oracle or SAP.  These can run from free like MySql to the $400 price range for MS Access and FileMaker Pro standalone version, to about a thousand for SQL Server to the hundreds of thousands for Oracle and SAP.

Next unless you are up to the task you need someone who knows the DBMS you wish to use to do the creation of the system.  Next a webpage designer to create the front end which is what the user sees on their PC if you want to use a web browser unless the person who does the database work knows html.  But that can be optional depending on how you want the paperless office setup.  Plus depending on the type of paperless office you are planning on building, knowing ASP, JAVA, XML and some other languages may prove useful.

You can even do this on your own but you need to take classes on database in general and the particular DBMS first.  Plus a course on webpage design would be in order as well, plus the other languages I spoke about but that can be optional as most DBMS’s can create a front end.  None of this is rocket science and it is within the scope of just about anyone to get a grasp on.  Plus you can get various tutorials on the internet covering the databases as well with many of them being free or very low cost.  Not to mention there are tons of textbooks you can purchase from places like Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

In my own home office environment I wrote a simple paperless office using FileMaker Pro that we use on a daily basis.  It is not loaded with all kinds of bells and whistles to be sure.  But it does the job that we need and I confess although I have a good grasp of databases I am no guru.

And like any other paperless offices you still need some way to scan your paper documents into your computer.  This can be from a simple flatbed scanner all the way up to a copy machine or high speed scanner.  These become .pdf, .tiff or .jpg files which you can scan into a directory on your computer then where you can now move them into the paperless office solution.

With the pdf files, you can OCR them, that is run an Optical Character Recognition utility on them to make them searchable.

Of course when you create the documents in the first place, as in Word, Excel or any number of programs, they are already in an electronic format so it is a very simple matter to move them into the paperless office.

And finally like all data you need to back it up nightly either in house or with a cloud provider.

So building your own paperless office is an undertaking that you may decide to tackle.  It will take time and will come with some frustration but it is something that is very doable.

But if time is one thing that you are in short supply on, then you might want to look at a cloud provider that can build and host one for you.  There are plenty of advantages of having a hosted paperless office over having one that you build.

First all upgrades and software licensing is the responsibility of the provider as well as backing up the data.  A hosted paperless office is or at least should be available to you via an internet connecting regardless of where you are especially in the event of a major disaster.

If you elect to build your own paperless office, you bear the responsibility of software upgrades, upgrades to the solution, license fees if any, and tech support.  Plus if you build your own most likely you will host it internally.  If so then if your building is destroyed or damaged you just might not be able to gain access to the data.  But you can save money on monthly and setup fees plus you remain in total control over your data.

So can you build your own paperless office? Yes.  Do you want to?  Well that depends on you and your situation.  You just might decide that instead of adding another potential headache to your plate then you just might be better off to go with a hosted solution instead.

A Simplified Look Into What A Database Is

You have probably heard the term “database” and never really gave it a second thought as to what it is. In this entry I am going to simplify what a database is and how it affects you.

We have used databases for many years and it is an integral part of our daily lives. We deal with databases all the time and multiple times a day regardless if we know it or not and have done so long before the electronic age.

Where do we as ordinary people use databases? Point of Sale systems found in stores are databases, library electronic card catalogs, hospitals maintain patient records on them as well as billing, even our cell phones use a simple database for the phone book. So as you can see we are surrounded by databases.

To really simplify a definition of a database, or “DB” we can say that it is a collection or records organized in a searchable format.

A very good example is our old friend the telephone book. Here you can find a person’s name, their address and of course their phone number provided they

have been published in the book. As we know it is a relatively easy process to open the book and find the person’s number. In fact I am going to refer back to the telephone book in this article.

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A phone book is a simple database

A DB is comprised of four main components. They are the tables, forms, queries and reports. Of course there are other components like macros which automate things and a few others as well but we are not going to address those here.

The first item and is the most important part of a DB are the tables for that is where the data is stored. The tables are divided into rows and columns and where they intersect is a cell. Each cell holds a specific item of data. Very much like a common spreadsheet.

table

 

Tables are the heart of any database

Back to the phonebook, the first column will be for the person’s name. The next column is their address and finally the phone number in the third column. Of course you can break this down further for a column for the last name, one for the first name, one for the street address, one for the town, one for the state and at last, the phone number.

Let’s say we created a table mimicking the phone book only let’s add in a few extra columns as if we ran a HR department. Right after the phone number we have the person’s date of birth, next is their social security number, finally is their annual gross income.

In a physical phone book we cannot add those unless we have access to the printing presses. And then it would require a massive amount of work to repaginate the layout. In our electronic version you can add as many columns as the program will allow with just a click of the mouse.

Looking at our electronic phone book above with the new information we added like birthdates, social security numbers and salary it should become very apparent how critical the tables are and what needs to be done to protect the data they contain. Tables in a DB can and usually do contain very sensitive information which can not only cause irreversible damage to a business but destroy people’s lives if the wrong person gains access to that data.

Tables can contain sensitive data like that are found in DB’s from Human Resources, financial institutions like banks and credit card companies, hospitals, military, and a whole gambit of other industries. So it really is not unusual at all to have that kind of data and more.

For publicly traded companies that fall under the Sarbanes Oxley Act and other regulations, extra care must be taken to protect the integrity of the tables and the data therein. Any changes to the tables must be documented time and time again to ensure that the data has not manipulated by an outside source.

In many DB’s you will find that they are made up with numerous tables, sometimes in the thousands. Each table can hold say several million pieces of data each. A lot of times these tables are interconnected in some form of relationship which gives rise to the modern relational databases. As you can probably imagine DB’s can be quite large and take up a lot of hard drive space. In several database the tables can get to be so large that they often require their own servers alone. And in these too can be so large like hundreds or thousands of servers just for the tables we would be entering the world known as “Big Data.”

Now it should be obvious that the tables that are the actual heart of any DB.

To make it easier to find and sort the data each table will have one unique piece of data known as the primary key. This key is very important in keeping the data organized. In some tables may have a shared key from another table called the surrogate key especially when it comes to relational databases. This in the simplest terms helps synchronize data between tables.

The next part of the DB are the forms. This is what the user sees on the screen and is used to enter the data in the first place. In many cases forms are often used to display the data after a search or query has been performed. Forms can also be used as control panels with buttons the user can click on to do certain functions.

form

 

Forms are used for input and output

I mentioned the term query in the above paragraph. Queries are important to the DB as they retrieve data from the tables in a specified and logical manner for you to use.

In a phone book, you would look up someone based on their last name. This is a manual query and depending on the size of the phone book we are searching through it can take from a few short minutes to hours. In our DB you would enter the search parameters like the last name or address and the query would pull up all the records based upon that in a blink of an eye.

querying_a_database_design_view

 

Query’s extract data from the tables

Queries can be very simple like the one above with one search parameter or very complex with several parameters depending on what the ultimate goal is.

As an example I wrote a trouble ticketing system in my last company that I used for help desk functions. I was able to enter a user’s name as a query parameter and very quickly was able to bring up the entire service history for that user and their computer. This was a lot faster and easier than searching through traditional hand written work orders. Plus it was very useful as a knowledge base.

Finally the last part of a DB are the reports. Reports are generated based upon data retrieved from running a query and then are printed out onto paper or in a paperless environment as a .pdf or similar document. This gives a written account of the data stored in the tables retrieved by the query.

The reports can be written with the DB software or from third party software like Crystal Reports.

report

 

Reports are the end result from a query

The reports can be one page long or several thousand pages depending on what was in the query in the first place. In many instances a massive report is best being produced as a .pdf instead of burning through reams of paper. Yet I have seen people run voluminous reports on paper that I seriously doubt anyone takes the time to read everything they contained which was a true waste of paper. So the .pdf version of the reports would fit perfectly in a paperless office environment.

I tried to implement that at my last company for the accounting officers would go through cases of paper creating reports only to be tossed out. It was met with resistance until they were shown the cost savings alone.

That was a very simple overview on how a DB works. If you sit back and look at it with those four parts, you will see that they are not that bad at all and why they are so very important in our daily lives. Once you understand the principles of how a DB works, then all you need to do is pick up a book so to speak and read how a particular type of DB works like SQL Server, SAP, Oracle, FileMaker Pro, etc.

As you can also see, a DB is the heart and soul of a paperless office solution.  You can read my entry on paperless offices in this blog.

Outsourcing Tech Support – Good For Them, Bad For You

There has been some controversy regarding the outsourcing of IT technical support services.  It is an

Outsourcing tech support can be very costly

Outsourcing tech support can be very costly

argument that has been around for years and will remain so as long as computers exist.

For those that are not familiar with the outsourcing of IT support I can sum it up very quickly in one sentence.  Instead of having an IT person on staff you hire an outside company to handle your IT requirements for you.  On the surface it would appear that outsourcing makes perfect sense.  Unfortunately the cold hard reality of it there are many reasons not to outsource IT services.

On a spreadsheet the initial numbers are very misleading in the respect that the company does not have to hire someone for IT support and as such will not have to pay benefits.  Even if an in-house tech costs $150,000 a year in salary it appears to be a savings if that does not have to be paid.  As such a lot of companies are shutting down their IT departments and are moving to outsourcing.

But what is not put into the figures is the cost for an outside tech to support the company.  Let’s say you have an issue with an employee’s desktop PC, you call the outsource tech support company or managed service provider (“MSP”) and place your complaint.  Now you have to wait for someone to call you back.  That can be right away or might be several hours later.

With the later, the employee’s system is sitting idle and you are paying the employee for not working.  The tech now returns your call and is able to resolve the problem say in five minutes.  Most MSP’s bill by the quarter hour.  So for 5 minutes of work you get charged 15 minutes. I have seen some that will charge the full hour just for 5 minutes of work.

Let’s put some numbers to that.  The average rate for tech support by me is $250 an hour billed by the 15 minutes.  The employee in question gets paid $22 an hour.  A rule of thumb for benefits is half of the salary rate is what the benefits cost so that is an extra $11 and hour to the employee.  That employee’s PC is down for 3 hours before a tech calls.  It takes the tech only 5 minutes to rectify the problem. Let’s do the math:

3 hours down time @ $22/hr                                                                                                66.00
Benefits for 3 hours @ $11/hr                                                                                              33.00
15 minutes tech service @250/hr for 5 minutes service                                                   62.50

Net                                                                                                                                       $161.50

Let’s say that an employee has a real bad paper jam in a copier.  Generally that falls under the realm of the IT department, but if the IT functions are outsourced the employee calls the MSP about the problem.  They in turn tell the employee to call the copier company unless they do that.  And like before they charge for telling you to call or to make the call for you.

Now what if the problem requires that they send someone on site?  You usually get charged travel time as well.  When you do get charged for travel time is it from around the block or the other side of the county?  Experience has shown it is always from across the county, several hours away.  And let’s say that the tech they send is not familiar with the particular issue and needs to research the issue.  You can and do get charged for that as well.  Let’s put some numbers on that based on a real event.

A company of 80 end users was hit with a nasty virus that wiped out the user login in database known as Active Directory in the primary server or domain controller.  The problem was escalated with the affect hitting other domain controllers in the network through replication.  This had the effect of locking out all of the end users from their computers so no one could work.  They had to call in the MSP.

The average salary for the staff we will say is $60 an hour which includes the senior execs.  Again 50% of the salary rate goes to benefits.  The server went down at 10AM and the outside tech was called.  He did not respond until 5PM.  The tech spent 9 hours researching the problem and making a diagnosis before repairs could made.  An additional 3 hours to do the actual repair.  The rate was $250/hr. and they tacked on 2 hours traveling time at $250/hr.  Quitting time for the company is 5PM, which means the staff was idle for 7hrs.  And the tech that responded was not familiar with the company’s network environment.

Let’s look at it:

80 end users with an average salary of $60/hr                                                        4,800.00
Plus benefits @30/hr for all 80 users                                                                        2,400.00

Net salaries with benefits                                                                                                                    7,200.00

Times 7 hours idle time for the staff                                                                                                  50,400.00
2 hours travel charge                                                                                                      500.00
9 hours to research the problem                                                                                2,250.00
3 hours to implement the repair                                                                                     750.00

Net service charge                                                                                                                                 3,500.00

Total money lost due to no on site tech                                                                                            $ 53,900.00

What if it took the tech say a day or more to arrive?  How much money was lost by paying people to stand around?

Waiting for outsourced tech support can be very costly

Waiting for outsourced tech support can be very costly

Now this was an extreme but realistic example. If you add that $54K to the rest of the calls to the MSP for the year and you could be shocked.

Now in this example the client had to wait seven hours before someone showed up.  What level of priority was given to this client?  Obviously it was not high up on the outsource tech firms list.  The client can be told that they have top priority but in reality the MSP firm could have the client on the bottom of the pile.

With my previous company I reduced outsourcing of tech calls which meant that while I was there I handled about 19K hours of service calls.  Multiply that by the MSP rate of $250 an hour you will find that was a savings of $4.8 million.  Who’s laughing now?

Most companies do not have a tech savvy person on staff and the MSP‘s know this all too well.  What is to say that they bill for services that were not done or that were not necessary?  It happens and they can get away with it.

Here is an example, an MSP had a sales meeting with a client.  As part of the meeting they brought along one of the field techs to the meeting which was not requested by the client.  The MSP billed the client not only for the tech to be there at their hourly rate, but three hours travel time for the tech as well as lunch for him.

Labor is not the only costs that the MSP firm can embellish or control.  A lot of times they state that they can and will supply all the hardware at the best pricing available.  A savvy company would know that they can get better pricing for the same items by going elsewhere like PC Mall, Tiger Direct, New Egg and factory direct like HP and Dell.

As an example an MSP wanted to sell Dell computers to a client.  The client already had an account with Dell but was open to price comparison to see if they could get a better price.  When the MSP provided their quote, the client went to Dell and built out the same computer for 40% less and is able to get the computer faster since it was shipped directly to them.  Obviously the MSP did not get the sale.

Many times the MSP will try and is often successful in selling hardware, software and services that are not needed.  They upsell whenever they can.  After all it is in their best interest not the clients.

As an example there is a publicly traded company not far from me.  Their network environment was simple and did not require virtualization.  A MSP made it to one of the senior executives and sold them on the idea of going virtual.  Not only that they convinced the executive to eliminate the in-house tech staff so they could run the show.  In under a year the MSP cost the company over $1 million and the network has more bugs in it than you can imagine which of course equates to more billable service calls.

Another example a MSP wanted to sell a client all new desktop computers.  The ones that they had were one to two years old but the MSP tried to convince them that their machines were outdated and were failing.  They were looking at trying to sell 120 new systems at once which would have given them a $200,000 sale.

In once aspect it did make sense to replace all of the computers at once to keep them all the same.  This way you can create what is known as one image of a computer with all the software on it and simply clone that to many others.  This makes deploying and replacing computers easy.  At the same time it would be prudent to have a few others of the same types on hand should you get a new employee or a system should fail.  The image would be very useful here.  But it is not a cost effective method by a long shot.

A lot of times the MSP will insist and put it into their service agreement that they get an exclusive to service your systems.  In an event like what I went into earlier where it took the tech 7 hours to respond if the company had access to another MSP then they might not have been down that length of time.  Unfortunately that company was in an exclusive agreement with the original MSP.

Some MSP’s feel that they own the clients network and the systems attached.  The client has no idea what is going on and as such the MSP runs the show.  They can and sometimes do withhold from the client a lot of vital information that the client has a right to.

A lot of MSP's think they own your network

A lot of MSP’s think they own your network

As an example with the administration passwords.  These are the master top level passwords to the systems that the client has.  Being a tech myself I can say that it can be a bad thing to give these to the client.  A lot of times it has been seen that an executive who has these passwords logs into a system, like a server just to snoop around.  They feel that because they are an executive that give them the knowledge to access the server and generally will click on the wrong thing and cause all kinds of havoc.  In some cases the executive or someone else with no tech skills reads in a magazine how to do things and invariably tries what they read and messes things up as well.  I have seen this on several occasions.

But the client owns the systems and has a right to the passwords.  The MSP can come up with some excuse in not giving them to the client.  If the client has them, then they can, provided they know what to do can lock out the MSP from accessing the network.  This is a good practice and should be set in place.  This way if the tech firm needs access then the client can grant it on an as needed basis.  Plus the client will have the freedom to have someone else look at the systems if they desire.

Granted most of the time the client has no clue as to what is going on.  This is where the MSP needs to but does not educate the client to the nitty-gritty details.  But they often do not do so just to keep the client in the dark.

Dealing with outsourced tech support can not only leave you in the dark, but can be frustrating

Dealing with outsourced tech support can not only leave you in the dark, but can be frustrating

With your own IT staff they know the systems inside and out in know how everything works better than an outside company can.  In many cases it is the in-house tech staff that built the network from the ground up.  This gives them the advantage over an outside company for they can respond to emergencies a lot faster.  Plus the in-house staff would have extensive documentation on the network which an outsourced company would not have nor provide.  True an outside company can learn your network but there is a learning curve involved which costs money as pointed out earlier.

Another bit of familiarity comes not from the hardware but from the end-users as well.  With an in-house tech they would know how to interact with the rest of the staff.  Plus a level of trust is built up between everyone something that an MSP could not hope to achieve.  Sometimes an outside tech may have rubbed someone the wrong way and the company can actually prevent the tech from servicing them.  And in with an MSP you may not get the same tech in twice.

A major factor to consider is security. Who are these people?  They have no vested interested in the clients company, just their own.  Who is to say that an outside tech does not walk off with crucial data

A MSP can divulge your company secrets behind your back

A MSP can divulge your company secrets behind your back

on a flash drive or external hard drive?  The client will never know.  What is the outside tech doing with that data, sharing it with another client?  What if the tech leaves the hard drive unattended in a car and that gets broken into and the external drive is stolen.  Corporate espionage is a very real threat.  An in-house tech would treat your data with more care and security than an outsider will.  Granted even internal staff can steal data, but the chances are lower than an outsider.

A very good example is there is a company that had an outsourced tech there.  An argument ensued between him and one of the staff.  The tech blabbed his mouth off about the clients operation to one of his other clients who in turn shared that information with one of their clients.  Where is the level of trust and security there?  How often do things like this happen?

With an MSP you the client have no control over what goes on in your network.  Keeping your network environment in operation at all times should not be left to outsiders for they do what they want, when they want and charge you for everything possible.  Even with a network of 20 users would pay to have someone on staff to maintain your network for you, even if it means they have to do other jobs to justify them being there.

Outsource tech companies can and do have some usefulness.  They see changes in technology faster than you can and are on top of these changes.  They also can pull from a larger resource of knowledge to get a job done because you are not their only client.  Someone else may have had a similar problem and that experience can be beneficial.  So in some aspects it pays to have an MSP or two as standby help.  But not as your primary tech support.

Ultimately the decision is yours.  But the prudent thing is not to outsource your tech support.  Of course the MSP’s would highly disagree with what is presented here, after all like I said earlier they are out for their best interest not yours.

Free College Level Education

classYears ago if you wanted to know how to program a computer or do just about anything on one you needed to obtain an advanced degree in math, electronics, engineering and what have you.  That ran you into tens of thousands of dollars.

As an example, you want to learn a programming language, say JAVA.  JAVA seems to be the language of preference in most computer science classes.  You could attend a formal class at a college to learn the basics of JAVA but that can cost you from $1,000 to $3,000 or more.  OK, if you are going for a degree you will have no choice but go that route.

But let’s say you are not degree bound or just want to learn JAVA or are in a degree program and need extra help.  There are plenty of free tutorials on the internet that do a great job of teaching JAVA.  Even Oracle, the owner of JAVA (formally Sun Computers owned it until they were bought by Oracle) has free tutorials on JAVA.  You can borrow books from your library as well.  Plus on YouTube you can find tutorials on it as well with other sites.  As an example The New Boston,  http://www.thenewboston.org, has loads of free tutorials on various subjects including JAVA.   With some work on your part you will know the language for free.

JAVA is not the only computer language you can learn for free.  COBOL, ASSEMBLER, FORTRAN, C+, and many other languages can be learned at no cost that way.

Some universities are offering free college level courses as well on the internet.  M.I.T. and Berkley are two just universities doing this.  You can get some great college level education for free.  But not every course the university gives is offered for free and sometimes the course is pretty skimpy, that is they simply did not do good job preparing it and leave you hanging. Plus the courses might be a few years dated as to what the current curriculum is, but the knowledge is sound. Unfortunately you will not get any credit for taking those what so ever plus you might not be able to interact with the professors. In any case you can take college level courses for free.

Computer programming is not the only thing you can learn for free, CISCO, HTML, CSS, Photoshop, FileMaker Pro, MS Office and many other subjects can be learned for free.  You just need to search them out.

Let’s look at CISCO.  Like JAVA there are plenty of sources on the internet where you can get free tutorials.  To practice CISCO you could go to eBay and buy some routers and switches which can cost from a few hundred to over a thousand or with a little digging you can get CISCO’s PacketTracer which simulates the hardware only it is free.  Since it is a computer simulator and draws no power, your wallet will love the fact there is no increase in your electric bill nor is there any additional hardware to buy.

In some areas you will need to buy the software to use to learn on but that is the fraction of the cost for a college degree.  A lot of times you can get software to learn on fairly inexpensively on eBay.  Granted a lot of it is not the latest but there is nothing wrong with it to learn on while saving money.

As an example you want to learn Visual Basic then you need Visual Studio to learn on. I have seen Visual Studio for sale on PC Mall for over $4,000. At the same time go to eBay and I’ve seen it for under $100.

By the way, if programming is what you seek then you will find that most compilers are available for free.

Let me get you started with some links to some free education:

800 Free Online Courses From Top Universities –http://www.openculture.com/freeonlinecourses
MIT Open Courseware – http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm
Learning the Java Language by Oracle – http://docs.oracle.com/javase/tutorial/java/TOC.html
The New Boston – Bucky Roberts had produced numerous computer related courses plus a few others as well – http://thenewboston.org
Alison – they have several courses ranging from computers to Risk Management to Math and much more – https://alison.com/
COBOL programming – http://www.csis.ul.ie/cobol/course/Default.htm
Harvard Online courses – these are the free ones, they do have online courses for credit but they will charge you for those – http://online-learning.harvard.edu/courses?sort_by=date_added&cost[]=free
University of California Berkeley on iTunes has some free courses
University of Irvine has a few courses – http://ocw.uci.edu/
UMass Boston has a nice selection – http://ocw.umb.edu/index.html
Carnegie Mellon University also has a nice selection – http://oli.cmu.edu/learn-with-oli/see-our-free-open-courses/CodeCademy is another great resource if you want to learn programming – https://www.codecademy.com/

There is another resource that I found while not free is very cost effective, Lynda.com. Here are some great tutorials available at a very low price. All you need to do is sign up for monthly access and you can access all of the tutorials that they have for the one price. Some public libraries may grant you free access to that site just by being a patron so you can take an unlimited amount of courses from Lynda.com for free. So it pays to check with your local library.

So with a little effort on your part you can find some great sources for free or nearly free such as computer education as well as other subjects and become more valuable in this highly competitive job market..

Keeping Your Cool

The summer heat is on and we as humans can experience overheating which necessitates that we drink lots of cool liquids, get by a fan or an air conditioner, or even slow down what we are doing.  Otherwise we would suffer the effects of heat with heat exhaustion or worse yet, heat stroke.

Computers are susceptible to heat damage as well and care needs to be taken to ensure the longevity of them.  A cooler computer runs more efficiently and lasts longer which your wallet will thank you for.  Steps taken to accomplish this are not hard and are well within everyone’s grasp.

First the computer must have a source of fresh air.  That means the cooling vents on the front and back of the machine must be free of debris and air can easily circulate around the machine.  Way too often I’ve seen computers stuffed under a desk with all kinds of things covering it.  Plastic bags shoved behind them for storage, shoes piled up by them or worse yet boxes.  One person even had boxes piled up in front of a machine acting like a small table for them.

The way a computer is cooled is that cool air is drawn in from the front of the machine, over the components and then finally out of the back of the machine.  You can see evidence of this by looking behind your desk and see a dust ring on the back of the desk.  Sometimes more pronounced than others.  If you put your hand near the back of the machine near the power supply you will feel hot air being blown out.  Some computers will have an extra fan in the back blowing out hot air as well.

Most people, and I am including myself in on this, keep their computers on the floor to maximize desk space.  This also eliminates having the hot air from the machine being reflected off the back of the desk or cube wall into your face.

The problem with keeping the computer on the floor is that the fans will not only draw in air, but dust as well.  It happens with computers sitting on a desk as well, but the amount of dust is not as great.

The problem with dust is that it acts like an insulator.  It covers everything and the components retain the heat inside of them thereby baking away.  The more dust the more heat is retained.  Eventually these components will overheat and fail.  The ones that are the most sensitive to heat damage are the CPU, the power supply, memory and the video board.

Dust acts like an insulator

Dust acts like an insulator

What needs to be done is to get the dust out of the machine and off all of the components.  This is not a complex task at all and takes only a few minutes to half an hour to complete.  All you need is a Phillips head screw driver, canned air or an air compressor, a dust mask and a few paper towels.

To begin turn off your computer and unplug it.  You may want to unplug all of the cables to make your life easier.  Don’t worry about putting the cables back into the right locations for with the new systems the cables are either color coded to go into the corresponding connector or so obvious it would be hard to miss the location.  Just with the USB cables you need to be careful for you can insert it upside down and cause damage to the computer.

You will find it a lot easier if you take the computer off the floor and put it onto a desk or table.

Now there are so many different designs of cases it is impossible to describe in details how to open them up.  But most of them are similar in design and the following are generalizations in how to open the cases.

First you need to unscrew the side cover.  It is retained by two to four Philips head screws on the back of the case.  Once you unscrew these the cover should slide off towards the rear.  You may need to help it a bit by gently prying the cover with a flat blade screw driver.

Once you have the cover off wipe down the inside of the cover with a paper towel and then set it aside.

Now you will need to remove the front of the computer.  It can be held in place with a few screws or in some computers with a few tabs.  Once you take the front off you most likely find a ton of dust behind it.  A lot of times dust bunnies would be small compared with what you will find.

Use canned compressed air to remove dust

Use canned compressed air to remove dust

Now blow out the dust from the cover and use a paper towel to complete the cleaning.  Now before you grab that dust can a word of advice, you are best taking the cover and computer outside and dusting it there unless you want to fill the office with a cloud of dust.

Now take the canned air and blast way at the front cover.  Once that is done start pulling off the large dust balls from the computer where the cover was.  With the canned air blow out the dust from the mother board, the cooling fins of the CPU, the memory chips, the video board, CD/DVD player, and blow out the dust from the inside of the power supply.  You will be surprised at the cloud of dust that you will create.

Hold the fan still with a pencil to prevent it from over spinning

Hold the fan still with a pencil to prevent it from over spinning

When blowing the fans, hold them still with a pencil or your screwdriver.  The pressure from the canned air will spin the blades to speeds that they were never designed for and the bearings would fail.  Sometimes the fan will actually explode and fly off the item.  So be careful.

Instead of canned air you can use an air compressor.  A word of caution: air compressors can produce pressures as high as 160 pounds per square inch.  That kind of force would dislodge and send components flying across the yard and do permanent damage.  Turn the pressure down to no more than 10 pounds per square inch.

As an option you can buy one of those vacuum cleaners designed just for computers.  They do not have the same amount of vacuum as a floor vacuum has.  If you use a regular vacuum you can pull components off the motherboard which will require you to buy a new motherboard. Plus they generally have a long nozzle to help get into tight areas.  Using that with a soft brush will help remove the dust.  And you will not have to take the machine outside.

You can buy vacuums just for cleaning computers

You can buy vacuums just for cleaning computers

Finally the last step is to put the cover back on, connect all the cables and boot it up.

Some people have added additional fans to their computers increasing the amount of air flow in them.  Others will replace the CPU cooler with a larger more efficient one and same with the video board.  You can even buy and install heat sinks that fit onto the memory chips to help pull heat away from them.

Serious gamers and those that do high end graphic arts will go as far as replacing the CPU cooler and video board cooler with liquid cooling.  Here a liquid much like the antifreeze in your car is circulated through special heat sinks attached to various points in the machine then to a radiator outside the computer to release the heat.

I have known of one person who went even further and designed a cooling system for their computer that is a lot like a refrigeration unit and can get the CPU temperature as low as -30F.  That is really extreme which is something you would not find in a typical office or home environment.  The computer ran like greased lightning thou.

By getting the dust out of your computer will make it run cooler, more efficient and will last longer as well and is a chore that you should consider doing at least twice a year.  More so if you live in a very dusty area.