High Availability, ISP, VPN, Servers, and Your business.

You see and hear the buzz word swarming around the internet of networks with special setups that tout “High Availability” or sometimes commonly known as “H.A.”. What is it? What does it do for my business? Ultimately in today’s economic climate… Can I afford not to have it?

There are actually different types of HA that you can implement into you IT infrastructure. At its core, HA is a system designed implementation that ensures a certain absolute degree of operational continuity during a given measurement period. In simple business terms, HA makes sure your employees are able to continue working even if primary service providers or servers or your local network experiences some sort of an outage. Yikes!

As an example:

  • Can you afford to send your employee’s home because your office internet connection is down? And your ISP is telling you sometime between 9am-6pm repair ETA.
  • Can you afford half or potentially a full day of employee downtime because the file server is being re-built from the Ground, Up?
  • Can you afford to have your website, email server, FTP server, and/or other in-house hosted services go down!?

For small to medium sized business, you need a solution – High Availability.

Most administrators of small to medium sized networks are probably already assuming you need twice the amount of hardware, extra connectors, licenses, and more. Depending on the current network equipment you have, High Availability to a certain degree can very easily be a viable option.Lets take a very common scenario as a prime example of what High Availability can do.

Your Users: You have a user base of 30 people. All with varying job tasks which rely heavily on internet access to go about those tasks.

Your Network: Your have DSL service from your local ISP. You have a Cisco router/firewall, medium grade switch, a file server and a Directory server, and a few occasional remote VPN users.

The Outage: Your internet is somehow disconnected or cut off! Covad can’t help until they send a 1st level support tech to check their field equipment, someone between 12pm-6pm. And this may not even be a field equipment problem.

  • you have 30 people grumbling they can’t get work done.
  • you have 30 people grumbling they can’t access your online company email.
  • you have 30 people standing around the water cooler.
  • you have the CEO at a remote location unable to access the internal company files.
  • your travelling remote sales associate can’t make the sale because they can’t VPN to access the internal company sales files.
  • you’re at the mercy of your local ISP’s support to fix the problem in a timely manner.

With a very simple High Availability setup, you could be saved. This is a very common and possible situation and a High Availability setup may alleviate the frustration, anger, and the ever possible firing of office employee’s.By choosing a business level Cisco router, you get the benefit of a very customizable and upgradeable platform. You may think the price for Cisco equipment is high, but their products are truly made for business. You would never want to trust “home” equipment to run your core business infrastructure do you (this is another topic)?

The Answer: To avert a potential disaster, you have a very short shopping list. All you would need to implement a “High Availability – Dual ISP – Redundant internet connection – Redundant VPN” office network is a specific Cisco hardware module aka “WIC” module, a secondary DSL internet provider (other than your primary -Covad), and a few minutes during office downtime to get it all installed and configured. Total hardware cost can easily be had for under $300, and total monthly cost for a secondary DSL line might be $25 (shop around). If you didn’t have a High Availability setup, you may have lost MORE due to the office down. Lost employee production, lost sales, lost clients, lost trust, and who knows… a Lost Job.

“The Outage” has been avoided. Your High Availability Cisco router setup automatically switched over to the secondary ISP, and you were alerted of the switch over. Your employee’s continue along with their tasks, and may not have even noticed the internet disruption.
And because you were alerted of the ISP failover, you can easily send out a “Daily Tech Update” to your remote and C-level staff, letting them know to use the secondary Cisco VPN profile or to call you for assistance.

  • The failover change was nearly invisible.
  • Staff keeps working.
  • Staff trust of the network maintained.
  • President, CEO’s and Management trusts you’re the right guy.
  • Staff maintains or gets new sales, customers, service.
  • You’re still employed!

Windows 2008 Server – Easily Secure your FTP server

Today, it’s all about security. If you aren’t practicing good security, you are probably going to be held accountable for the information that sneaks into your network, and especially the information that can find its way out of your network.

Script kids and hackers alike all begin their first “hacking” by targeting what’s easy – The poor, unsuspecting FTP server. All day long, doing its job of blindly sharing and accepting files. Here are the four key parts of FTP (and its cousin Telnet) that make it insecure.

  • Clear-text transmission: all communications are done in clear text, including usernames and passwords
  • Weak client authentication: both FTP and Telnet authenticate users through usernames and passwords, which, time and time again, have proven to be unreliable authentication methods. There is no support for more advanced authentication methods such as public/private key, Kerberos or digital certificates
  • No server authentication: this means that users have no way to be sure that the host they are communicating with really is the FTP server and not an attacker impersonating the server
  • No data integrity: problem here is that, assuming the same scenario as above, anyone could alter and corrupt the data being transmitted between the server and the client without being noticed

So you have your brand new shiny server with tons of disk capacity, and a clean install of Windows 2008 Server. You’re tasked with setting up the new company FTP site. If you have experience with setting up IIS and FTP services on Windows 2000/2003 server, then you know exactly how easy it is to setup FTP service. With Windows 2008 server, securing your FTP server became just as easy. And the benefits, immense!

Windows 2008 Server utilizes the method FTPES aka FTP Explicit mode. In explicit mode, an FTPS (FTP Secure) client must “explicitly request” security from an FTPS server and then step-up to a mutually agreed encryption method (usually the minimums are defined on the server). It currently isn’t packaged onto the Windows 2008 server install media, but information and the download can be found here http://www.iis.net/downloads/default.aspx?tabid=34&g=6&i=1619
Without this extra handshaking and communication, your server-to-FTP client communication is susceptible to snooping and hijacking. With these simple steps, your server avoids the pitfalls listed above, that plague many FTP servers out on the web.

Securing your new Windows 2008 based FTP server comes down to these steps:

  • Make sure your users and clients have a current FTP client that supports the few FTPSecure methods.
  • Install IIS7 on your Windows 2008 Server
  • Install the required Microsoft extras (all available on the “roles” menu) for Microsoft FTP Publishing Service for IIS 7.0.
  • Install the Microsoft FTP Publishing Service for IIS 7.0 update. Now you’re nearly 80% complete
  • Create and apply security ACL’s to your FTP repository. The top 10 rules that very much still apply today are published at http://www.windowsecurity.com/articles/Secure_FTP_Server.html
  • Create a self signed server certificate, or purchase a server Certificate and import.

Tada, you’re done! Now your Windows 2008 FTP server is protected. From beginning to end, Connection, Authentication, Authorization, Data Request, Data transfer. It’s all encrypted.

Slipstreaming RAID and SATA controller drivers to your Windows XP, 2003 installation media

It still amazes me how many critical IT related tasks still require a floppy disk.  I came upon one of these situations when trying to install Windows 2003 Server R2 on an extra Dell Workstation I had.  Of course, it wanted the drivers on A:, which didn’t exist.  Of course, you could always install a disk drive… Below are instructions how to address this issue without using a disk drive.  The term is slipstreaming because it injects the files just as if it was part of the original installation media.

  1. Download nLite (http://www.nliteos.com/).  You could also download the Vista version called vLite (http://www.vlite.net).
  2. Install the application
  3. Select your original Windows XP, 2003 installation media location.
  4. Select a target location to copy the installation files
  5. Select the tasks you would like to perform (ie. install drivers, install service packs, remove components, etc…)
  6. Choose to create an ISO image from your previous selections or Direct Burn to create a new CD image.
  7. Install the OS using your CD, but this time, you don’t have to press F6 to try to load drivers.

Advantages of Voice over IP (VOIP)

What Is VoIP?
Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is the current technology that allows people to transmit voice signals through the internet instead of over the phone. Most people have already become acquainted with the idea of sending voice over the internet through the use of headsets or microphones, but only a few realize the unique differences between the two.

While a direct connection to a single person or a separate server allowed users to chat with each other using microphones, users still had to have telephone services in order to receive out of network calls. VoIP eliminates the obvious limitations of in network voice communication, and expands it above and beyond our expectations.

Much like an e-mail, users don’t have to pay to send or receive them. E-mails can go anywhere users have set up a mailbox, at any time. Imagine e-mail transforming from text into voice, and virtual mailboxes becoming phones. The result is a completely free, new form of voice technology capable of sending voice from an internet line and converting it into a signal anyone with a phone can receive.

Cost Advantages:
Businesses, especially smaller or medium sized companies, are always in need of more cost-effective tools and solutions. Businesses invest thousands of dollars in order to save money over a longer period of time. VoIP is a service that can potentially provide the results companies are looking for, in an even shorter amount of time. By instantly cutting costs with fewer drawbacks, VoIP has become a popular solution.

  • Telecommunication systems can be merged with current networks, allowing a business to save on the cost of network infrastructure.
  • Remote Web-based interfacing eliminates the need for on-site representatives to repair or troubleshoot phone network issues.  Costs associated with on-site repairs are practically negated.
  • While saving money, VoIP users have found that the service provides much more than the average office phone services. While there were certain limitations with phone services (such as busy lines and expensive remote location calling bills), VoIP has sought to break these limits. Not only do clients receive phone services for nearly no cost, but they also receive tools tailored to make manage and design the network how they want it to be. VoIP puts the client in control.
  • Single IP networked VoIP lines enable extension dialing to expand to multiple, or even distant locations.
  • Applications are all extended to employees at any corporate location (including temporary or remote locations), including, but not limited to: conferencing, voice mail, unified communications, and click-to-dial services.
  • VoIP telecommunications systems are easily simplified into a single network (combined with data networks), allowing for easy management, and the elimination of multiple networks.
  • Remote troubleshooting and management through web-based interfaces. Settings can be changed for specific employees remotely, and without the need to contact service providers or phone system manufacturers.

The 10-step guide to a Disaster Recovery plan

Problem: You need a plan for responding to major and minor disasters to let your company restore IT and business operations as quickly as possible.

1. Review Your Backup Strategy

  • Full daily backups of all essential servers and data is recommended.
  • Incremental and differential backups may not be efficient during major disasters, due to search times and hassle
  • If running Microsoft Exchange or SQL servers, consider making hourly backups of transaction logs for more recent restores
  • Store at least one tape off site weekly, and store on-site tapes in a data-approved fireproof safe
  • Have a compatible backup tape drive

2. Make Lots of Lists

  • Document Business Locations
  • Addresses, phone numbers, fax numbers, building management contact information
  • Include a map to the location and surrounding geographic area.
  • Equipment Lists
  • Compile an inventory listing of all network components at each business location. Include: model, manufacturer, description, serial number, and cost
  • Application List
  • Make a list of business critical applications running at each location
  • Include account numbers and any contract agreements
  • Include technical support contact information for major programs
  • Essential Vendor List
  • List of essential vendors, those who are necessary for business operations
  • Establish lines of credit with vendors incase bank funds are no longer readily available after disasters
  • Critical Customer List
  • Compile a list of customers for whom your company provides business critical services
  • Designate someone in the company to handle notifying these customers
  • Draw detailed diagrams for all networks in your organization, including LANs and WANs

3. Diagram Your Network

  • LAN Diagram: Make a diagram that corresponds to the physical layout of the office, as opposed to a logical one
  • Wireless access using Wi-Fi Protected Access security (WPA2) in order to operate in a new location

4. Go Wireless
5. Assign a Disaster Recovery Administrator

  • Assign Primary and Secondary disaster recovery administrators.· Ideally, each admin should live close to the office, and have each other’s contact information. Administrators are responsible for declaring the disaster, defining the disaster level, assessing and documenting damages, and coordinating recovery efforts. When a major disaster strikes, expect confusion, panic, and miscommunication. These uncontrollable forces interrupt efforts to keep the company up and running. By minimizing these challenges through planning with employees, efficiency increases. Assign employees into teams that carry out tasks the Disaster Recovery Administrator needs performed.

6. Assemble Teams

Damage Assessment/Notification Team

  • Collects information about initial status of damaged area, and communicates this to the appropriate members of staff and management
  • Compiles information from all areas of business including: business operations, IT, vendors, and customers

Office Space/Logistics Team

  • Assists in locating temporary office space in the event of a Level Four disaster
  • Responsible for transporting co-workers and equipment to the temporary site and are authorized to contract with moving companies and laborers as necessary

Employee Team

  • Oversees employee issues: staff scheduling, payroll functions, and staff relocation

Technology Team

  • Orders replacement equipment and restores computer systems.
  • Re-establishes connection to telephone service and internet/VPN connections

Public Relations TeamSafety and Security Team

  • Ensures safety of all employees during the recovery process.
  • Decides who will and who will not have access to any areas in the affected location.

Office Supply Team

7. Create a Disaster Recovery Website

  • A website where employees, vendors, and customers can obtain up-to-date information about the company after a disaster could be vital.· The website should be mirrored and co-hosted at two geographically separate business locations.
  • On the website, the disaster recovery team should post damage assessments for business locations, each location’s operational status, and when and where employees should report for work.
  • The site should allow for timestamped-messages to be posted by disaster recovery administrators. SSL certificates should be assigned to the website’s non-public pages.

8. Test Your Recovery Plan

  • Most IT professionals face level one or level two disasters regularly, and can quickly respond to such events. Level three and four disasters require a bit more effort. To respond to these more serious disasters, your disaster plan should be carefully organized.· Plan to assign whatever resources you do have control over in such situations. Test the plan after revisions, and discuss what worked and what didn’t.

9. Develop a Hacking Recovery Plan

  • Hacks attacks fall under the scope of disaster recovery plans.
  • Disconnect external lines. If you suspect that a hacker has compromised your network, disconnect any external WAN lines coming into the network. If the attack came from the Internet, taking down external lines will make it harder for the hacker to further compromise any machines and with luck prevent the hacker from compromising remote systems.
  • Perform a wireless sweep. Wireless networking makes it relatively simple for a hacker to set up a rogue Access Point (AP) and perform hacks from the parking lot. You can use a wireless sniffer perform a wireless sweep and locate APs in your immediate area.

10. Make the DRP a Living Document

  • · Review your disaster recovery plans at least once a year. If your company network changes frequently, you should probably create a semi-annual review. It’s best to know that an out-of-date disaster plan is almost as useless as having none.
  • WAN Diagram: Include all WAN locations and include IP addresses, model, serial numbers, and firmware revision of firewalls