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The Cloud - does the hype match reality?


Much is claimed for the Cloud:- lower operating costs, less headaches, no maintenance, improved security, full time support, convenience etc. What is not so obvious is even with a pure Cloud backend for you business, the basic devices remain in the office - desktops, pads, laptops, printers, scanners, etc....all weak links in the security chain and by far the most expensive element of your IT to purhase and maintain.

Security:- Access to the cloud is via your office devices - should these devices be compromised, then your data and system in the cloud are too. It is reasonable then to continue to maintain your office computers for security.

There is another aspect to security that few will point out:- the big players are also big targets for hackers since the payoff is greater and so are more likely to be hacked than an individual business server is.

Cost:- Each office based device will cost several hundred dollars per annum in hardware (purchase/replace), add typical software and some occasional maintenance and support and a typical office computer can approach $1,000 PA. Multiply that my the number of desktops and laptops and you should have multiples of the cost of your backend server(s).

Reliability:- Finally you need to cosider how fast and reliable your Internet connection is, since a typical cloud solution is completely dependant on your Internet connections speed and reliability.

Besides, with a little know-how and correct use of open-source software, there is little that can't be done with your in-office based server, and if correctly set up, it will be far cheaper and more reliable than a Cloud solution.


Basic Computer Security Practices.

 

No one thing makes a computer secure and making your computer secure once doesn't ensure your computer remains secure – computer security is an ongoing process.

 

Although invisible to most, your computer or network is being relentlessly attacked hundreds if not thousands of times per hour. Sooner or later they will get in or your computer will fail - as certain as death and taxes.

 

You can make it later by making your computer or network a difficult target and when it fails, ensure you can recover most if not all of your important files by following these guidelines.

 

Physical security

Computers, especially laptops are easy targets. Keeping rooms locked is a good idea, but not always feasible. Keeping computers locked to a wall or table is a good deterrent against a casual theft but it will not deter a professional with a shopping list. If you use a laptop and travel in your car, don't leave it in a visible location – put it in the boot, or under a seat. Nothing worse than losing your laptop and having your car window smashed adding insult to injury.

 

Electrical Security

Low cost surge protectors and an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for desktop computers are a low cost investment that can save you from equipment damage and loss or corruption of data. Some surge protectors have the ability to protect the phone line going to a modem also. It is not widely known, but once a surge protector has been triggered, it must be replaced.

 

Data integrity

Backing up data is the single most important step in being able to recover against data loss. Entire companies have gone out of business due to losing valuable information.

 

Backups can be made onto removable USB disks, tapes, paper printouts or to another computer system that have the capacity to store your important data. It is important to periodically put copies of these backups in remote physical locations to prevent losing the original and back up data through fire, theft etc.

 

A good approach for individuals and small operators is to backup weekly and immediately after you have completed a lot of work that is important. If you own a laptop, have a backup USB at work and one at home and backup both at work and at home. With a desktop, take the backup USB with you after you leave the office and keep it in a safe place.

 

Most computers have backup software already installed, simply copying files to an external hard disk is a good start however.

 

 

Malware protection

In today's world, virus protection is a necessity for every PC. There are many classes of software that are used to infect a computer, so instead of talking about just one class – viruses – we shall refer to malware – a term that covers all software used to infiltrate your computer, such as spyware.

 

Malware is seldom used to destroy your computer these days. In fact, most malware is completely invisible to the user. The first sign that a computer is infected may be when a computer starts to slow down under the load of many, many malware programs installed on your computer.

Make sure you have a good malware solution – a very good, all round solution for protection against malware is free for small business and individuals. It is called Microsoft Security Essentials from Microsoft. Look it up with google, download it from the Microsoft Web site (don't trust other web site sources!) and install it if you aren't sure that your computer is protected, your malware solution is out of contract or you don't have one. Remember to remove all other malware products first.

 

Data security

The primary threat to data security is from computer hackers who, by using malware or brute force techniques, infiltrate thousands if not hundreds of thousands of computers and enlist them in 'botnets' – hordes of computers that respond to the hackers commands and undertake cyber espionage, cyber warfare or other illegal, but often commercially lucrative services such as SPAMMING or launching Denial of Service attacks without the computer owners' knowledge or consent. This means that the target may not always be you personally, but you are allowing a hacker to hijack your computer and use it and your network connection for illegal activities.

 

Aside from installing a good anti-malware software there are a host of other things you should do too, to protect both yourself and others:-

 

Use passwords

If you computer just logs on when you start it you are asking for trouble. Configure your computer to use those pesky passwords, just like you use a key to lock your house and your car.

 

Make up strong passwords.

You don't buy cheap locks for you house, and now days, car makers use very good locks on your car. You too should use strong passwords. Choose a password that will not be guessed – your birthday and initials do not make for a good password. Here is an approach that I find works well for me – but feel free to invent your own approach! Think of a sentence that you will remember. For example, “I hate using Passwords and having to remember all 43 of them!”. Now from this sentence choose say the first letter of each word and generate a password from that – so this one will be IhuPahtra43ot! – note that I am using the capitalisation that occurs in my sentence as well as the exclamation mark. Good passwords have mixtures of numbers, symbols and upper and lower case and are not guessable like your name, initials, birthday or any word in the dictionary.

 

Many of us belong to on-line forums or subscribe to online services, like gmail or hotmail – these services are a prime target for hackers, so do not use the same password on these services as you do for your computer. Hackers have lists of passwords that are being used to crack your computer and online accounts.

 

Firewall

Make sure your firewall is turned on and active. If you have a standalone computer or laptop then its firewall software should be turned on and configured correctly. If you work in a network of computers, ensure that then the network itself has a strong firewall installed, correctly configured and properly maintained.

 

Email - sending

Email is particularly insecure. Mail messages are simple clear text files that travel across the network where no password is necessary to get to them. Email is easily forged and can be altered. Of course, no one would have any particular reason for tampering with many personal messages, but people conducting sensitive business transactions over email would be wise to use some sort of email encryption system, such as PGP.

 

These systems have several functions including encrypting the message itself, verifying who sent the message and verifying that it was not tampered with.

 

Most of us however find using PGP or similar mechanisms impractical, however you can avoid sending sensitive information over email – use the phone and SMS to communicate the sensitive parts of a message. For example, we use SMS or a phone call to communicate passwords, although the bulk of information is carried via an email.

 

Emails - receiving

Beware of attachments in emails, keep your eyes and brain engaged when reading emails – make sure they are legitimate before you open the attachment or click on the link. If you are not sure and feel you have to click the link or open the attachment, before you do, call the sending party and ask them if they sent the message.

 

Remember, Email content are in clear text and readable by anyone with the will and know-how and senders email addresses are easily forged.

 

Surfing

Some sites carry malware that will infect your computer. Some such sites are created by hackers, but others are legitimate sites that have been hacked. Like walking on the street, keep your eyes open when you surf. Don't respond to a web site pop-up or message unless you are clear about what you are doing and what is being asked for.

 

Sometimes, it is best to shutdown your web browser (Internet Explorer for example) or even shutdown your computer rather than click on what appears to be the only choice on the screen!

 

Regular Maintenance

Update, update update! Updates that are provided periodically with your operating system and applications are rarely to improve functionality – more often than not it is to plug security holes hackers have discovered since the software was released.

 

You must ensure that your computer and all the software installed is kept up to date. This is extremely important for your operating system, and very important for your application software like quick-books and Microsoft Office.

 

Uninstall software you no longer use – some software, although not used remains active on your computer and therefore a potential source of weakness.

 

 

Checklist

 

What to have

What to do regularly

Physical Security

Lockable doors, and/or locks on your computer.

Use them – lock you PC and/or make sure you lock the office door behind you.

Electrical Security

Surge protectors or UPS

UPS require batteries every 2 -4 years – get them serviced or replaced.

Surge protectors only work once – if it has been tripped, replace the surge protector.

Data Integrity

USB hard disks or backup tapes (and drive)

Backup regularly and keep one backup offsite always. Check that backups are working and attempt recovery 2 – 3 times a year or more often.

Malware Protection

Current anti-malware software installed and properly configured.

Check that malware signature files are kept up to date – most programs do this automatically and daily, but check it – don't assume.

Do ensure you have a valid license if you have paid for your malware software.

Passwords

Use strong passwords.

Create a method of constructing strong passwords that you will not forget.

Don't write passwords down – create a mnemonic that will help you remember your passwords. Do not use the same password everywhere – you are inviting disaster.

Change your passwords occasionally.

Firewall

PC Firewall and/or network firewall. Many modems include a firewall – make sure all firewalls are properly configured and operating.

Firewalls are just software, and like all software has bugs. Regularly check for updates for your firewall and make sure you review your firewall configuration after you remove or install any software.

Emails - sending

Be vigilant

Always think before sending sensitive information using email. What are the consequences to you and others if someone reads your sensitive email?

Emails – receiving

Be attentive.

Always ensure links and attachments are bona fide before clicking or opening them.

Surfing

Be attentive.

Don't be a wally with www! Assume the worse for every site you visit, don't click indiscriminately and don't assume you are safe just because you have your anti-virus software turned on.

Regular maintenance

Good knowledge of your computer, or someone available that knows your computer system well.

Update, update update! All computer software has bugs – the hackers just keep discovering them and Microsoft/Apple and others keeps plugging them up, but if you don't update, you are not plugging the holes that are known and exploited by hackers. Check for application software updates too – go to the manufacturers web site and check regularly.

Un-install unused software.

 

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