Seven simple steps to keep your PC – and productivity – in top shape

There are those days when malware, viruses, aging hardware, data back up problems and other glitches conspire to prevent you from finishing that report, closing the transaction, or just getting any work done.

Sounds familiar?

Problems such as these may exasperate the average consumer — but they could spell disaster for a business.

Companies large and small could end up spending thousands of dollars repairing poorly performing computer systems – and that that doesn’t include the less tangible costs of diminished employee productivity.

Lost productivity – from issues such as malware, viruses and identity theft – costs organizations at least $50 billion each year, according to a senior executive of a global computer service franchise.

And associated IT expenditures to deal with these problems have skyrocketed from $20 billion to $198 billion in the last five years, said Chip Reaves, national director for Computer Troubleshooters Ltd. (CTS) headquartered in Coquitlam, B.C.

“More than 80 per cent of all computer issues resulting in downtime can be traced to malware, viruses, identity theft and spyware,” he said.

More than 72 per cent of businesses in Canada cited “generic external threats” such as targeted malware attacks as their number one concern, according to a recent survey by Info-Tech research Group, an analyst firm based in London, Ont.

More than 56 per cent of the respondents identified so-called random external threats, such as viruses spread by e-mail, as the second most serious security concern.

These issues could also lead to a deterioration in PC performance and life.

Many computing calamaties can be avoided by adopting a few basic and inexpensive preventive measures, Reaves said.

“While the mere thought of trying to fix a computer can cause some people to break into a cold sweat, in fact it doesn’t take a technophile to prevent these problems.”

Here are seven tested steps he suggests to keep your PC healthy.

1. Follow a hardware replacement program

Studies show that the likelihood of physical problems with computer equipment rise significantly after 24 to 36 months, said Reaves.

He urges users to consider replacing computer systems every three years. “Considering how inexpensive computers have become, a major repair bill could easily cost more than purchasing an entirely new system.”

For most businesses it might also make more sense to buy high-end PC units at the onset says Ronald Miller, IT technical and operations manager for IT@Intel, a resource site for IT professionals hosted by the Santa Clara, Calif-based chip maker.

“We started out buying low-end PC units to cut cost,” he recalled. “We ended up taking a capital hit of about $40 million.”

Buying low-end shortened the useful life of their assets and reduced return of investment (ROI), Miller said.

From 1995 to 1998, Intel’s PC client policy was based on a four-year depreciation cycle and lower cost units for general use.

By the year 2000, when Microsoft released its Windows 2000 operating system (OS) and a new MS Office suite, Intel was stuck with 20,000 PCs that couldn’t run the new software effectively.

2. Get power protection

Power surges and drops can wreak havoc on equipment and precipitate data loss, says Reaves.

It seems like a no-brainer, but many users purchase a top of the line computer but neglect to invest on a good surge protector unit, he said. “Many people do not realize that surge protection wears off over time.”

He suggests that users replace surge protection units every two to three years.

3. Skip illegal software and update licenses

They may be cheap or even free, but pirated software products often do not come with the online support and ready access to security updates that legitimate software does.

Using unlicensed software products also expose individuals and businesses to potential fines and legal action, Reaves warned. He also said many software programs automatically report to the product’s makers via Internet instances of breach of license agreements.

“Users do not actually own the software they purchase they just have a license to use the product on a specific number of PC.”

To eliminate complications, Reaves advices users to stick with legitimate software products and be mindful of updating licenses.

For businesses and larger organizations, numerous asset management software products are available in the market, according to Michelle Warren, a senior analyst at Info-Tech Research Group.

“Apart from monitoring and automatically alerting IT teams about server bottlenecks and PC problems, these tools also report on impending software license maturity,” said Warren.

4. Invest in training

In most workplaces, it is often assumed that employees know how to use the machines and applications they work with.

In reality, only a small percentage of users are highly knowledgeable about the software and hardware packages they operate, said Reaves. “Most employees understand less than 20 per cent of the software packages they use.”

By investing in the appropriate role-based training for workers, many companies can increase the productivity of its personnel, maximize the potential of workers and software products and minimize the risk of technical problems.

5. Regularly maintain firewalls and security

Business must ensure that all computers in the firm contain the latest security patches and that firewalls are installed an operating properly.

“The Internet is full of hackers. If they get (either directly of through malware and viruses) the list of problems they can cause is pretty big,” said Reaves.

Among the many headaches that an unplugged security hole can cause are: theft of customer records, data erasure, and denial-of-service attacks.

Reaves said organizations should designate a person or team to monitor and maintain security patches and firewalls.

6. Deploy a good data back up system

For many organizations data is the lifeblood of the company. Unfortunately not all businesses take propers precaution to secure this vital asset.

“One critical data loss incident can potentially put a company out of business on the spot,” Reaves said.

Data back-up essentially entails having a duplicate copy of essential information stored in a secure location and readily available should disaster strike and your originals are destroyed.

Data that requires backup typically includes: client information, financials, inventory records, human resources records, e-mail and data for compliance and legal purposes and applications needed for employees to do their work.

Companies can either invest in a system automatically backs up data to a physically separate location or hire a third party that hosts a software-as-a-service package.

Info-Tech’s Warren said backing up to a separate location is essential to ensure that data is isolated from power outages or other issues that might affect the head office.

Users must consider a system flexible enough to scale to the company’s needs, helps administrators classify data and specifies information life cycle and capable of providing fast data retrieval.

7. Deploy good virus, spam and spyware protection

People seeking help in dealing with spam, virus and spyware attacks make 80 per cent of the calls that CTS receives.

Such attacks are likely to have a greater impact on SMBs or businesses run by a single person because these organizations often do not have an IT team to back them up, said Reaves.

Tell-tale signs that a PC has been compromised include irregular performance and slowness. “Very often this could mean that the machine has been infected by hundreds of spyware.”

Malware are constantly evolving. By keeping virus and anti-spyware tool up-to-date businesses can at least reduce the problems caused by malicious software products.

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