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Excerpts of ‘Technology Trends for 2016’

Advancements in technology play a significant role in how companies set their direction. Successful growth strategies, cost efficiencies and securing data all hinge on making the right technology decisions for your business. Five local technology executives offer their insights on recent technology developments and perspective on what to expect in the new year.

What questions should business people ask to ensure their technology investments yield maximum returns and help them grow their businesses?

Devon Scott: The first question should always be “will this technology help take my business where I want it to go?” It’s easy to get swept up in current trends and buzzwords and think things like “my business must be in the cloud now to stay relevant.” However, before spending several thousand dollars on a new tech investment, ask your provider or IT team some qualifying questions:

1. Does this technology help our business do our job better?

2. Does it solve a problem that we have already identified?

3. Will it allow us to take measurable advantage of an existing opportunity?

4. Will it help future-proof us against an identifiable threat to our business?

Essentially, run the potential investment through a SWOT to find out if it is really helping you. It might seem really cool to deploy a mobile app for employee collaboration until you realize that no technology, no matter how hot it seems (apps, clouds, automation, etc.), is a magic bullet. There might be no worse investment than doing the right thing in the wrong way.

What are the most common mistakes companies make in setting up their technology systems?

Scott: Trying to be too hands on with their technology. It can be a curse how available technological tools are. Many businesses will try to implement and configure tools themselves to save costs, but will generally add time to the turn around for implementation and leave many errors and vulnerabilities as a result.

You probably wouldn’t tell your office building contractor, “Just give me the blueprint, and we’ll install the electrical circuitry.” The dangers aren’t quite as obvious for technology until you are facing a PCI audit, or your services disconnect 15 times a day, and you can’t explain why. My advice is to hire someone to do the technical work so that your company can continue doing what it does best for its bottom line.

What should companies think about when exploring options to back up data and disaster recovery plans?

Scott: Ask yourself, “If our data were lost or otherwise compromised, how long would it take to get operations back up and running from a back up?” Simply grabbing and dumping all of your data onto some back up media only thinks about the “disaster” but not the “recovery” aspect.

If an important document were corrupted, can you retrieve a copy of just that one file from your backups, or would you need to reinstate an entire machine to that last good state? How many other files might be lost for the sake of this one file? If you do need to bring up an entire machine or all of your sales records, how many hours are you waiting until it’s back where it needs to be?

What preventative measures can companies take to avoid cyber attacks, viruses and other threats?

Scott: Good security is mostly good policy. Even a bad thief knows to check under the welcome mat for a spare key. That being said, most of your attacks come in through the front door, so to speak.

Your office security can be locked down completely, but if an employee uses the same password for his Facebook as he does to login to your billing software, your business doesn’t even need to be breached for them to get credentials to your finances. A good password policy and auditing plan can help this, and it’s best to have someone in charge of this. Keep it scheduled and enforce changing passwords, or implement two-step authentication.

If your business runs under a Bring your own Device (BYOD) structure, creating a strategy can be a real pain, but even a simple plan can help avoid huge threats. Catalog each device that an employee may bring that connects to your network. That means phones, tablets, laptops, and even USB sticks. This will give you a real idea of what threats you might be bringing into your network from the outside and will let you know what type of BYOD policies you truly need.

How can companies combat ransomware? This is where victims have their data held hostage and must make an online payment to get it back.

Scott: Ransomware is scary because the sudden realization is that someone has been slowly hiding away your data for probably months, and you won’t find out until they’ve managed to lock it up. Unless you have your data somewhere else or on another machine you can work on, then you’re stuck paying a hacker what they ask or having to abandon that data altogether.

That being said, the best way to think about it is this: How would you manage if your phone or laptop were stolen? That is usually the answer to ransomware. The hacker is relying on you not having a plan B.

Backup your data and scan your machines for malware often. Keep in mind, you want to make sure your backups are also clean from the ransomware infection. It does no good to find out that your backed up data is already encrypted and unusable, or that recovering your data also recovers the ransomware and starts the process all over again.

What are the most productive ways that companies are using cloud services?

Scott: Cloud based services are the ultimate off-site backup. Employees can look up or update data from their home or on the road. This means an enormous increase in business agility. It also means that, when upgrading computer hardware, the time to install and configure services is greatly reduced. This goes especially for cloud based software and cloud based storage solutions that sync your data and activity across machines automatically.

Another great aspect of many cloud based services is the pay-for-use model, which allows you pay for how much you use certain services or how many users you give access to it. This means that you hold a huge amount of financial control and can trim fat methodically to really manage your costs.

Should companies have security concerns about cloud computing?

Scott: The cloud is generally more secure than your own datacenter. On one hand, you have the security of “owning” your systems when you have in-house technology, at least in a geographic sense. However that means all responsibility for those systems falls on you. A reliable third-party cloud company dedicated to the storage, management and encryption of your systems and data will manage the infrastructure while you manage your business.

Which online collaboration tools are most effective for businesses?

Scott: Regarding communication, HipChat has gained a lot of support. You can bring people into project conversations and control who gets alerted to what you need. Being an Atlassian product, it naturally plugs into several of their other tech tools if you ever find yourself growing in those directions.

Slack is a great collaboration tool that acts as an internal chat system for your teams. While it isn’t my favorite interface, it is very effective at what it does. In projects with several points of contact and many communications mediums (email, Dropbox, chat, text message, etc) it can be next to impossible to keep track of every asset, contract, and call to action. One search in Slack can look through all of these different sources to bring all of those conversations into one place.

I could recommend any number of project and task management tools, but none of them are one size fits all. Trello hits the mark by being broad enough to visualize what most businesses would have going on using Kanban boards and tagging features that have a fairly smooth learning curve. Google Drive is also still a very effective tool for collaboration. It provide cross platform multi-user editing, fairly simple but powerful sharing, security mechanisms, and powerful document and spreadsheet interfaces.

What should companies think about when selecting an Internet plan?

Scott: You want to know the strongest infrastructure in your area. If you are near your service provider, DSL or fiber optic can be preferable. If your cable provider’s isn’t saturated with competing users, you might win there. If your location is remote from the main town, you might want or be stuck with satellite. Also ask any existing customers in your area how well the service has been for them.

Also, estimate how much data you are actually sending and receiving and talk to your IT team about the bundles the provider is offering. Some providers offer phone lines, antivirus and spyware monitoring, and several other features.

How does the subscription model for software like Office 365 change the way companies buy and use software?

Scott: Instead of paying $1,500 for a software suite, subscription-based payment models like the ones you see for Office 365 and Adobe Creative Cloud allow you to pay an almost negligible monthly fee for it. This means that the investment for implementing, configuring, and learning the software is much lower, and it looks really good for a company’s cash flow. It’s like getting a debt-free loan towards an expensive piece of software.

What is the most efficient and safest way to give employees remote access to company information?

Scott: Whether you have travel concerns, telecommuting, or contractors, remote access is an important thing to consider ahead of time. I avoid Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) like the kind used by Windows Remote Desktop. The reason is not because of RDP itself, although there have been historic vulnerabilities with it.

The most important concern is securing your endpoints, which would be each device that connects to your business network remotely. Depending on how your employees really need to access data and how often, a simple browser based SSL VPN pass-through can connect your organization’s members to the network with some simple rules. If you have more complicated needs, however, such as fully remote employees as well as some contractors who only need limited data, a combination of IPsec and SSL VPN access would give more control.

What factors should businesses consider before using Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, Square and other mobile payment systems?

Scott: Most of these services have comparable features and fees, though some have slight advantages over the others. How do your customers pay you? If they pay via debit or through an app related to the payment service, they may or may not see the same fees as other customers. Also, what devices will your customers have? You don’t want to alienate your customers because a mobile payment system isn’t supported by their smart phone of choice.

Luckily there are services to mitigate this, such as Braintree, which processes most mobile payment systems including Bitcoin. If your customer is adventurous enough to experiment with the mobile payment system you are looking at, you can look forward to the improved security attached to each of these systems, including real time fraud protection, remote device deactivation, PIN requirements, and biome.

What is the most important technology issue that businesses should be focused on for 2016?

Scott: Monitoring is a fairly big deal. Very often technology is put in place and never looked at again, or at least not looked at properly. Monitoring can mean the difference between being hacked and identifying a hack attempt, or almost more alluring, predicting a customer behavior that might signal your next flagship product or service.

Proper monitoring is also the first step for preparing for the Big Data world. Data can be very valuable and very marketable, but you will never know it is if you never collect it. Scanning, tracking, and monitoring your financial data, customer interactions, or web traffic is like choosing to make an investment in something you already have but have been throwing away.

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