Ramblings on Small Business Technology

Archive for February, 2015

Cloud Phone Systems

In the past, I’ve been an advocate for both traditional POTS on-premise phone systems (PBX) as well as internal/hybrid/external VoIP phone systems.  Each type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and my recommendations to customers really depend on their needs and level of sophistication.  Some can embrace VoIP while some need to stay with the tried-and-true POTS.

Recently, I had a customer move from one office to another temporary office.  Knowing that the move was going to be somewhat temporary, until a new permanent office build-out could be completed, and having dealt with the existing provider (cBeyond and an on-premise Nortel CICS), I recommended that the customer move to a complete cloud-based VoIP service.  I made this recommendation based on the following:
– I knew the broadband at the temp office and the new permanent location was excellent.
– The people in the office needed advanced features and could embrace the change in phones.
– I had “dogfooded” the system for a few months and knew it would work.

After evaluating several cloud-based phone providers, I chose RingCentral for the customer based on my good experience with them and the feature set.  Deployment was straightforward as was provisioning new Cisco VoIP phones (RC supports many Cisco and other models out of the box).  The biggest hassle was the porting of the existing numbers from cBeyond, due to cBeyond requiring that all numbers be dispensed with prior to account closure (you must kill any not-wanted numbers prior to the port or it will be denied).  After that little hiccup, in a week, all the numbers were moved to RingCentral!

The customer sure seems to love the new RingCentral solution.  The office people adapted to the new phones easily with simple training, and they really like the companion PC-based RC desktop app that shows the call log and allows easy blocking of telemarketing calls.  The bonus features of Fax-to-email and multiple outbound voicemail greetings have been a business benefit as well.

Did I mention that the business owner is happy because of the cost savings?

The Trend Towards Server Virtualization

In the last few years, Server Virtualization has taken off.  Many business people are confused by exactly what Sever Virtualization means, but to IT people, it has been a huge benefit.  It’s also a huge benefit to business in general, but often under appreciated.

What is it and why is it such a big deal? Server Virtualization is basically a technology that allows traditional servers (hardware + operating system + applications) to be “encapsulated” and run in conjunction with other encapsulated servers on common hardware.

Why is this a big thing? Well, due to Moore’s Law, hardware (and specifically server hardware) has increased in capacity and performance far faster than the software required for most business applications.  This results in most traditional hardware servers (with the increased performance capacity) being under-utilized, with performance utilization in the 10-20% or below range. Meanwhile, they are still consuming valuable power and cooling assets and taking up valuable rack space, not to mention capital costs for the hardware.  Why can’t you just combine various applications on the same server? Well, due to the various software requirements of applications, many vendors won’t support or certify performance or operations when co-mingled with other non-certified applications.  The result is that, de-facto, each application must be installed on it’s own server, alone.  The result it that many CPU cycles are wasted.

Server Virtualization technology allows several “virtual” servers to be executed on common hardware, using common hardware resources, and “time-sliced” in such a way that each server thinks that it’s on its’ own hardware, but in reality the CPU cycles are combined, resulting in a much higher utilization for the physical hardware.  Using a single high-performance hardware, you can host several (sometimes up to 50-100) virtual servers. This results in many fewer actual hardware servers, each running at a much higher utilization and using the available resources much more efficiently.

I have found that, even in very small businesses, server virtualization has huge benefits, and many additional uses can be realized with no (or very limited) additional hardware purchase, which is high on the minds of SMB owners.  These include:
– Backup and Recovery is easier and more consistent
– It’s easy to try out new applications without affecting production systems
– Disaster Recovery is possible since everything is encapsulated and fairly easily transportable to different hardware
– Remote management is easier (note: I’ve even got a failed server up and running again with my iPad at 35,000 feet on an airplane)
– Hardware management is simplified and hardware reboots are infrequent

Since the existing virtualization technology “encapsulates” the virtual server into a set of very few files, it makes the virtual servers much more portable and robust.  Backups of servers are accomplished by backing up as few a eight files (configuration, logs, memory, and virtual disks) rather than a whole machine of thousands on separate files.  These are self-contained, and can be restored to similar (but not identical) hardware at a moment’s notice.

I have “guinea-pigged” the technology on my own business systems for some time now, and subsequently I have converted most of my small business customers to Server Virtualization, and that has resulted in improved relaibility and efficiency for the customer, and much less headache in manageability for me.

The technology, while fairly mature in the past few years, has become rock solid, with very little down time and outages.  If there is a problem with the underlying hardware, recovery is much faster to alternative assets due to the abstraction layer of the physical hardware.

It’s a win-win for both the business and the IT contractor, and I encourage you to consider and embrace it!