How AI Can Benefit Small Businesses: What it is and What it can Do

The adoption of AI (Artificial Intelligence) in business is gathering pace across the world, standing to offer tremendous benefits to businesses that get ahead of the curve of adoption. The accessibility of AI has also exploded in research years, with small and medium businesses able to access and deploy it like never before.

The benefits on offer are vast. Fundamentally, AI enables businesses to achieve more, using less time and resources. With the next generation of AI available today, it also offers data-driven insights that can empower business strategies, marketing outreach efforts and operations, among many other areas. In this piece we will introduce you to AI, break it down into two generations, and outline what it can do in businesses. In our next piece, we will give you a handy guide for getting started with applying it in your business.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

As the name implies, AI describes technology that mimics human intelligence. AI is able to work with information based on categories and rules. Let’s take an example of a business that has a contact form on its website to take enquiries. When a key detail such as a phone number is missing, AI can recognise this, and prompt the user to enter the missing number. Now this is a simple example in today’s world! AI is also capable of far more complex tasks, as is commonly seen now with ChatGPT’s ability to answer highly specific and abstract questions alike.

To understand the scope of benefits that AI can bring to a business, we can simplify it into two generations. The first of these is based on explicit and specific instructions, while the newer generation is able to work with vast datasets and operate under uncertain conditions.

The Two Generations of AI and How They Work

The first generation of AI has been around for decades and is sometimes termed ‘narrow’ AI. This kind of AI could take and carry out explicit instructions and follow a concrete process. This technology is still very useful today and underpins a variety of businesses processes; taking a somewhat more sophisticated example, a program can be designed to flag invoices of a certain amount by sending an automated email address to a designated email address in a finance department.

While valuable, a new generation of ‘broad’ AI is emerging that can solve more complicated problems and use past data to make even better decisions and suggestions. The new generation uses large datasets, cloud technology, and machine learning algorithms to derive correlations and predictions in real time for users. Let’s outline a few key examples.

The next generation of AI is already present in the Microsoft 365 ecosystem and will be extended with the release of Microsoft’s CoPilot. For example, when you’re designing a PowerPoint presentation, broad AI is what enables it to offer design suggestions that reflect the wording and structure of the content you’re writing; while ChatGPT can take a set of meeting notes and a prompt of criteria and then structure it into an action plan. This generation of AI is being used in a range of other areas too, for business intelligence, marketing design, planning and much more.

Where and How AI Can Benefit Your Small Business

For a small business, using AI is most practically possible through Software as a Solution (SaaS) providers that have inbuilt AI functionalities. This includes the Microsoft 365 platform, but a business can also take advantage of AI-driven features through accounting, marketing and project management solutions. There are some solutions that are a step further, such as using Microsoft 365’s Power BI (Business Intelligence) platform, which can create data-driven insights after it is fed a structured set of data inputs.

The benefits of applying AI are wide-ranging but include:

  • Saved Time: less time and resources will be needed to do the same tasks, as AI will be able to work around the clock and at a faster speed.
  • Saved Money: The capital costs involved in workflows or employing human capital to conduct manual processes is reduced.
  • Focus on higher-value tasks: You can free up your team’s time to develop new skills as well as to focus on more value-adding tasks.
  • Empower Productivity: AI can work with prompts and inputs to offer helpful decisions that provide value to your team’s everyday tasks, such as creating documents and emails.
  • Data-Driven Insights: AI is able to derive insights from data that might otherwise be missed.  This might include detecting subtle correlations within in a spreadsheet of data, or identifying new customer segments through analysis of a company’s CRM data for example.
  • Personalisation at Scale: From responsive chatbots that use chat prompts and customer detail to give personalised responses and recommendations, to personalised email messaging for different customer segments, AI is able to deliver personalisation at scale.
  • Advanced Cyber Security: Using its ability to analyse patterns, AI is being used in modern cyber security tools to detect anomalies and prevent threats, as well as sourcing helpful cyber intelligence online.

We hope that this guide has been useful for understanding AI and the scope of what is possible for your small business. Of course, applying AI to its full potential will take time, but by understanding what can be achieved you can start to chart a course to adopting it, which will sharpen your competitive edge and empower your business in a range of areas. In our next piece, we will give you a three-step guide for getting started with applying AI in your business.

We Are 4TC Managed IT Services

4TC can support you with all the services you need to run your business effectively, from email and domain hosting to fully managing your whole IT infrastructure. Setting up a great IT infrastructure is just the first step. Keeping it up-to-date, safe and performing at its peak requires consistent attention.

We can act as either your IT department or to supplement an existing IT department. We pride ourselves in developing long-term relationships that add value to your business with high quality managed support, expert strategic advice, and professional project management. Get assistance with your IT challenges today by getting in touch, we’ll be glad to assist you!

These Are the Top Five Cloud Security Risks, Qualys Says

Cloud security specialist Qualys has provided its view of the top five cloud security risks, drawing insights and data from its own platform and third parties.

The five key risk areas are misconfigurations, external-facing vulnerabilities, weaponized vulnerabilities, malware inside a cloud environment, and remediation lag (that is, delays in patching).

The 2023 Qualys Cloud Security Insights report (PDF) provides more details on these risk areas. It will surprise no-one that misconfiguration is the first. As long ago as January 2020, the NSA warned that misconfiguration is a primary risk area for cloud assets – and little seems to have changed. Both Qualys and the NSA cite misunderstanding or avoidance of the concept of shared responsibility between cloud service providers (CSP) and cloud consumers is a primary cause of misconfiguration.

“Under the shared responsibility model,” explains Utpal Bhatt, CMO at Tigera, “CSPs are responsible for monitoring and responding to threats to the cloud and infrastructure, including servers and connections. They are also expected to provide customers with the capabilities needed to secure their workloads and data. The organization using the cloud is responsible for the protection of workloads running in the cloud. Workload protection includes secure workload posture, runtime protection, threat detection, incident response and risk mitigation.”

While CSPs provide security settings, the speed and simplicity of deploying data to the cloud often lead to these controls being ignored, while compensating consumer controls are inadequate. Misunderstanding or misusing the delineation of shared responsibility leaves cracks in the defense; and Qualys notes “these security ‘cracks’ can quickly open a cloud environment and expose sensitive data and resources to attackers.”

Qualys finds that misconfiguration (measured against the CIS benchmarks) is present in 60% of Google Cloud Platform (GCP) usage, 57% of Azure, and 34% of Amazon Web Services (AWS).

Travis Smith, VP of the Qualys threat research unit, suggests, “The reason AWS configurations are more secure than their counterparts at Azure and GCP can likely be attributed to the larger market share… there is more material on securing AWS compared to other CSPs in the market.”

The report urges greater use of the Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks to harden cloud environments. “No organization will deploy 100% coverage,” adds Smith, “but the [CIS benchmarks mapped to the MITRE ATT&CK tactics and techniques] should be strongly considered as a baseline if organizations want to reduce the risk of experiencing a security incident in their cloud deployments.”

The second big risk comes from external facing assets that contain a known vulnerability. Cloud assets with a public IP can be scanned by attackers looking for vulnerabilities. Log4Shell, an external facing vulnerability, is used as an example. “Today, patches exist for Log4Shell and its known secondary vulnerabilities,” says Qualys. “But Log4Shell is still woefully under remediated with 68.44% of detections being unpatched on external-facing cloud assets.”

Log4Shell also illustrates the third risk: weaponized vulnerabilities. “The existence of weaponized vulnerabilities is like handing anyone a key to your cloud,” says the report. Log4Shell allows attackers to execute arbitrary Java code or leak sensitive information by manipulating specific string substitution expressions when logging a string. It is easy to exploit and ubiquitous across clouds.

“Log4Shell was first detected in December 2021 and continues to plague enterprises globally. We have detected one million Log4Shell vulnerabilities, with a mere 30% successfully fixed. Due to complexity, remediating Log4Shell vulnerabilities takes, on average, 136.36 days (about four and a half months).”

The fourth risk is the presence of malware already in your cloud. While this doesn’t automatically imply ‘game over’, it will be soon if nothing is done. “The two greatest threats to cloud assets are cryptomining and malware; both are designed to provide a foothold in your environment or facilitate lateral movement,” says the report. “The key damage caused by cryptomining is based on wasted cost of compute cycles.”

While this may be true for miners, it is worth remembering that the miners found a way in. Given the efficiency of information sharing in the dark web, that route is likely to become known to other criminals. In August 2022, Sophos reported on ‘multiple adversary’ attacks, with miners often leading the charge. “Cryptominers,” Sophos told SecurityWeek at the time, “should be considered as the canary in the coal mine – an initial indicator of almost inevitable further attacks.”

In short, if you find a cryptominer in your cloud, start looking for additional malware, and find and fix the miner’s route in.

The fifth risk is slow vulnerability remediation – that is, an overlong patch timeframe. We have already seen that Log4Shell has a remediation time of more than 136 days, if it is done at all. The same general principle will apply to other patchable vulnerabilities.

Effective patching quickly lowers the quantity of vulnerabilities in your system and improves your security. Statistics show that this is more effectively performed by some automated method. “In almost every instance,” says the report, “automated patching proves to be a more effective remediation path than hoping manual efforts will effectively deploy critical patches and keep your business safer.”

For non-Windows systems, the effect of automated patching is an 8% improvement in the patch rate, and a two-day reduction in the time to remediate.

Related to the remediation risk is the concept of technical debt – the continued use of end-of-support (EOS) or end-of-life (EOL) products. These products are no longer supported by the supplier – there will be no patches to implement, and future vulnerabilities will automatically become zero day threats unless you can otherwise remediate. 

“More than 60 million applications discovered during our investigation are end-of-support (EOS) and end-of-life (EOL),” notes the report. Furthermore, “During the next 12 months, more than 35,000 applications will go end-of-support.”

Each of these risks need to be prioritized by defense teams. The speed of cloud use by consumers and abuse by attackers suggests that wherever possible defenders should employ automation and artificial intelligence to protect their cloud assets. “Automation is central to cloud security,” comments Bhatt, “because in the cloud, computing resources are numerous and in constant flux.”

Source: These Are the Top Five Cloud Security Risks, Qualys Says – SecurityWeek

Cloud Technology – What Is It and What Can It Do for Your Business?  

Tech is transforming the planet at an increasingly swift rate, allowing teams around the world to achieve degrees of collaboration, communication, and productivity that were hard to imagine even as little as ten years ago. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses turned towards cloud technology to enable them to work from home, using solutions such as Microsoft 365.  

The Cloud is the element that makes remote working possible. When businesses consider adopting cloud technologies, they are aware of the potential benefits but can be daunted by the uncertainty or lack of knowledge about how it works and therefore how it could impact their business.  

In the first of two articles, we will walk you through cloud computing and the myths that surround its use that often discourage its adoption. In our next piece, we will simplify some of the key technical jargon that professionals use when referring to it, and elucidate the benefits that businesses can reap from their cloud technology, enabling you to understand cloud computing and how it can be implemented to benefit your business.  

What is the Cloud? 

Cloud computing is a series of platforms, services and infrastructure that enable digital services to be delivered via the internet, via data centres that host and process their information securely. A key potential of cloud computing is that it allows businesses to outsource IT functions, such as server capacity, to other providers without losing easy access to the data and services it’s hosting.  

In the past, businesses had to manage their IT resources as a solo enterprise, where they would purchase, support and manage their own IT hardware and software platforms on their premises. This could lead to downtimes, inefficiencies and an oftentimes complicated and fragmented IT infrastructure that disempowered businesses from streamlining and optimising their workflows and systems to create more value and growth. This could be an expensive, frustrating and time-consuming set up to operate from, but with the cloud, many of these problems are surmountable. 

By outsourcing servers and data storage to an outside provider specialising in offering this service, businesses save time and money on acquiring and maintaining hardware and pay for what they are using with the cloud server provider and scale it rapidly. In terms of applications, these can also be migrated securely to the cloud, and many software services are now offered via the cloud as Software as a Service (SaaS). With an internet connection, businesses can increasingly plug-in and play to the cloud to deliver their services, whilst outsourcing technical complexities in a highly cost-efficient way.  

So what myths about the cloud are discouraging its adoption by those who could benefit from it?  

Cloud myths – Debunked 

“Value isn’t guaranteed when using Cloud Computing, so why would I bother?” 

This myth could be true, insofar as the options and benefits have been examined in detail and have been left wanting.  

There are many providers out there that will helpfully get you onboard and be supportive in that process, who then lose interest when it comes to providing genuine ongoing support into the future. This is wrong, it is unfair to sell a solution to someone who cannot see its full-value potential, so the provider should make it clear where that potential for value is, how it can be realised, and give an estimate of the scope of quantifiable benefits on offer.  

A widely embraced cloud-based solution that offers clear value to many organisations, is the Microsoft 365 platform. It offers a range of familiar tools to businesses, with extended features such as live document collaboration, intelligent AI suggestions that speed up and enhance task completion, and an integrated interface that enables seamless switching between different tasks.  

The saved time, improved quality of work and collaboration, and smart-searching features, alongside its flexible and fast scalability, offers a clear enough case for many businesses to adopt it. The principle is clear though, your IT partner should take their time to give a tailored assessment for your organisation, outline the benefits clearly, answer your questions, and then make a smooth implementation plan and provide onboarding and ongoing support. With this process, deriving profitable value from the cloud is assured.  

“Is it important to back-up my data if we work in the Cloud?” 

Yes, but with the caveat that regardless of your technology solution, having backups and contingencies is important. In the cloud’s case, creating and accessing backups is made much easier, though we would stress having multiple regular backups elsewhere offers the only assured backup solution. Overall though, storing, backing up and recovering data is typically easier with cloud services providers.   

Cloud computing providers tend to provide protective measures as standard, such as robust data encryption and real time updating documents with recoverable version histories. There is not a particular reason to fear for your backups on the cloud, but it’s important to take fail-proof backup measures regardless of the platforms you are using to store your data.  

“My data is missing, and I don’t know where it has gone” 

It is very important to know where your data is being stored and thus to have control and oversight of it, as there can be legal, reputational and financial consequences to not protecting your data.  

Cloud hosting providers are well aware of this crucial requirement and are also subject to it themselves. Alongside providers implementing measures to keep their cloud platforms secure, you can ask also them where they are storing your data if you are in doubt or can’t seem to find it, and they should be able to find it for you.  

But, as we said earlier, not all Cloud providers are as they seem. Some aren’t interested in the value they can offer to you; they want your money and don’t care about your success. So it is important to ask about ongoing maintenance and support with potential providers, and to ensure these needs are enshrined in a contract to ensure peace of mind.  

Therefore, it is essential that you read your contract carefully, as some have clauses that allow your provider to scan your data and carry out all sorts of other actions, so it is best to be careful rather than sorry. 

We Are 4TC Managed IT Services 

4TC can support you with all the services you need to run your business effectively, from email and domain hosting to fully managing your whole IT infrastructure. 

Setting up a great IT infrastructure is just the first step. Keeping it up to date, safe and performing at its peak requires consistent attention. 

We can act as either your IT department or to supplement an existing IT department. We pride ourselves in developing long term relationships that add value to your business with high quality managed support, expert strategic advice, and professional project management.