All posts by Sam Richardson

Render Faster Service over the Cloud

Your customer is the reason why your business exists. Without the customer, your business may not have started or created products or found markets. So, rendering faster service to your customers online and offline makes a lot of sense. Making your business available and accessible to them is to your advantage.

The advent of the cloud and cloud based technologies, has transformed the world of business. It has changed the expectations of your customers and created new paradigms, markets, and marketing systems. Customers are comfortable shopping online and offline and expect to see your company’s presence online. They expect you to service their online orders with the same commitment with which you service their offline orders.

Let us look at some of the ways in which the cloud has changed the way we do business.

The cloud enables rapid deployment of customer online portals and makes for a faster return on investment. Your adventure into the cloud will result in a significant increase in revenue with higher conversion rates, opportunities for sell, and cross sell as customers visit your portal, browse the information you provide, and define their needs or make their purchases. You will gain the trust of your customers with every successful sale and every opportunity to interact with them. Your customers will become your product champions and opinion leaders on discussion forums and social media sites.

Since, cloud portals require minimal capital investments, you can do more with less. You will find that you can provide enhanced customer experience with colourful displays of your products, in-depth analysis of features or reviews from satisfied customers, who have used your products and/or services and benefited from it. Your customers can email you or chat with a live person at the drop of a hat. Your customers will feel engaged with your products and your services and your business at large. All this for a small outlay and some organised effort.

You can make your business completely flexible and agile. Your websites and portals will be accessible 24 x 7 x 365 to customers from their homes or offices or on the go. Customers can write to you, interact with your experts or place an order for a product from anywhere, any time and with whatever device they have at hand. This will keep your business humming round the clock.

Poised for Breakout—Hosted Unified Communications

There have been many aggressive changes in technology over the last one decade. The changes have been driven by changes in network technologies and communication technologies. Networks have moved from ATM and Frame Relay to MPLS and VPLS and communication has moved from traditional POTS to long distance services→Cetrex→SIP trunking and so on. The advance seems unstoppable. Hosted UC (Unified Communications) is the next big revolution that is on the cards.

Hosted UC is expected to bring in greater flexibility to an already flexible cloud. The Hosted Unified Communications technology eliminates the need for PBX (Private Branch Exchange) systems and the costs of maintaining them. The on premise PBX is abstract to Tier 3 data centres. Wide area networks like MPLS, VPLS and Layer 2 are used to connect the different hosted services or cross connect them in ways never attempted before.

A user friendly GUI (Graphical User Interface) built into the cloud offering will make communication simple and extremely redundant. End users can operate a whole gamut of telephony services using a single interface. Data collected over telephone lines will integrate and feed the databases existing on the data management system and be instantly available to business leaders for analytics and decision making. As a result, the phone will cease to be a mere communication device, but becomes a powerful adjunct to enterprise computing.

The above discussion naturally raises questions about advantages enterprises see in hosted UC vis-à-vis on premise UC. Perceived benefits of hosted UC include cost, installation, maintenance, disaster recovery options and much more; the top factor being the reduction of capital expenditure and installation costs.

The process of migrating from on premise UC to Hosted UC is also fairly simple. IT teams have to merely add new UC features to the existing communication systems, and deploy them on the cloud service already in place. There are no special hosted infrastructures to be purchased, installed or commissioned. The existing hardware of the data centre with the IP address can be used, and landline connectivity can be provided in the cloud on a per user basis. Software updates and maintenance problems can be shunted out to the cloud service vendor. Redundancy and disaster recovery can be made the responsibility of the service vendor.

So, hosted UC is poised for breakout into the cloud. Convergence is on the cards.

Versioning for Cloud Computing — Part II

Versioning, as mentioned in the previous part of this article, Versioning for Cloud Computing- Part l, is the process of assigning numbers with or without date stamps to identify versions of a document or piece of data. Versioning at the backup level may create identities for backup versions that are stored on the server. At the file level, each file may be assigned a version number to distinguish it from other versions of the file after modifications have been done. A few storage providers may treat a set of backups, documents or files or folders as objects and perform object versioning.

File versioning is the most commonly used versioning system in cloud computing. The first version of the file (available in the seeded backup or a subsequent full backup) is generally given the first number (in accordance with the versioning system of numbering adopted) and every new version of the file is compared with the original version or the full backup version and numbered sequentially. The comparison process, additionally, enables the storage provider initiate incremental backup processes, so that only the modified sections of the file are backed up and unchanged portions of the file link back to the original file. This saves on bandwidth and time to backup. If time stamps are available and the management has pre-set archival policies on the system via the agent interface, the files will be automatically archived.

Some vendors like Google use object versioning systems. Objects are stored in buckets. All modifications to the object are part of the bucket, including archived versions of the object. Objects can be restored to an earlier state, overwritten, deleted or modified as required. The object properties allow users to identify the different versions of the object. The properties are numeric.

Versioning can be switched off or on for both file and object versioning systems. A switch off of versioning does not remove identifying characteristics of files or objects already stored under the versioning system. Original versions of the file can be restored without disturbing the current version of the file in file versioning. In object versioning, restoration of an earlier version of the file will result in overwriting of the current version.

Versioning for the cloud is becoming more and more sophisticated as cloud vendors strive to differentiate themselves from the competition. This is, especially, true of cloud service vendors, who want to offer their customers state-of-the-art collaboration tools and provide support for mobile / remote computing.

Versioning for Cloud Computing — Part I

Many users within an enterprise often share data.   The data may be modified, appended to or changed in some manner by users who are authorised to access the information. This creates a new version of the information. But, what if the enterprise wants to undo the changes to the data made by a particular user?  If it is a change to a single record, it is possible to effect the change manually. If multiple records have been changed, changing them back to the earlier version can be cumbersome, and time consuming. Versioning is the process of saving versions of documents before changes are made to it.  If the change is not desirable, the enterprise has to simply restore the previous version of the document.

How many versions of a document can be stored?  Any limits pre-set by the service provider will restrict the number of versions of a document that can be created.  Users may have the luxury of customising the figures within the limits pre-defined.

What benefits will the organisation derive from versioning?  Versioning is really a tool for the management.  Apart from being able to track and restore versions of documents, managerial version control enables the management time stamp information, and weed out or archive versions of documents that are no longer relevant to the day-to-day activities of the business. Archiving and deleting releases precious storage space that can be utilised effectively for storage of current business critical documents.

Versioning is also a necessary adjunct to disaster recovery. Managers can quickly and efficiently identify the latest version of the document for restoration in the event of natural or man made disasters, so that the restored system can kick start from the point when disaster struck the digital repositories, and created the outage. Furthermore, document search is simplified if versioning is automated for the storage system.

There are many different types of versioning technologies used by different types of cloud storage providers. We shall discuss more about these different versioning technologies in the next part of this article, Versioning for Cloud Computing — Part II.

You Add Value to Public Clouds

Public clouds are suspect—irrespective of whether or not the suspicion is justified or otherwise. Hence, the adoption of the public cloud has been slow.  But, the change is becoming visible, as more and more concerns about the public cloud are addressed, and the public cloud assumes its rightful place as a mode of computing that adds value to the business.

What is the value add that is to be obtained from public clouds?  The value add from public clouds is in direct proportion to the commitment the organisation feels towards managing the cloud provider and employing the cloud solution responsibly and effectively.  In other words, the responsibility for the success of the public cloud rests with the organisation and not with the cloud vendor.

If this seems to be counter-intuitive and contrary to all that you have heard about the cloud, it is the truth. Public clouds do decrease costs and do deliver all kinds of benefits to the end user. But, it brings with it a number of responsibilities:

  1. IT professionals within the organisation must stay with the cloud and its implementation. They must make the effort to understand the terms and conditions of the contract and enforce any remedies that may be built into the contract to ensure efficient performance of contact by the cloud vendor.  If the public cloud performance is poor, the IT personnel within the organisation are to blame.
  2. The objective of the public cloud is not just backup and recovery. There is a whole gamut of activities that happen in between.  Establishing the metrics and monitoring performance is a business imperative for IT managers.  Unmonitored public clouds can cause untold difficulties for end users. Latency, seek time issues or even backup and recovery issues may plague the organisation and make the whole experience of the cloud unpleasant.
  3. Availability and security are promises of the cloud vendor. But, untested security can be dangerous. IT managers will have to repeatedly test the security systems and run disaster recovery exercises to ensure that everything promised is deliverable and can be delivered at the appropriate time and at the pace required.
  4. Nothing can be managed without appropriate tools. IT managers need to ensure that the cloud service provides the managers with the right tools for the right tasks. There should be tools for scheduling backups and recoveries. There should be tools for managing users, stores or archives. There should be tools for generating and analysing reports on user activity or system activity.  Finally, there should be tools for verifying service level agreements (SLAs) and implementations.

It should be remembered that Cloud service providers do not understand your business. They only understand their own business. It is up to you to make sure that their tools are used to your benefit.

Layered Authentication for Cloud Security

Spread-out organisations using cloud constructs may have to share information across continents, and this need for sharing creates security imperatives of its own.  The identity of the persons sharing information needs to be captured, validated, and the organisation needs to satisfy itself that the sharing entities meet, at least, the minimum authentication requirements before allowing them to access or share the information. Where data is considered, mission-critical additional layers of authentication may be implemented to gain a greater degree of confidence in the identity of the entities accessing the information.

There are some best practices that are generally followed in the development of a layered authentication system for cloud computing.  The components generally used for authentication are often described as: what you knowwhat you have, or what you are.  When two factors are used, the authentication system is called a “two-factor” authentication, and when all three factors are used, the system is known as “multi-factor” authentication.

What You Know

“What you know” is the user name and password. The type of user name and password used may be dictated by the policy of the organisation. The user name may be required to be of a specified length—say eight or ten characters.  The password may have to include numbers, symbols, upper and lower case characters that total up to a specified length. The password cannot be a dictionary word or same as the user id. Some organisations may enforce expiry of the password within a specified period of 60 or 90 days.  Users cannot use the same password twice. The password will not be displayed to the user when it is entered.

What You Have

“What you have” may be a token or smart card issued by the organisation to the individual employee.  The token or smart card may contain network information, user information, positive device identification, user profiling or challenge or response questions that identify the user. This type of second level authentication is very dynamic and allows the organisation the leeway to use a variety of mechanisms in accordance with the needs of the organisation or the level of the personnel being authenticated.

What You Are

“What the user is” is a biometric authentication. The user’s fingerprint or iris scan is pre-loaded into the authentication database. The user fingerprint or Iris scan will be matched with the data already available in the system before the user is authenticated and permitted access.

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