Friday, 14 August 2015

Taking cards

We occasionally need to add a fee for our holiday home guests which is outside of the primary rental handled by our agents (Sykes Cottages). An example of this is a deposit fee for the use of the in-house telephone system, or perhaps accepting the outstanding balance of call costs. The benefit to our guests is the don't have to use cash. If they are from another country the currency conversion is automatic on their credit/debit card account.

I've just been trying out Paypal's new reader. It handles CHIP and PIN, magnetic strip swipe and also touch payment. The reader links by BlueTooth wireless to your iPad/iPhone or Android Tablet/Phone. You have to download the appropriate PayPal/Here App from Google Play or from Apple as appropriate. After minimal configuration the device is up and working.for the first time in a few minutes. Subsequently it doesn't take long to get it operational again.

You need to have:

  • A PayPal Business Account
  • A Wifi or 3G/4G signal to allow you phone/tablet to connect to the Internet.
The handling fee is about 2.75% per transaction.

Operating a configured device is quite easy. First start the PayPal Here App on your tablet/Phone. Get things going by typing in your PaylPal password on your tablet/phone, Then switch on the bluetooth card reader. You enter details of the transaction on your/tablet/phone to get a total fee. You then hand the card reader to your client. It shows the amount you intend to charge. Ask them to either touch,insert, or swipe the magnetic strip of their card. For the latter two they will be asked to enter their card PIN. Your client can then approve the transaction.

Once the payment has been approved you can print a receipt or email a copy to them. The App will display some limited statistics such as transactions and totals. Unlike the iZettle approach you cannot do "Card Not Present" payments, you'd need a different Paypal service to handle those, it costs £20 a month to do that. 

There's no obvious way of replacing the battery when renewal is required. The iZettle has an exchangeable battery.

My initial impression is that it works well, ideal for a small business which needs to take an occasional card payment face to face. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

Choosing a VOIP Service

Choosing a VOIP service is not always down to finding the lowest price. Cheap is not the same as inexpensive. You'll need to think about what features you need to support your organisation both now and in the future.

Telephone services vendors are Grand Masters when it comes down to sneaking in additional costs/fees to the customer's bill. The headline price figure displayed prominently on a web site is rarely what you end up paying.

You'll need to consider what access you have to technical support for computers and networks. Once a VOIP service is working they generally work well. However there is often an initial need to tinker with network settings to get everything working properly. You might need to make some improvements to your data network to ensure good data security and a good quality voice on your phones. You should also have access to a technician during the operation of your service for when problems arise. Such problems are infrequent, but baffling for the lay-person. The level of data network support provided by the VOIP service vendor can vary considerably. Their support often stops at the point where the telecom data service enters your building.

If you are using VOIP phones they are generally just plug in and go provided they've been properly configured. Just as with your desk top PC the software hidden in the phones will need an occasional update for fixes, improvements and security patches. You may need technical support to ensure this update process takes place. Some VOIP vendors will do this remotely, others may give you no assistance on this matter.

Before committing to any particular VOIP service supplier be sure to try it out to check the voice quality to several remote destinations. There are different methods of voice encoding used in VOIP which can affect the quality of the voice transmission. I'll repeat it, "Make sure you check the quality of voice received at the other end." It is usually not too difficult to persuade someone at a remote location to asses the quality of the calls. Don't rely solely on what you hear at your end of the call. What might sound good to you can be horrible at the remote end.

You should also carefully check the contract period and how it is handled at renewal. You might pay monthly but still be enrolling in a three year contract with expensive exit charges should you need to change your mind. Make sure you have an exit should the vendor be unable to get your system working. Watch out for extra costs such as telephone number rental.

In assessing a contract make sure you know:
  • Implementation Costs
  • Expected cost
  • Contractually committed cost
  • "Out of plan" cost projections

When comparing phone call tariffs work out how many minutes you'll need per use per month then check what the costs will be if you exceed the plan. Some call plans tie the "minutes" to users with no transfer between user plans. Watch out for how call times are measured. Is it to the nearest minute, or are call times rounded up to the next whole minute. Call Set up fees can vary considerably between vendors; the financial impact depends on the call usage pattern of your business. You may find some vendors particularly BT round up the individual call costs to the next pence amount. If your business makes a lot of short outgoing calls the impact of call set up fees and cost rounding can be significant.

Despite all the considerations mentioned above you will almost inevitably save a lot of money on telecoms costs by moving to VOIP. You also gain considerably in business flexibility. However don't ditch your existing phone system until you've used the VOIP for a while and be sure to retain at least one incoming number on a traditional land line.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Save money on your phone system.

There have been many advances in Cloud Computing. Now any organisation who has dispersed employees or groups of employees with access to the Internet can provide them with the facilities of a PABX telephone system at a very low set up cost. The use of a hosted Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone system can provide the facilities previously only available to larger enterprises.

  • Members/employees can be allocated internal phone extension numbers regardless of where they are in the world;
  • The organisation can gain access to low cost telephone tariffs, a fraction of the main public telephone companies with no noticeable loss in quality. Itemised call billing costs are traceable back to individual users. You will save money!
  • Expensive destinations can be blocked;
  • Members can be assigned to one or more incoming phone lines or share lines.
  • Calls can follow people from their office to their mobile phone or home lines.
  • Call recording, voice mail, SMS messaging and Fax can be quickly added;
  • Receptionist, conferencing, call transfer and call rollover are part of the package;
  • No real technical skills are required to operate the system. The hosting company takes care of the technicalities;
  • You can set up a new desk/role/location with a working phone facility in a couple of minutes or tear it down equally quickly. It is a matter of opening the box containing the phone handset, plug it in and you are ready to go in a few minutes.

You might save a substantial sum: 

  1. The BT standard land line call cost (ex VAT) in the UK, outside of a prepaid plan, is £0.17 per minute and a £0.19 call set up charge.  SIPGate charge just £0.01 per minute and no set up charge.  
  2. A 10 minute call to South Africa would cost £18.50 with BT business land line, the same call via SIPGate would be £0.59
  3. On VOIP systems calls between phone extensions are free, regardless of the geographic location of the participants.

Here are some systems you might like to consider:

We will post some more information on this blog over the next few days.We've set one up recently. 

Edit: 27th July 2015 The day after creating the posting, I received an email from BT announcing a price increase in September 2015. For residential services the price increase is 7% on average, which is way above the annual rate of inflation. Here's a link to a copy of partial details.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Has the UK run out of power?

Reports in the media point to a statement by the UK National Grid that the margin between on-line electricity generating capacity and demand in the winter of 2015 will be 1.2%. The National Grid are paying power generation companies to keep mothballed plants available and also some large power consumers to "switch off" at times of high demand. The additional measures will give a 5.1% capacity margin. If all goes well it should be sufficient, but there are many risk factors that could cause an overload of that margin. It could be a power station failure, or a grid failure, an interruption to the Natural Gas supply. If this happened on a calm day we might lose the input from wind turbine power. An exceptionally cold winter may cause demand in excess of Government expectations.  There's more information on the National Grid's reserves here.

If you constantly run a complex mechanical system, maintained at the lowest possible cost, within 2% of its maximum capacity you cannot expect 100% availability. UK businesses should be blowing the dust off their contingency plans to see what they intend to do in the event of regional power outages this winter. These outages may be pre-announced or occur without warning.

  • You should run standby power system tests now to give your organisation time to fix any problems found. 
  • The tests should assume extended regional power outages. 
  • You might need to plan for load shifting to other regions/countries in the event of an outage. 
  • You should review arrangements for the supply of alternative fuels such as standby generator diesel. 
  • What will happen to fuel deliveries if a regional outage causes sudden demand on resupply logistics;
  • Who will receive priority in fuel delivery?
  • How will you make media announcements concerning your organisation's plan to your workers, customers, suppliers in the event of a regional power outage?

If your organisation uses home/remote working as part of its contingency planning, are there arrangements to provide standby power in those remote locations? Do your Key Home Workers have safe access to inverter power generators (and fuel) to run their home computers and network?  Will fuel be available for transport of workers? Are your workers aware of what they should do in the event of a local/regional power outage?

You may need to check the preparedness of your major suppliers for regional power outages.. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Suppliers at risk from their couriers

Our offices are located in a busy part of town which happens to be part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The place is in the bottom of charming countryside river valley with hills either side. There's a mix of businesses and homes surrounding us. It is a very friendly sort of place and people leave their building's back doors unlocked, the front doors are locked to keep the tourists out. As with most businesses we have courier delivery and collection of various packages. If anyone is not at home/office one of the neighbours will always take in a parcel. Pretty much all of the couriers cope with this environment extremely well.

The better couriers will send an SMS text message to accurately predict when when they anticipate delivery. Others will attempt to deliver with no notification. If no one is available to receive the package, the driver will leave a note and either return the package to base or lodge it with a neighbour. In the case of the return to base, they'll attempt redelivery at a later date. This system works.

However our experience with UPS couriers is rather different. They don't advise in advance of a delivery. They make one attempt to deliver a package. If that doesn't work, they don't attempt to leave it with a neighbour nor do they return it to base. No, UPS take it upon themselves to deposit the parcel some hours later at a "nearby" collection point and leave a note through your door to that effect. The onus is then on the addressee to go an collect the parcel. It would be helpful if the delivery attempt note gave an address where you should go collect. In our case it was the name of a newspaper shop we'd never seen before. We had to use Google to track it down. The collection point was over 2.1 Kilometres away up the hillside approximately 200 metres higher. A good job we have a car to travel to it. It is not an easy walk. Disabled, or elderly people might find that a bit inconvenient to reach.

Someone in UPS seems to think they can save money by only attempting just one delivery before forcing the customer to collect from another location. It is a small wonder for us to discover their CEO's annual "compensation" doubled in 2014 to $8.4 Million. Perhaps funded by halving service levels?

The downside for our suppliers is that if they use UPS as a "logistics partner" we regard them as having an unreliable supply chain. Consequently that supplier is then blacklisted as a "only use in last resort." If they re-think their choice of courier then we might continue to do business with them, but meanwhile the business relationship is damaged.

In our case we contacted our supplier (Epson) to see if they could assist. The message was "you are on your own we won't help". Of course any phone calls to request assistance attract a premium rate call charge.

On a lighter vein, this Youtube video made me smile.

Of course it is easy to find other people with bad feelings about UPS. Here's one, but perhaps reading this in the USA and here in the UK I should count myself lucky.

Edit: 30/6/2015 I've just received a call from Estonia (about 2800KM distant).. It was the UPS Customer Services. The gentleman was polite, had good English but he had a noticeable heavy Russian/Eastern European accent. He wanted to discuss what had happened. The direction of the conversation was that the delivery problem was down to the delivery service specified by Epson. Let's just say it set my BS antennae quivering. He could offer no real reason for the unsatisfactory delivery, but said my views would be noted and brought to the attention of management. Having had the responsibility of managing several international help desk teams, I realise it means nothing will happen and the issue will be lost in a pile of statistics. So far as I'm concerned it was no answer to my complaint.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

Wall reinforcement - Intrusion protection

One more interesting find at the IFSEC 2015 was Avertic Armour. They provide a high strength woven mesh which helps protect against power drill attacks and cutting disk attacks. You embed the mesh in the walls of the object to wish to protect. The strands of the mesh rapidly clog any cutting tool which is used to attempt to break through the wall.

This armour technology has its origins in the protective clothing worn by forestry workers to protect their bodies from chain saw injuries. If the moving saw chain comes in contact with the protective clothing the strong threads are not cut but entangle the saw mechanism causing the motor to stall.

If you wished to protect the doors and/or walls of a data centre you'd probably use this material in conjunction with other security strengthening measures such as expanded steel mesh, perhaps a ballistic layer, and a vibration sensor for an alarm system. The lightweight Avertic Armour in one or more layers would greatly delay intruders wishing to break through by denying the use of powered cutting disks to cut through other reinforcements such as steel.

A Data Centre without fire risk?

An interesting system at IFSEC 2015 was Wagner's Oxyreduct system. This system can be used to protect Data Centre rooms, vaults, document storage rooms from fire. It works by increasing the proportion of nitrogen in the atmosphere until the oxygen proportion is 15% rather than the normal 20%.  At the 15% level there's insufficient oxygen to support normal combustion. They are classed as Hypoxic Air Fire Prevention systems. In classic fire risk training you learn about the Fire Triangle; you need all three sides Oxygen, Fuel, Heat to sustain combustion. Remove one of the sides and fire will not take hold. This technique takes out the oxygen side of the triangle.

I was invited into a demonstration room by the salesman where the Oxyreduct system was controlling the atmosphere. In a classic sales type of demonstration he handed me a cigarette lighter then asked me to try to set fire to his jacket. I couldn't get a flame from the lighter, even though it had worked just fine outside the room. 

Fundamental to the system is a nitrogen concentrator unit which extracts nitrogen from the atmosphere. This nitrogen is then pumped into the room to be protected and the oxygen level monitored to be maintained at the magical 15% level. You don't need to hold compressed nitrogen in cylinders or store liquid nitrogen.

Obviously the cost of installation and operation needs to be considered but I can see this could be a highly effective system in a data centre environment. Most fire suppression system react after a fire has started. Those types of systems can cause the shut down of a room and may cause some damage themselves. Oxyreduct is definitely worth a look! 

You'd need to be sure the room to be protected is effectively gas tight and good air movement within the room to help maintain the oxygen/nitrogen balance. You'd need to ensure the gas porosity of the building structure such as walls does not exceed the capability of the system unit to provide nitrogen. If people routinely work in the room you'd need provision to replenish oxygen depleted by their breathing. 

Perhaps a simple blood oxygen saturation monitor (Oximeter) might be needed to reassure workers, particularly any person who has a compromised respiratory system. Here's some Health and Safety guidance and Wikipedia information here. In any event it might be wise to limit staff exposure to 2 hours in the reduced oxygen environment. Normally the 15% oxygen is fine for healthy workers, but some countries such as the USA OSHA Regs might prevent the use of such a system providing less than 19.5% Oxygen. Some other standards which apply are VdS 3527en and BSI: PAS 95:2011

I'd consider deploying this as a primary system with an alternate backup fire suppression system, such as high pressure water mist as a backup, but that it all depends on the safety/risk benefit cost equation. If someone wedges a door open or otherwise defeats the gas tightness of the protected area the Oxyreduct system, as with any other gas based system, would become ineffective.

Here's a video:

There's some general information on these hypoxic systems here.