Horse Sense #65

 

In this issue:
 
  • Technical Tips:  Monitor Tuning, Archiving, Purging, Updating Your Windows PC
  • Your Software is Dying
  • Business Continuity
  • Backup, Redundancy, and Archiving
  • Avoid Costly Computing Errors:  Eat in Small Bites to Avoid Indigestion!


Technical Tips
 
-Tune your monitor at http://www.displaycalibration.com or at the online monitor test at http://tft.vanity.dk/ .
 
-One of the biggest mistakes I see is people confusing data with information.  Information is useful data.  So, think about purging all of that old data you don’t need.  Some people are afraid of purging old e mail and some companies are required to preserve that type of information.  OK.  Archive it first.  Better yet, do it for the entire organization so that if someone leaves the organization and you need to track what they said, you can do it.  And, since this isn’t something that is of high value to the company to do right now, automate it.  Ask us how Arcmail can help you save time, effort, and money while allowing better and safer access to old and CURRENT e mail.  You can delete any e mail you want with impunity and get it back later if you really decide you want it.
 
-Speed up your systems.  Improve your reliability.  Cut your backup time.  Lower your costs.  You can do all of this by simply removing unneeded information from your systems and then re-filing the remaining information effectively.  Call and ask us how we can help.
 
-If you have a PC, visit http://windowsupdate.microsoft.com using Internet Explorer every couple of months.  It may want you to update to the latest version of their software which verifies that all your software is legal, but also allows you to check your system for more relevant updates.  Once you have done that, select the custom scanning option.  When it finishes scanning your system, you will be made aware of not only critical updates to your system, but also of product and system enhancements and new drivers for many of your peripherals.  I’ve gotten upgrades for my video drivers, networking adapters, disk subsystems, and printer drivers within the last year from this site.  It is a quick and easy way to improve the reliability, functionality, and performance of your system.  Not all updates are on this site, so you may still want to check manufacturer sites for recommended updates, but this is EASY.


 
Your Software is Dying
 
Software has a life cycle that it follows.  At first, there is customer demand for a product or feature.  Software is created and tested with a limited base of users.  If it is software for mass consumption, it is then released as a product to the world at large.  This is when most of us pay for our software.  At that point, the software starts to die.  The process begins anew.  Bug fixes and new features may be added.  Generally we pay for these changes with software maintenance agreements which are often bundled with support.  These maintenance and support contracts may go on for many years, or they may be quite short.  For example, antivirus programs normally have support and maintenance contracts that are renewed each year.  You may or may not be entitled to update the program itself, depending on the contract.  At some point, the product as it now exists will reach “end of sale,” the date after which it will no longer be sold.  You will be able to continue getting support, maintenance, and updates until the “end of support” date.  Finally, there may be some offerings that will allow you to extend the use of your product beyond that date (like allowing upgrades) until it reaches “end of life.”  At that point, the manufacturer won’t offer anything related to that product.  Even if your software has reached end of life, you may still be able to use it if you have a perpetual use license.
 
Do you understand the life cycle of each piece of software you use?  Do you know how to protect your investment and lower your costs over time?


 
Business Continuity
 
I called a client the other day and was shocked to find out he had died suddenly.  He was a pleasant and well liked IT professional.  We had a good relationship we had built over time.  Unfortunately, his shocked and depressed coworkers were left to deal with his workload.  What had he been doing?  Who needed to be contacted?  Where were all his critical files stored?  Did someone have his passwords?  What changes had he made to this system?  Was there documentation?
 
Business continuity, disaster recovery, readiness, and other phrases all revolve around the same question and the same partial answer:  What will we do if something happens?  If we plan for it, the damage won’t be as bad.
 
Let’s take some simple examples from problems we have had at Iron Horse recently.  For two weeks in June we had all kinds of problems with our phone and Internet connection because gear provided by our telephone company failed, the replacement failed, technicians set up the equipment incorrectly…  You get the idea.  It wasn’t a good time.  So, what could we do?  We used our cell phones and had calls rerouted there for a time.  We forced mail out of our e mail server when the connection went up for only a short time.  We relied on e mail servers sending us mail to resume delivery when our server was again reachable.  And, we apologize to you now for the issues we have had  (The connection also failed in July and August.... sigh....even guys who work on and sell these technologies aren’t immune from problems).  While I troubleshot these issues, others used the downtime to update our databases, mail out correspondence, clean up around the office, etcetera.
 
We realize that sometimes these things happen and they happen unpredictably.  The duration can be long or short.  Your ability to work may be severely compromised.  You may lose money, contracts, credibility, and miss important goals.  You need to have the contacts, contracts, resources, and plans together to help you recover.
 
Do you have plans in place so you can recover from the inevitable bumps in the road?  Do you have someone like Iron Horse who can help you develop plans and help you build redundant, scalable solutions which will keep downtime to a minimum or help you avoid it altogether?


 
Backup, Redundancy, and Archiving
 
Computer backup isn’t really about backup.  It is about restore.  When you lose data, there are two important things you need to know.  How long will it take me to restore my last reliable backup?  And, once I restore it, how long will it take me to get back into full operation?
 
That being said, there are various ways to protect what is most valuable to you.  Redundant setups will protect you against hardware or software failures.  For example, RAID technologies will keep another copy of your data safe on disk so that if one disk fails, another can supply the needed data.  This gives you time to replace the failed disk and can even result in better response times as well!  Depending on your needs, you may need redundant disks, servers, applications (like e mail), power, network links, or links to the WAN or Internet.
 
But, redundant systems are meant to keep things going as they are now.  What if you can’t do that?  What if you find that you need to recover data you deleted, for example?  Then you will need to go to your backups.  Backup has gotten much more granular and complicated, but it also means you are more likely to be able to recover what you need quickly.  The types of backup are
 
(1)    Imaged based backups.  These backups are usually kept on site for rapid restoration of machines whose hard disks have failed or that you need to clone to other machines.  All of the data, programs, customizations, configurations, and control settings will be available when a new machine gets the image.  Image backups require the use of hard disks.

(2)    File by file backups.  This is the traditional backup most people are used to.  Files are backed up using preset rules.  One of the new “rules” is Continuous Data Protection (CDP).  As soon as files, e mail stores, or databases are changed, the changes can be saved.  This allows you to restore your data to almost any point in time.  CDP requires the use of hard disks.  Unlike imaged based backups, file by file and CDP restores can take a long time to restore a system and can generate consistency issues, but can quickly restore smaller portions of data.

(3)    Off site backups.  You can back up to a location off site by copying the information from a hard disk at one location to a hard disk at another.  Or, you can move tapes or hard disks physically off site.  This allows for “site fault” recoveries where you might not be able to access your site for some reason: fire, flood, extended power outage, etcetera.  Off site backups can be image, file by file, or CDP backups.  They will take a much longer time to restore because you first have to retrieve the information, and, if you need them, you probably have to buy new equipment for the restoration.

(4)    Archives.  Archived information should be easily accessible many years later.  Today, long term computer storage is best done on optical media, but printed records are still used heavily.  New government and corporate accountability requirements require a new type of living archive containing current and historical information.  These archives aren’t like backups as their memory is usually selective.  Only certain information needs to be archived.  It also needs to be properly indexed, have granular security, to be available often outside the IT operation, and provide rapid, selective access to requested information.
 
What type of redundancy, backup, and archiving do you have?  What do you need?  Call us and we’ll help you fill any holes you have.


 
Avoiding Costly Computing Errors
 
Use these tips I’ve learned from over 20 years in as a computer consultant and dealer when working with your IT providers to save money, time, and grief.  If you have a favorite tip or story, please write us about it!


 
Eat in Small Bites to Avoid Indigestion!
 
The federal government often likes to bundle contracts and services together and buy them in big lots, hoping for cost savings.  However, larger contracts lower the number of contractors that can respond.  They raise the amount of time it takes to provide a solution from recognition of the problem to delivery of the solution.  Finally, larger contracts raise the business and technological risks of doing the business, increasing the chances of having expensive failures.  No matter how large or small your business or your project, it very often pays to deal with problems quickly as they come up in the most efficient manner possible.
 
Case in point:  Fairfax County wanted to convert its legal and historical documents into digital form so they could be captured for posterity and be made more readily available to those who needed them.  But, they made the project a very large one with no prototype testing.  They also put all of the risk of the project, including almost unlimited liability for damaging historical documents, on the bidders.  Even worse, a similar contract had been awarded previously, but the county cancelled it right before the contractor was to start the work and the contractor lost millions because he had hired people for that job.  Consequently, small businesses like Iron Horse, who had the ability to deliver on the project, wouldn’t bid the project because the contract value was too high and the business risks were too great.  The County went for years without any progress in preserving and distributing those critical documents.
 
Another case in point:  Federal and state government contracting laws make it difficult to contract for services.  In fact, for small jobs, it can be more expensive to contract for the job than to have it done.  This makes it very hard for governments to contract for small jobs, like troubleshooting a networking problem.  This means that users might lose work and productivity, costing their citizens much more than the actual fix might.  So, all-encompassing service and support contracts are often written that may not serve the needs very well, have high overheads, have low satisfaction rates, etcetera.  Would you want to bet your baby’s life on the lowest bidding health maintenance organization with a state contract that was specifically designed to decrease the costs of senior health care?
 
The lesson?  Big deals sound sexy and make headlines.  However, they may actually cost you more time, money, and grief than you bargained for.  They may provide a generic solution that doesn’t fit well with parts of the organization.  The exclusivity of a big project locks out smaller projects, smaller vendors, and smaller parts of an organization.  Big projects trample individuality and initiative.  Smaller projects lower your technological and business risks.  Small projects can be completed quickly.  If the project fails, you haven’t risked much and you can rapidly proceed on to a (hopefully) successful project.  When a small project succeeds, recognition of that success is more immediate and energizes those involved.
 


©2007 Tony Stirk, Iron Horse tstirk@ih-online.com