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Disaster recovery must be at heart of business

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Unless businesses ensure they also take people and processes into account when planning for disasters, they run the risk of not surviving them, writes SAKKIE BURGER, Managing Executive at Business Connexion.

Most companies prioritise the need for restoring IT in the event of a system breakdown. What they do not focus on, however, is what processes are in place to ensure the business can continue when automated or digital processes fail and specifically the role that employees have to play as they are ultimately the custodians of the processes that drive operations. It’s easy to, for example, provide a company with 10 seats to go and restore their IT systems and get them up and running again, but how do you accommodate a company with 100 employees that have just lost their premises in a disaster? This poses a different challenge and there are not many companies, providing disaster recovery in South Africa, that have the luxury of having that amount of space available waiting just to be occupied when there is a need for disaster recovery.

Although most companies are going the route of digitisation, manual processes still have a fundamental role to play. Take an airline, for example. If their electronic system for checking passengers onto the plane goes down, they have to have a manual back office process in place to perform this function. They cannot just ground the aircraft until the electronic system is restored. And herein lies the challenge: not many companies have these contingencies in place and they are putting themselves, their businesses and most important, their customers at risk.

While many organisations have these failover processes in place, they either do not test them regularly enough or their testing practices are inadequate. Many organisations have testing in place, but they perform a paper-based test. They see that there’s a manual process in place, the configuration is there and that it is documented, but that is where it ends. There is no actual testing from end-to-end by recovering on a piece of hardware and making sure it works, that the network is connected and that users can actually sign in and check the data. People tend to do disaster recovery tests to satisfy their auditors rather than making sure the business can continue to run in the event of a disaster.

There are a number of challenges in adopting an adequate disaster recovery strategy. The biggest challenge is the cost. You know you have to have it, but also that you might never need it. The second challenge is distance. What distance is the correct distance for you to have a disaster recovery site, particularly when you take incidents that could affect a broader geographical area into account? Here connectivity also comes into play, because the further away your disaster recovery is from your main site, the more expensive network constituencies become.

Possibly one of the biggest risks companies face is that, while they have disaster recovery processes in place, they tend to set it up on equipment that has become redundant or obsolete. In these cases companies have had to upgrade their equipment, so they use the new technology for their production line and then run their disaster recovery on the old machines. The challenge with this is that when they do need to do a recovery, they find that it’s not compatible or supported anymore, which means they are not capable of recovering core systems in reasonable timeframes.

DR often does not get the attention it deserves because it is an expenditure that is not really productive. That is why there is a trend to outsource their disaster recovery to a third party, where there is an agreement that they have to have the necessary equipment in place to ensure they can run your disaster recovery effectively and efficiently.

Companies that are either re-looking their disaster recovery strategy or implementing it for the first time, need to ensure that they understand which of their applications are the most critical as a first step. Some applications don’t need disaster recovery contingency and you can run your business without them. Interestingly though, between 5 and 7 years ago mail wasn’t deemed a high priority application. Today, that is deemed the first thing companies want to have recovered, because it has become mission critical to the running of their businesses.

Times have certainly changed

Companies must also understand the technology that is involved. You can’t just move a workload from a Unix platform to a Microsoft platform. You must ensure that the work breakdown structures and standard operating procedures and processes are documented, tested and updated at least twice a year. It’s easy to just write a process and file it away in a cupboard and do nothing further with it. It needs to be tested vigorously and on a regular basis. It’s not just about testing it, it’s about change management and fixing problem as and when you are presented with them.

Often change management is the biggest problem in disasters. A disaster happens because something changed and a change request didn’t notify the disaster recovery process of this change. If your disaster recovery manual is not up to date, it could significantly increase the amount of time spent to fix the problem.

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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