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Thumbs up for Microsoft Support

Microsoft Support persists to get through and close the call

Office 365 Logo

As readers of my Business Continuity UK blog will know, I place a premium on the quality of service I receive from those who supply me with products and services in my business life. My business depends on me having reliable access to high quality products backed up by outstanding service. I hope all companies do the same.

That’s why I use Apple products for my personal productivity tools: laptop, tablet and phone. It was also one of the factors that persuaded me to move from using Google Apps for Business to Microsoft Office 365. Google, in my opinion, is becoming too insular in its device support. Unless you are running an Android powered device, you are rapidly becoming a second class denizen of GoogleWorld.

Admittedly, Microsoft used to be the same as far as Mac support was concerned, but no longer.

Anyway, I’m very happy with the functionality I get from Office 365, and I’m also in the process of moving my personal email account to Outlook.com. A recent experience with Microsoft Support has confirmed the wisdom of my choice.

Whilst support for the Mac is pretty good on Office 365, I did have a reason to raise a Support Ticket via their online portal. It was a minor matter relating to billing, but I found that I couldn’t complete the Service Request. For some reason, each time I selected an option in the drop down menus, the screen refreshed and I had to start again. After trying a couple of times, I gave up and called them instead. Note: I called them: you can’t do that with Google as far as I know; at least not at my subscription level.

Now the first point is that I received outstanding service when I called in with my billing concern. However, whilst I was on the call, I mentioned that I had experienced a problem completing an online service request. The attendant offered to report it for me, so I said yes.

Very soon after, I was contacted by email with details of the new request, asking for more details.
The next day, I received a missed call on my phone and another email to apologise for not getting through but proposing another time to call me.

Mainly down to inefficiency on my part, I missed several attempts to call me. The point is that Microsoft Support didn’t give up. Each time I missed the call, I received another email with a proposed new time. Eventually, we did speak and progressed the issue.

It’s this dedication to getting the problem resolved and closing the call that impressed me. Other organisations would have given up after the first or second failed call, but not Microsoft. That matters to me and it reinforces my decision to move to Office 365.

Oh, and if you’re reading this, Mark, thank you for your perseverance.

FAQ: How the end of support for Windows XP will affect your business

Small businesses need to act now to avoid problems after XP support is withdrawn next April

Windows XP Logo

Headline

XP support ends on 8th April 2014. So does that for Office 2003.

You need to start taking action now!

Introduction

Something big is going to happen on 8/4/2014 that will affect a large number of businesses in the UK; particularly small ones. Unless you are a very big company and prepared to pay loads-o-money, Microsoft is ending all support for Windows XP and Office 2003. It’s important that all those responsible for IT Support in businesses are aware of this and start to take appropriate action now!

I’ve chosen to represent this information in the form of an FAQ in the hope that it will make it easier to consume and understand. Please feel free to distribute this information as widely as you can so that nobody gets caught out.

If there are questions I’ve missed and that you’d like answered, please respond in the comments and I’ll update the main post.

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Backup needs to be done properly if your business is to survive

You may backup your data, but are you doing it properly and how do you know your backups are actually working?

Failed backup

In this post I’ll cover some of the most common reasons why backups are needed; why you should perform the occasional test restore to increase confidence in your backups; and I’ll mention a business class backup product that covers all the bases.

Why do you backup your data?

Most (I hope) businesses use some form of backup software to protect their data, but do you know why you do it? Also, how do you know it’s actually doing the job? These are questions that are often overlooked when companies implement a backup system. They may backup locally to disk or to tape; or they may use some form of off-site backup such as a cloud service.

So why do you backup your data?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s surprising how often businesses back up their data without knowing why. Not knowing the answer can mean they choose the wrong approach and risk being unhappy with the final result.

Ultimately, businesses back up their data so they can restore it in the event of some disaster.

Within that broad definition however, lie a number of types of disaster: each of which may require a different approach. Some examples should illustrate the differences:

I’ve accidentally deleted a file

Probably the most common disaster, but even here their are two sub-types. Did you realise you’d deleted it straight away, or did you only realise some time later?

In the former case, you’ll probably be able to recover the deleted file from your Wastebasket/Trash Can (if it was stored locally) or from the network’s equivalent. If not, the you need fast access to a recent backup. How quickly can you restore a deleted file?

If you only become aware of the deletion some time later, your chances of recovering the file depend on how long your backup system keeps old files. How long does your backup system hold on to files?

I’ve just realised that a file is corrupt and I can’t read it.

This can be much more problematic: depending on how far back in time you need to go to get a good copy of the file. The backup system probably didn’t know the file was corrupt, so, provided it could be read, it was backed up with no warning. That means that your backups contain the corrupted file. Note: this is really an argument for implementing a proper archiving system, but that’s a topic for another day.

The PC/Laptop/File Server has crashed and I’ve lost all the data.

This scenario also covers loss of a laptop and is the case that is often not covered by “Cloud” based backup systems. Typically, these only backup the data and not the programs and settings from the affected machine. In this case you need to be able to restore the entire machine; possibly on to dissimilar hardware – e.g. because you can’t get a direct replacement for the failed machine. Can your backup system restore to dissimilar hardware?

The key message is that to design and implement a comprehensive backup approach you need to what scenarios you are protecting against

How do you know your backup system is working?

It’s no good spending time and money backing up your data if you can’t restore it when you need to.

Many backup systems can be set to operate automatically and invisibly in the background. This is a good thing as you then don’t need to remember to actually run the backup process. However, it can mean that you don’t always see whether the backups are working properly. Hopefully, you get some form of report when the backup runs. Better still, you get a report when it fails: at least you can intervene and take some action.

Unfortunately, even if the backup runs it doesn’t always mean you can restore the data when you need it. Let me give you a real-world example from one of my clients.

This company had implemented a comprehensive process to backup all of the data from their Microsoft Small Business Server onto disk and magnetic tape. They took a full backup to tape once a month and then took incremental backups to an external disk each evening. The full backups were kept for four months, so in theory they could restore from each day for up a month in the past, and then from each month for four months.

Unfortunately, the disk controller failed. The disk controller was replaced, but the new one refused to recognise the RAID array of disks that held their data. They tried to restore from the previous day but it failed. So did a restore from the previous month. In fact, none of the backups would restore properly. Some of the data restored OK, but the Exchange mailstore refused to restore properly.

It was at this point that I was called in. When I took a close look it became obvious that the Exchange store had never been backed up properly because the backup software had not been configured properly.

When I quizzed them about it this, they admitted that they had never tried to perform a full restore of the server: i.e. they had never tested their backup. Thus, they never picked up the mis-configuration. They had been getting emails to say everything was OK, but the backup sets were partially corrupted.

This would have been apparent if they performed a test restore

Their defence was that it was too onerous to perform a full restore because they didn’t have a spare machine and they didn’t want to risk restoring on to the live machine.

It needn’t be onerous to test your backups

This is a typical response from a small business. They don’t have spare hardware and they don’t have the time. However, choosing the correct approach in the first place would have avoided this problem.

What they needed was a backup system that:

  • Allowed files and databases to be restored from a series of points in the past.
  • Had built in features to allow backups to be tested for integrity.
  • Had built in features to perform a test restore on to virtual hardware so that all aspects could be tested.
  • Allowed backups to be restored to dissimilar hardware.

The good news

Luckily, I was able to restore most of their Exchange mailstore. It did take quite a lot of time and effort, but it was possible. That isn’t always the case however.

Backup as a Service

After this chastening experience, they were keen to ensure that nothing like this would occur again. I implemented StorageCraft’s excellent ShadowProtect Continuous Data Protection [CDP] product on their Small Business Server and integrated it with GFI Max’s Remote Monitoring and Management Platform so that I could keep an eye on it. Disclosure: I am a reseller for these products

ShadowProtect is not the only CDP product on the market, but it is one of the best (in my opinion). ShadowProtect allows you to:

  • Protect your entire server—including the operating system, applications, services and your data.
  • Quickly and easily restore to a desired point-in-time after disaster strikes.
  • Perform full bare metal recovery of servers to the same system, new hardware or to and from virtual environments.

Addons allow you to keep identical copies of the backup at off-site locations and even bring up a virtualised environment off-site: giving you the ultimate Business Continuity solution.

Now, ShadowProtect runs every hour and makes a backup to a NAS device on their internal LAN. GFI Max’s Advanced Monitoring Agent monitors the backup jobs and raises an alert if there is a problem. It also monitors free space on the NAS and a number of other critical metrics on the server. If anything goes wrong, I get an email and can connect remotely to resolve it.

Futures

They are currently planning to extend this backup service so that the backups are replicated to a data centre where a virtual copy can be run up in the event that the server fails. The net effect of this is that the service interruption will be reduced to less than 1 hour if something goes wrong.

Take away

Backups are critical in a business environment and should not be optional. Not taking good care of your data is a gross dereliction of duty. However, it is important to look at your requirements before choosing a backup approach.

Action this day

As with any IT solution, making the right decision about a backup product can be tricky if you’re not a professional. I can help you here.

I can help you set your requirements and then take an intelligent, unbiased, decision about the best way to go. If needed, I can then help you implement and monitor the resulting solution.
Call me on 01480 476297 or email me at gareth @ agdon.co.uk and let’s have chat. There’s no obligation and I offer a 100% money back guarantee if you’re not satisfied with the results.