How to Prevent a Tech Disaster

Better Back It Up

It’s safe to say that in the world of business, and personal life, data is a most precious commodity. Computerized data systems perform a wide range of tasks for businesses large and small, and home computers today are marvelous multi-media wonders of the age that store our videos, music, movies, photos and important documents.

Of course technology may be wonderful, but a hundred things can go wrong with modern computer systems. That’s not good, considering we put our entire lives on these machines. Those vital personal documents or accounting statements can all just vanish in the blink of an eye, no thanks to hardware failures, overwriting errors, viruses, malware and other assorted malfunctions. Users — especially home computer owners — who aren’t as technically savvy or proficient with the engineering of a computer as those who designed and programmed them are at a distinct disadvantage when the thing stops working. So, what do you do when the dreaded “blue screen of death” pops up on your laptop, or a vital account suddenly disappears?

For starters, any computer user either at home or work, should make themselves familiar with the day-to-day working of their computer to discern possible issues, said James R. Nichols, owner of Your Quality Computer Service of Pensacola

“Signs of pausing, hesitating and freezing can indicate hardware issues,” Nichols said. “Changes in the home page of your Web browser and unfamiliar icons on your desktop or task bar can often be signs of a malware infection.”

If you need to repair the hardware or recover lost data, the best thing to do is seek professional help.

“The rule of thumb is much like a vehicle. If it’s not running correctly and the problem is not going away, consult a professional,” Nichols said. “I have met many a new customer that has permanently lost data (and computers) because they did not take the time to have their computers checked when symptoms of hardware failure began.”  

If you’re concerned that there is a problem, it is time to call a trusted technology professional.

“Your first instinct will usually be the best one,” said Jeff Danick of JWD Tech Inc. in Niceville. “If a customer isn’t even comfortable with some of the basics, I’d never advise that they tackle tasks such as hardware repairs, or data retrieval, without a professional.”

Danick said that for home computers and business computers, it’s way better to never need a fix.

“Practice safe computing. Don’t open unexpected attachments, even from people you think you know, avoid ‘free’ software when it’s not from a trusted company. They have to make money somehow,” he said. “Keep your data backed up. Try to have at least one backup on-site, and one off-site, perhaps with one of the trusted ‘cloud’ services such as Carbonite or Mozy.”


An Ounce of Prevention

Nichols said he thinks every user — especially business users — should be trained and familiar with basic trouble-shooting, such as clearing the browser cache and power cycling (turning off and on) the equipment.

“However, the general rule would be to do the basic maintenance, clearing cache and temp files, defragmenting the hard drive and manually scanning with the installed anti-virus software,” he said.

CCleaner is a free program that makes clearing caches and temp files a breeze with nearly no concern for side effects, Nichols said. It can simply be installed and run without the need to configure. He also recommends Avast!, a free and excellent anti-virus/security suite. Also, checking and repairing disk permissions should be done just as often as on a Windows PC. 

“Running a disk check is an often overlooked bit of maintenance that can save many a headache. Mac users should still run an antivirus on their computer despite the common myth of being virus-proof,” he said.

However, chances are good that even if you take great care of it, your computer is still nothing more than a mechanical device that is prone to failure. Fixing a problem after the fact is one thing, but if you rely on your computer to store priceless documents or photos, the best thing to do is back it up on a regular basis. That’s a point that can’t be emphasized enough.

“Backing up data is very important,” said Matt Ham, president and CEO of Computer Repair Doctor in Tallahassee. Ham notes that it’s very expensive (not to mention extremely difficult) to recover data that hasn’t been backed up. The alternative to not safeguarding hardware and making backups is not easy to swallow. Depending on what the customer wants recovered, recovery can generally cost in the hundreds to thousands of dollars.

“I once worked with a data recovery tech, and jobs would go from $500 to $5,000 for serious data recovery. If it is a tier 1 job, it’s $100 to $500,” Ham said. “That’s the stuff we handle in-house here. (Cases like) software recovery or, perhaps, you reformatted the drive and lost data that way. But if the hard drive crashes and the heads crash and need to be opened, you need a clean room with special equipment and someone who has been in this game for a while. Data recovery is nothing you want to need.”

Backing up data is especially important for business owners, but the fundamentals are just as important. Anyone who has a computer should use quality uninterruptible power supplies with voltage regulation and surge protectors. Business owners should restrict how their systems are used, Danick said, because you don’t want someone checking their Facebook account on a system used as a point of sale. Frequently go back and review best practices with your users regarding passwords, email and downloading items off the Internet. Make use of the built-in security and privacy tools and settings available on Mac OS X or Windows. Make sure to keep your software updated for security updates.

“The price of not backing up is expensive. Our lives are on our computers,” Danick said. “We have photos, tax documents, IRS forms, you name it, and it’s not easily recreateable or replaceable. You might say, ‘Just give me my photos,’ and that might cost $800 to $1,100. Then, there is ‘I need everything,’ and that’s thousands. So backup is relatively cheap compared to that.”

The practice alone could be worth its weight in gold, especially in a state infamous for summer heat, thunderstorms and lightning strikes. Danick recounted a time he talked to a data recovery company, and the rep said they get more hard drives from the state of Florida than any other place.

“This seems to be due to the usual causes of drive failure: too much heat and electrical issues like lightning, surges and brownouts,” he said. “We seem to have more of that here in Florida. Here in our area it’s a tie between hardware failures (power supplies, hard drives) and systems being compromised by malware. Again, prevention is a far better approach.”

Regular and redundant backups are the key to saving a business, Nichols said. Hard drives are mechanical and they can — and will — fail with little to no warning. Natural disasters, theft and vandalism can also rob a person or a company of precious data.

“Imagine that you are a construction company, and you have paper and digital copies of all your contracts, supply orders, payroll, etc., stored on site. You may feel safe because you’ve made a redundant backup to an external hard drive that sits next to the computer. Then a fire or other disaster occurs. Taking your equipment and all business data along with the backup,” he said.

Fortunately there are plenty of good options for data backup. You can put it in “cloud” storage (off-site virtual storage hosted by third parties), or just back it up on an external hard drive. The key thing is to have at least two “points of failure” instead of just one, Ham said. If you use an external hard drive, though, you have to check it on a regular basis to make sure it’s working properly. You don’t want to suddenly need to retrieve something you thought was backed up, only to discover it wasn’t.

“I strongly encourage anyone with important data to keep two backups on a weekly basis, one to be kept on site and one to be taken off site once the backup is complete,” Nichols said. “Services such as Carbonite are inexpensive and work wonderfully. For home users or business with little data to store, Dropbox and Google Drive are great choices as well. Lastly, with the threat of malware such as the Cryptolocker virus, backups are the single best solution for combating or rather recovering from it.”

If you wind up losing your files and decide to spend the money to recover your data, there’s still no guarantee of success. That ought to make prevention your highest priority.

“Data backup is just like insurance,” Ham said. “I worked in North Carolina with some database centers and they had systems in place that had double redundancy and every machine had two of everything, plus generators outside to protect against glitches in power. And instead of fire sprinklers they used the Halon system that sprays foam so it wouldn’t disrupt the servers.”

The average user doesn’t have to go to such extremes. Just make sure the backup is physically separated from the original, because you don’t want an accident to take out both the original and the backup. Another thing to be wary of is flash memory.

“When flash memory fails, it’s a lot harder to recover data than when a mechanical hard drive fails,” he said.


The Business Edge

While the average home user usually has to go it alone, businesses usually have dedicated technicians to monitor their systems. This may mean having a full-time information technology (IT) professional on staff, or paying an outside company to keep tabs on things remotely.

“Generally speaking, the need for an in-house (on staff) technician or a managed services provider depends on the scale of the business and its operations,” Nichols said.

Ham said that if you have five employees or less you don’t need to have somebody in-house, but rather an off-site IT technician you could call if there’s a problem. But the bigger your company, the more you may need to have someone on site to manage the system.

“As you grow from five to 20 employees you’ll typically have a contract with an onsite IT company or someone to come onsite,” he said. “We have a lot of small companies come to us (and) everybody has their own computer; there’s no network unification. But once you get five or more you have servers and networks and usually you’ll want to contract with a company that will maintain your network and your workstations. Once you grow past a certain point you ‘in-house’ it. For every company it’s different.”

Businesses have other options for protecting their data systems. This could include having a full-time IT professional on staff or paying an outside company to keep tabs on things remotely. What service they opt for depends on the business, its size and any contractual requirements the business is involved with. A business may want to start out making use of a local professional, keep track of hourly or daily costs and decide at some point in the future whether a service contract is the right path to take versus hiring a full-time professional to work in-house, Danick said. Many businesses may require a local consultant or full-time employee, as well as a service contract with a software or hardware vendor.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution,” he said.

Nichols said that larger-scale businesses and organizations might benefit more from having one or more on-staff techs that are always around and resolving issues and performing maintenance. An off-site tech might be besieged with service orders from many clients and may not be immediately available to help your problem.

“Although an MSP is sometimes a bit more affordable on paper, they are often understaffed and this can create delays in servicing as each technician has dozens or hundreds of tickets from several companies at once,” he said. On the other hand, small to medium-sized businesses can usually save a lot of money by using an outsourced technician that can resolve their problems on demand, as well as come in for scheduled maintenance to reduce downtime and loss, he said. 

Categories: Science & Tech