Your Domain Name, Your Network, Your Passwords

Let’s say you keep some important documents in a safe in your home. Would you give the combination to the company that installed the safe? Take it one step further — would you let them set the combination and not tell you what it is, so that you could not access the contents at all without bringing them in to open the safe?

Of course you wouldn’t – yet that is what lots of business people do with their web hosting service, email, routers, and network equipment. Unfortunately there are lots of unscrupulous IT consultants out there who claim that the only way to have these things be really secure is for them to have the passwords and complete control, with the customer being at their mercy.

One extreme example: a marketing consultant I once interviewed – but had not yet hired – registered a domain name using the name of my product and set up a demo website to try to secure my business. The domain registration, which could have listed me as the administrator so that I would have control of it, instead listed the consultant as both the admin and the technical contact. When I pointed out that she had illegally taken my intellectual property to register this domain name and demanded it be released to me, the consultant then claimed that there was a 60-day freeze imposed by GoDaddy on all new domain registrations, preventing it from being transferred to a new owner. That was simply a lie, and only the threat of legal action resulted in the release of this domain name to me.

While your IT consultant is not, I hope, quite that dishonest, you may very well be among the large number of business owners who do not have control over their own intellectual property (the domain name) nor over their own networks (passwords to routers, wireless access points, and other equipment).

I’m assuming you have your own domain name. If you’re using email or a website for your business and you don’t have your own domain name, that’s the subject of a different blog – but in brief: you really should.

Here’s the scoop on domain names and access to the registration.

Every domain name (“redroad.com” is a domain name) is registered at a Registrar, where Internet software can look up the necessary information to access the website, email, or other servers for that domain. The registration includes an administrative contact and a technical contact. Every domain has a couple of name servers that enable access to any publicly-accessible servers such as email or websites.

If you change hosting providers, if you change Internet providers and have an in-house server, if you choose a new web developer, if you do anything that involves a change to your domain registration, then you need administrative access to either the registration or the hosting service or both. There is absolutely no justification for any outside consultant to have exclusive access to these. It’s fine if they have the ability to log in and make changes, as long as they’re working for you. But you must insist upon also having that same ability. Otherwise, you can’t get into your safe without the help of the company that installed it.

The very same logic applies to all your passwords for all your devices. Sure, if you have an IT consultant who maintains your network, they need access to your router and other equipment. But again, there is no justification for them to refuse to give you those passwords. You need to have them stored away, using a secure online service or an old-fashioned paper notebook stored in …. a safe. Or at least a safe place.

Analog or Digital Phone Line?

We get this question a lot, especially from fax machine vendors, sometimes from credit-card terminal vendors as well.  They will generally tell the customer that their equipment doesn’t work well with digital phone lines, and they need to get an analog phone line.

All phone lines are both analog and digital.  The difference is: where does the conversion take place?  For a standard analog phone line (POTS – Plain Old Telephone Service), the conversion takes place at the Central Office (“CO”) operated by your local old-fashioned phone company.  The line from your fax machine to the CO is analog – it’s a pair of copper wires.  At the CO, the signal is converted to digital and transmitted via the PSTN (public switched telephone network), which uses the same underlying technology as the Internet to transmit the data to the CO nearest the destination phone or fax machine.  At that remote CO, it’s converted again to analog and sent along the final stretch (called the “Last Mile”) to the phone or fax machine or whatever is connected to that phone number.

With a VoIP system, the conversion also takes place at the other end of a pair of copper wires; the difference is, that other end is in your office.  It’s an analog adapter that converts voice signals to data signals and back again, very similarly to the way the phone switch at the CO does.

So why do so many vendors think you have to have a POTS line for a fax, postage meter, or alarm? Because many VoIP vendors do not do a very good job of configuring or conditioning their equipment to work properly with these analog devices. In fairness, that’s not a simple task. All of these devices require a real-time connection without gaps or static or echos. Getting that to happen reliably over the open Internet, which nearly all VoIP vendors use for their telephone service, is extremely difficult.

The best solutions use a combination of excellent end-user equipment, smart software, dedicated circuits (or at least VPNs – Virtual Private Networks) between the end user and the hosted services provider, and cleverly adjusted combinations of parameters at both ends to get the effect of a continuous real-time communication even when the underlying connection is not that way. The VoIP designer for one of the largest service providers told me “Fax is a dark art; it’s the occult science of VoIP.”.

Of course the bottom line is: it’s gotta work. So make sure your provider is either able to make your analog device communicate flawlessly over their VoIP system, or be willing to install a POTS line at no additional cost if that’s what it takes.

Why You Should Never Press “RESET”

Most network devices come with a RESET button.  Routers, wireless access points, some phones, switches – all of these and more.  It’s kind of natural for someone to press this button when they think there’s a problem with the device.  Sometimes a tech support person will tell you to restart the device, and pressing the RESET button looks like a way to do that.  Most field techs (including ours) make sure to have at least one Telecom Device Reset Tool (aka “paper clip”) in their tool kits.

So, why am I saying you should never press this button?  Let’s look at what the RESET button actually does.  A network device has a bunch of internal settings that control how the device connects to the network, how you log in to it, and the details of its operation.  As it comes out of the box, the device will have a collection of known, default settings that you can use to log in to it for the first time and configure it for your particular requirements.  These default settings are stored permanently in the device, and when you press the RESET button, they override any changes you may have made and reset the device to the “factory original” settings.

If a device stops working while it’s in service, it’s often because of a bug in the internal software.  The internal memory fills up, or the CPU freezes, or just one critical feature (like routing) stops working.   In those cases, rebooting the device will often clear up the problem temporarily.  If it really is a bug in the software, then it’ll happen again and again need a reboot.

Restoring the device to factory settings is very, very unlikely to cure these problems.  Unless someone just logged in to the device and changed the settings, the settings cannot be the cause of the device suddenly failing.  What does happen is that the reboot that occurs as part of doing the factory reset also clears the problem.  Temporarily.

But restoring the factory settings has another result:  all of the settings that configured the device for your network are now gone.  If those settings are the same as the default settings, then there is no point in pressing the RESET button,it won’t change anything.  If, on the other hand, the working settings are not the defaults, then when you press the RESET button you are wiping out all of the correct settings, which will prevent the device from working.  So, don’t ever press the RESET button, just reboot the device if that’s what you’re trying to do.  Unplug the power, wait a sec, plug it back in again.

Like any good rule, this one has an exception.  There is one situation in which it does make sense to push the “RESET” button.  You are an IT person (or you’re working with one), you cannot log in to the device (it’s frozen completely, or you don’t know the password), and you know how to program it correctly for the network it’s attached to.  If that’s not you, stay away from RESET!

 

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