Information technology security and business

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Technology has had an undeniably colossal affect on how we do business. We can now communicate with people around the world in real time, pay for goods with the swipe of a card or click of a mouse and download files from the cloud with the push of a button.

Like with most things in life though, technology does have its downsides. Historically, technological problems have centred around speed and reliability. Thanks to advances in programming, processing power and cabling, technology is now faster and more reliable than it has ever been. This is also in part thanks to more people becoming ‘tech savvy’. People expect more of technology, and more people are working to improve it. As such, the age old issues of speed and reliability which have plagued almost all forms of technology, are no longer under the spotlight. I would argue that security is now a bigger issue.

A padlock on an ethernet cableThe growth of the global tech savvy population means that more people understand how technology works, which is great in some respects, but from a security perspective, it can be concerning. If your employees know how to access confidential files you store on your server, or your customers are able to apply 99% discounts to products in your online shop then you have a problem.

In 2014 eBay was one of the most high profile victims. Vulnerabilities in Javascript and Flash code on some listing pages enabled hackers to steal users information, post fake listings and redirect visitors to fake payment pages. In 2013 Sony was fined a quarter of a million pounds by the ICO in the UK for compromising customer details in a 2011 data breach.

In it’s recently released business security e-book, Dell state that they believe many of the security problems we face today are because businesses use fragmented systems and they use a different security solution to protect each one. Whilst your payment system might be completely watertight, if it’s linked to your website, which happens to contain some vulnerable Java technology, then hackers may be able to crawl into your systems. To quote Dell’s Director of Product Marketing, Bill Evans “Patchwork solutions that combine products from multiple vendors inevitably lead to the blame game“. He goes on to say that when using fragmented systems, each vendor “is responsible for only part of the problem” making it very difficult to properly secure your systems.

There are many different solutions for companies out there. As a business you could ground yourself firmly in the first half of the 20th century and refuse to adopt technology of any kind. After all, if all the details on your client, Mrs Jones, are kept in a file in filing cabinet 35B on the sixth floor of the of your customer information storage centre, a hacker cannot squirrel their way into your network and then publish Mrs Jones’ details on the Internet. That does however mean that when Mrs Jones pops in to see you, you have to keep her waiting for 20 minutes whilst you go to find her file – as opposed to typing her name in and pulling up her details on your tablet.

There are often benefits of using software and technologies from different vendors, and it would be foolish to dismiss a good business system just because it has a few minor potential security floors. The challenge then is to find a security system than can protect your new technologies.

A security key on a keyboardUsing a single, comprehensive security system, such as Dell Endpoint Security to protect all your information technologies would help top alleviate many of the problems that arise when using a patchwork network of security systems. Using one system would instantly eliminate conflicts between security software. It can also be much easier to manage one unified system than trying to juggle several separate schemes.

Naturally each individual security system may have some specific advantages that one universal security system may not, but the fact that a universal system is just that, universal to all your businesses technology, is a huge advantage.

Dell believes that all good universal security systems should: protect the entire business both internally and externally; comply with all internal policies and indeed national laws; and enable employees to adopt technologies with confidence and ease, promoting efficiency and innovation.

What are your views on business technology security? Let us know in the comments below.

The cost of sending a Samsung emoji

A few months ago, my Galaxy S4 Mini (click this link to go to my series about it) updated to Android KitKat – from Jelly Bean. KitKat was released in 2013, but because Samsung like to fiddle with Android before they roll it out to users – or as I now like to say, apply their Disney layer – kudos to David – it takes a while for their handsets to get the updates.

Apart from a few minor interface changes – some good and some not so good – I didn’t really notice much of a difference with the KitKat upgrade. Some of my icons changed colour, my screen mirroring functionality seemed to stop working and GPS got renamed Location. There were a few other changes but at this moment they escape me.

Oh and how could I forget, that annoying emoji/emoticon button! KitKat added a terribly annoying button to my keyboard, a smiling face, which whenever you accidentally click on it, becomes the default extras button; that’s the lovely little button next to the space key that gives you the option of voice typing, pasting, visiting settings, and now also adding an emoji.

Samsung emoji keyboard

The emoji on my Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini keyboard

Now I’m not against emoji, some of them are pretty cool… :-)

…what I am against is Samsung emoji. The super-duper Samsung upgrade to KitKat may have enabled me to send emoji – yay! – but it came at a cost: MMS. If I want to send an emoji, Samsung very kindly converts my text message (an SMS) into an MMS.

This isn’t a problem if you get a large number of MMS messages included in your contract, but most people (at least here in the UK) don’t. I’m not someone who does either, so when I tried to send a message (no bigger than one standard text message) with an emoji in it, I got charged 33 pence by my provider and worst of all the recipient was unable to receive MMS messages, so they didn’t even get to see my 33p text!

The BBC and Money Saving Expert are just two sites that have recently been warning consumers of the hidden costs linked to emoji usage.

Cue Textra.

Textra SMS

iPhone owners don’t suffer the same fate as I did, because Apple’s default messaging application doesn’t treat emotion icons as images. They may take up more than one character, but you can use them in SMS messages. Not wanting to be outdone, I went on the hunt for a better SMS app.

First I tried Google Hangouts. I have never got along very well with Hangouts, but when I started using it for text messages, I didn’t find it quite so bad. I could send emoji as text messages, and I could type as many characters I liked and it would just send multiple SMS messages; Samsung’s default messaging app converts messages larger than three texts into MMS messages too.

After a week or so, Hangouts’ lack of features and general design started to get on my nerves, so I was out on the hunt again for another alternative. After reviewing a handful of very viable alternatives, I decided to give Textra SMS a try.

Textra SMS quick reply

When you get a new text, Textra SMS enables you to reply quickly, without opening the full app.

To put it simple, Textra is fantastic. You can do pretty much everything you can with Samsung’s standard messaging app, and more. You can customise the look and feel, you can send as may characters as you like without it converting into an MMS, and you can send emoji!

One of the awesome features that got me hooked on Textra is the message preview. Say you are browsing the web and you get a text. Texra has the option of a notification which appears at the top of your screen; the notification is basically a message preview. If you ignore it and it disappears after a few seconds, but if you click on it and it opens a small version of the app over the top of whatever you were doing previously. You can type a reply and then as soon as you click send, it disappears and you are back to what you were doing.

If you are looking for an alternative texting app for Android, I would definitely recommend Textra.

Simple ways to speed up your website

Having a fast website is very important. As I mentioned in my Black Friday post, nobody likes a slow website and if your site take more than a few seconds to load, the chances are you are loosing visitors because of that lag.

This article contains a few easy to implement tips which you can use to help you reduce the load time of your website.

Keep Your Code Tidy

Unless something goes wrong, or someone chooses to view your source code, most of the people who visit your website will never see any of the code that is stuffed away behind the scenes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important however. After all, the code at the back-end is what creates the website at the front end.

Minify HTML

Minimising your HTML, CSS and JavaScript is a very easy way to reduce the size of your website. If there is less to load, then your website will load faster. If you use a CMS like WordPress, there are many plugins which can minify your code for you. If you self-code there are websites which will shrink your code for you, or you could go through it yourself, removing unnecessary spaces and tags etc.

Reduce Files Fetched

It is good practice to fetch as few files as possible when loading your website. For example, many sites use separate style sheets for different parts of the website – for example one for text, one for images and another for general layout. Every file that your page calls upon increases its overall load time. Fetching one big CSS document will usually be faster than fetching three smaller ones.

Also consider how many external resources you load – for example adding a Facebook like button will require the users browser to visit Facebook’s website to pull the code across, whilst loading your page. A link or a delayed load on things like social sharing buttons can give you a big speed boost.

Optimise Your Images

Images make your content more exciting, however if you don’t optimise them then they can often really slow your page load time down. There are various ways you can reduce the file size of your images without compromising on quality.

Resize Pictures

When you take a picture, it can often be much bigger than you really need it to be. By resizing photos before you upload them, you can massively reduce the file size of your images. If you leave the file big, but resize it using HTML or CSS – by setting a smaller height and width – then the end user still has to load the big image, and then their browser then has to squash it down to fit your new image dimensions.

Choose The Right File Type

The most commonly used image formats are .jpg, .gif and .png.  Different images lend themselves to different formats. Reducing the number of colours available to a GIF or a PNG-8 image will reduce the files size, whilst reducing the image quality will lower the size of a JPEG file.

Use An Image Compressor

Image compressors are another way to shrink images. Technology Bloggers currently uses a WordPress plugin called WP Smush.it which uses the Yahoo! Smush.it tool to reduce image files.

Example

Here is a picture that I took several years ago whilst in South Africa.

Elephants in South Africa
The full sized image was 3.44 megabytes. Resizing it in Photoshop helped me reduce that to 1.61 megabytes. Because there are lots of colours and the image was quite big, choosing GIF and PNG-8 format made it look too pixelated, so it was between PNG-24 and JPEG. PNG-24 squashed the image down to 831 kilobytes, whilst JPEG compressed it to a tidy 450 kilobytes. Although that is a lot smaller than the original file, it would still take a long time to load on a slow connection so by taking a very small hit on the image quality, I managed to get the file size down to 164 kilobytes. Finally running the image through Smush.it took it down to 157 kilobytes. Some images see a big reduction, most (like this one) see a smaller reduction of just a few percent.

Use A Content Delivery Network

Content delivery networks, or CDNs, can help to improve a websites speed and make it more reliable. Put very simply, when someone tries to access your site, without a CDN they are directed to your hosting provider, who will then serve them your website and all its files from their server. This means that if your host goes down because of a fault, or a sudden surge in traffic you loose your site, and also if your host is not close to a user, it can take a long time for them to communicate.

With a CDN, users can fetch your site faster, because it is offered in multiple locations around the world. Additionally many CDNs can cache a copy of your site, so if your host goes offline, they can provide a static version of your site to users until it comes back up.

For example, Technology Bloggers is currently hosted in Gloucester in the UK. If you access us from Australia, CloudFlare (the CDN we use) will send you to its closest data centre, which could be in Australia, which will then deliver the files you need to see our site. It is faster because your requests don’t have to travel all the way to the UK and nor does the data being sent back to you either.

Control Your Cache

Server Side

If you use a CMS, then the chances are your content is dynamically delivered upon request. Basically, when the user requests a page, your site creates it and then sends it back. By using some form of caching you can create a static image of your site, so your site doesn’t have to create the content each time a user visits it. There are various plugins you can use to help with this, Technology Bloggers uses CloudFlare’s caching system, as I have found this seems to work better than other WordPress plugins I have tried. Also, using too many plugins, slows your site down, hence why I let the CDN manage it.

User Side

A users browser also saves files for later, in case they visit your site again. It is possible to determine what files are saved and for how long these files are saved for, by adding caching headers to your .htaccess file you can change these settings.

How To Test If Your Site Is Faster

Refreshing your page and timing it with a stopwatch is one way to gauge how quick your site loads. This probably isn’t the best way to do it though!

There are various websites which rate your sites speed performance. I tend to measure Technology Bloggers using four main speed analysis sites.

Google PageSpeed

Google are keen for the web to be faster and offer a very useful tool which gives your site a score for mobile load time and desktop load time. It also suggests what it believes is slowing your site down. Google’s tool also gives an image of your fully loaded site – all the content above the fold. Unfortunately, their test doesn’t actually state how fast your site loads, just how well optimised it is.

WebPageTest

Probably the most thorough site I use is WebPageTest, which presents loads of different information, including first view load time, repeat view load time (which should be quicker if you have user side caching), a waterfall view of all the files loading, a visual representation of how your site loads, suggestions as to where performance issues lie and loads more.

An analysis of TechnologyBloggers.org using the WebPageTest tool

Pingdom

Pingdom is another useful tool, it gives a handy speed score and also tells you how fast your site is compared to other sites it has tested. It also saves your speed results, so you can view historic test result speeds on a graph, and see how your sites speed has changed.

GTmetrix

GTmetrix is another useful site. It also gives lots of details, and helps you to see what is slowing your site down. GTmetrix also lets you compare one site to another, which I’m not really sure is that useful, but it is interesting to see how your competitors site compares to your own.

An analysis of TechnologyBloggers.org using the GTmetrix tool

Happy Browsing

Remember to enjoy your new, faster site! Hopefully your visitors will too. :-)