Categories
computing

Microsoft reports strong third-quarter

Microsoft announced its third-quarter 2019 results in a press release. Highlights are

  • Revenue was $30.6 billion and increased 14% percent.
  • Operating income was $10.3 billion and increased 25 percent.
  • Net income was $8.8 billion and increased 19 percent.
  • Diluted earnings per share was $1.14 and increased 20 percent.

An impressive result by any standard. In the last five years or so, the big story at Microsoft has been the rise of the company’s Azure branded cloud services. The latest quarter was no exception:

“Demand for our cloud offerings drove commercial cloud revenue to $9.6 billion this quarter, up 41 percent year-over-year”.

Amy Hood, executive vice president and chief financial officer of Microsoft.

But the next part of the release was more of an eye-opener. Microsoft Office is also on a roll. Quoting from the press release:

Revenue in Productivity and Business Processes was $10.2 billion and increased 14 percent, with the following business highlights:

  • Office Commercial products and cloud services revenue increased 12 percent driven by Office 365 Commercial revenue growth of 30 percent.
  • Office Consumer products and cloud services revenue increased 8 percent and Office 365 Consumer subscribers increased to 34.2 million
  • LinkedIn revenue increased 27 percent
  • Dynamics products and cloud services revenue increased 13 percent driven by Dynamics 365 revenue growth of 43 percent.

Back in the first division

In other words Microsoft is firing on all cylinders. The turn around in the five years since Satya Nadella replaced Steve Ballmer is astonishing.

Not so long ago the company looked like a has-been. Nadella rebooted the business to focus on the cloud and today it is primed for an optimistic future.

No surprise that the company’s share price jumped 5 percent after the announcement.

What wasn’t part of the popular narrative of the last five years is the pain Microsoft went through as its shifted its focus. The company needed to invest vast sums in cloud capacity to get where it is today. That was a huge risk. Similar investments have not paid off for the likes of IBM or Oracle.

Windows advantage

To a degree Microsoft is still playing catch up with Amazon, which invented cloud computing as we now know it. It had one huge advantage over Amazon; its installed base. Windows was, in some cases still is, loaded onto millions of servers the world over.

As these workloads move from on-premise hardware to the cloud, customers know it’s not hard to move Windows apps and data from a local server to Azure.

There’s a downside for Microsoft. Cloud margins are small compared to Windows licences. Microsoft could rely on gross margins as high as 90 percent when it sold licences. It’s lucky to get half that from selling cloud services. Still, 40 percent or thereabouts is still a healthy margin.

Categories
computing

Schools moving to the cloud

Network for Learning says ‘moving to the cloud’ is on the to-do list for many New Zealand schools. Here’s the first of a series of posts I’ve written for the N4L blog that aim to demystify the cloud and how to make use of it. It’s written for a non-technical audience.

“Cloud computing is using remote computers for jobs that were once done by local machines.

We call it cloud because the computers are somewhere else on the internet. Most of the time you don’t need to know where they are.

When the idea was first developed, people would draw diagrams to illustrate how it worked. They used pictures of clouds to show the remote computers could be anywhere. The image and the metaphor stuck.”

Read more at The Cloud.

Categories
productivity review

Acronis True Image 2019 review: Serious backup updated

Acronis says True Image 2019 provides set and forget protection. Going by my experience with the 2018 version, I can verify this. The last time I checked the older edition of the software was in May. I know this date is correct because that’s when I swapped to a new iMac.

It has backed up my iMac to the cloud for four months without any attention.

Now I’m using the 2019 version. It’s installed and it’s working. Every evening it updates some 200 GB plus sending it to Acronis’ cloud for safe keeping.

The process is so unobtrusive and the upgrade from True Image 2018 was so seamless that it’s hard to see any difference between the two versions.

Acronis True Image 2019

True Image 2019 differences

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference. The main new feature in the Mac version is Active disc cloning. You can use it to move data from one computer to another, or to make a bootable image on an external hard drive.

The external drive needs to connect directly to the computer being cloned. I couldn’t clone my Mac drive to the home network drive. You can only copy the entire drive. There’s no way to select directories for cloning.

Acronis’ other new 2019 feature is a Survival Kit. This is like Active disc cloning, you can use it to make a bootable back up of your start-up partition.

In truth these are both variations on Acronis True Image’s main theme, although they give you more back-up options.

Auto-start on connect

Another clever, helpful update is that you can set the software to start backing-up when a new external USB drive is plugged-in. It’s another step towards simplifying backing-up. Let’s face it, the easier it is to make back-ups, the more likely you are to keep everything up-to-date.

The last interesting update in True Image 2019 is that you can now make snapshots of Parallels Desktop virtual machines. It’s a niche feature for sure, but a welcome one.

My year with Acronis True Image 2018 passed without incident. During that time I switched computers twice and carried on backing up. I did a single restore from the Acronis Cloud to a computer, but it was a test, not a real panic recovery.

It’s a solid alternative offering both a secure cloud backup and the ability to make local backups at the same time.

Prices

Acronis may seem expensive when compared with other apps, but it costs are on a par with other cloud backup services. You can pay US$50 to buy the software for a single computer. It’s a one time payment and lasts forever, but it doesn’t include cloud storage.

A single year licence with 250GB of cloud storage is also US$50. This rises to US$100 if you want to connect five computers. A three computer option is US$80.

The full monty premium version comes with a terabyte of cloud storage. This is the only version that includes blockchain certification. Acronis fingerprints your files to show no-one else has altered them. This is a way to protect against ransomware. The premium version costs US$100 a year for one machine and US$150 for five.

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review

Acronis True Image 2018 review — serious backup

Acronis True Image promises to store all your data so you can recover it in a hurry. The company’s marketing says the process is complete and easy.

You are give a choice of storing data to a local drive, in the cloud or both. Acronis also says it has high levels of security.

None of this is unique to Acronis. Almost every other backup tool offers the same basic story. Acronis differs from the pack by adding defence against the ransomware dark arts. It also uses blockchain to keep the marketing, if not the software, bang up to date.

For testers there is a 30-day free trial. If you want to buy the software you can choose from a variety of options. You can choose a US$50 standard one-time payment for one computer. This rises to US$80 for three computers and US$100 for five devices.

Backup to cloud

Acronis’ advanced package is the same price. It is a one-year subscription that adds up to 250GB of cloud storage.

There is also a premium plan. This has 1TB of cloud storage. It also includes blockchain certification of files and electronic document signatures. This costs US$100 for a single computer and $160 for five devices.

I tested the advanced package. My first job was to download and install the software on my Mac. That task isn’t going to trouble anyone that has used computers before.

The software loads as a background app on the Mac. It places a discreet icon on the menu bar. This doesn’t add much functionality, but does remind you the software is running. Most of the time the software chugs away in the background making backups. It needs little human intervention.

Dashboard

Acronis deserves praise for its software dashboard. The design is clear and uncluttered. Although there’s a nod to the MacOS Finder design, you’re never left wondering where you are.

On the left of the display a column shows the important functions: Backup; Archive; Active Protection and Account.

When you’re in the main backup function you’ll also see a list of devices and their backup locations. Adding new ones is simple. You can choose the Acronis Cloud or browse your local network to find a suitable place to store a backup. You can check earlier backups from this screen.

There’s an option to backup now. When you create a backup you can choose whether to save everything or select files. Once you’ve made an initial backup, incremental backups are automatic. by default the software makes an incremental backup once a day. You can change this. If you like, hourly backups are an option.

Slow start

While the software works as promised, Acronis True Image 2018 is not trouble-free. The first problem was that I had difficulty activating the software with my code. It took a few attempts.

The other issue that might put you off is the sheer amount of time it took to make my first cloud backup. My MacBook Air has 256GB of SSD storage. I like to keep around 20 percent free, in part so there’s headroom when huge files come my way.

Acronis True Image 2018
Four days to go

Four days to goFor my initial backup I choose everything on the drive. A total of 203GB. You can see this in the screen shot above. Acronis interpreted this as a total of 180GB that it needed to send to the cloud.

The software warns: ”This backup is going to take a while…”. It wasn’t kidding. According to the display it was going to take four days and three hours.

Often MacOS starts a huge backup to my network drive warning it will take a long time. It then reconsiders and re-estimates once the transfer gets underway. I assumed this might be the case with Acronis True Image.

It wasn’t. It really wasn’t. In the end the initial backup took a little longer than four days and three hours.

Now here’s the odd thing: that screen shot above says the backup is running at 3.9Mbps. That’s fair enough, but I have a VDSL2+ connection that usually runs at between 45 and 70Mbps. I can BitTorrent at around 40Mbps. Streaming HD video works without a hitch.

Bandwidth blues

It’s good that Acronis doesn’t hog all the bandwidth on the home connection. But it could take more than under 10 percent. It turns out, it doesn’t use anything like 10 percent.

I took the second screenshot 24 hours after the first. Acronis says it works in the background while you get on with other tasks. That’s possible. But a whole day after starting the initial backup, it had only uploaded 4GB of the total.

Acronis True Image 2018 - 2
After one day, there are another 33 days to go…

After one day, there are another 33 days to go…As the second screenshot shows, at this rate it would take 33 days to handle the initial backup. In the event it took 4.5 days, about 110 hours in total. So the average speed was about 0.5Mbps.

In the preferences there’s an option to halt backups if your laptop is working on battery power. There are no other settings here to tweak to speed things up. For the record I had the software set to continue while on battery power.

Australian servers

On the backup screen there’s a small cog icon to adjust settings. The options here allow you to chose where to backup your data. The software selected an Australia default server for me. If that bothers you, there are alternatives.

You get the choice of optimal or maximum data backup speed. Optimal uses less of your bandwidth freeing up capacity for other apps. At first, this didn’t appear to make much difference to the upload speed for the initial backup. The pace picked up some time after I chose the option. I’d like to see more transparency in these settings, four and a half days for an initial backup is not acceptable.

Once it finished the initial backup, Acronis works at a cracking pace. Subsequent incremental backups often hit speeds in the mid-20Mbps range. They all happen in the background. It’s reliable and rock solid.

There are some neat touches. Acronis allows you to archive files to its cloud. You can send them via the app, and retrieve them using a web interface. In fact, you can use this web interface to recover your data at any time without the app.

More secure than alternatives

Acronis’ key selling point is the blockchain technology. This determines if anyone else has altered your online archive.

Before we look closer at how this works, the description above should trigger alarm bells. You might think an online cloud backup service should be secure enough to guard against anyone else accessing your data.

Acronis says that one of the best defences against ransomware is to keep regular backups. Ransomware works when criminals encrypt your data. They say they will give you the encryption key in return for money, usually Bitcoin.

That defence only works so long as the ransomware criminals don’t encrypt your backups along with the main data store. Hence the need to check no-one else is tinkering with your files.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if this is useful.

Verdict: Acronis True Image 2018

If you’re in business and have important data you should already be making local and offsite backups. There are plenty of choices for making offsite backups in the cloud, Acronis is a good, secure option.

Once you’ve made the first backup, the incremental updates are fast. There’s little work needed on your part and you don’t need to be a geek to understand how the software works.

While True Image 2018 may feel like overkill for many user, Acronis prices are reasonable. It costs little more than alternatives that are neither as safe nor as simple.

Categories
computing

Public Wi-Fi plus cloud file sharing « The Diversity Blog 

Ben Kepes writes about an infosec panic:

Bitglass, a company that is all about protecting organizational data, wanted to see the impacts of widespread use of public wi-fi, alongside the use of unsanctioned file sharing solutions…

…Bitglass’ threat research team tested two real-world scenarios—public wi-fi use and sharing of data from within a cloud app. The assumption being that the combination of public (and, one assumes, at-risk) wi-fi and cloud file sharing apps (shock, horror, cue the “cloud is risky” FUD) would deliver a double blow of cataclysmic risk.

Source: Public WiFi plus cloud file sharing: A recipe for InfoSec panic? « The Diversity Blog 

Kepes goes on to talk about his experience of using public wi-fi. He says he uses it a lot and never runs into trouble.

That makes sense. But it misses something. Kepes is motivated. He owns a business. He has enough experience, knowledge and sense to steer clear of obvious traps.

You, I and Kepes might be sensible. You can’t assume everyone using an enterprise computing app on a mobile device will be as careful or as savvy.

No amount of training or awareness programmes changes that.

Risky, not too risky

Organisations are at risk from careless use of public wi-fi. As Kepes points out the level of risk might not be high.

There is a simple way to deal with the risk. Build VPN functionality into every heavy-duty mobile enterprise app. That way that users have a secure, encrypted end-to-end link from their mobile device to the server handling their data.

VPNs are not expensive, they are not hard to build. They don’t impose much of a performance overhead.

Enterprise software companies can absorb the cost, a few cents per month, into their pricing model. It makes sense to guarantee security with an insurance policy against data being hijacked between a mobile device and the server.

Kepes’ point, is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt undermines cloud computing. In general, cloud is more secure than older computing models. You might not expect cloud infrastructure vendors to address mobile access risks; it should be a priority for an enterprise SaaS business.