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Artificial Intelligence – It’s all Toilet Paper

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Disclaimer, I am not an AI expert or AI scientist or developer, so my opinions are solely my own.

According to www.toiletpaperhistory.net (yes, it’s really a site), the first official toilet paper was introduced in China in 1391, but the first mention of using paper dates back to the year 589 AD in Korea.  In Colonial America, the common means was corncobs (ouch).  Then in 1857, Joseph C. Gayetty invented the first packaged toilet paper in the United States in 1857.  It’s been pretty much the same ever since.  We may continue to use toilet paper, but we’ve given up the ever so tedious task of pushing buttons on our remote to asking a device to do the chore for us. Insert subtle tie in to AI here.

According to www.world-information.org, artificial intelligence, the link between human intelligence and machines, was not widely observed until the late 1950’s.  For most of us, the term remained in hibernation until much more recently.  The term AI is now in full consciousness, thrown about 24/7 in countless ways.  Most of us now associate AI to retail products in use by millions of people and households.  The best known big players include Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana, and Apple Siri.  Anyone starting a sentence with “Hey Google..” or trying to trick “Siri” into saying something dirty know the drill.

AI can be a really good thing, or not.

When surfing the web there are times AI is useful when it makes suggestions for me based on my tendencies, but I find it more on the creepy side when I’m on a website or using social media and an ad suddenly pops up for something I happened upon in the past 5 minutes. 

AI is also used behind the scenes in more nefarious ways.  Bots, or programmatic robots, can create social media posts with specific content targeting a specific audience without any human intervention.  Look no further than the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Facebook – Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

AI has increased in use and impact exponentially and will continue to do so, some say faster than the exponential improvements achieved in general computer processing, aka Moore’s Law.  AI is being deployed in every aspect of our lives personal, business, political, social.

Where does AI ultimately lead?

Anyone who has seen the Matrix trilogy knows when machines take over it’s not a good thing.  So how realistic is it really?  The creators of AI tout how it will meaningfully improve people’s lives.  The potential impact in healthcare alone are astounding. Many believe AI has barely begun and many more who believe it has reached major milestones viewed to be decades away. 

One of the primary limitations is not AI itself, but access to it.  Anyone in the U.S. now expects to have access to the internet, the primary driver for AI expansion, anywhere, anytime.  Global access, buoyed by improvements in wireless access, has increased significantly in the past 20 years.  Per an International Telecommunications Union* 2017 estimate, internet users worldwide increased from 16% in 2005 to 48% in 2017.  The region with the lowest usage is Africa, which makes sense given the geopolitical nature of the area. But I digress. The point is, internet usage and technology will continue to expand.  Just as the squid looking sentinels in the Matrix spread in millions to wherever it can reach, I would expect AI to do the same.

What if AI progresses at a pace exceeding anyone’s expectations?

Autonomous cars, drone deliveries, robotic surgery, flying cars, military strike drones are all in the now in terms of time.  What will the next 20-30 years bring?  If history is any indicator, it will certainly be interesting.  In the last 50 years man set foot on the moon and introduced a smartphone with more computing power required for that historical mission.  Looking at my own experience, I only must look to the last 25 years from the time our first daughter was born.  Just in her lifetime we have essentially experienced many of the game changing technology and AI advancements we use today.  And that’s only what we humble civilians know about.  What about all we don’t know?  I’m not suggesting you run to Area 51, but there is a side we don’t see.  What will happen in the next 25 years?  How will it impact the next generation?

If AI improves and does what it is supposed to do, become super intelligent with autonomy, as AI continues to learn and enable ‘good’ outcomes there lay an opposing ‘bad’ outcome.  And if AI improves itself exponentially, it’s conceivable there is a tipping point where AI itself becomes the controller and not the controlled.  This is where it gets very interesting and scary.

What happens when AI is smarter than us and becomes frustrated by our decisions and starts making decisions of its own?  Or more likely, AI decisions are misaligned with human decisions. The interconnection of ‘all things’ is being sold to us as a great thing, so much more efficiency and productivity.  But what happens if all those interconnecting ‘things’ start making decisions on their own and collectively?  We humans become a nuisance, slow and inconvenient.  Considering the military aspect if AI, it gets dark pretty quickly.  If one of our enemies develops AI capabilities faster than us (think of the nuclear weapon history), will they not use it for the larger betterment of humanity or use it to strike as quickly as possible?

Humans are in control of the planet because we are the most intelligent. The more AI advances towards super intelligence and autonomy, control may shift, requiring more care using it.  No one really knows the future of AI and its timeline, but it’s certainly worth planning for. 

We may have more advanced bidet’s, but we will still need toilet paper and I’ll still get in my car and have it tell me the best way to get home.

  

Source: "ICT Facts and Figures 2005, 2010, 2017". Telecommunication Development Bureau, International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Does anyone really understand Office 365?

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I was recently asked to provide training for Office 365.  This innocent request is like asking for training on airplanes.  The wide variety in types along with new releases with new features is a moving target.

Just when you think you’ve finally turned the corner to understanding Office 365, Microsoft releases half a dozen new products in a flurry to get them in the marketplace.  This has been a recurring theme over the past three years, seeming with no end in sight.  Trying to keep up is a daunting task, Microsoft itself often can’t answer questions about their own products.  They certainly lack any consistency.

This puts a tremendous strain on companies like ours who recommend, implement and support Office 365 products.  If our experts have a hard time keeping up and understanding the products, imagine what is like for a business trying to determine if Office 365 is right for them.

To make my point, let’s just scratch the surface of Office 365.  There are roughly seven bundled versions of Office 365 license types for business use.  Within each of these license types are “included applications”.  This is where it really gets interesting.  The Office 365 E3 license includes the following applications and services:

  1. Outlook

  2. Word

  3. Excel

  4. PowerPoint

  5. Access

  6. Publisher

  7. Exchange

  8. OneDrive

  9. SharePoint

  10. Teams

  11. Yammer

  12. Stream

Many of these applications and services may be recognizable and some completely foreign.  Understanding and using some of the more obscure applications and services are a luxury only attainable with an internal IT staff dedicated to Office 365.

This list is not near the end of it, not even close.  There are hundreds of additional add-on products and services to Office 365 for specific purposes.  Here is a very short sample:

  1. Visio

  2. Project

  3. Phone System

  4. Audio Conferencing

  5. Advanced eDiscovery

  6. Advanced Threat Protection

  7. Kaizala

  8. Intune

  9. Cloud App Security

  10. Meeting Room

  11. Enterprise Mobility + Security

  12. Dynamics 365

  13. Power BI Pro

  14. PowerApps

  15. Azure Active Directory

  16. Flow

  17. Windows 10

  18. Microsoft 365

Each of these products has multiple options and features to choose from.  In addition, there is an entire Office 365 Marketplace with thousands (over 2500) add-on third-party applications.  You get the picture.

Here’s a link to see for yourself: https://bit.ly/2JpXKkK

Adding frustration, many of these products change names (as with the Skype for Business change to Teams) and are released without, in my opinion, being fully vetted for any problems or bugs.  The general public ‘doesn’t know what they don’t know’ and may try deploying solutions that don’t meet the business need, don’t work reliably, or both.

It’s not all negative

Office 365 has provided a wealth of valuable productivity solutions at very affordable prices making them now attainable for the smallest of businesses.  When understood and used properly, business productivity and value can increase dramatically.  But there’s the rub.  The products must first be understood and then implemented properly with adequate training to take full advantage.

Consider again the original request: provide training for Office 365.  To train for Office 365 there must first be training on the Office 365 family of products and ecosystem to determine what is relevant for the business.  Care must be taken to understand and delineate mature and robust products from recently released ‘bleeding edge’ products.

It’s our job to understand and keep up with Office 365.  Internally, we must continually deploy and test new products to understand them, learn what works well, what doesn’t, and where they fit within business use cases.  Teams and Voice is a great example.

Skype for Business changed to Teams and added voice plans last year.  Teams is included in many Office 365 licenses and Voice is included with the E5 license or as an add-on.  We migrated from Skype for Business to Teams and from our previous voice provider to Microsoft Voice last year.  Transitioning voice services to Microsoft was not for the faint of heart.  Will our number transfer (port) correctly?  Will the voice quality be acceptable? Will the auto-attendant have the features we need?

Surprisingly, the migration of our voice services to Microsoft was easy and the quality has been excellent.  A pleasant surprise.  The migration to Teams was not as smooth.  Teams is a great application with an abundance of really great features consolidated in one place.   It has improved our collaboration and productivity while allowing us to shed products.  Answering a call within Teams and then sharing files, sharing screens and instant messaging during the call is awesome. 

The ‘gotcha’ with Teams has been SharePoint.  Transitioning our files to SharePoint was very time consuming and the change in ‘look and feel’ and how files are accessed has been difficult.  There have been painful performance and accessibility issues, including some downtime.  But we now know the details to better advise our clients through real world use.

Providing education and advice on Office 365 products prior to purchase and implementation will reduce the amount of surprises and frustration.  Ensuring every user understands the capabilities proactively will also reduce the amount of support requests related to the roll-out.  Time spent up front will pay dividends towards a smoother implementation.

Breaking News: IT Can Actually Save Money

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Headline: IT Saves Money for Company!

Wouldn’t it be great to see more headlines about the positives of IT rather than all the negative press about cyberattacks, privacy concerns and cost overruns?

If you are a small to mid-sized company, you are probably using one or multiple vendors for IT services and support (i.e. phone system, cable/network, internet, IT guy, etc.).  You may even have an internal “IT guy” or IT staff that works with one or more vendors to deliver IT services.

At Fluid, we state we will, not only, provide excellent support services (which should be expected), but we also provide valuable strategic IT services to help reduce IT costs, improve productivity, and implement technology that will support overall business objectives.  Unfortunately, companies have received poor support services for so long that they don’t believe there is any way money can be saved and productivity can be improved by working with an IT services partner.  Most businesses are used to the reactive support model, which often does not resolve the root cause of issues.  When a need arises, IT personnel fixes the problem as quickly as possible so that users can do their jobs.  But, the root of the problem is often ignored, and the same issue will usually occur again.

Go beyond the basic blocking and tackling

Providing quality support/helpdesk services is at the basic level, and any IT services provider should be excellent at it.  But, beyond basic support, we see the real value in approaching technology strategically and proactively, and ensuring that the right people are focused on the right things.  Also, properly managing all third-party vendors, on behalf of a company, requires a balance of the right staff, the right skillset, and most importantly, an in depth understanding of the business.  We’ve built our MSP business model based on the premise to deliver on those promises.

Focus on the whole, not the parts

When working with technology vendors and partners, each one typically only focuses on their piece of the puzzle, never expanding beyond to see how it fits into the rest of the business.  Our approach is opposite, which results in tangible benefits.  We take over the management of all third-party vendors to ensure that everyone is working towards singular goals that align with the overall business objectives.  Also, most companies don’t want to deal with other vendors, but their IT personnel doesn’t do it for them either.  I can’t count how many times I’ve heard C-level executives say “I don’t want to waste my time calling ABC vendor. I can’t understand all the technical jargon, and I don’t want to.”

Case Study: Saving money and adding value through strategic management

To understand the possibilities, here is a real business case:

One of our clients recently acquired another company.  As part of the acquisition, there were all the normal integration components, which required areas for optimization. But, there were also other critical projects.  The company needed new cabling/wiring for all locations, as well as a new VOIP internet-based phone system, and upgraded internet service.  At each location, cabling, voice and internet service, was provided by a different vendor.

Most companies, in this situation, would allocate a staff member to manage all the vendors. The staff member may have some technical acumen, but not enough to truly know what to look for in order to manage each vendor effectively.

In our client’s case, as in most similar situations, all the vendors were dependent on the other for implementing their services.  The internet service had to be increased to meet the new phone system requirements, and the cabling had to be in place to provide the necessary “ports” or wall jacks for the phone system.  The number of total ports, in each location, drove the need for new networking equipment. 

As they should, our client wanted and expected that all the pieces would be done correctly so that they could walk in the office, and everything would be configured and working correctly.  The challenge is, every piece must be not only done correctly, but also timed in a way to minimize unnecessary ‘dead time’.

As their technology partner, we stepped in to manage all the vendors, and what we found was frightening.  The cable vendor had provided a quote for both locations based on a walkthrough with one of their staff.  They presented a quote that was over $20,000 for the job.  Once we evaluated it more closely, we found an abundance of new cables that were unnecessary.  This was not the fault of the cabling vendor, they were doing what they thought was right, based on what the staff member told them.  The staff member didn’t have the knowledge to understand the technical details, and how things would work with the new phone system.   

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We saved our client over $25,000 on one project

We evaluated the cabling proposal and conducted calls with all other vendors, to ensure that everyone understood their piece and dependency on one another.  After our evaluation and walkthrough at each location, the cabling cost dropped from $20,000 to $6,000.  A substantial savings of $14,000 in one-time CAPEX cost.

We took the same approach with the phone vendor and the internet service provider.  Internet service providers (ISP) are always happy to sell you more bandwidth.  Again, like the cabling, the ISP worked with a staff member to determine the bandwidth required.  As before, the staff member lacked the necessary understanding to calculate what would be required.  Working with the phone vendor, we calculated what the maximum bandwidth usage could be. Then, we compared it with the actual usage reports, which allowed us to calculate a more accurate estimate of internet bandwidth needs.

Through our evaluation, we found that the company could start at a lower bandwidth level and confirmed that the bandwidth could be increased very quickly if necessary.  So, rather than buying more bandwidth than needed ‘just in case’, they were able to get what they needed with the ability to increase.  We ended up saving them over $500 a month in OPEX costs – which adds up to $6,000 per year.

We took the same approach with the phone vendor and found the number of handsets was too high, which resulted in additional savings in both one-time CAPEX and monthly OPEX.

Lastly, the additional cable drops and phone system required the purchase of new networking equipment to connect everything properly.  If the initial figures were used from the cabling and voice vendors, the company would have purchased more expensive networking equipment than necessary.  This also resulted in additional savings of over $5,000 in one-time costs.

The total savings were significant – over $25,000 in one-time costs and $1,500 in monthly costs

By working with and managing all vendors, we were able to help our client save a substantial amount, while also ensuring that each vendor would implement the right solution and do it correctly.  For a small to mid-sized business, spending money on technology can cause a major strain on finances.  Without our involvement and management, the company would have spent money it didn’t really have on solutions that would have been excessive and completely unnecessary.

Your Managed Services Provider can and should save you money and improve productivity

I’m sure other MSP’s say they offer strategic services and can save you money, but we’ve found that the reality is very different.  Unfortunately, most MSP’s don’t have the staff or skills required to manage all third-party vendors effectively.  Anyone can say they can do it, but can they prove it with actual numbers.

Engage Workspace

Very exiting times for one of my colleagues, Chelsea Green. Chelsea, CEO of Engage, recently announced the formal launch of Engage Workspace, a new shared office center focused solely on attorneys.

There are many ‘shared workspace’ companies – some, like IWG plc (formerly Regus), have been around since the ‘80s. But, the “shared” office model has been rapidly increasing in popularity over the last decade. According to Forbes.com, shared workspaces will host more than 3.8 million people by 2020. WeWork now has 502 locations since opening their first shared office space in 2010.

But, what makes Engage so unique is that it is designed specifically to cater to the requirements of independent attorneys and small law firms.

From the Dallas Morning News article:

https://www.dallasnews.com/business/real-estate/2019/01/29/coworking-center-targets-legal-eagles-new-north-dallas-shared-office-location

“The new Engage Workspace in North Dallas is targeting attorneys with its co-working facility in the landmark Campbell Centre complex on North Central Expressway.

The just-opened workspace is designed to accommodate more than 60 attorneys with workstations, offices, meeting space, office equipment and other amenities.

So far, the co-working operation takes up a full floor in the building, but Engage says it hopes to expand to additional floors of the iconic gold Campbell Centre II tower.

"Independent attorneys and small law firms represent nearly half the legal industry," Engage CEO Chelsea Green said. "With continuing market changes and technology advances, that looks to accelerate over the next several years.

"With Engage, we have created an office environment that has the familiarity of a traditional law office but with the greater independence, flexibility and efficiency of an executive suite or co-working space."

Green and partners Jim Chester and Darin Klemchuk opened the co-working center Jan. 1. Chester and Klemchuk are both partners in the Dallas law firm Klemchuk LLP.

The owners are planning to upgrade this spring with a new coffee bar and more collaborative space.

"Attorneys are a perfect fit for the Engage office space model," said Chester. "Law practice is collaborative by nature, and attorneys benefit from networking with other lawyers to share referrals and resources."

Stephen Holley of Holley + Co. Real Estate negotiated the office lease for the co-working center with Barbara Houlihan of Peloton Commercial Real Estate.

Shared office providers now occupy more than 1.5 million square feet of building space in North Texas. Co-working firms are one of the fastest-growing sectors in the office industry.”

What is not mentioned in the article is that the Engage Workspace will also provide the level of technology, IT support and cybersecurity necessary for attorneys.  All companies require technology and cybersecurity, but attorneys have the additional challenge of needing to collaborate and exchange information externally while also keeping their practice and data isolated and secure. Engage understands this, often overlooked, requirement and will include it as a part of their service.

At Engage, attorneys will be able to be as productive and efficient as possible, while knowing their data is secure. Each tenant will also be provided with ongoing IT support from a team of technology experts.  The blend of amenities, technology support and cybersecurity, creates compelling value that independent attorneys and small practices typically would not be able to take advantage of.

For more information, visit www.engagelawspace.com.

 

Don't let bureaucracy slow down your cyber security program

Fluid Security FrameworkBusinesses don’t have the time, budget or skills to adequately cover and mitigate all the very real security risks that could take them out of business at any time.  Nor do companies want to hire full time staff just to manage security. In a new global report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies along with Intel Security, the importance of senior leadership supporting cyber security implementation is made crystal clear. Here's a great summary of the report from Help Net Security: Attackers thrive in a fluid market, while bureaucracy constrains defenders.

Fluid handles this by providing a comprehensive layered approach to security for the entire organization, creating a security fabric to cover it all – Security-as-a-Service.

It’s not a matter of if but when you will have a security incident.  Be prepared.  Be proactive. Be responsive.  Be responsible.  If you would like to learn more about Fluid’s Security-as-a-Service offering, please contact us.