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Have you ever wondered about predicting the future? I’m sure most of us have at one time. A classic movie (also one of my all-time favorite), “Back to the Future Part II,” shared an entertaining story of time travel and how a book with stats literally shaped the future. If you recall, Biff Tannen was the timeless bully in the movie. He (future-self) makes a daring visit to the 1950s in a time machine (via borrowed DoLorean) and gifts a sports almanac to his clueless (younger) self. Consequently, the almanac changes Biff’s fortune and the future of Hill Valley.

Hollywood portrayed a compelling story, unfortunately time travel and access to a future almanac may be limited. But what if there is a way to predict future events and behaviors without time travel? What if there is a secret to predictability? Well, there is. Valuable sets of data are heavily in use by big companies today. These data sets are being touted as the future of statistics and prediction measurements. The translation of these data is being labeled as “big data.” In the past, big data was a term used to reference very large or complicated set of data that required multitude of powerful servers to process. Even then, the data was raw and had limited usage other than for mostly archival purpose. But within the last ten years or so, the term – big data has taken on a predictive element. In the movie, using historical data (of the future sports almanac), Biff was able to make his fortune betting on sports games as he knew of the score outcomes. Similarly, the data gathered by big companies are translated into more useful and predictive information that can be applied to its customers or users. In other words, big data is now referred as the use of ‘predictive analytics’ or just predictions.


For example, Facebook and along with most social media sites are curators of big data. Everything from users ‘likes’ to preference settings are used by social media companies to custom tailor ads, messages, news feed and even friend requests. Social media uses algorithm to fetch most suitable data for its users and to enhance the user experience all gathered from its data storage. Amazon and Google are other prime examples of how big data are used to discreetly tailor your searches with products you’ve searched for in the past and make suggestions accordingly. These smart results are not random occurrences; these are the very working of big data being used to effectively target its audience. Businesses are predicting what you want using business intelligence to further enhance customer experience and increase profitability.


Unfortunately, majority of the smaller businesses are not keen to big data or its usage. Merely 23% of small businesses use a fraction of big data for its business in one shape or form. The low percentage may be due to the perception that only large companies can afford data analytics systems or ROI (Return of Investment) may be of concern. However, this is the misconception that needs clarification. With low and no cost services available from major vendors and third party providers, there are budget-friendly tools and easy deployment process for all business sizes. Below are some of the tools that all businesses can start using regardless of scale as a starting point.

Social Sites Insights (Analytics):
Many may not be aware, but there are free analytic tools built into your social sites including Facebook and Twitter. As mentioned, Facebook are big curators of data. Fortunately, social media like Facebook are sharing some of its data with users to be transparent and to also entice social ads services for businesses. Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics tools have a wealth of information to help track your followers, impressions, audiences and engagements. The information can help with targeting audiences, understanding post trends, general statistics, visitor information and so on. Additionally, if you have paid social ads service, it can even further break down the efficiency and focus marketing. Most social media sites will have similar tools available.

Google Analytics:
Google Analytics is a wonderful tool to monitor your website activity. If you have a business website, this is a must. This very useful tool can share valuable information about your website including number of visitors, duration of the visit, visitor information, browsers used, platform and so on. The service is free, but does require some basic knowledge of web coding to insert into your website pages to complete the setup. Again, a wonderful tool and great analytical gauge for your website.

CRM (Customer Relationship Management) Software:
If you have invested in a CRM software, take advantage of its data collection. Most CRM software have a built-in reporting tool that analyzes sales performance, history, frequency, and trends. CRM data can furnish a variety of information to help improve sales workflow, sales automation, marketing analysis, and targeting prospects. All this will help shape your strategy for more effective marketing campaigns to sales performance.

Big Data Vendors:
Although big enterprises rely on its in-house data scientists and analysts to translate the data for use, small business can equally take advantage of its own data using third party data service providers. With the increasing trend of using big data, there are a growing list of data services for small business that focuses on offering user friendly analytic tools and data translation. Inquire with your trusted IT service partners about the available services to help you with data services that is congruent to your needs.


Big data used to be a forbidden fruit, once reserved for larger companies, due to the cost prohibitive nature of the concept. Today, with onslaught of obtainable cloud services, easier access to powerful servers, user friendly analytic tools and growing number of data service providers, it is becoming an important and more affordable strategy for business of all sizes. As big companies like Facebook and Amazon continue to reap the benefit of big data, the question has lingered as to when big data should be used by smaller businesses. The answer is now. Big data will continue to play a prominent role in the coming years (as growing number of businesses rely on data analytics) to make changes to its operations and predict business trends. If there’s anything we can learn, having access to data and its translation can change the future. Don’t let Biff win.

 

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If you care about your personal credit, you may want to keep an eye on it for some time to come. As many may have heard, the dreadful fear of a mass data hacking happened. And this time, it puts previous hackings to shame. Equifax (one of three major credit bureaus) announced late last week (September 7, 2017) that approximately 143 million records of personal information including social security numbers, date of birth, home addresses, even driver license and credit card information have been compromised.

What is very concerning is not the sheer number of records but rather the element of data stolen and the duration of the breach (span of 3 months from May to July 2017)! 

Equifax data breach may go down as one of the worst in terms of substance (sensitive data breach). Previous hackings usually included names, phone numbers, email address, passwords and possibly credit card numbers. But I don’t recall where a hacking actually included essential personal information (social security number, full name, date of birth and home address). If there was a past breach, I’m sure it wasn’t to this scale. Unfortunately, the compromised information are vital ingredients needed for that perfect identity theft. Take it from me, I know, as I was a victim of an identity theft a while ago.

The irony of this whole incident is that I was actually enrolled in Equifax credit monitoring service for nearly a decade as a victim of identify theft. However, I recently cancelled my subscription as I was not content with their service for various reasons. And here we are again, with potentially worse and damaging effects for years to come. In an attempt to console the consumers, Equifax is offering free credit monitoring service up to 1 year upon enrollment. Personally, this may be a shortfall (assuming the monitoring even works properly). Most hackers are savvy enough to know better. Hackers may wait out the 1 year-period before they decide to sell the personal data and maximize their hacking value. Not to mention, 143 million people must somehow extend or pay subscription fees to monitor their credit on an ongoing basis across all three credit bureaus after the courtesy 1 year service halts (unless Equifax offers otherwise). The financial impacts and lawsuits are sure to follow on a very large scale.

It’s hard to phantom if anything positive can arise from this massive security breakdown by Equifax. But if there is any take away from this nightmarish incident is that any businesses (regardless of size) are vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Equifax may recover from this incident and carry on. But for smaller businesses, this type of incident could be detrimental. In my previous article (The Wild Wild Internet), we covered the growing concerns and trend of hackings against businesses. And this trend will continue to grow as long as we rely on the computers for business operations. Having a contingency plan after a cyber-attack is a necessary minimum for preparedness. But more importantly, businesses need to enhance network security and focus on ‘preventing’ hackings.

​We have little or no information about Equifax’s security (or lack thereof) infrastructure, but there are cutting edge and innovative security softwares out there that specializes on preventing hackings. This re-approach to cyber security is dubbed as Next-Gen Cyber Security. Next-Gen is taking notice with growing number of businesses as the reality of cyber attacks are in full view. Next-Gen’s approach differs from traditional anti-virus and security software. Traditionally, cyber security focuses on setting up walls of protocols to allow access at different levels and possibly running anti-virus software in tandem. But Next-Gen cyber security technologies are actually focusing on identifying and stopping hackings from taking place in the first place.


Using special algorithms and behavior spotting methods, the Next-Gen software analyzes and identify behaviors within the environment that maybe be irregular or out of place. For example, the system will alert if there is repeated attempts of logins to an environment, folder, or file that is suspicious based on the system special algorithms and logs. Another cutting edge technology aimed at thwarting hackers uses behavioral detection. In other words, the system will note and analyze a user’s typing speed, cursor movement, keyboard strokes, and even pressure push/clicks log. The variations or discrepancy are used to identify possible breach attempts. Some other includes system wide end to end monitoring of all types of malware, non-malware, and credential protocols that work together to assess and identify potential security gaps.


Again, and unfortunately, businesses large and small will take light of the recent Equifax incident and pay a quick visit to their security measures (until the next major data breach makes headline). However, simply reinforcing existing security measures will not prevent data breaches. Hackers do not discriminate against business type or size. They are opportunist and will exploit weaknesses whenever possible and come after your data (small and large) just as long it’s valuable and obtainable. Next-Gen security approach is different as it is more about preventing hackings. Businesses need to take serious consideration into evaluating such system. Again, the latest massive hacking is a strong reminder that no businesses are immune to cyber attacks. Please reach out to your IT partners for more insight and evaluation on Next-Gen cyber security.


For those concerned about your credit hacking impact and status, please visit Equifax. Equifax potential impact site: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com/potential-impact/
General Equifax hacking and information, please visit: https://www.equifaxsecurity2017.com

 

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Pop! An unnerving sound and a distinct whiff of metallic odor filled the room. I knew it was bad news even before assessing the situation. As I have feared, one of the server was toast. It was a good run for 6 years, but continuous internal upgrades and modifications have taken a toll. It could no longer keep up with the demands. Just like that, the server was laid to rest.

The incident taught our team an expensive yet valuable lesson. We learned that machines (servers) are bound to fail eventually
no matter how well maintained. Don’t get me wrong, I had a budget friendly computer that lasted nearly 10 years without any issues. But like cars, if a computer is moderately used and maintained, the computer will last many years without issues. Driven and pushed hard on daily basis (like business servers) it will eventually succumb to failures.

Hard working servers enable businesses to operate by storing data, enabling emails, linking communications, running software and among other essential programs. Most servers are rarely taken off line and run 24/7 (365 days a year). It is truly a work horse that goes unseen by many. But for those in the know, they are keenly aware of issues and potential failures servers can encounter as they age. With these concerns, many businesses wonder when is it the right time to upgrade/invest in new server(s). Unlike my experience (and terrible way to find out), most businesses are not looking to upgrade when their server goes bust. Thus, it is wise to review and monitor server(s) health regularly. Rarely does a server simply ‘pop’ and die. Usually, there are some tell-tale signs that may indicate an aging and/or problematic server. Below are some of the basic symptoms/situation to consider and obviously not limited to.

Mechanical/Technical Issues

Computers are electronics built with mechanical parts. Some of the newer servers do use non-moving parts such as Solid State Drive (SSD). But majority of businesses still rely on the more cost effective hard disk drives (HDD) that uses spindle and arm. If your server are using HDD, keep your ears open for audible noise. The clicking or whir sound maybe a cause for concern. If the clicking noise can be easily overhead and rising above the fan noise, it is best to assess the component and its integrity. Fan noise is normal, but the clicking/whir noise can be sign of potential faulty drive. If the server is overheating or constantly above normal temperature reading, this can also be a sign of degrading hardware component as it is struggling to keep up with the load. Heat is probably one of the top reason for premature failures with servers. Monitor the Central Processing Unit (CPU), fan speed, air circulation (vent), and server temperature regularly and keep a log of spikes. If you notice a pattern, it is time for an evaluation.

Slow and Lack of Performance

This may be an obvious sign that server may be aging or overloaded. When software or data is loading incrementally slow or constantly crashing, it may be time to assess the server more carefully. An extended amount of time is considered when a software is encountering the busy icon (hour-glass) or even failing to load altogether. Using most default built-in performance monitor, administrator can check CPU/Memory performance. If the CPU is peaking but looks more like a high plateau than sharp peaks, this is a sign that the system is being over burdened (or CPU bound). Start a report/log to track the CPU bound issue to see if it’s associated with specific data usage/time/ or software. If this is recurring theme, it may be another indicator of problematic server.

Storage and Software Limitation

As data continue to fill the server, it will have direct impact on its efficiency to process, retrieve, and deliver the data. Shrinking storage will cause interruption in the server as it struggles to effectively organize and optimize the data processing. Defragmentation may help, but after performing a defragmentation if the improvement is minimal, it may be a dire sign of storage space limitation. Another area of concern is with newer software installation. Newer software demand more CPU power, memory, and storage to operate effectively. Some software may not be properly compatible with existing CPU and specs. If your business requires newer software and higher recommended hardware, this may be another meter to consider. 

Warranty Expiration

This is more like the car analogy I shared earlier. Just like new cars, most business servers are bundled with 3 to 5 years manufacturer warranty. If the server is nearing the warranty expiration, assess the warranty coverage including possible cost of labor, parts, and total repair coverage. Cost of maintenance and repairs can sky rocket once warranty is over. Surprisingly, upgrading to a new server is usually more economical versus extending service contracts, repair costs, and replacement parts for legacy system. Another thing to note is that most servers are cycled every 3 to 5 years to keep up with the evolving and demanding hardware specs of newer software. This is something to consider as well if your server is close to the warranty expiration (or have already expired).

Aforementioned are basic and rather high level overview of common symptoms that your server may be aging or in need of assessment. Every business will have its own set of requirements to evaluate the upgrade consideration including infrastructure changes, new software deployment (requirements), budget, timing, and so on. But end of the day, always ensure that your business have the proper back up and migration plan in place if that D-day arrives. And if you are experiencing one or some of the symptoms mentioned, it may be time to consider taking a serious look for an upgrade. My recommendation is don’t wait for that pop! 

 

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