Posts Tagged ‘IT Staffing / Outsourcing’

March is IT-Be-Green Month!

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2018 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

March is the month of St. Patrick’s Day, whose modern-day associated color is green. When we think ‘green’, we also think of doing things that are friendly to the environment. What are some quick tasks we can do to make IT more ‘green’?

Why the Green Focus?
Many in our congregations and ministry constituencies want us to be good stewards– not only of our financial resources, but also in the way we consume resources to accomplish ministry. I live in California, and folks– especially millennials– esteem homes, businesses, churches, and more as ‘better’ if they’re more environmentally sensitive. There are many in your congregation or ministry constituency that would be all the more pleased with associating with your organization if they knew that there are initiatives underway to help protect the environment. And that makes cost-effective green initiatives a win-win!

Green Server Rooms
A common issue we see in server rooms is that they become storage areas for all kinds of things. That happens mostly because team members don’t understand the need to keep the server room clean, cool, and secure; many perceive the space as ‘available’ even though it isn’t. Defending the space can be exhausting.

March is a great month to go through the server room and remove anything that shouldn’t be there. In addition to boxes of things others have deposited there, consider what IT-related items are stored there too! Churches and ministries sometimes have a hard time letting go of retired technology that still worked when it was retired, even though they’ll never use it again. “But what if…?”

When I visit clients, I often offer to clean out all those old CRT monitors, Pentium computers, keyboards, roller-ball mice, and cords that are gathering dust (a fire hazard) and are taking up space. Seriously, if you haven’t used it in a couple of years, it is probably trash. It’s actually good stewardship to let them go! Here are just a couple of reasons why:

  1. There are many electronics recyclers that are willing to help, and usually for free! If they’re certified electronics recyclers, you can even trust them to erase hard drives, etc as they do their recycling! And recycling is a good thing.
  2. The more things that are stored in a server room, the less cool air is available to absorb the heat exhausted by your servers and other electronic gear. That can contribute to running hotter and consuming more electricity, and cause a shorter life for some equipment. Clean server rooms are always best.

Green Systems
There are a few things worth considering and doing that will help make your IT systems more ‘green’ in general.

  1. Virtualize your servers. Virtualization is a software technology that makes it possible to reduce the number of physical servers in your organization. It uses an app called a hypervisor that allows you to install more than one virtual server on each of your physical servers, which we then call hosts. In addition to saving money by not having to purchase a bunch of physical servers, virtualization reduces the amount of electricity consumed because the number of physical servers is smaller. It also helps reduce electricity consumption by reducing the amount of heat in a server room that must be overcome by air conditioning systems because there are fewer electronic devices exhausting heat!
  2. Move Servers to The Cloud. In addition to virtualizing your local servers, consider going a step further by determining whether their roles can be moved to a hosted cloud service provider. In recent years my firm has moved many clients’ entire group of local servers into our cloud infrastructure, dramatically reducing electrical consumption while also outsourcing the responsibility to maintain those servers. The cloud is a terrific way to make your systems more green, while also reducing capital expenses.
  3. Clean Dust from Inside Computers. It’s amazing how much dust accumulates in computers. For those computers that remain on-site (servers, workstations, etc), consider cleaning their cooling fans. Perhaps organize a volunteer work party that goes to each workstation and cleans their insides! Cleaning them out every March as part of your ‘green’ initiative will reduce their electrical consumption and may extend their life because they’ll run cooler!

St. Patrick’s Day! What a great time of year to clean up server rooms– or maybe even eliminate them by moving into the cloud! And a great time to clean the dust from inside your servers and workstations (before the weather begins to warm up).

What’s Your Backup Plan?

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2017 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

Many believe the highest priority of IT (Information Technology) is disaster recovery preparedness; the ability to recover after a major data loss. Or after ransomware. We often call that a backup plan, because it all starts with good backups. So, what’s your backup plan?

Is Data Really at Risk?
Simply said, YES! Churches and ministries are not immune from data loss, and organizations deal with recovering from data loss at some level all the time. Consider these threats:

  • Data is stored on hard drives or flash storage somewhere, and like any man-made device, those can– and do– fail.
  • People accidently delete data.
  • Data is vulnerable to ransomware (virus-like malware that encrypts and locks data so it cannot be used again until a ransom is paid).
  • The buildings where your data is stored is vulnerable to man-made and natural disasters.

Apply to those an appropriate vulnerability-multiplier because we have an enemy that is interested in doing whatever it can to inhibit our progress in fulfilling the mission to which the Lord has called us.

Here’s What We Recommend, and Why
A good backup plan has the following components:

  • Backups are comprehensive, and happen automatically. Backups should encompass everything needed to recover from a disaster quickly. And they should not need to be manually triggered, but should happen automatically. Like, every workday night.
  • Backups are tested on a schedule. When backups are made, they should immediately be tested by the backup software to ensure they are accurate backups. But that’s not enough! The backups should also be tested– perhaps monthly– to be certain what we think we can rely on really can be relied on. I recommend choosing a data folder at random each month and restoring it, then checking to see if the files that were restored can be opened. We have seen problems that keep the restored files from being usable; the only way to be certain is to test your backups before you need them.
  • Backups have an off-site component. It is possible to lose an entire building to a disaster. For that reason, it is wise to have a recent backup stored with enough geographical separation to protect your organization from a larger disaster.

Here’s what we recommend:

  • Our favorite backup software to run at a server level is Veeam. For those using virtual server technology, Veeam can restore entire servers very quickly. Veeam can also do file-level restores and email-level restores for email servers.
  • We prefer backing up to tape rather than to other types of devices. Using LTO5 or LTO6 technology, it’s possible to backup very large servers quickly and efficiently. Some recommend online backup solutions and external hard drives, but they have challenges that cause us to think they’re not the best choice:
    • Online backup solutions are good for consumers, but not for full server backups. We know of three megachurches who tested their online backup solution provider’s offer to send the entire backup on a drive, and each of the three was not pleased with the results.
    • External hard drives have a lot of moving parts, and thus fail easily.
    • Tape is still the preferred choice of corporate America because it’s simple and reliable.
  • If a church or ministry is large enough to have a SAN (Storage Area Network), we encourage it to seek another church or ministry of similar size that is willing to exchange SAN replication.
  • Backup the entire data server each work night, and take one tape off-site weekly.

Going a Step Further
I like to take that strategy a step further when possible. If you have a Mac on your network with enough storage capacity, have your network synchronize its data to a folder on the Mac; we like Owncloud to accomplish this, but there are other tools available too. Then, using the Mac’s Time Machine app that is part of the operating system, backup the Mac to a large external hard drive. This will allow you to store versions of files going back as far as your external drive has the capacity to maintain.

My wife is a CA, and she shares office space with us. Most of her client projects are annual. Using this strategy, if she tries to open a spreadsheet that has become corrupt, we can restore a version going back more than a year from the last time she did work on behalf of that client!

Some call natural and man-made disasters resume-generating events for IT professionals who were not doing their due diligence in the backup/disaster recovery department. As personally tragic as that could be, imagine how tragic it would be for a church or ministry called to share the gospel and disciple believers– the most important calling on Earth!– if their data loss meant having to start from scratch! Disaster recovery is worth the effort and expense. So… what’s your backup plan? And do you test it?


Sidebar

Christians look forward to the day when we are with God in Heaven. That means there will come a day when we are not on Earth to take care of the network and data at our church or ministry. Have you made provisions for whoever succeeds you?

Documentation is Key
Use an app like Visio or Lucidchart to create a simple network diagram that includes key IP addresses, server service tags or serial numbers, and what services run on each server. Document any “unique” details of your network to keep the users and mission of your church or ministry moving forward once you’ve left.

Back Yourself Up!
Another great way to ensure a positive succession is to have a relationship with an IT vendor that can continue the IT vision for your organization in your absence. A terrific side-benefit is that you can take your much-needed vacation without getting interrupted because your vendor has your back!

Spending just a few hours creating documentation and searching for an IT vendor you can trust will go a long way towards your team blessing you on your heavenward journey (or earthly vacation). And because it’s good management, or stewardship, you will hear “Well done” at the end of the road.

O365’s Email Solution – Caution!

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2017 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from MinistryTech Magazine

Microsoft’s O365 has many features that interest churches and ministries– especially because of the generous charity license Microsoft provides. Some aspects of O365 are good, but we found enough problems with their hosted email service that it’s worth posting an Enter at Your Own Risk sign.

O365’s Charity License
Microsoft is willing to give to nearly any non-profit a license to use their hosted O365 solutions and services for free! The only exception we’ve experienced is for pregnancy centers and clinics; Microsoft has been unwilling to extend the charity to license their way.

Microsoft, in its desire to be as inclusive as possible, recently modified some language in their application process to give comfort to religious organizations who legally discriminate in their hiring and employment practices. That is worthy of our appreciation!

O365 Hosted Email Service
My firm is a Microsoft Cloud Partner. We have many clients using various aspects of O365, and we think some of those aspects make great sense.

Because many churches and ministries turn to us for recommendations, we test solutions as carefully and as thoroughly as possible. So, we moved our Exchange server into Microsoft’s hosted email server solution to see how it performed; we expected it to do at least as well as Microsoft Exchange. What we experienced, however, was very disappointing. Here are the details:

  1. Email often stopped moving. We saw times during which no email would move; the longest of which was about three hours. The stoppage was not always to our entire domain (whoever@mbsinc.com), but was sometimes just one person in the mbsinc.com domain. As a Microsoft Cloud Partner, we can look at what’s happening when there’s a support need and try to resolve it, but the most we could ever determine was that Microsoft was aware of email flow stoppage and was working to resolve it. We could never learn anything more specific than that, nor were we allowed to resolve it.

    I’ve spoken with other Microsoft Cloud Partners, and they have seen this too. Like us, they also found they could do nothing more than learn Microsoft was aware of it.

  2. We started getting a lot of SPAM. Microsoft has SPAM protocols protecting its hosted email servers, but a much higher amount got through than we were used to when using our Barracuda SPAM Filter with our Exchange Server. Our first conclusion after talking with Microsoft about this issue was to start using our Barracuda SPAM Filter again with their hosted email server. Doing so prevented a lot of the SPAM that had been getting though, but we continued to get a lot of obvious and potentially dangerous SPAM. Further analysis determined that it was being generated by other users of O365 hosted email servers. Talking with Microsoft about this, we concluded they didn’t have a way to stop SPAM that was generated from within their email ecosystem, perhaps because it was sourced behind their SPAM protection solution.
  3. Data started disappearing. I use Outlook for more than just email. I rely heavily on Outlook’s calendar and task management functions; in fact, the calendar is a part of my income tax documentation for mileage logs and business-related expenses. I was shocked when about six months of my recent calendar data disappeared! Then I noticed my tasks were randomly disappearing, causing me to miss fulfilling promises I had made to clients and publishers. We contacted Microsoft, and that led to the fourth issue.
  4. Microsoft does not backup its hosted email servers. There was no way to recover data that disappeared. If I had deleted the data, it could be undeleted within a reasonable period, but because it just disappeared, there was no way to undelete or recover it. Apparently, they decided their email ecosystem had so much redundancy that it didn’t need backups!

In fairness to Microsoft, it’s appropriate to say the experience we had is not typical. I was talking with an IT engineering colleague about that, and told him sometimes the Lord uses us in this way to help protect The Church. As a small firm, we are often amazed at how He uses us to uncover hardware and software system weaknesses and then gives us the opportunity to help the solution provider resolve those weaknesses. We’ve done that with Microsoft many times over the years, but on this issue Microsoft told us they had no interest in working with us to identify the cause of the O365 email server issues and fix them.

Our Conclusion & Recommendation
Microsoft’s O365 has many good features, but their hosted email service is not ready for enterprise users. I told our engineering team that if any of the Exchange servers we set up for our clients were as unreliable as the O365 email server, our clients would fire us! And appropriately so! So, we moved our data back into an Exchange Server, where we once again enjoy stability without an onslaught of SPAM.

The Community of Church IT People

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2014 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

Most people who work at churches and ministries are in behind-the-scenes positions. There is a group of these modern day heroes of The Faith who focus on IT that began gathering as peers in 2006 to and encourage each other. They have formed the Church IT Network, and their impact is huge!

Who Is The Church IT Network?
Jason Powell, IT Director at Granger Community Church in South Bend, IN was blogging about church IT needs nearly a decade ago when he offered to host a meet-up of church IT people for a roundtable gathering– a gathering of peers helping and encouraging peers. That first meeting was in September 2006. Since then there have been eleven additional national gatherings, and each time the group grows.

Those attending CITRT (Church IT Roundtable) events include IT engineers, net admins, help desk people, and web development people. A few supporting vendors also attend.

What Do They Do At CITRT Events?
The events usually start with worship and a devotional message that speaks directly to the needs of IT people. That is followed by a schedule of roundtable discussions that focus on general issues, IT Director issues, spiritual challenges of serving where you worship, and various skillsets and solutions and concepts. And, of course, there is awesome geek humor and eating! (I heard one person explain the geek humor this way: “There’s lots of geek humor, and you never have to explain it!”)

Why Do We Need Another Conference?
At this year’s national CITRT I especially enjoyed the vulnerable sharing at one of the spiritual roundtables. I had been asked to lead the session, and we shared amongst each other how challenging it is to do what we do where we worship, and that we believe we’re called to serve in this way. Then I asked if anyone in the room was at the end of their rope– at the point of discouragement where this was their last hope for the encouragement they needed to continue on. One said he was, and a couple of others were close. It was a privilege to serve, encourage, and pray for them.

Another terrific aspect of the CITRT is the free resourcing we do for each other. Everyone there is a peer, sharing challenges and solutions and victories, and asking how others have solved challenges and gained victory. We all want to serve well, and at CITRT we help each other to do exactly that.

When Do They Meet? And What’s The Cost?
There are usually two CITRT events scheduled each year: simultaneous regional events in the Spring and a national event in the Fall. The amazing thing is how inexpensive the events are! The national event is usually just $75– and that’s for three days of conference with meals included! And we eat very well. The regionals are even more affordable.

How do they do that? The events are usually hosted at churches, and the attending vendors pay fees that steeply underwrite the cost. As such, the vendors are called partners rather than vendors or even sponsors.

What’s The Next Step?
Do you know someone who works at a Christian church or ministry in the field of IT? Or in a related field, like web development? I strongly recommend you encourage them to get involved in the CITRT community. They can do so a few ways:

  • Add a Twitter search for the hashtag #citrt. Many in the CITRT community tweet with that hashtag.
  • Login to the website, which you can get to via www.citrt.org. There you’ll see communication threads and a schedule of events, including monthly live podcasts and the various scheduled roundtable meetings.
  • Plan now to attend a Spring regional CITRT event. The cost will be minimal, and there will be many of them (the goal is to have them within a four hour drive of almost everyone).
  • Plan now to attend the next national CITRT. It will be in the Fall of 2015, and will be hosted by Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA (this year’s was in October at Northwoods Community Church in Peoria, IL; they bounce around the country).

I hope you act on my recommendations! Whether the person doing so is you or someone you know, it’s more than worth the time and cost. The benefits will be huge for the attender and their church or ministry. I hope to see you there!

Common Church IT Mistakes, Part 1

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles, Uncategorized

© 2014 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

I’ve had the privilege of serving The Church as an IT consultant and strategist for many years. In that role I’ve seen a wide spectrum of how churches approach IT and, as you’d imagine, I’ve seen patterns of good and of not-so-good approaches. In this series I will cover some of the most common mistakes churches make in this vital area that impacts church ministry.

One of the most common mistakes churches make is grouping together all of the technology disciplines into one “IT Department” and placing someone who is strong in any one of the technology disciplines over all technology for the church. While that can work, there are some typical deficiencies we see in the area of infrastructure if led by someone other than an infrastructure person.

The Three Disciplines of Church Technology
Really, there are three different technology knowledge and skill disciplines in most churches, and they are often all thought of as IT (Information Technology). That’s probably because they all rely heavily on computer technology to do what they each do, and so the assumption is that those involved in each discipline are equally capable of serving in any of the three areas. But each uses different skills and tools. Those three disciplines are web and graphics design, audio/ video, and data infrastructure.

  • Web and Graphics Design. The good folks at Wikipedia describe this discipline as “the art of communication, stylizing, and problem-solving through the use of type, space and image.” People who excel in this area are usually articulate communicators, and are very artistic. They use applications to draw, design, and do layout. They are often good project managers because of the timelines and project complexities involved in their work, but are usually not highly skilled in AV or data infrastructure (the design and connecting of systems to ensure appropriate data flow at all levels). In a recent conversation, Jonathan Smith (Faith Ministries, Lafayette) said social media is often combined with web and graphics design or data infrastructure because people in those disciplines use social medial tools, but observes that it is often a poor fit and is best treated as its own department.
  • Audio/ Video. AV people are also creative communicators. They specialize in cameras, projector systems, soundboards and systems, and storyboarding. Also good project managers, they can plan the AV elements of a production from start to finish and make certain all is ready at showtime. The computers used to render videos require a lot of resources, and are often more powerful than some servers! But, like web and graphics, they are usually not highly skilled in the other IT disciplines (web and graphics or data infrastructure).
  • Data Infrastructure. Infrastructure people are more like engineers than creative types, and are often not great communicators. Their personality tends to drive them towards analysis and engineering of systems, and their focus is to ensure appropriate throughput of data, whether that data is graphics, video, or data files (like spreadsheets). They tend to focus more on system designs, specs, and configurations, and are often not highly skilled in web and graphics or AV.

Which is Best to Oversee IT?
I’m an infrastructure guy, so my perspective may be a bit biased. But here’s what I see at many churches.

  • When non-infrastructure people oversee IT, often the strategy doesn’t support the needs of the entire church staff very well. The two reasons are usually because of non-enterprise hardware specs (meaning that the hardware chosen is usually not what corporations would consider appropriate) and an inadequate understanding of infrastructure engineering and strategy.
  • Because the infrastructure discipline is the basis for all data transfer needs, it is usually the best selection to lead the technology needs of the church. But two areas that are usually lacking are relationship and trust of leadership (due to communication styles) and an over-restrictive approach to policies. The result of over-restrictive policies is often that church staff will find ways to work around any restrictions in place.

How Do We Overcome?
In large churches these could each be separate departments. If the church’s technology department is managed as one department, though, there are some things that can be done to improve it regardless of who is leading it.

  • If the department is led by a non-infrastructure person, I recommend having a good and trusted infrastructure person in the department, or having a relationship with a good and trusted infrastructure consultancy. The infrastructure perspective is essential to having a system that works well for all staff.
  • If the department is led by an infrastructure person, that person needs to spend time getting to know the needs of the other two disciplines and making certain their needs are considered in the system design. They should also spend time with other church staff members and get to know their needs, and they need a champion at the leadership level.

Communication is Key
Many in data infrastructure struggle with communication. Jason Powell (Granger Community Church, South Bend), though himself a skilled communicator, says it is helpful to have a great communication skills mentor. In Granger’s case, their IT Department is part of the Communications Department.

David Brown (Capital Christian Center, Sacramento) agrees that communication is the key. “The chasm between vision and reality can be filled with jagged rocks. There has to be a bridge-builder who can communicate effectively in both worlds. The tech world can be too black-and-white or binary to communicate effectively to leadership. Being able to navigate necessary IT restrictions, while meeting the goals of leadership, will produce an outcome in which both sides are pleased.”

Who Is The Customer?
A closely related topic is identifying who the department’s customer is. The department must get to know the needs of their customers, which includes all of the users of the system. Designing the system as though making a profit based on the experience of those customers is essential for survival will help ensure the system is reliable, capable, full-featured, and devoid of unnecessary roadblocks that would cause dissatisfaction.

For-profit business departments don’t usually consider this to the extent church technology departments do. Corporate IT is able to dictate to its user community what is and what is not an acceptable use of the system; violators are terminated, plain and simple. Churches don’t operate that way, so building a good customer-driven strategy is the best approach.