Comcast to Frontier, changing internet connections can be a nightmare

I wanted to write this post as a wake up call to all large companies out there who engage in phone based customer service. Great customer service matters. Listening to technical support or account representatives fight with computer systems over the phone is not enjoyable for the customer.

We made the decision to test the Frontier FiOS symmetrical data connection with 150Mbps Upload and Download for $175 / month! The price is phenomenal, and the potential for that bandwidth is incredible. The reason we need high bandwidth and low latency is due to our connection with the Microsoft servers hosting Office 365. With symmetrical bandwidth you can upload and download with the same speed. Cable internet is asymmetrical, meaning upload speeds are a lot less than download speeds. As well, with Fiber Optic service (FiOS) full duplex communication is maintained. The technician told me that the fiber optic lines use different frequencies for upload and download data while using the same fiber optic cable. This means one user can send data while another is downloading. With cable, due to half duplex communication, if one user saturates the download bandwidth with a large download, then users trying to upload are going to experience latency (delay).

If you are using VOIP phones on the same internet connection, then saturated download / uploads can cause broken communications or dropped calls. This is why QoS (Quality of Service) rules on the network are important, because they prioritize the VOIP traffic above regular downloads / uploads. Really you need more bandwidth headroom to speed up all of these services and increase VOIP reliability.

We decided to give FiOS a try with varying results. In the first month, service had a tendency to drop a few times throughout the day. The issue was never completely crippling, but incredibly irritating. The service would drop for a few seconds to a minute, then return, but the network took a few more minutes to recover as services returned. The big concern is connection to SharePoint Online and VOIP. These are our real-time services that need to be protected, otherwise business can suffer.

The big concern was that we contacted support and listened to them struggle to even find our account in the system, was it a command-line interface I heard in the background? I think it is time for Frontier to upgrade their internal systems. As an IT manager, I know that internet connections will fail a few times throughout the year. I expect it, but when support staff are not aware that there is an outage, I start to wonder if I am putting my company at risk with this service. In the end, I complained on Facebook and got better results. As well, I found that the chat support function on the Frontier website was much more responsive than the phone support. The issue was due to a failed infrastructure upgrade which led to some short outages.

After the first month, the service has been great. I find that the internet is consistent and the increased bandwidth is great for all activity.

ASIDE: This has helped decrease Office 365 latency, but speeds are definitely slower than having a file server on premise, as you could assume. The compromise is that with all of our files hosted in SharePoint Online, we have backups, versioning, and global access. These are all of the services that are found with expensive on premise servers, but without the cost or maintenance.

I still wish the customer service was better, but at this price point I can’t really complain. On the other hand, Comcast’s service was a bit more reliable, but the speeds were slower and the cost was significantly more. I will update this post in a few months as we have more experience with the service.

IT and me, a tenuous relationship

I have been an IT Manager for about a year now and it has not been the easiest job. Specifically, I am referring to the administration of someone else’s systems and then the administration of my own. When I stepped into the job, I knew computers, a little SQL, a lot of Visual Basic for Applications, and was learning Office 365. When I read about the Office 365 system I saw the future of IT systems. The more I learn about the infrastructure and design, the more excited I get about creating an ecosystem for my users to collaborate within. This is not without its challenges, though.

When I first accepted the job I thought

“how hard can IT be?” – Me

Well, the reality on the ground is that these systems were designed for IT people in mind, including Office 365. That doesn’t mean you and I can’t administer them, but we need to get smart fast on how it works. But before I share my code and techniques I want to explain why we migrated to Office 365.

Money and mobility

I’ll be honest, I did not use the AFSO21 problem solving method to decide Office 365 was my solution. What I did do was look at the current infrastructure, which was fragmented and expensive. We were paying as much for one Exchange inbox as we now pay for hosted Exchange, Skype for Business, SharePoint Online, and Office 2016 desktop apps. So immediately I was drawn to this type of solution. In the past, organizations have preferred to run their own Exchange servers, but those companies have had issues with power outages and internet lines being cut so they have had to build in off-site redundancy so emails still deliver when the servers turn on again. This can get expensive fast. Office 365 on the other hand is built on a premier network of servers in datacenters across the world built with their own internet connection redundancy and power supply backup. They also have a public Service Level Agreement for 99.9% uptime on these services.

Side note: We have experienced one or two short outages on email services within the past year (2015). Luckily no emails were lost, but we could not send or receive for about 4 hours each time. These were always due to software updates that went awry at Microsoft. Since then I believe they have rethought their update process to mitigate this issue, but short outages can be expected every once in awhile.

So it all comes back to having a vision of how your organization should operate. Is IT a necessary evil, or a force multiplier? Do you want to throw money at the problem, or integrate cutting edge technology into the very core of you business and how it operates? My vision is for our company to use cutting edge, cost effective tools, that enhance collaboration, and improve efficiency. At the same time, I want the IT Manager to be an additional duty in our medium sized company, not a full time job. Office 365 has provided me the opportunity to make this a reality, but it has taken many hours of searching and troubleshooting before I have gotten to this point.

Alright, so I am not going to try to sell Office 365 any more than I already have. You can tell I think it is a great product and it is getting better every day, but what works for me may not work for you.

IT for IT people

I am not classically trained in IT. I have a BS in Mechanical Engineering, and an MA in International Relations, neither of which teach you how to administer Exchange email services. I do have a lot of experience with the Office applications and writing VBA code in Excel to automate certain functions. Office 365 has two sides, the User Interface (UI) management portal, and PowerShell. Once you have created your Office 365 account you will be greeted with the UI. This allows you to manage users, add your custom domain name (yourcompany.com), and play with the other features. I won’t discuss this too much as it changes often and there is already tons of documentation covering how to perform administrative functions in the UI. What I will focus on in future posts is PowerShell, which is immensely powerful and full of potential to make your life easier. For example, I have a folder full of code that I run when I add a new employee, which sets the appropriate permissions for the new user. There is so much you can do that I will devote a future post to just PowerShell possibilities. More to come, stay tuned…

Power BI, Power Query, and a passion for awesome

Power BI Logo

Alright, I am jumping the gun a little. I haven’t taken the time to show how much I love Microsoft’s new initiative to create products with the user in mind. I am a huge fan of Office 365 and the newest project: Power BI.

This program has the ability to transform any data into interactive and appealing charts, graphs, maps, etc… The best part is that the cost is $0, or $10 / month for a little more online storage and advanced features. But to try it out and learn it you don’t have to sign up for annoying emails or a bunch of sales calls trying to push the product. Just go to powerbi.com and download the program.

Okay, so the problem I am trying to solve today involves importing and modeling my data. At our company, we use paid for third party data and we are going to import it into Power BI in order to provide our sales personnel an ability to manipulate and explore their own data. We want to bring data to every presentation to support sales and promotional activity, but that is difficult because it is time consuming to create these reports. With Power BI, I can setup a bunch of templates, and then connect my Excel workbook and start exploring without a bunch of needless formatting or filtering.

Power BI uses Power Query as the data import / management portion of the program. I really appreciate how Microsoft is reusing things like Power Query and the DAX analytical language. It allows me to learn ‘how’ once and use it in multiple programs. Power Query uses M code to manipulate the data prior to importing it into the ‘database’.

I have set it up so that an Excel workbook has multiple worksheets all with the same columns, but each sheet is dedicated to a different customer. The file I am importing is about 100mb. I found the site below that helped me merge or append each worksheet so that I can pull the data into different worksheets using the tool my third party data company allows us to use, and then re merge it in Power Query. Here is the link: http://www.excelguru.ca/blog/2014/11/19/combine-multiple-worksheets-using-power-query/

So now the sheets that were formerly separate are merged into one database. This is connected to my template in Power BI, and to change the data that I am looking at, I simply need to change the Excel file path and apply changes!

So hopefully that all makes sense. I am pulling data into Excel due to limitations on the way and amount of data I can pull from my data source. Then, I am importing the data all at once into a single ‘database’ in Power BI where I will manipulate it and generate state of the art reports while giving everyone in the company an ability to find insights from the data.

Here is the M Code I ended up using:

let
FullFilePath = “FILEPATH”,
Source = Excel.Workbook(File.Contents(FullFilePath)),
#”Filtered Rows” = Table.SelectRows(Source, each ([Kind] = “Sheet”)),
#”Removed Columns” = Table.RemoveColumns(#”Filtered Rows”,{“Kind”, “Hidden”}),
#”Expanded Data” = Table.ExpandTableColumn(COLUMNS),
#”Promoted Headers1″ = Table.PromoteHeaders(#”Expanded Data”)

in

#”Promoted Headers1″

Check out the link above to see how to create this M code without actually manipulating much code. The steps outlined detail how to achieve this result.

I will keep you posted on how it all works!

AFSO21 Step 7 and 8 (Act)

This post is a continuation of a series helping to determine what your business legitimately needs before migrating to the cloud. We are introducing the AFSO21 8 step decision making model and showing how it applies to small business IT changes.

Step 7: Confirm Results and Process

I will be honest, the real meat of this process is in the initial discovery and planning. I think the rest is fairly common sense. After you have deployed your solutions, analyze how well it is working. I’m sure plenty of projects roll out, and IT managers move on to the next project simply due to the shear number of projects waiting for them. Unfortunately, IT isn’t always that predictable, we must check our work.

A great example of this is in my recent SharePoint Online deployment. In testing, I found SharePoint Online an adequate solution for document storage, what I did not find were the quirks.

Example: When mapping a network drive, the last modified date in Explorer is not the same as on the website. This has thrown a lot of my users off, because when I renamed one of the root folders on my SharePoint Online site all of the files were changed to show the same “Last modified date”. We have been working around it, but it is not ideal.

Example: SharePoint Online performance can be very sensitive to bandwidth ebb and flow. So when someone is uploading a large file and saturating the upload bandwidth, that will effect everyone trying to save documents onto the drive. I am working on procuring a better internet connection for the office.

Here is the snip for Step 7:

AFSO21 Step 7.JPG

Because we already developed our “Specific, Measurable, Attainable” goals we can easily compare the end product to the desired outcome.

Step 8: Standardize Successful Processes

The name of this step is deceiving, because actually we are now using the other issues we have identified in the implementation and verification steps to start the process over again and create solutions to the new problems identified. This step is really important, because like I said before, most IT managers are going to drop a solution off with the user without validating the success of the solution or taking notes about what worked and what didn’t. This will cause the change manager to make the same or similar mistakes over time, without a good book of lessons learned.

Here is the snip for Step 8:

AFSO21 Step 8.JPG

Summary: As you can tell this can be a lengthy process, and you must be committed to the process prior to looking into various perceived problems. Start small with little issues and grow into large change operations. I think the real money is made when people collaborate to tear the problem into pieces and use logic without emotional response to define the problem and desired end goal. Focus on those steps and create good habits avoiding the “jump to conclusions” that is so common. I have been in multiple conversations where before we define the problem, we are already designing Excel documents and database tables.

Thank you for reading and please check back often for more information on the success and failure I have experienced as a small company IT manager working with Office 365.

 

AFSO21 References:

http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/af/afd-090716-101-8step.pdf

http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/af/afso21-fact-sheet.pdf

AFSO21 Step 5 and 6 (Decide and Act)

This post is a continuation of a series helping to determine what your business legitimately needs before migrating to the cloud. We are introducing the AFSO21 8 step decision making model and showing how it applies to small business IT changes.

Step 5: Develop Countermeasures

Up to this point, we have clearly defined the problem (giving our project scope), compared potential solutions to the overall vision and strategy of the business (making sure we don’t lose sight of wants versus needs), and dabbled in root cause analysis to find out why we find ourselves in this position (so we don’t let it happen again).

In this step, we need to put together solutions and deployment plans. I will post the strategy I used to deploy my solutions a little later, but make an attempt to stay within scope and stick to the concept of creating solutions focused on making the future state (vision) of your company a reality. My experience with Lean Six Sigma leads me to believe that efficiency can be conceptualized as an overall focus, or boiled down to every second a user is on the clock. Sometimes we compromise efficiency for simplicity. Lean Six Sigma is a whole different blog post, or 6 month class, but if you have time and the resources, you can analyze the options and find the exact perfect solution down to the millisecond of efficiency. If you are like me, you prefer the Agile method, develop and tweak as you go.

The last thing I will say about this step, is that this is your chance to truly manage change. Project management principles lead you to identify the “internal and external stakeholders” and in order to maximize adoption / morale of the change, you must socialize new ideas and get honest quality feedback prior to implementation. By incorporating the ideas of others in the organization you allow them to take ownership in the new ideas and help prepare them for the change. This will go a long way to boost morale and increase user patience when issues arise. It all comes down to how well you are communicating the change and what you are doing to answer questions / calm fears about the change.

Here is the snip from Step 5:

AFSO21 Step 5.JPG

Step 6: See Countermeasures Through

Okay, so you have put all of these plans together and prepared the organization for change. Now go execute. Enough said:

AFSO21 Step 6.JPG

Continue to the final two steps

AFSO21 Steps 3 and 4 (Orient)

This post is a continuation of a series helping to determine what your business legitimately needs before migrating to the cloud. We are introducing the AFSO21 8 step decision making model and showing how it applies to small business IT changes.

3. Set Improvement Targets

In step 2, we discovered that we don’t know enough about how to administer IT, we are paying a lot of money for hosted solutions, and we are lacking cutting edge features that our business has a legitimate need for. So in step 3, we start to think about how to fix these problems. In this step we are still not signing contracts or migrating, we are thinking in a big picture sort of way about what technology exists that we know about and what resources we can use to learn that which we do not already know.

So here I am talking to various companies and reading blogs about services and features that may help me stay out of the office on Saturday. What solutions and features can help me reach my future state?

In my case, I researched Google for Work, Office 365, and we already had hosted Exchange and Server 2008. I felt that this was enough knowledge to go off of, but their feature sets are not always easy to comb through. So I continued to read and discuss with others in the office how they thought some of the real time collaboration, or SharePoint Online features would fit with out business.

Here is the snip from step 3:

AFSO21 Step 3

4. Determine Root Cause

This step can get a bit tenuous but is really fun. Especially when it is not your fault, I really enjoy looking at how something as small as a comment someone makes in passing can be the root cause for a failure. It makes you view every interaction or action with a lot more purpose. So in this case, let’s find out why it is 2016 and we are still not in the cloud via the 5 Whys (ask “Why” five times and you will find a possible root cause, be careful it can be subjective):

Why (1): Why aren’t we in the cloud yet?

No one has taken the time to research and implement next level solutions

Why (2)?

No one in the company has the knowledge or time to research and implement these solutions.

Why (3)?

Hiring and tasking resources have not been devoted to fulfill this job.

Why (4)?

Leadership did not realize the benefits of migrating to the cloud and thus did not prioritize the systems.

Why (5)?

Leadership is busy and does not have time to research IT solutions, and current solutions providers have not spent adequate time trying to explain these systems.

Alright, we could keep going, but I think you get the basic premise of the 5 Whys. In most cases I find that we don’t need to perform an in depth root cause analysis, because finding blame may be counter productive to our cause of effective organizational change.

Here is the snip from Step 4:

AFSO21 Step 4.JPG

In the next step we finally develop solutions and implement them…

AFSO21 Step 1 and 2 (Observe)

This post is a continuation of a series helping to determine what your business legitimately needs before migrating to the cloud. We are introducing the AFSO21 8 step decision making model and showing how it applies to small business IT changes.

  1. Clarify and validate the problem.

Some problems are in your head. They are not legitimate. They are driven by perceived slights, miscommunication, and personal conflicts. These are emotional issues that should not affect the decision making process for your business. We must be better than to get clouded by these emotions and stay cool under the pressure of changing winds.

Is there a valid problem? For my company the problem was:

“We want to utilize enterprise grade software, but avoid the maintenance and cost of on premise servers. Some features include better SPAM protection, file versioning, external file collaboration, real-time Excel document collaboration, etc…”

This is a valid problem especially for small business that have a millennial or two running the IT department part time. On the other hand, there are plenty of hosting companies that can set you up with the latest and greatest and let you learn how to use these features on your own or charge each time you call to recover a lost document or ask a question. This is added expense, and does not ‘unchain’ you from the desk as was part of the desired future state of the company. As I said once in a surprisingly heated discussion about moving to the cloud:

My company has 25 users, I don’t need to run my own datacenter, I just need to access documents easier out of the office! – Me (paraphrased)

So the need for more robust, high end features exists, but the enterprise level funding does not. That is our legitimate problem to solve.

Here is a snip of the AFSO21 decision making worksheet to show you some additional questions to be asking. It demonstrates a real need for a written and thought out future state.

AFSO21 Step 1

  1. Break down the problem and identify performance gaps

In this case, the problem is fairly simple and performance gaps are obvious, but I will show you what is typically needed during this portion of the investigation for any tough decision.

The answer to some of the questions posed during this step (see image below) are pretty clear. As a company, we don’t have the IT intelligence or funding to run our own servers. That is the performance gap. I would also go further to detail exactly what features you know about that could be useful in your own business. Break down exactly what is missing from your current solution. It could be cost, or a lack of real time collaboration. Just write out what you are missing, and then in subsequent steps we will develop the solution. Avoid the potential pitfall of “jumping to conclusions” because you see a commercial that claims to fix your problems. We must complete the appropriate due diligence before signing a contract.

Finally, in this step we start to see the root cause of the problem surface, but we will complete the finger pointing in a few steps. Here is the snip of step 2:

AFSO21 Step 2

Click here to continue to Step 3

It all starts with a vision

If my previous experience in the military taught me anything I learned that action without purpose is useless. No that is not a political statement, it is a leadership learning point. You cannot take action without evaluating the pros and cons or collecting the necessary information. To do so would be to act on emotion and hunches, which may be beneficial for startups, but when your business starts to grow, you need to have principles to fall back on and a vision to evangelize. When starting or growing a business you must have a desired end state in mind before you set out on the journey. Yes there are many unknowns, and yes the plan will change, but you should start out with a goal, develop a plan to reach your goal, and then alter the plan as necessary along the way.

Why does this matter when we talk about IT?

Well, IT is a necessary part of your business. You must have computers, files, internet access, email, etc… to survive in today’s economy. To some small business owners IT is a necessary evil. It is the thing that prevents you from getting work done. The real work is out with the people engaging in human to human relations, not staring at a screen. It will depend on the industry, but there are two ways you can handle the reality that IT is necessary. It can either chain you to the desk, force you to come in on Saturday, or it can help you get the real work done by aiding collaboration and productive communication. So instead of hating the IT, lets focus on making it work for you and integrate it into the vision for your small business. I personally believe that in the year 2016 a business that has a vision that integrates IT into its very core is best poised for success. That is where the cloud comes in depending on the need.

Alright, let’s integrate instead of hold inner hate…(Not very clever, I know…)

Let go of your inner hatred for IT. You must embrace it for a multitude of reasons, but you already know that or you wouldn’t be here. What I want you to understand is that you must make the decision to move to the cloud out of a desire to join cutting edge businesses around the world (ie. keep up with the competition) and more importantly out of a legitimate business need. That is where AFSO21 comes in. This process, along with thousands of other decision assisting tools, will help you evaluate if there is a legitimate problem and if you need to undergo the expense and frustration of migrating. This post has two purposes, I want to introduce you to this decision making process, and I want you to evaluate your own emotional desire to ‘cloud-up’ vs. vision of your future business. I am going to break the AFSO 21 8 step decision making model into 4 posts, one to cover each part of the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), though it is not a direct 2-to-1 relation as you will see. Stick with me, I know it is dry, but can greatly help prove the need for a well thought out business purpose statement as well as help you calm the inner voices and internal stakeholders that may be at odds.

AFSO21 (Air Force Smart Operations for the 21st Century)

I will be honest, when I first read about a process to make decisions, I thought it was a joke. Some process that caters to the lowest of our common denominators in the military who don’t innately see information, process it, and make decisions based upon it. Well, I come to you hat in hand to admit my fault. This process is not necessary for every decision made, some are obvious no brainers, but others require a lot of investigation and logical reasoning. This is where AFSO21 can help.

Go to Step 1 Clarify and validate the problem (link will be posted soon)

So you want to “move to the cloud”…

A lot of talk exists about living in the cloud, but a discussion is necessary about what that means to the small business. I believe that in the year 2016 the office is no longer a place, but a mindset. Like the force it permeates all things. It lives inside us, surrounds us, and (unlike the force) unfortunately at times controls us. You see with cloud based technology you are always at work. You can be reached anywhere and be expected to respond.

Before the days of cloud based file sharing this was limited to phone calls and email, but now that you can access your files as well. The office is just a place where distractions occur and meetings overtake your productivity. The reality is that to be successful in business in the year 2016 you must be connected and poised to respond. So migrating to “the cloud” is necessary, though a necessary evil of the always connected world.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t have disdain for this technology, I love it. But I also see what it does to those who cannot set boundaries on their work time in order to engage in family time. I have brought my phone to the dinner table a few times and caught myself responding to an email that came in while talking to my daughter about her trip to the zoo. This is the dark side of this kind of technology, and it must be mitigated, but that is an issue for you, your family and your employer.

What does it mean to migrate to the cloud?

When you join the cloud, you take flight into a whole other world of possibilities. Files that sit on premise in a server’s shared folder are locked in place. Those files must be accessed at their present location, but files in the cloud are universally accessible. On-prem files usually need a VPN and network path to be accessed, where as cloud files need an app, username and password. So sitting on the bus with 4G, in the airport with WiFi, or at home with broadband internet you can access, update, email, share, and collaborate in real-time. So not only are you unchained from your desk, but you can communicate more effectively and timely with these services.

What is the cloud?

The term “the cloud” was defined to mean a collection of servers that host data with both geographic separation and redundancy. This means if your primary SharePoint Online server burns to the ground, your data is safe. And with a Service Level Agreement (SLA) of 99.9% uptime your data is always available or your company can receive compensation.

Okay to recap the cloud is multiple interconnected servers that host your data. This data (email, files, etc…) is more robust than the server you have on-prem, because Microsoft houses it in a data warehouse with multiple backup internet connections, power supply redundancy, and appropriate levels of cooling. When your power goes out or your internet connection drops, business still happens.

Why are we here?

Every good idea starts with a purpose. In business speak it has a mission, vision, goals, and values. So when I sat down and finally created my wordpress site, this is what I thought.

“There are so many small businesses around the country that struggle to not only understand IT, but embrace it and integrate it into their operations.” – Me

These small businesses pay A LOT of money hiring outsiders to ‘consult’. Unfortunately, a lot of consultants get kick backs / commission for selling services, so they have a conflict of interest when it comes to making recommendations with the small business in mind. So the purpose of this space is to share FREE, UNALTERED lessons learned and advice with respect to Small Business IT and specifically Microsoft products including but not limited to Office 365 services and Office 2016 programs, Azure services, networking, Windows 10, and Power BI.

Who am I?

Well I ask that question a lot. In fact, I am constantly reassessing the self in search for a better deeper understanding of myself. You see I am a University of Portland graduate (Class of 2008) with a BS in Mechanical Engineering, then I joined the United States Air Force and traveled around the world for 7ish years and came right back to Portland, OR to be an IT Manager in a small family business.

Why listen to me?

I am NOT a classically trained IT manager. I learned to write extensive VBA code during my time in the Air Force, and have been branching out to SQL server and Office 365 service administration since the beginning of 2015. I have a desire to make Office 365 and other IT functions easier for others. I want to share my lessons learned, because at times it has been a difficult road for me. As well, I think there is a gap in the market right now. The old IT guys that like to run hosted servers with VPN connectivity are still peddling their solutions, and the new brand of IT folks that create cloud centric data solutions exist, but it is too complicated for small businesses who don’t have an IT manager on site and have to pay each time they ask a question.

What will you find here?

I will post everything and anything from PowerShell code to big picture ideas about where the IT world is headed. Feel free to ask questions or message me direct. Like most people, I am busy and will try to respond when I find time. In the future, I hope to bring in other experts in the field to make this a great space for information relevant to the small business in 2016.