Business IT News and Notes

Ideas for Small and Medium Businesses

Why Small Businesses Should Utilize Microsoft Lync

In business, networking is king. The survival and success of any business depends upon the ability of the business to communicate clearly and frequently with those directly involved with its success. Customers, suppliers and partners are all crucial to success, and to keep them satisfied, they must be kept in the know. One program that can make this process very easy is Microsoft Lync. This program allows for greater cohesion between individuals in the workplace.

One of Lync’s primary features is the ability to connect securely to customers, suppliers and partners from anywhere in the world. Lync is available on every device, be it a tablet or a computer, and can establish contact by adapting to any available network. A small business must be able to communicate with its customers and employees quickly, making the instant messaging feature of Lync very appealing. Instant messaging allows for real time communication at a moment’s notice from anywhere with an internet connection. Instant messaging is much faster than a phone call or email, and allows for the quick exchange of files and pictures with multiple individuals at any time. If the bar next to the person’s icon is green, they are able to receive your message. The messages also save and file themselves after periods of inactivity, ensuring that any information transferred is preserved.

Video and voice calls are also features found in Lync. If an individual has a microphone and speakers installed in their computer, they are able to communicate face to face from any location. This is a more personal method of communication, and can be very useful for businesses with employees who are out of the office or stationed in far off locations. Lync can hold conference video calls with up to five members, allowing for easy meetings from any location at any time. In addition to this, Lync can provide users with the unique ability of sharing desktops through the Lync Web App. One person, marked the presenter, can share their desktop with other members of a conference call to share PowerPoint presentations, desktops and various programs.

By establishing a center for the distribution and sharing of information and contact essential to successful business, Microsoft Lync provides an invaluable service that brings together customers, employees, managers and suppliers to create a method of quick and convenient communication. Its value to small businesses is simply its ability to establish easy access from any location.

By Miles Flett/Syncretic Intern

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From Reactive to Proactive: How GFI MAX RemoteManagement Helps One MSP

Launched in 1997 as an IT services provider, Syncretic Software has successfully changed — and grown — with the times. “We went from being a reactive network services company to a proactive MSP,” says co-founder and President Seth Rosenberg. “The GFI line of products has helped us do that.”

Rosenberg is referring to products from GFI Software, a provider of IT solutions specifically designed to enable MSPs to grow their business. Syncretic’s first experience with GFI was in 2005 when it began to use GFI MailEssentials, a spam filtering tool which at that time was server-based. As Syncretic grew and GFI released new products, “we adopted those products where it fit our needs as a managed services provider,” recalls Rosenberg.

When GFI introduced GFI MAX RemoteManagement™, a cloud-based RMM platform, Syncretic moved from the on-premise model to providing hosted services. Today, Syncretic uses the tool to provide clients with integrated managed services included automated monitoring, remote support, antivirus and email security. As a result, says Rosenberg, Syncretic has increased employee productivity, solidified its relationship with existing customers and grown its network services business.

Currently Syncretic manages the networks of 70 clients located throughout the greater Philadelphia area. Those clients have a total of 120 servers and 700 workstations; Syncretic’s 14 employees are able to keep tabs on all those systems via a single GFI MAX dashboard. “Our engineering staff has used the tool for a number of years now and it helps with their productivity,” says Rosenberg. “They are able to be responsive to our customers by monitoring machines, finding problems and fixing any issues remotely 24 X 7.” In many cases, Syncretic engineers proactively address issues even before clients call, a practice that impresses current clients. The capabilities of the GFI MAX platform also impress prospective customers. Syncretic sales reps show the tool during sales calls, and Rosenberg says this is a big reason why the company’s network services business has grown 15 percent to 20 percent annually. “By improving our tools and refining our processes, we’ve become a better managed services provider,” says Rosenberg. “We’ve also been able to take on more clients with the same amount of staff.”

While the products from GFI are very good, Rosenberg says that the technology itself is only part of the reason for Syncretic’s successful partnership with GFI. As a long-term partner, Rosenberg credits much of Syncretic’s success with the good working relationship he has established with GFI’s employees, many of whom he has known for years. “Every month I participate in a call with GFI and I’m often talking with the people working on the GFI MAX product,” Rosenberg says. Unlike with some vendors, Rosenberg appreciates both the quality of GFI’s products as well as the reliability of its service and support. “You can have a great product, but if the service is terrible you can’t get any issues resolved,” he explains. “With GFI MAX, they have very good products and very good service behind them.”

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A Privacy Tip for the Age of Smartphones

You should know that an image file contains more data than just the color of its pixels. Hidden within an image file is information known as metadata. Metadata can contain a wide variety of information, most of which is mundane, such as image size and camera model. However, some metadata can pose real concerns for users who want to protect their privacy, while sharing files over the Internet. For instance, images usually store the time and date that they were taken. Such information is easily visible in photo viewing software and Internet browsers.

A more troubling development in metadata is geotagging. Geotagging means storing the precise location where a picture was taken, usually by using GPS, and is a feature which comes pre-enabled in some cameras and many smartphones, including all new Android, iPhone, and BlackBerry phones. And although geotag data isn’t accessible through most commonly-used software, informed computer users, potentially including stalkers and burglars, can still access it. For example, some photography software, designed to read camera settings from images, can also read and display images’ geotag coordinates. And because metadata is preserved when images are uploaded to social media and photo sharing websites, this information can easily be extracted to discretely track an Internet user’s whereabouts and habits.

Geotagging, though occasionally useful to law enforcement, is increasingly being used to malicious ends. Consequently, smartphone users who wish to preserve their privacy should make sure to disable their phones’ geotag feature before they take pictures that they wish to publicize. Removing geotag data in existing images is also possible, most easily by using the “Details” tab while viewing image properties in Windows, or by using third-party metadata removal tools.

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Important Security Update for Internet Explorer

A recently discovered vulnerability in all of the last five versions of Internet Explorer (IE 6 through IE 10) can be exploited to remotely gain administrator-level access to a victim’s computer. This vulnerability is a memory-related bug in Internet Explorer’s handling of TrueType fonts. Merely by convincing an IE user to view maliciously-designed web content, an informed attacker could remotely run executables, such as viruses or other malware, on the victim’s computer.

The good news is that Microsoft already has a patch available to prevent any harm, for users who update Internet Explorer. This can be done either by running Windows Updates, or by following the specific update instructions for your version of Internet Explorer. So, if you use Internet Explorer, remember to apply Windows updates! Your computer could be at risk.

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A Note for Users of Windows XP

Microsoft’s support policy ensures support for most prominent Microsoft products for ten years after their release. This means that, as of April 8, 2014, Microsoft will end support for Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003. The loss of support for Windows XP, which is still used by one in six computer users, will mean that new security updates from Microsoft will no longer be produced for XP users, creating security vulnerabilities. Also importantly, many software developers and computer hardware designers may no longer consider Windows XP compatibility to be a design requirement. This will make it less likely that the operating system will run on newly produced computers, or that new programs will work properly, or at all, in XP.

On the same date, Microsoft will be removing support of Internet Explorer 8 from Office 365. Because IE8 is the last version of Internet Explorer that is compatible with Windows XP, users of Office 365 in XP will no longer be able to access Office 365’s Outlook Web App through Internet Explorer. This poses a problem mainly for people in business environments, where other Internet browsers may be blocked from use for security reasons. As a side note, Outlook Web App Light, meant for users with poor vision, will remain accessible.

If you or your business is due to be affected by any of these changes, I suggest that you begin planning ahead.

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Geo-IP Filtering: A little-known layer of network defense

No business appreciates getting spam e-mails, but more harmful are network vulnerability probes and attacks. And while these can strike at a network from anywhere in the world, most small U.S. businesses rarely even make use of their Internet access to distant countries. Despite this, according to Deutsche Telekom, an organization with 97 sensors around the globe that track malicious network traffic, most of the spam and cyberattacks they encounter originate from foreign countries. For instance, they have found that, by far, the greatest source of cyberattacks is Russia, followed by Taiwan, and various European countries. The most spam e-mails, meanwhile, originate from India. Herein lies the value of filtering Internet traffic by country, known as Geo-IP filtering. And, despite its potential value, many businesses have a network firewall capable of Geo-IP filtering, without even being aware of it. In particular, many of Dell’s SonicWALL firewalls, including the NSA series and some TZ series devices have come equipped with Geo-IP filtering since 2011.

At its most basic, Geo-IP filtering works by checking the IP address of incoming Internet traffic against the databases maintained by various international Internet registries, to discern its country of origin. If it comes from a country which the user has selected to filter out, the firewall will deny that data access to the protected network. Likewise, data being sent out to a blocked country will also be denied. This can be quite useful, often significantly reducing unwanted spam and network access attempts. But what if a business has a client in a country which also happens to generate a great deal of spam? In this case, they could add the client’s IP address or address range as an allowable exception but maintain that the country as a whole be denied.

I’ll use the example of SonicWALL’s Geo-IP filter, due to its use here at Syncretic. The Geo-IP filter settings are found in SonicWALL’s firewall management interface, under the “Security Services” tab. From there, selecting “Geo-IP Filter” beings up the Geo-IP settings, including a list of possible countries to be blocked. (It even includes Antarctica!) The filter is enabled if the “Block connections to/from following countries” option is checked. For more specific options, though, you can select the “Firewall Rule-based” filter. Rather than blocking all traffic to the selected countries, this will filter traffic according to a customizable rule, which can be configured in the “Firewall/Access Rules” area of SonicWALL’s interface. This way, a business can create exceptions to the filtering, such as allowing specific IP addresses or ranges of IP addresses (for instance, the address of a foreign client), or allowing e-mails. This allows the filter to remain flexible, while still providing a wide defense.

So, while Geo-IP filtering, like any layer of network security, cannot provide guaranteed protection on its own, it can prove quite valuable as a tool for businesses.

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Disaster Recovery (Doesn’t Have To Be A Disaster)

A few weeks ago, we witnessed an excellent demonstration of Syncretic’s Retriever™ Backup Disaster Recovery Service in the hands of our experienced networking team. During the weekend of January 13, a storm caused a power surge and outage for one of our long-standing clients, located in Connecticut. Although the power was soon restored, the surge damaged one of their company servers, preventing company employees from accessing their accounts and data. Luckily, they were employing Syncretic’s Retriever™ Service, which uses state of the art backup and disaster recovery (BDR) tools to continually back up our clients’ servers.

On that Monday morning, our networking team immediately noticed that our client’s server was offline, thanks to server monitoring software. We contacted the company, and established that it was their domain controller server which had failed and that it was unable to start due to hardware damage. However, rather than consume valuable time and money traveling to the client’s site in order to analyze the hardware failure, all while they were unable to access their company network, we instead used our most recent server backup to create a virtualized copy of the downed server. This virtual machine performed the same role as the offline server, and restored the company’s access to its employee accounts and product data, all within a few hours of the failure. With our service, we had ensured that the virtual machine was stable and completely fulfilling the role of the missing server.

The broken physical server was then shipped to our team, which located and fixed the damage –  corrupted data in the RAID hard drive controller. Within a week of the damage, our engineers had fixed the physical server, and it was on its way back to our client, who reinstalled it. We then transferred the virtual copy back to the physical server, and the client’s system was entirely back to normal.

Without Retriever™, our client might have had to wait days for their server functionality to be restored, damaging their business and productivity. But with Syncretic’s help, they lost very little time at all.

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Microsoft Outlook or Scroogled

As you may be aware, a new development has taken place in the growing rivalry between Microsoft and Google, in the form of a Microsoft ad campaign called Scroogled. With Google Apps having taken the lead in the growing area of web-based business applications, Microsoft has been fighting to catch up with its recently released Office 365 for Small Businesses. Its most recent effort to sway users away from its Google competitor has been through a series of bold, negative ads criticizing Google’s ad targeting, among other policies. And although the new ads have been criticized as patronizing and likened to political ads, they do bring up many important points about Google’s and Microsoft’s services.

The targeted advertising to which the foremost Scroogled ad refers is a policy of Google’s mail service in which each e-mail is automatically scanned for keywords. While many e-mail services do this solely for filtering spam messages, Google also uses it in order to predict a user’s interests, and then to display ads which seem most relevant to those interests. And while some people consider this to be almost thoughtful when compared to the random ads of many websites, most are more inclined to see it as anywhere from creepy to a serious invasion of privacy.

This is the point which Microsoft appropriately seizes upon to highlight its own mail service, Outlook. While Google obtains most of its income from its advertisers, allowing it to release relatively inexpensive products, Microsoft’s income comes far more directly from its end users. This allows Microsoft to release products without ads and, perhaps more appreciated, without ad targeting. In turn, this keeps the contents of customers’ e-mails from being used by their e-mail provider to serve the needs of advertisers.

The ad continues on to remind the viewer that while Google’s ads can be (after a fashion) disabled, the keyword logging behind them cannot, giving the users no freedom over how their e-mail content is being used. Either way, before you decide upon your business’s e-mail service provider, consider your options carefully, and mind the privacy of your e-mails.

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Your Two Best Friends: Dogs and Backups

Hard drive failure. Computer virus. Loss of data. Cringe-inducing events that you either have experienced or inevitably will experience first-hand. And without a sufficient backup solution in place, it’s an event that can have serious consquences for your business. So just what constitutes a “sufficient backup solution?”

Why back up?

First let’s ask the question, “what is a backup?” In its simplest form, it’s just a copy of some or all of the data from a computer. It could be a complete image of the system, i.e. not just data and documents, but the programs and operating system as well. This leads us naturally to the “why” of backups: a backup is a copy of your data that you can use to recover from data loss or corruption.


When should backups be made? Do you have a lot of documents (data) that are changing on a daily basis? Then a daily backup is probably a good idea. Are your backups automated or manual? In event of disaster, the files you recover are only as recent as your last backup. So ask yourself, “how far back in time can I afford to lose my files or changes?”


Where does the backup exist? It could be located on an external hard drive, a thumb drive, on tape, in the cloud (on-line) – any number of places, depending upon your IT environment and your specific needs. In a home computing environment, it might be sufficient to just copy your documents and photos to a flash drive, or to an external hard drive. Small and medium businesses typically will need a more robust, scalable, and regimented solution, encompassing multiple desktops, laptops (and remote users!) and servers, stored off-site for safety.


Which brings us to what is perhaps the most overlooked part of any backup solution: the actual recovery and restoration of data. Any backup solution should not only include what to back up, when to do it, and where the backups are stored, but how the backups are to be accessed in case of disaster. When your office floods or your laptop takes a nose-dive onto the sidewalk, you will want to have a recovery plan in place ahead of time, which you can implement in a timely manner.

At Syncretic, our IT professionals are experienced at disaster recovery planning and implementation. Contact us for a consultation & let us help you secure your data before disaster strikes.

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E-mail and the BCC

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and probably more than once – sitting in your inbox, an e-mail that is 99% To: or CC: and 1% actual message.

It looks a bit unprofessional, and also raises some privacy concerns.

Enter the blind carbon copy – the BCC.

It’s obvious to some, but new territory for others: instead of cramming address after address into the CC: field, you should opt for the BCC: field.  That way the list remains hidden from view from all recipients.  The benefits are two-fold: firstly, in many e-mail clients this will save user from having to scroll through a seemingly unending stream of e-mail addresses just to reach your message.

Omitting the cascade of “@’s” makes your message appear more personal & targeted – less like the mass mailing that it is – and thus more likely to actually get read by your recipients.  In today’s often frenetic business climate, no one is going to spend more than a split second contemplating reading an e-mail that looks like spam.

Which brings us to the second (and for many most important) point, the issue of privacy.  When sending email to a few colleagues or business associates – people who already know one another and are probably already in each other’s address books – multiple recipients in either the To: or CC: fields is perfectly acceptable (don’t go crazy though).  But what about distribution to a disparate group of recipients?

If you’re emailing a group of people who don’t know one another, one sure-fire way to quickly reap some ill-will is to expose their e-mail addresses to a bunch of strangers – which is exactly what you’re doing when you use the CC: field instead of the BCC: field.  Think of e-mail addresses as unlisted phone numbers; you’ve just published all those numbers by putting them in the CC: field, obliterating your recipients’ privacy.  And privacy is one thing that is in decreasing supply in our increasingly connected world.

So next time you go to hit that “Send” button, check to see if you should be using BCC: instead of CC:.  Your recipients will thank you.

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