Poor Man’s CRM – Update

No, I don’t have the InfoPath demo ready yet – but it’s getting close.


HOWEVER – I just thought I’d share my latest accomplishment.  While it may not be a big deal to the more advanced Sharepoint users, I was quite proud of myself:  I just successfully moved the InfoPath demo site as it currently exists from the public server where it lives to my SBS here at home, and had it replace the default companyweb site in SBS 2003.  The really cool part about this is not that it was simple & painless, but that it brought absolutely everything with it – including data AND the InfoPath forms.  So what does this mean?  This means that as soon as this demo is ready – I can provide the entire site as a download (complete with the InfoPath forms but minus the sample data) and instructions on how to replace your existing companyweb with the InfoPath demo site.  So if you like what you see, you don’t have to recreate it – just download & install it!  Now how’s that for service?   :^)

Poor Man’s CRM

Ok, last week I posted in about using Sharepoint as a management solution, and since there was some interest I spent the last few days getting things set up in a public Sharepoint site.  The initial site is online and can be accessed via:


http://wss.gosbs.org
u:  wssdemo
p:  wssrocks!


A few notes – the site as it exists right now is extremely basic customizations, using nothing but the built-in Sharepoint lists and workspaces.  This is meant to demonstrate what kind of things you can do very quickly with Sharepoint.  As for more long-term solutions, I’m working on another site that will provide extensive use of InfoPath and other Sharepoint features such as Web Part Pages to better streamline the solution.  It’s fun to note that this example is the very tip of the iceberg – there is so much that is possible.  As I’ve been diving into Sharepoint in the last month, I’m quickly discovering that there is so much more to it, and so much more flexibility and options than I ever thought imaginable.  Now if I could just devote the time to really learn it . . .


I’ll point out that there isn’t hardly any documentation on the site yet as to how things were done.  If you have a question – post it to the Discussion List on the site, and I’ll answer it as soon as possible!

Nightmare on L Street . . .

Ok, so we have a customer where we installed a new LAN about a year ago.  Well, they are opening a new office down in Phoenix, and the owner got the brilliant idea that in order to trim back their start-up costs, they’d just have the new office use their old Server & PCs . . . we laid out every argument imaginable on why it would be beneficial to deploy new hardware / software – but in the end, the owner would hear nothing of it – they wanted their old machines reformatted, re-installed and completely prepped so they could simply be plugged in when they arrived at the new office. 


So Monday morning I picked up the old hardware & software, and we started re-installing.  I let Lee (one of our techs) go to town with the workstations (Pentium 133 boxes / 4GB HD / 32 MB RAM / Win98 / Office97 Pro) and I started in on the server (PII 233 / 256 MB RAM / NT4 Server).  Needless to say, the God’s decided they were going to have fun with me when it came to this project.  Lee had 4 PCs completely reformatted, reinstalled & patched before I was at a point where I could get the *#@$%^!& NT setup to run . . .    First, it has literally been years since I have installed NT4 Server.  This box had a SCSI CD-ROM, the system would post, and detect not only the CD-ROM, but that there was a bootable CD in the drive, but wouldn’t boot to the CD.  No problem, I’ve got the NT setup floppies – so I boot to the floppies, they detect the SCSI Controller & on-board ATAPI CD-ROM controller.  No problem – until I hit Enter to continue and setup tells me that because there is no CD-ROM, it can’t continue. 


Huh?  


So, I throw the scenario out to the other SBS MVPs, and the most popular response was to make sure I had drivers for the CD-ROM.  So I tear it out of the box, pull the make / model and go online.  It’s a Toshiba drive, and according to Toshiba, it is 100% standards compliant, so there are no drivers necessary.  As long as the host OS can see the SCSI Controller, it’ll work. 


Yeah right – tell that to this piece of (*&^ box . . . .


So, just for shits & giggles – I download the drivers for the controller, reboot the server and load the Adaptec drivers for the controller.  No dice – still tells me no CD-ROM present (mind you that bios is still indicating a bootable CD in the drive when the system boots)


So this thing wants to play hardball does it?  Fine – sooner or later it will realize like so many others that I’m a stubborn PITA and in the end, I will not only overcome – but whip it into complete submission in the process  :^)   I go to the back room and pull a new IDE CD-ROM that I happened to have on the shelf, and replaced the SCSI drive.  Booted to the setup floppies, followed the bouncing ball and when I hit Enter to proceed from that last screen, I get the same message that setup cannot continue because no CD-ROM is present.


AARRGGHH!!    <insert random cussing & serious temptation to start smoking again here>


I verify that the CD-ROM is showing up in the CMOS – yep.  Just to be safe, I tried another IDE cable – no dice.  So I go back to the back room, and pull another CD-ROM out of an old (and I mean OLD) PC who’s mobo just recently died, swapped out the new CD-ROM for the used special, and booted for the ump-teenth time to the setup floppies.  Lo & behold – this time it worked!


So setup finally finished, and I configured DNS, DHCP, WINS, etc. – In the end, I spent all of Tuesday afternoon and most of Wednesday morning on this little PITA project.  I’m tempted to bill the customer extra time to cover my undue stress & suffering . . .  ;^)   Now all I have to do is throw that new CD-ROM in a test box to see if it does in fact work, or if I need to have it replaced under warranty .. .


As for the moral of the story, this made me realize how spoiled I’ve become with SBS 2003 . . .  who says real admins don’t use wizards???    :^)

That warm fuzzy feeling . . .

Every now and then, I’m lucky enough to come across an organization that is a complete joy to work with, one that offers a level of service such that they have me as a customer for life.  Unfortunately, these types of organizations are becoming increasingly rare.  However, the big surprise here isn’t that I’m working with such an organization, but that this org is my web hosting provider.


I’ve experienced a fair share of hosting providers, but I have yet to find any that come close to webhost4life – their packages are beyond impressive (supporting WSS, MS SQL, MySQL, ASP.net, DotNetNuke, php, perl, etc.) priced below average and their support rocks.  Here it is 8pm CDT on a Tuesday, and I have a quick question that I can’t find an answer to in their FAQ – so I log in to their support panel, open a new case and pose the question, and since it wasn’t urgent, I give the case the lowest priority possible.  Within 15 minutes I’ve had an entire conversation with their support dept and everything is taken care of.  This is not the first time I’ve had to contact support – each and every time, the response time has been great and the issue has been resolved very quickly. 


Bottom line – if you are in need of a web host, I highly recommend webhost4life.


(and I’ll concede that it’s possible that an adult beverage or two may have contributed to that warm fuzzy feeling tonight . . .  :^)


I almost forgot!   If you happen to sign up, tell them I sent you by entering my account ID (chadgross) as your referrer . . .   and yes, that will result in webhost4life paying me a small commission, which will go towards the renewal fees of our usergroup site (www.gosbs.org)

Are you a small IT provider looking for management software solution?

If so, you do realize that you have a very flexible, capable solution most likely sitting there idle on your SBS2k3 network?  It’s called Windows SharePoint Services . . .  Seriously.


I’m not just rambling here – we’re using Sharepoint internally to manage our service calls, projects and customer data – and it’s proving to be a perfect solution for us right now for several reasons:  1)  you can’t beat the price!  :^)    2)  It is very easily customized and adapted to our specific needs.  3)  Since it is based on SQL server, we know that we will have access to our data if/when we grow out of it.  It’s a great stepping stone for when Outlook just isn’t enough anymore, but you’re not ready to invest in a complete management software package.


OK you say – but just how do you do this?  Well, there’s no set formula, but I’ll share some tidbits with what we’re doing:


1)  Added additional fields to the built-in Help Desk list so that we can use it for scheduling service calls.  We added fields for Customer, checkboxes for home user / high-speed internet, service call date / time, end date / time, time on site, service call notes, mileage and a checkbox for billed.


2)  Created new views for the Help Desk including a calendar view based on both the Service Call date/time & End date/time.  This way when viewing as a single day, you get your Outlook-like functionality where the time slot is blocked off.  Another view we created is ‘My Active Tasks’ – this will display all calls for the current user that are not marked completed.  I use this to see what calls I need to finish my notes for and complete so they can be billed.  Yet another view we created is ‘Ready to Bill’ – which shows the calls that are marked completed but not marked as billed.  This is great for Amy, as she can see what calls need invoiced without having to dig.


3)  I created a Document Workspace (not document library), and customized it for customer data.  I added Web parts for Tasks, Contacts & Links to the main page, then created several different document libraries to organize customer files.  (e.g.  ‘Correspondence,’  ‘Proposals & Quotes,’ ‘Service Agreements’ & ‘Technical Documentation’)  I then saved this site as a template.  We have since created a separate Workspace for each customer, using this original template.  The big benefit of this is that we can assign permissions on each Document Library, which allows for techs to access the technical documentation, but not the legal service agreements for example.  On the links webpart on the customer workspace, we enter a variety of links, including links to that customer’s RWW, OWA & Sharepoint sites, links to other tech partners they may work with (LOB software vendors, etc.), links to software they’re using, and a link to a web-based map of their location.  (Saves you from having to look up the address, copy it into MapPoint, etc. . . . two clicks from the main Companyweb page and voila! you’ve got a map to their location . . .  :^)


4)  I created a new links list that includes a link to each customer workspace.  Added this list as a webpart to the main page (showing customers in groups of 15).  Only catch here is that this list isn’t auto-populated.  We have to manually add the link once we’ve set up the customer workspace.    Remember back in #1 where I said we added a customer field to the Help Desk?  That customer field is actually a lookup on this link list . . . so every customer in the link list automatically appears in that drop-down in the Help Desk.  Not only does this speed up entering Service Calls, but it also gives us great sorting capabilities on the Help Desk, and makes it very easy for me to generate Service Call History reports for customers from Access 2003 (or SQL Reporting services) by simply linking to the Help Desk list in Sharepoint.


5)  Forms Libraries!  Infopath rocks!!  Right now, we have a forms library that holds all of our Site Surveys.  I created an Infopath form that allows us to gather all pertinent information from a Site Survey.  The beauty of forms libraries is that you can save your empty Infopath form on your laptop, and then when you’re doing a site survey where you don’t have a good internet connection, you can fill out the form locally, and then upload it when you are able to connect to the office.  Right now, I’m thinking of adding a form library to each customer workspace, and having a separate form for each machine on the network . . . so we have our own little repository of machine data  The final step with this functionality is to generate a script that takes advantage of WMI to inventory a lan automatically and store it in an xml format so that it can be directly uploaded to the form library.  That is assuming XP SP2 doesn’t make running a script like that too difficult . . . :^)


6)  The last major plan for our site is to create a knowledge base.  And considering how simple it was to accomplish everything else that I’ve done so far, I don’t think it will be too difficult.


If any of you guys are interested in this as a solution, post some feedback and I’ll see if I can’t tie up a few loose ends and post a template or two for you to use . . .

MS Security Hands-on Lab — Part 2

Well, first and foremost – this definitely isn’t SBS-sized . . .  but still decent.  My only gripe so far is that while these labs give you step by step instructions to implement certain configurations, they don’t tell you WHY you’re doing it . . . call me crazy, but tell me what the security implications are of not doing xxx, etc . . .   Oh well, what should I expect from a free one day lab??  


And Susan – just for you:   Lab #2 – Exercise #1 – Task #15  shows you how to disable the LanMan Hash  :^)

MS Security Hands-on Lab

Ok, so this guy from one of the training organizations had been bugging me for weeks, and I finally cracked and agreed to take a day and attend one of their offerings.  I opted for the Microsoft Security Hands-On Lab, and I’m actually sitting in the lab right now waiting for it to start . . . I’m curious to see how in-depth this is, and if it is going to be worth my time . . .


Oh my – the instructor just came in – and he reminds me of Jimmy Fallon’s DJ character from SNL (annoying DJ voice and all) . . . this is going to be a lloonngg day at this rate . . .  :^)   Anyway – I’ll post back more if I’m bored as the day progresses . . .

OT: Making a difference that really matters . . .

I’ll start off by indicating that this post has absolutely nothing to do with any of my published categories – but rather with mentoring.  If you’ve never considered mentoring someone younger, I strongly urge you to.  My experience with this came about in a rather unusual fashion, and doesn’t include volunteering with any formal organizaiton.  To be honest, I didn’t even see myself as a mentor for the first couple years . . . it’s only been in the last few years that I have come to realize that I was in fact a mentor, although as time progresses it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine just who is mentoring whom from day to day :^)   If you have the opportunity, I urge you to consider taking part and making a difference in someone’s life – it has proven to be the absolute most rewarding thing I have done in my time on Earth thus far . . .


A little over 4 years ago, I was introduced to a scrawny little 15 year old high-school freshman who we hired part-time when I was still working for my family’s business.  As I got to know him, it became apparent that he needed some guidance.  It’s not that he was a bad kid or in any kind of major trouble – but he was pretty much on his own.  He came and went as he pleased, and his parents didn’t keep track of him.  Despite the 9 year age difference, we became friends, and I stepped into a big-brother role, primarily to watch out for him – because he was a really good kid, and I wanted to make sure he didn’t do anything stupid to jeopardize the virtually limit-less future in front of him.


Well, it’s four years later and he’s still somewhat scrawny – but he’s not just another kid or just a co-worker anymore.  As far as we’re both concerned, we’re brothers.  Whatever is missing in terms of a blood relationship has been more than made up for in a bond forged while dealing with girlfriends, broken hearts, divorce and totalled cars.  He has taught me so much about myself and has had such an impact on me, that I cannot imagine being the person I am today without him in my life.  No matter how much I try to convey that message, he has a hard time believing that he has helped me . . . but then again, I have a hard time believing I’ve made as big of a difference as he says I have.  So maybe we’re just too much alike :^)


So what brought this post on?  I moved him up to Iowa State this weekend, and since this is his sophomore year, it was naturally a whole lot easier to leave him up there than it was last year.  I’m so unbelievably proud of him – besides being one of the most popular guys in his fraternity and very intelligent, he’s really matured and is fair, honest, passionate and hard-working.  He’s majoring in Mechanical Engineering, has made Dean’s List each semester thus far, and was elected Scholarship Chair for the house.


Thanks to Unlimited Nights & Weekends on our cell phones, we talk daily – but it’s just not the same as having him around. 


I guess it all just boils down to the fact that I miss my brother . . .

Only 28 days left . . .

. . . until SMB Nation 2004!   If you are sell and support SBS – this is THE conference to be at!  Harry’s recent newsletter indicated that there will be 5 SBS MVPs there . . . well, a little straw-poll amongst ourselves indicates that there will probably be twice that many, with a few more potentially attending . . .


If you weren’t at last year’s inagural event in Indianapolis, then you may not realize just what the SMB Nation conference is.  It is an entire 4 day conference devoted to the small IT provider – especially the one and two man shops.  Besides excellent tech sessions on SBS and other technologies relevant to small biz, there are priceless business sessions that talk about how to market to small biz, tracking clients, and all of the problems unique to the small IT provider supporting small business. 


If you haven’t registered already – call Nancy and get yourself a spot!  If nothing else, it’ll give you the chance to buy me a drink!   <vbg>