A seven-point plan for trouble free computing

Software conflicts, lost data and spam often mean tens of thousands of dollars down the drain in downtime and decreased productivity for most businesses.

In the U.S. lost productivity – due to problems such as malware and identity theft – costs organizations around $50 billion a year, according to a top executive of the U.S. office of a global computer service franchise.

And the costs to resolve these problems is even higher.

The associated IT costs of dealing with the causes of lost productivity has skyrocketed from $20 billion in 2002 to $190 billion last year, says Chip Reaves, national director for Computer Troubleshooters Ltd. (CTS).

“Malware, viruses, identity theft and spyware account for about 80 per cent of all computer issues resulting in downtime,” according Reaves.

At least one Canadian technology consultant agrees.

“These issues could be a major concern for most SMBs and something like a data loss incident can be magnified a thousand times over for large enterprises,” says Michelle Warren, senior analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.

She said the top four concerns of IT teams are: hardware and software health, service continuity, and network security. “If you can’t keep tabs on these, what’s the point?”

A bit of common sense and a few simple strategies, however, can help businesses and individual computer users keep their machines in tip-top shape and reduce costs, he said.

Here are Reave’s seven tips for trouble-free computing:

1. Employ a cyclical replacement program

Studies have shown that the likelihood of hardware problems increase when machines are used beyond 24 to 36 months, according to Reaves.

He said that companies and individuals should consider replacing computer systems every three years.

“Taking into account the plummeting prices of computers, one major repair bill could easily cost more than purchasing an entirely new system.”

The Pembina Trails School Division in Winnipeg, for example, was able to cut maintenance expenditure by as much as 60 per cent by deciding to replace its more than 2,000 PCs and laptop units every four years in accordance with a new cyclical replacement program.

Previously, some companies used to replace machines every three years, but better hardware has made it possible for firms to extend computer use by another year, said Warren.

2. Replace surge protectors regularly

Power surges and drops can cause data loss and damage sensitive computer components thereby reducing the lifespan of your computer.

“Most people do use surge protectors, but what many do not realize is that surge protectors wear out,” said Reaves.

For optimum protection, he advises users to replace surge protectors every two to three years.

3. Update software licenses

“Many business don’t realize that they do not ‘own’ software; they just have a license to use it on a specific number of PCs,” according to Reaves.

Using unlicensed software products can expose an individual or organization to potential fines of legal action, he said.

Many software programs automatically report their usage to the product’s makers via the Internet and the issuance of breach-of-license letters to users and audits from software makers are on the rise, warns Reaves.

Software piracy devalues intellectual property rights and the work of other collaborators in the creation of a software product, Warren said.

Warren was commenting on the recent legal action leveled by Microsoft against three Canadian systems builders accused of hard disk loading but she added that scrupulous users can buy tools that track software product licenses.

For instance, asset management software products can help reduce maintenance costs, according to Bryan Dunham, coordinator of the IT department at the Kitchener Public Library.

The KPL uses Microsoft’s System Center Essential 2007, a set of IT system management software tools that automatically alert the IT team about issues such as server bottlenecks, PC problems and impending software license maturity.

4. Invest in employee training

Companies should also invest in training workers to properly

“Most employees understand less than 20 per cent of the software packages they use,” said Reeves. When they are trained on these packages , the gain in productivity far outweighs the training costs, he said.

In the case of one concrete structure manufacturing firm that sought the help of Reaves, the computer specialist had to pull vital costumer transaction information out from the system because the bookkeeper didn’t know how to save invoices properly.

“The bookkeeper wasn’t aware that the spreadsheet program could calculate and save invoices. She was simply copying over old invoice templates. As a result the company had no record of previous transactions.”

Reaves said in smaller organizations, it is often assumed that employees know how to use the applications they work with. Very often, workers only have the slightest working knowledge of the tools they are given and are not able to maximize the potential of the software product.

5. Maintain firewalls and security

It is important to ensure that all computers in the organization contain the latest security patches and that firewalls are installed and maintained properly.

“Hackers are continuously improving their tactics and their arsenal. Unfortunately, most SMBs and some bigger companies often neglect to install the latest security patches,” Reaves said.

He suggests that firms designate a person or team to ensure that firewalls and security patches are maintained properly.

6. Backup data

It sounds so obvious but most companies fail to keep 100 per cent of their data regularly backed up, said Reaves. It is often too late by the time IT teams discover the back up gap.

An eye surgery clinic that consulted Reaves lost more than two years worth of client information when their server went down. The firm had neglected to inform a new hire that data had to be backed up regularly.

For several weeks, receptionists had no idea who would be showing up in the clinic and they could not make new appointments for fear of bumping off a previous appointment.

When things like these happen the negative repercussions are two-fold said Reaves: one, staff members spend hours to recreate lost data; two, the firm loses client confidence.

7. Get good virus, spam and spyware protection

More than 80 per cent of the service calls CTS receives are from people seeking help in dealing with spam, virus and spyware attacks.

Although not uncommon with larger organizations, the impact of such attacks are felt more strongly by SMBs or businesses run by a single person because these firms often do not have an IT team to back them up.

When clients complain to CTS that their PCs are running very slow, very often it is because the machine has been infected by hundreds of spyware programs, Reaves said.

By keeping virus and anti-spyware tools up-to-date, businesses will be able to reduce the nuisance caused by malicious software products.

Reaves favours anti-spyware and anti-virus tools from AVG Technologies, PC Tools and CA.

Comment: edit@itworldcanada.com

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