General Telephony

Preparing for the Total Solar Eclipse

preparing for the eclipseUnless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three months, you’ve probably heard about the upcoming total solar eclipse. On Monday, August 21, 2017, for the first time in about a century, a total solar eclipse (not to be confused with an annular or “ring of fire” eclipse) will be visible from across the United States. Starting in the morning on the Pacific beaches of Oregon and traveling in an arc across the continent to South Carolina, this rare celestial event will last only a mere 1 hour and 33 minutes. If you’ve been paying attention, there has been a lot of commotion around people preparing for the eclipse in a lot of grandiose ways for a relatively small amount of time. Everyone will feel differently about whether or not they want to see it, but if you’re making the trip to be under the Path of Totality, there are some things you’ll want to know as you begin preparing for the eclipse.

Pro Tip: Don’t Look at the Sun

That shouldn’t be something you need to be reminded of, but allow us to remind you once more- looking at the sun can cause irreparable damage to your eyesight. So, you know, don’t do that. But for people who want to get to view the eclipse first hand there are ways to make that happen safely. Mostly, people will be using a pair of disposable eclipse glasses that will make watching the eclipse safe. Here are some things to know about eclipse glasses that could help you have a safe and enjoyable eclipse viewing experience.

  1. Yes, You Need the Special Glasses Eclipse glasses block out all but 0.003% of visible light along with most ultraviolet and infrared waves as well. Your Ray Bans do not. Eclipse glasses typically even have a thin layer of aluminum, chromium, or silver on them to accomplish this and nothing in the consumer market short of the darkest available welder’s shields (shade 12 or higher) will act as a replacement.
  2. Beware of Counterfeiters This is terrible, but the huge demand has meant that there are a bunch of bogus shades out there. Keep in mind to check for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification labeled, “ISO 12312-2,” or to rely only on the list of approved eclipse glasses vendors of the American Astronomical Society.
  3. This Goes for Viewing Devices, Too Just because some people seem to be unclear on this, you need to protect your eyes even when looking through devices, too. In fact, at the risk of sounding condescending, telescopes and binoculars magnify images. That effect will only amplify the damage done to your eyes if you aren’t protected.

No More Glasses? Make a Light Box!

It’s very possibly, likely even, that if you’re just starting this process that the only eclipse glasses available to you will be either out of stock or inordinately expensive. Fear not! You can get your DIY on with a light box that will still provide you with a perfect way to enjoy the eclipse safely. Making a pinhole projector, as they are also known, is so simple that there are some amusingly basic how-to guides out there. Seriously though, anything with a hole in it (a colander, a piece of paper, your thumb and forefinger) that casts a shadow onto a white background will do. For a more detailed, yet still remarkably easy, how-to guide on making a light box for the eclipse, check out this video below.

Make Haste Or Wait Until Next Time

There are an estimated 12 million Americans who live in the direct path of the eclipse with millions more pouring into the strip of land where the path of totality will travel across. If you don’t want to fight the crowds, you’ll have to wait until April of 2024 to see the next eclipse in the United States. Also, if you really feel motivated or if you’re a scientist, you can basically count on a total solar eclipse about every 18 months or so to occur somewhere on the planet.

What are your plans? Are you heading out to hunt a great camping spot or are you already in the path of the eclipse? Or are you going away from the crowds and letting those stargazers have it all to themselves? Whatever you plans may be, we’d love to hear about them on Twitter or Facebook, so make sure to let us know!

USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships & VirtualPBX

USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships

Every August, the best triathletes in the country congregate for the annual USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship. This year, the event was held in the ever-so-charming city of Omaha, Nebraska. That is particularly special to me because, in addition to having friends in Omaha, I was also honored to have earned an invitation to compete. Right about now I imagine you’re thinking one of two things. Either, “What in the world does this have to do with cloud communications?” Or the more common, “What in the world is wrong with you?” I’ll admit there’s nothing obvious about the link between competitive endurance sports and hosted telephony, but I assure you, the similarities are plenty. Before reviewing them, though, it’s also important to point out that, being a bit of a talker, I was impressed to see how many of the athletes I spoke to (and there were plenty, let me tell you) who were, like me, working remotely as part of their visit to the state known for its corn-husking. Interestingly, though, the pair share other commonalities along their respective paths, so as I wait in the Eppley Field Omaha Airport a mere 2 miles from the race course typing this, it seems like a fun comparison to draw.

Young and Scrappy

This doesn’t even remotely mirror how I’d describe my place in triathlon’s ranks, but it does describe both of the organizations to which I belong, specifically, USAT and VirtualPBX. VirtualPBX, I should not need to remind you, just celebrated our 20th Anniversary. And while in terms of the VoIP industry, that’s about as long as any company can have been in business, in the grand scheme of communications industries in general, it’s barely in its infancy. Plus, we have enough scrappy to spare! From our recent product of the year award for the VirtualPBX Desktop Softphone to the game-changing introduction of Dash and VoIP Clear Fix, we definitely like to rock the boat. Triathlon is also a young sport, relatively, in that it wasn’t even until the 1970’s that designing and competing in one ever occurred to anyone. Though the actual origin stories of the first triathlon ever tend to have some variations, considering that sports like soccer have roots dating back as far as 2,000 years back, you can hardly call it a tradition. Additionally, with triathlon now in the Olympics and Paralympics (the latter being won by an American woman in its Olympic debut!), it’s safe to say that it has earned its place in the pantheon of sport.

Growing Exponentially

Each of these two seemingly separate worlds also have the fact that they are growing exponentially in popularity in common, too. VoIP and related unified communications services are expected to be a $140 billion market in the United States alone by the year 2021. Say what you want about it, but $140 billion is enough to make anyone pay attention. There is similar growth in triathlon, too. With thousands of events all over the world garnering entry fees as high as $1,000 in some instances, it’s no wonder that investment managers are looking into the world of endurance sports for their next big return. Plus, considering that other single event sports like cycling and running are seeing renaissances and booms in participation, it’s safe to say that the overall health of the endurance community is as good as the people who partake in it.

Whatever the similarities between triathlon and VoIP may be, however, one thing is decidedly not the same. I’m referring to speed, of course, or more accurately, my speed this weekend. There were a lot of records set and champions crowned over the weekend, but while VoIP continues to blaze its path at an accelerating rate, this VoIP representative won’t be representing Team USA anytime soon. All kidding aside, though, if it weren’t for the reliability of VirtualPBX’s Dash VoIP network and the flexibility of our remote working policies, I wouldn’t have been able to compete at all. For that, and for having concluded another safe and happy race weekend, I am very grateful. Until next time, let us know what kind of activities you would do if you could work from anywhere by sharing them on Twitter or Facebook, and remember that just getting out there means you’re lapping everyone on the couch!

Troubleshooting Problems With VoIP? Try These VoIP Fixes

troubleshooting problems with voip

In only the past 20 years, VoIP has proven to be the best telephone service option for businesses looking for modern features without the baggage that comes with legacy telephone service. By offering features that are either cost-prohibitive or simply unavailable on a traditional, copper-wired telephone network, hosted PBX service also offers more than what old phone companies can even compete with. However, seeing as how hosted telephone service and cloud communications are still relatively new compared to the industries that rely on it, when the occasional VoIP problems arise, businesses can be left without a clear path to the appropriate VoIP fix. And because we’ve assembled quite an array of customers who have switched VoIP providers to join us, we’ve become familiar with a variety of problems with VoIP that they’ve experienced elsewhere. Therefore, we’ve compiled the most common VoIP problems and solutions for educating you on what you could encounter on your business telephone service.

Common VoIP Phone Problems

These are some of the more common issues that a company can experience when they complain about suboptimal hosted telephone service. Often times, these may arise from issues outside of the hosted telephone provider’s immediate control (more on that later). Whatever the cause of a particular complication with VoIP a company has, qualified technicians can accurately diagnose it nonetheless.

  1. VoIP Jitter When a hosted telephone user experiences VoIP jitter, he or she is describing a fractious, intermittent interruption of sound on the line. Because sound travels over a virtual connection rather than a wired one, the sound needs to be broken down into “sound packets” that travel as pieces of information that get reassembled as conversations across data connections. Pretty much whenever VoIP is choppy, that falls under the umbrella of VoIP jitter. Jitter can be experienced by either party on the line and it occurs when the sound packets are either incompletely or inaccurate assembled to and from the people on the phone call.
  2. VoIP Latency VoIP latency is less specific than VoIP jitter in that it can mean any type of delays or extended periods between when a caller is speaking and when the audio reaches its audience on the other end of the line. There are more reasons why callers may experience latency but it can often be attributed to network complications rather than with the VoIP service itself.
  3. VoIP Outage A total outage is easily the most disruptive of all possible VoIP problems that a business can experience. Depending on the type of business, being completely cut off from telephone service can cost upwards of tens of thousands of dollars a day in lost productivity and opportunity costs. The two most common reasons for a total VoIP outage are that the telephone service provider is having an internal failure or that there is a catastrophic event with an upstream carrier that impacts entire regions of internet access and not just one VoIP service alone.

How to Fix These VoIP Problems

VoIP issues troubleshooting and knowing actually how to fix VoIP problems are two totally separate endeavors. We have a massive compendium of VoIP Support Documents, a transparent service status site, and an award-winning Customer Support Team that’s available 24 hours a day for our customers to knock out any challenge with their system in a jiffy. For others, though, the process can be far more complicated. Without an on-site IT or telecommunications expert on hand, many VoIP users are at the mercy of their providers. We don’t like the sound of that one bit, which is why we have some tips on how to fix VoIP problems no matter where you get your service.

  1. Network Stress Testing A Network Health Check is something that not all VoIP providers offer that will help stop most VoIP problems before they start. Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we designed this network assessment to catch any bottlenecks and weaknesses on a network before burdening it with a hosted telephone system. Just like banks are required to conduct stress tests and architects need to run simulations on structural integrity to ensure the strength of their systems, a Network Health Check is the same type of thorough analysis of a business’ entire network ecosystem. This means that any bottlenecks or stress points can be identified and corrected before they result in jitter, latency, or even an overload on the network a business relies on.
  2. Network Optimization One of the most commonly overlooked issues a company can have when it begins using VoIP is not ensuring that its network is optimized to handle voice traffic. Considering that the demands of an enterprise telephone system are so much greater than simple web and email traffic that an office typically uses, without optimal use restrictions, a company’s phone network can be affected by excessive video streaming or other high-bandwidth events. VoIP Clear Fix is the brand-agnostic and award winning process of galvanizing a hosted business telephone service against even the most prolific cat video binges.
  3. Lather, Rinse, Repeat This isn’t a reminder to wash your hair, but a reminder of the importance of repetition. Just like PC’s need to be defragged and rebooted from time to time, so too does a network responsible for a VoIP connection require some maintenance, too. Because VoIP is hosted remotely, the engineers of the company offering the service will manage the servers and software that the actual telephone connections originate from. What isn’t on their radar, however, is the quality and maintenance of any single business’ access to that software via its internet connection. Conducting initial stress testing and optimization is critical for ensuring that you can maximize the power of your hosted telephone network, but maintaining that quality long term requires that the network is serviced periodically, as well. Some ISP’s will offer this service as part of a business internet connection, but they are less capable of optimizing networks for VoIP than a trained telecommunications engineer. Network Monitoring Services from a VoIP provider guarantee that the investments a business makes in their initial network configurations are preserved and capitalized on for as long as they are needed.

Keeping VoIP Phones Ringing

As you may have noticed by now, most of the common ailments a VoIP user can experience are functions more of network connections than of limitations of an enterprise-grade business phone system. The challenge is to find the right hosted telephone service provider who can be a verifiable partner in your success. Because even having a provider with an industry-leading 99.999% operational uptime can’t help you if your network is incapable of handling powerful VoIP telephone connections. Hopefully, this was helpful for you who are trying to troubleshoot your own VoIP problems but you’ll find that getting the right solution is as simple as knowing where to look, first. More than simple speed tests, these types of services will be rigorous assessments of your network and will provide clear, actionable direction on how to correct any problems you may have previously had.

Keep us posted on how your VoIP issues work out by getting in touch on Twitter or Facebook. Also, make sure to keep an eye out here for more helpful tips on how to get the most our of your VoIP service.

Protect Ya Neck! HBO Hacked & Westeros In Danger

HBO hack iron throneIn this series of blogs we examine all topics under the information security umbrella. From corporate blunders to rogue state attacks to the occasional celebrity hack, we believe there is something for businesses and individuals to learn from any cyber security event. We also believe that, while experience is the best teacher, it’s even better to let other people make the mistakes for you.

Winter is Here

If there has ever been a conundrum for a tech observer and avid fan of the HBO series, Game of Thrones, this is it. As you may have heard, the premium cable provider was recently hacked and is currently being extorted for safe return of its content. Yes, that means that the hackers are in possession of some of the company’s most profitable and valuable content. The conundrum for me is that, I’m equal parts fascinated by the size of the hack (more on that later) as I am about how it occurred. However, following the trail of evidence here isn’t as straight forward as it normally is because these hackers are leaving spoilers in their wake while attempting to extort more from HBO. And as any fan of the graphic depictions of the rise and fall of the families of Westeros can tell you, not even the Night King is more frightening than the risk of ruining an episode. That’s why we’ve assembled this totally spoiler free Game of Thrones edition of Protect ya Neck. Because, you know, inquiring minds want to know.

What Was Hacked

The studio is understandably not keen to divulge exactly what was taken by the hackers, but an individual going by the name “Kind Mr Smith” appears to represent the perpetrators, and he claims to have a lot. How much exactly? It’s being reported now that the HBO hack consisted of 1.5 terabytes of information, making it over 7 times larger than the massive Sony hack that took around 200 gigabytes. And if you recall from the Sony debacle, 200 gigs was more than enough to release multiple full-length movies and catalogs of financial and personal information. If this amount is accurate, Mr. Smith is positioned to be a regular Lord Varys when it comes to having dirt on people in power. And while there are likely some Cersei Lannisters over at HBO looking to exact a chilling and albeit entertaining revenge, it’s my assertion that the best thing would be to determine exactly how this even happened, first.

”Night gathers, and now my watch begins…”

When Grenn’s actor said these words about living that Knight’s Watch life and the general purpose of The Wall, it would have behooved the folks on the set to pass that sentiment along up to the folks in charge at HBO. This is going to sound a bit frustrating to anyone who is, like me, keen on preventing the preventable. By that I mean, cybersecurity expert Roderick Jones, believes the path these hackers took to get at all that lovely GoT goodness is all too familiar. Jones asserts that the exact same vulnerability that made the Wanna Cry ransomware attack possible, specifically outdated and possibly not-updated legacy Windows-based hardware, was likely to be the main access point for this hack. Alternatively, or perhaps in conjunction with the vulnerabilities of the aging HBO network, there was an additional access point involved, as well. The human element is always going to be the most difficult variable for any cybersecurity effort to account for, and this studio may have been uniquely vulnerable. In an effort to stem the risks of producing physical DVD’s that can be lost or stolen for critics’ advanced access to HBO content, the studio began doing direct streaming. This, combined with the remote work of its own employees, is likely where HBO (and any company, for that matter) has the greatest risk of being compromised.

There’s No Safety North of The Wall

For thousands of years, Westeros had enjoyed relative safety thanks to the imposing presence of The Wall. However, beyond the hundred of feet of stone and ice and the diligent men of the Knight’s Watch, there is no assurance of protection. This is the most accurate Game of Thrones comparison that can possibly be made for what a company’s firewall and intranet represents. Even more than just in the imagery of a defensive wall, too, in that the area between The Wall and the undead army (or in earlier times, the Wildling armies of Mance Rayder) very similarly represent the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) of network security. Businesses build themselves a formidable fortress around their operations and, though employees will wander north of that border equipped with the skills and training to protect themselves as best they can, there are still casualties outside of its protection. The things to remember here that will protect employees from hackers, and by extension their employers, are so common they would make a person blue in the face to repeat them each time there’s a big hack. However, that’s exactly what I’m going to do now.

  • Public WiFi is Public If you’re working on your computer away from your work or home, remember that even the most rudimentary of bad actors can effectively share all of your information once you begin working on a public wifi network.
  • Password Strength Is Serious Business This means that adding a “123” to the word “password” and perhaps an exclamation point to the end of your cat’s name probably won’t do the trick. If you really can’t make lengthy, complex passwords for each site, try using one of these top password managers to help out, but you definitely want to mix it up.
  • Update, Update, Update Whenever you get a note from either your mobile or desktop operating system to update, DO NOT IGNORE IT. I’m sorry for yelling, but updating your hardware will keep your devices protected from the latest detected security threats and, plus, they’ll all probably run faster, too.
  • Keep Backups Whenever Possible In the event that things do go sideways for you or your company, you’ll want to have a plan of action in place. Without any exception, the most cost effective ways to rebuild your network all begin with having a backup on hand. Keeping an external hard drive or cloud backup for all of your devices (applications and files alike) won’t seem like a hassle after the first time you have to conduct a total system reboot. Trust me.
  • Keep Generals of the DMZ The analogy here is fun but the risk is less playful. The long and the short of this, though, is that if you have sensitive, proprietary information that you need to work on, it’s best only to do so within the confines of your office’s most secure perimeter and not out in the exposure of the DMZ.

Hold the Line

Admittedly, that’s more of a Braveheart reference then GoT but much of the battle sequences from the Battle of the Bastards episode are best to not be reprinted in this blog. We’re a family company, after all. Suffice to say, though, the concept I want to convey here is steadfastness in practicing these five simple precautions above. There’s a reason that we keep reinforcing them each time we talk about cybersecurity, and that’s because these are the things people who become victims of cyber crime typically tend to overlook. With that said, remember that we typically post the latest in tech, cybercrime, security, and general telephony news on Twitter and Facebook, so you can always find what you need to know to stay safe there.

Hopefully you’ll never need to worry about seeing your name here in a future hacking related post, but if you do, make sure to let me know which GoT character you want to be likened to. Obviously, this was no fun to write at all. Remember, too, it’s a jungle out there, so make sure to Protect ya Neck!

How to Manage Remote Teams

how to manage remote teamsHow to manage remote teams and direct reports is an increasingly important topic. Paradoxically, though, there seems to be far less written about it than how to manage direct reports in traditional working environments. This is indicative of one of the biggest miscalculations that a manager can make when preparing a people-management plan in that satellite workers are no different than their in-office peers. By building clear expectations early and avoiding some common mistakes, people managers will find that managing remote teams is not that dissimilar to managing their employees in the office.

How to Manage Remote Teams: Things to Remember

To reiterate the main point to remember when dealing with how to manage distributed employees, it’s important to treat them the same way as anyone else on the team. Ultimately, they are all just people who want to contribute to the success of an organization and be adequately rewarded and valued for their contributions. Of course, to assume that remote workers require no different attention or strategy from any other employee just because they have the exact same motivations and value as an in-office one is a fallacy. Therefore, it’s important to remember these key tips for how to ensure long-term success with remote workers.

  • Do Remember to Get to Know Each Other: The relationships that grow between coworkers, regardless of where they fit into the org-chart, are built heavily on in-office interactions. Make a point to replicate some of the non-work banter that occurs around the water cooler by making time for more collegial talk during conference calls or video chats.
  • Do Set and Keep Regular Interactions: Focus here on quality over quantity. Establishing a predictable cadence of communications and sticking to it is far more important than getting in more face-time just to have it happen more often. For satellite offices, it’s also a good idea to get an actual in-person visit as early as possible into the relationship and then stick to just a quarterly or yearly visit as necessary. Otherwise, a predictable video huddle is sufficient for most employees.
  • Do Use Technology to Close the Distance: Speaking of video huddles, there are a host of virtual communications tools for business that are designed to make collaboration between time zones as easy as collaboration between cubicles. Whether it is using mobile apps that manage telephone extension status or video tools like Google Meet, harnessing the full benefit of hosted communications tools will be pivotal to making remote workers feel closer.
  • Do Keep Expectations Consistent: This goes for everything from setting clearly outlined goals and deadlines to making sure that significant achievements are rewarded and recognized. Sound familiar? That’s because, again, this needs to be the approach managers take with leading all of their in-office employees, too. What makes this particularly important for remote workers, though, is that managers should avoid making geographically separated employees feel like they need to work harder to offset their location flexibility. Additionally, their coworkers need to see that management’s expectations and consequences, both good and bad, are the same for everyone no matter where their desks are located.

How to Manage Remote Teams: Things to Avoid

When planning on how to manage remote workers, it’s just as important to develop working relationships that encompass all of the above pointers, as it is to avoid certain pitfalls, as well. After reviewing the above list, great conditions for some of these may be more difficult to visualize. That’s why it’s useful to also look at the specific situations below that a manager should be wary to avoid.

  • Don’t Change Standards Based on Location: Having a uniform rubric on what any specific role will be assessed, rewarded, and sanctioned is going to avoid a lot of headaches. This way, managers don’t need to vary their expectations based on where an employee conducts his or her work, but rather what the type of work, or at what level of seniority, it is being done. Nobody, inside or out of the office, will appreciate the appearance of inequity here.
  • Don’t Try to Force Communications: Stopping by an employee’s desk for small talk is fine, but if that employee is in the restroom, staying at their desk to talk when they return might come off as a little awkward. That’s essentially what it’s like to call or video-chat a remote employee to chit chat if they aren’t at their keyboard. And because knowing if he or she is there isn’t as immediately obvious, that’s why it’s best to not try random conversations, but rather build time into predictable ones for those types of personal conversations.
  • Don’t Ignore the Contributions that In-Office Employees Get Recognized For: Similar to but different from establishing uniformity on what is expected from each employee is to establish what is expected from the manager, as well. Regular work throughout the course of the day that may garner a note of praise because the manager is there to witness it occurs when they aren’t around, too. Managing remote employees will be easier when everyone knows that the positive attention of the superiors will be spread as evenly as the workload is.

Continue Learning How to Manage Remote Workers

Management is as much a learned skill as it is a practiced one. That’s why it’s important to hone the craft as much as possible. Additionally, having the right tools to execute on effective remote working relationships is invaluable, as well. Following these steps above and remembering to establish clear expectations early on and admit missteps early will yield dividends in the long run. Also, it’s critical that everyone on the flow chart endeavor to stay teachable, which is why we’d love to hear some of your best advice and experience on what has worked (or not worked) when managing remote workers. Tell us your stories on Twitter and Facebook, and maybe we can include them in our next series of pointers. Thanks and happy managing!

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