Thursday, 26 February 2015

Its raining V-sats at NATC!!

Its raining V-sats at NATC!!

A few weeks after installation of a V-SAT linking 3 sites in Zwedru, the same client asked us for similar Internet services in Harper, Maryland county. 

Our team is in Harper for a V-SAT installation project. See photos from their first day. And, the link is already live. 

We installed a Prodelin/Left hand circular 1.8M antenna with a  Belcom BUC and a Norsat 8225R LNB with a iDirect modem. 

We are also installing MikroTik 30dBi 5Ghz Parabolic Dish antennae (Wireless Microwave Bridges) linking 3 sites viz, Client Offices, Guest House and Hospital.

We are providing a total capacity 3 Megs Bandwidth (2048 kbps RX/1024 kbps TX) at dedicated 1:1 ratio
This  C Band V-sat service employs industry standards to deliver cost- effective Tier-1 Internet connectivity.
The service is scalable and additional capacity can be added at any time.

What makes this particular installation job particularly interesting is we will also be installing the following equipment at each site:

Battery Bank comprising of 2000W, 24V Sine Wave Inverter Charger with Automatic Switchover, 2 pcs each170Ah 12V Deep Cycle Batteries, Cables, Combiners, Fuses and Lightening Arrestor

This will ensure continuous power back up and uninterrupted internet connectivity.

The team is already on their way back. Our Head of IT will return back to Harper in a few weeks’ time to set up the CISCO Meraki Bandwidth managers along with the Battery banks.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

403 Error, Forbidden when using a CISCO Meraki AP

Error 403 Forbidden!

We received a call from a client complaining that all users in their office were getting error 403 forbidden when they try to open any web page.

Background: We have installed a CISCO Meraki MR12 Access Point which we use as a Bandwidth Manager and can remotely manage the clients Bandwidth on the Meraki cloud based dashboard. This is a fantastic device and has helped us control misuse of Bandwidth at various client sites.

We tried to troubleshoot what the problem could be and called CISCO Meraki Tech Support Hot line in the USA for advice.

The tech support staff asked us to check the DNS numbers. This could be a probable cause.

Meraki Login> Access Points>Set IP address> Secondary DNS Number.

We called up the ISP and they confirmed that they had allotted a new Secondary DNS number to this AP and they had forgotten to update us. We immediately changed the number but the Forbidden Error 403 still persisted.

Then Meraki Tech support asked us if we had enabled the splash page icon.

Configure>Splash page>Custom Themes>Classic>Enable.

This did the trick! The client does not get this forbidden error 403 anymore.

Friday, 16 January 2015

New NATC professional photo shoot takes place today

by Farzana Rasheed

We had a real fun photo shoot today. The photos were shot by none other than the amazing Shoana Clarke Solomon and her amazing team at Cachelle International. Shoana shot our office warming party back in 2012 and also did a professional company photo shoot the same year. 

We had been planning this photo shoot for quite some time. We prepared by whitewashing the whole office back in December.

Since the space is the same and the purpose of the shoot also remains the same, we brainstormed ideas on how to put a twist on it. We worked closely with Shoana to achieve a new look. 

For instance, for the individual head shots we posed with a placard with bearing the role we think we actually play at the company instead of just our official title. So instead of head of operations or CEO or head of IT we wrote down the deeper work we actually do. Some of the titles we came up with were: Visionary, IT Wizard, Problem Solver, and Deal Maker. 

These are behind-the-scenes photos taken by me. 

Regular office meeting except everyone is really dressed up.

And of course, Kavita also gets an individual shot. She is an
integral part of t
he company and comes to work every day. 

The Future

Keep it clean!

The Deal Maker

Problem Solver!

Lorpu in her beautiful dress is the Office Manager.

Sayleh, Shoana's 2-year old daughter, came to play with
Kavita w
hile Shoana did the photo shoot. Same age as Kavita
h the girls played together. Unfortunately, bouncing girls
make for a fuzzy p

Shoana at work

Frank is the In Provider!

I think the Best Dressed award needs to go to Emmanuel who
really made an effort wit
his outfit. 

Watch this space for the professional pictures which should arrive in a week's time. 

The photos will be used to update our website, used on social media, update our profile photos on our Linked In accounts and so on. Most importantly we use our group photos on all our proposals. In this day and age of social media and online presence, professional photography is not just important important but necessary. 

Thanks to Shoana for being patient and creative. It is wonderful to see a professional at work, get the best of out of the subjects she is shooting, and work so smoothly and effortlessly. 

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

2014 Reflected

by Haresh Karamchandani

Today is the last day of 2014 and I am feeling so satisfied and happy with our achievements this year. It is a good time to reflect on the year gone by and plan for the year ahead.

2014 started slow as every other January. The regular contracts were being adhered to, nothing new happened. It was a relaxed slow month.

Then came February, when we managed to bag a juicy Networking and Supplies contract with the Ministry of Lands Mines and Energy. This contract involved supplies of:
  • HP Proliant DL380 G7 Rack Mount Server
  • TRIPP LITE B021-000-19
  • 1U Rackmount Console
  • KVM Switch with 19" LCD
  • CISCO 3925/K9 Network Routers
  • 42U Switch Rack with PDU  
  • APC Smart UPS
  • 25kVA/360V  Pure Sine Wave (3Ø) Inverter with 200AH/12V SMF Battery  Bank,  that would provide up to 8 hours of backup time
  • Microsoft SQL Server Standard Service Pack License 2012
  • Terastation 5800 Network Storage 24TB
We had to network a new trainingbuilding and install 30 Desktop computers with adequate UPS. This kept the team busy for most part of the month, closely monitored by senior management.

We also bagged a contract to supply 90 pcs of  Sony Experia E Dual Sim Android Phones, Factory Unlocked to the USAID. NATC actively participates in Government and Non-Government tenders and since we have very good overseas supply contacts we have been able to be quite competitive.

As soon as we commissioned the MoLME project, we bagged another similar networking contract from Bureau Veritas. They wanted to re-network their whole office block on Broad Street and add more network points throughout the office. As usual the team was up to the task and completed and commissioned the job in record time to the satisfaction of our client.

During the month of March we managed to secure a supply order for an Ultrasound Machine which was to be donated to a Women’s Fertility Clinic by Lonestar Communications. The machine was ordered from our source in the USA and was promptly delivered. I guess this is the only functioning Ultrasound machine in the country at that time. We also received many other regular supply contracts for Genuine Toners from our regular clientele. The regular maintenance contracts continued to be serviced as usual.

Something exciting and different happened in April. We bagged our first ever training contract from CICA Motors (Toyota Garage). They wanted us to come in and train about 20 personnel in how to use Microsoft Office Word, Excel, Access, PowerPoint, Outlook etc. At that time we had Osman Fofanah working with us who was well qualified and Microsoft Certified to carry out this project. Osman prepared some handbooks, and a proper plan. The training was done successfully and we handed out Certificates to the CICA staff at the end of the training.

We also bagged a huge contract to supply the Liberia Electricity Corporation a big quantity of HP ENVY  17  Leap Motion 8E NB Laptop Computers. These computers are State of the Art machines with Intel Core i7 Processors and a powerful NVidia Graphics card. We also supplied the LEC with some HP525 Multi-Function Printers.

At the end of the month we managed to secure another contract with a Harper based NGO, Danish Refugee Council. This entailed travelling to Harper and fixing about 20-30 machines, printers, Desktops, Laptops that were not maintained for a very long time and were giving multiple problems. Our Head of IT along with Head of Operations spent a whole week in Harper and were able to resolve most of the problems which included, printer fixes, Anti-virus installation, Operating system, networking issues.

The month of May was quite tragic. We bagged a contract from a USAID funded project for supply and installation of a 25KVA Battery Bank for a Government Agency. Due to the “tight delivery deadline” set by USAID our Head of Operations personally decided to travel to Nigeria to procure the Heavy Duty Sine Wave Inverters and Deep Cycle Batteries required for this project. The goods were procured and shipped out by Air Freight. We meanwhile began all necessary preparations for Grounding and Stacking of the Batteries at the client site. When the batteries arrived we called the USAID to come and inspect before delivery. They came and inspected and gave us the go ahead to supply and install. The heavy batteries (each weighing 65 kgs) were transported and manually lifted to the 1st floor server room of the client and we began making all the connections. Then an officer of USAID visited the site and rejected all the goods!! He said there were scratch marks on the Inverters and Batteries and therefore they were not new! He also said that the shelf life of the batteries were close to expiry date. We tried out best to assure him that yes, there was a 6 month shelf life, but if we begin to use the batteries within this period and since they were Deep Cycle and once they are re-charged they would be good to last for at least 4 years if re-charged regularly. We even offered to extend the warranty from 1 year to 3 years as we were confident that the equipment was good to last that long. All our explanation, pleas, requests, guarantees fell on deaf years and eventually we had no choice but to bring all the equipment back and return the order back to USAID. The batteries have since been installed at another site and are working PERFECTLY well!

And we learnt recently, that the USAID changed the order and purchased the same equipment from another vendor for nearly DOUBLE the price we had offered and it has been 7 months and the job is still not yet complete or commissioned. Talk about “tight delivery deadlines”!! Ha!

We have taken this experience in our stride and have moved on. Some clients are impossible to deal with!

The Ebola crisis struck in June and July and we were equally affected by it. No new contracts! The regular maintenance contracts were cancelled and we watched the panic from the sidelines. We ensured that we put all necessary precautions in place to protect our staff from the deadly virus. We are proud to say that we are all safe so far.

Come August and we were able to secure another interesting supply contract with UNMIL for supply of air conditioner PCB Boards. Apparently the UNMIL here has more than 1000 air conditioners and need to keep spare parts for the regular service and maintenance. We were able to procure the parts directly from the source in China and have them delivered on time as usual.

September was quite uneventful, Ebola was at its peak. We had a house guest, a NBC cameraman. I would hear his dreadful stories and see his camera work on a regular basis, warning my staff and friends that Ebola is indeed real. We just tried to keep safe and continued the regular rigmarole.

Then came October: Something that I really dreaded and hoped would never happen. One evening, I get a call from Ashoka, “Haresh, I am having a high fever and I think it is Ebola!”” I was terrified. This man was in my house, with Ebola! I decided not to go home that evening and instead try and look for a hotel room at Mamba Point. All hotels were fully booked. No rooms available. I had no choice but to go home and face Ebola heads on! I armed myself with rubber gloves, face masks, and some anti-bacterial sprays. I sprayed the whole house and kept my gloves on till I went to bed. Poor Ashoka was in his room, on the telephone trying to plan his evacuation to the USA. I gave him some food and he assured me that he would leave for the ETU the next morning. The night went by. I could not sleep, wondering if the Ebola Virus would sneak under my bedroom door and attack my immune systems. I left the house very early the next morning, Ashoka managed to find his way to the MSF ETU at ELWA. I kept calling him throughout the day to check if the blood test was out. Finally at about 3 PM he confirmed that yes indeed he was Ebola Positive! Shivers ran through my spine. I started panicking. What if I was also infected??!!??

I called my travel agent and asked him to book my ticket to Mumbai the same day. Got the ticket issued. Then the same day, I heard that one Mr. Duncan had landed in the USA with Ebola and had mis-declared his health condition at the airport. He would be prosecuted. I decided that this was not a good idea. In case I did have Ebola I did not want to travel with it and endanger other passengers. I decided to resign to my fate and if I had to die, I would die in Liberia. I called my agent and cancelled the booking. The next few days were terrifying to say the least. The slightest cough or sneeze would send my mind into panic mode. I kept myself under self –imposed quarantine and monitored my temperature regularly. The first 2 weeks were stressful. I kept a bottle of Anti-bacterial handy all the time and would wipe my hands when I would touch a door handle.

Well, I did not contract Ebola! I am well and alive and kicking.  I celebrated my 50th Birthday in style with Farzana and Kavita at the Royal Palms Resort in Labadi Beach Accra! I think I deserved it.

November and December have been very fruitful. We have bagged a couple of new Internet contracts. Our team is currently in Zwedru setting up a V-satconnection to end the year with a big bang. We also managed to secure many supply contracts, the biggest being a contract to supply Genuine Toners to the US Embassy valued at US$275,000.00! These goods are already on the way and will be arriving during the first week of 2015. We are very excited at our prospects for the new year and look forward to implementing a whole range of new business ideas and plans.

I thank all our valuable clients, friends, bankers, well-wishers for making 2014 such a great year and look forward to working with them in the next.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Reflection: 2014 the year they wanted to make Liberia famous for ebola

by Farzana Rasheed

After a combination of requests, gentle reminders and frustrated yelling, I managed to get all of NATC staff to write an end-of-year blog post. I think this year's posts were a little more interesting and demonstrated what kind of challenges our team faces when delivering IT services. 

Now it's my turn to reflect upon this past year. 

2014 - the year the international media wanted Liberia to be defined by a new scourge: ebola 

The ebola epidemic made 2014 an especially challenging year for everyone in Liberia but we are happy to report that despite dwindling of operations and even suspension of maintenance contracts, curfew, and almost complete aviatic quarantine of Liberia, we are going to end the year on a good note. 

I was away for the better part of the year, partly because of the enormous hysteria created by the media and the suspension of the main flying routes between Monrovia and the rest of the world. I went off for a break back to Pakistan to visit my parents whom I had not seen in two years in late February, hoping to also skip and hop to India, so my daughter Kavita could see her Dad's family. It turned out I need notarised, original sponsorship certificates from people in India. That took time to organise and have mailed to me. I extended my trip for a month in gleeful anticipation. 

Meanwhile, I had another awful cramp attack which I had never got properly diagnosed for a year in Monrovia but suspected it was probably some kind of stones. I got myself checked in Islamabad and indeed, I had gall bladder stones and they needed to be removed surgically. By the time I had had surgery, recovered and was ready to head back, the ebola epidemic hit Monrovia. I was advised by everyone to stay away for the time being. 

Later, most airlines operating to and from Liberia were also suspended and I literally became stuck unless I wanted dish out a few more thousand dollars for a new route via Belgium or Morocco (SN Brussels and Royal Air Maroc were the only two operating airlines). It was quite a frustrating time since my holiday now became an extended sojourn putting me in a limbo.

A clear, rational part of me knew, from gleaning the news, facts and first hand accounts, that there was no real danger to me unless I directly came into contact with a very very sick person. Moreover, unfortunately, people who were actually affected were living in poorer communities and/or were health workers.  This was more or less what I thought and felt frustrated at having to stay away while I wanted to be around since business was more or less usual for NATC. But to make things interesting, it was Haresh who had had a near ebola scare; you will need to read his post to find out more about that. 

Thankfully, since I've been back in Liberia in early November and as everyone will agree, life is quite normal in Monrovia. 

It was extremely good to be back and see my staff and almost everyone else in good spirits. 

Kicking back as CEO and taking a longer view of things

It's been an interesting year for me where I have really kicked back and taken a break from the day to day affairs of NATC. I have kept abreast of things of course by reading my e-mails regularly, asking for certain reports, and bugging Haresh regularly, but it has been a year of letting go. It gave me a lot of perspective in terms of my role at NATC as CEO, of what we have achieved as a company since I took over in 2009, and how things will probably look like in the near few years.

Haresh has done a good job of keeping things going and bagging some good projects and supply orders (we not only provide IT services but also participate in public bids and RFQs for a range of goods and equipments). My insistence on certain procedures has been adhered to and things were kept in a relatively organised fashion in my absence.

What have I learned?

IT is about problem solving. If you approach problems in a methodological and scientific manner, you will eventually solve it.

If you want to survive (forget about thriving) as a business, you need to take a "When in Rome, do as the Romans do" approach to corruption. You're lucky if you manage to get clean business but otherwise be prepared to spend money on commissions. It stinks, it feels rotten but it is how things are done here regardless of public or private sectors, regardless of whether or not it is an international organisation.

What is important though is still try to maintain your professional dignity by at least trying to deliver the best goddamn service and product you can.

Still need an accountant and migrate our manual accounting to software

But to my absolute annoyance, the admin/finance manager we hired shortly before my departure - one Osman Fofana, a very promising young man - disappeared in my absence. Now we really don't have anyone properly paying attention to filing, accounts, paperwork, payments, banking reconciliation, etc. This work is now done in an ad hoc manner and, moreover, we still haven't switched over to an accounting software! It is kind of embarrassing since we are an IT company ourselves. 

Instead now, I have two office assistants, neither of them computer literate! 

Our Liberian team of IT Technicians is doing a fantastic job

On a more positive and aha! note, I realised that we are doing fine with the techies we have and my earlier efforts to find a so-called expatriate engineer were unnecessary. Our team is working hard, solving problems and performing good quality work. They are even improving their communication skills and, now we have a sort of consolidated a team after a long time of trial and error, hiring, and firing. Haresh and I are extremely confident of Jonathan's abilities and appreciate his hardworking attitude. Daniel has now also matured to a senior technician's position. What's more, our janitor - office assistant, Emmanuel, has joined the technical team as a trainee and, seems to be picking up the ropes steadily. What more could one want? A hardworking local team as it should be. 

Moreover, which of our clients were ever going to let us mark up the price of our services in case we ever did get an expatriate Head of IT Services?!! If things go well, I would rather focus on sending Jonathan abroad for training. 

Of course, we would love to still find someone who knows the latest technologies and help us fill gaps and also offer newer products and advanced systems to our clients. Perhaps we need to look in Nigeria. But for now, we are very content with our team.

At the same time though we need to the team to consolidate skills and experience. Right now, Jonathan is over extended and we and our clients depend on him the most.

What is driving growth of IT services in Liberia?

The company's growth for the past few years has been random and followed no real patterns. What was initially a promising trend and in fact the foundation of the mother company (NLTC)'s vision - namely, maintenance contracts have not been in that much of a demand. Some of our clients have drastically reduced operations and suspended maintenance contracts this year because of the ebola epidemic. But even before, the demand for outsourcing maintenance and servicing of IT equipments and IT support has been hit and miss. Some of our contracts seemed to be going on beautifully but change of management and/or apparent reduction in budget (especially in the NGO sector) resulted in canceled contracts. Or in some cases, a promising one off job did not result in a permanent contract as it would seem it would. All in all, spending on IT has been rather conservative. 

So, while our monthly maintenance contracts have dwindled drastically we seem to be getting networking projects and ad hoc requests for support, some of it even from old clients. 

Instead we are delving more and more into Internet Services but I will leave it to Haresh to delve into about how he sees this area of IT to expand for us. 

To put it another way, because of the small market and changing circumstances for our clients over the years, NATC has sort of not been able to specialise yet long term per se in any one field of IT services. We are doing a range of IT services - from monthly service to hardware repairs to installation of internet services to ad hoc support.

What am I still concerned with?

I feel we need to work out a better offer to our clients in terms of monthly maintenance and outsourcing of IT support. This could help us to gain more experience, standardise procedures and perfect a business model. I need to do more aggressive marketing and brainstorming to get more business in this area.

We need to continue to improve quality of our services and continue to fine tune and standardise procedures. That means going over procedures again and again with our staff, improving turn around time, getting client feedback and recording jobs properly. 

Grateful all our staff and their families are safe and sound 

We're ending the year on a really good note with our team in Zwedru setting up internet services for two clients. We have some good business lined up for 2015, too. 

I'm glad all our staff and their families are safe and sound and, we hope to grow together as a company and a close team in 2015.