Preventive Medicine

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted March 01, 2001
by David Haskin

You don't want to call them. They don't want to come. They're expensive and have better things to do. We're talking about the mis personnel -- on-staff tech gurus or outside consultants -- who come running when your employess need help with malfunctioning PCs and Peripherals, when mysterious electronic behavior needs investigating, or when netwrok or Internet connections fail.

Cutting down on such calls is a very simple way to improve a company's productivity. Most bosses would prefer to have the tech guy (or girl) help create an e-commerce site that will increase sales, rather than scurry to reinstall a misbehaving software program for the seventeenth time. But to reduce the hours tech personnel spend bailing the company out of minor jams, managers must teach both techies and regular staffers certain habits. Everyone must learn to prevent problems from occurring and be ready for them when they do.

"I've lost a lot of valuable time," says Liz Goldsmith, owner of PR Strategy and Implementation, a Weston, Mass. marketing firm, of her own tech traumas. "But if you take the proper steps you can prevent bad things from happening." Here's a start:

Back It Up
First of all, make sure users on the network regularly back up essential files from their local hard drive to the network servers. Then make sure you back up those servers. A good backup strategy should include replacing and rotating backup media such as tapes.

"I have three tapes and I rotate them," Goldsmith says. "If you back up to only one tape, that tape can be damaged, or it can be full." She uses a tape for one week, then stores the tape safely and uses another the following week.

Designate somebody in-house to be responsible for these tasks and for periodically testing backup equipment. Make sure that many people know how the backup system works so they can restore data if the designated person isn't around.

Finally, periodically make a backup set that's kept off-site, so that mission-critical data is available in case of fire or similar disasters. Some companies use Internet-based backup services such as @Backup (SkyDesk; $99 to $299 per year, depending on the amount backed up; www.atbackup.com.) Others create an extra backup every week and store it in a bank vault or some other safe place.

Protect Yourself
"I had my entire hard drive wiped out by an e-mail attachment virus last year," Liz Goldsmith says. "I live in terror -- my files are my work." Sure, virus protection now comes standard on most PCs, but new viruses occur regularly. You need a systematic strategy for updating virus protection.

Most virus protection programs, such as Norton AntiVirus 2000 (Symantec Corporation; $40; 800-441-7234; www.symantec.com) enable you to download virus protection updates. Goldsmith says she starts every day by checking for virus protection upgrades. Make somebody in your office responsible for this task.

Also, have a system in place such as GoBack (Adaptec; $70; 408.945.8600; www.adaptec.com) that enables an administrator to quickly revert a system to the state it was in at a specific time before the virus struck. Finally, since viruses often accompany files downloaded from the Internet, ask employees to refrain from downloading files for personal use.

Remain Vigiant
Windows comes with the ScanDisk utility to examine and repair hard disks and Disk Defragmenter to make them operate more efficiently. But who has time to perform these tasks?

You do. Windows also comes with Scheduling Agent, which can run these utilities automatically when you're away from your computer, such as at night. That enables hard disks to operate smoothly with absolutely no disruption. While you're at it, schedule backups to occur when they won't disrupt users' actual work.

Teach Them To Fish
MIS personnel are frustrated when they spend time solving problems users could remedy themselves by simply reading the manual. Make sure that manuals are easily accessible either shelved or posted on line.

"I had a client call me frantically because her computer couldn't log in to the network," says Mike Fallon, VP of network services at e.magination, a Baltimore, Md. technology consulting firm. "Turns out she had moved her computer and did not know what the network cable was for, so she ignored it." More extensive training can be expensive, but it also can save a lot of wasted time for both employees and MIS personnel.

Finally, don't underestimate the usefulness of readme files. These files come with software and describe problems and how to fix them, such as incompatibilities between software and hardware. Place them in an easy-to-find location on your server or provide access via your company's intranet.

Stay Powered
Electrical irregularities such as brownouts, power surges, and outright outages occur surprisingly often. When they occur, you can lose data. Even worse, when applications shut down unexpectedly, they often don't work right later.

The answer is to deploy uninterruptible power supplies (UPS). These are essentially large batteries that instantly kick in when the power fails to flow properly. Each PC and server should have one, and don't forget your telephone system. A UPS can keep things up and running for, typically, five to 30 minutes, depending on the unit you purchase. That means you can finish your work and gracefully shut down. There's a good chance the power will come back in the meantime.

Get The Right Tech
Computers can grind to a halt when they run out of disk space or memory. However, it's usually not readily apparent that's the problem, so a panicky call to MIS inevitably follows. When purchasing hardware, make sure it has adequate storage and RAM for each specific user's tasks. These days, even low-end PCs easily handle word processing, but they may not be able to handle, say, large databases or graphics applications.

Most importantly, if employees regularly download lots of space-hogging data, such as video or graphics files, make sure they periodically clean out unneeded files.

Keep Clean
Cleaning your printer may seem a little anal retentive, but operations in many small businesses can grind to a halt when printers don't work. According to Fallon, one reason printers go down is that they get gummed up with toner, ink, or torn pieces of paper.

"Often, I encounter a buggy printer that isn't broken -- it's just really dirty," Fallon says. Learn how to clean and maintain printers by reading the user manual. Also, after buying a new printer, keep the old one around as a backup if things do go wrong.

Likewise, a good backup strategy should include regularly cleaning the backup device. After all, these are mechanical devices and prone to failure.

Throw Them A Line
Here's a shocker: There's tons of information on the Web. Two sites aimed at small businesses are TechKnowHow.com and PCSupport.com. You'll find facts, troubleshooting help, and other support for when problems emerge. Also, the Web sites of many software developers and PC manufacturers have Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about their products. In addition, users can e-mail support questions to the vendors and get help. If you have an intranet, include a page with links to both the general support sites and to vendor FAQ and support pages.

Keep Up To Date
Let sleeping dogs lie may be true for canines, but not for software. Most software companies quietly release periodic updates that fix bugs. These aren't major upgrades with new features -- simply the same old software that works better. Updating existing software can avoid problems and crashes down the road.

A quick trip to the software vendor's Web site will show what problems the update fixes. If your existing software isn't compatible with other software or hardware and a fix is available, it's time to update.

Don't drive yourself crazy reinstalling everything every time an update is released. Just make sure someone scans vendor sites regularly looking for improvements relevant to your particular systems.

Get Organized
Occasionally, a PC or server malfunctions so badly that the software needs to be reinstalled. This relatively common event results in calls for IT help when users can't find the discs and manuals needed to re-install software. Even if users can find them, they can't be certain they're not violating licensing agreements for the software. This uncertainty results in more calls to MIS.

"Often a 15 minute solution turns into a two hour problem as you hunt through the office for missing CDs and software," Fallon says. "Keep software and licensing organized and secure." Make sure at least one employee in each department know where discs are stored and can access information regarding licensing.

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