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Avoid Computer Hell - Commonsense tips to protect your systems

By Julie King |

If we lived in a perfect world, high technology would work smoothly, enabling us to work without crashes, failures or disasters.

Unfortunately, we live in an imperfect world. The challenge to many smaller businesses — where IT support is often limited and staff have widely different computer backgrounds — lies in keeping systems up, staff working, and avoiding data losses and viruses or security breach disasters.

The good news: technology disasters are avoidable. Follow these steps to keep your technology under control:

  1. Use virus protection software, and update it regularly. A good anti-virus program can be your computer's best friend. Just buying and installing a program from a local store won't keep you covered, however, as new viruses appear constantly. For your virus software to fully protect your systems, you need to update it on a regular basis.

    Kevin Krempulec, Sales Manager at Symantec Corporation, makers of the popular Norton Antivirus software, recommends scheduling weekly updates. If you hear of a threat during the week, you can visit, which lists recent threats. Kevin explains that a new vulnerability with a severity of 3 or 4 means you should update your virus definitions.

  2. Schedule regular system scans. If having up-to-date virus software on your computer is the first step, then scheduling regular, event-triggered scans is the second. When you install virus software, you can choose when and how the software will scan your system.

    It is here that you must strike a delicate balance. Too many scans can slow down your computers, while too few will leave them vulnerable. Irregular scans, such as a scheduled nightly scan, will not affect the performance of your computers. Unfortunately, that schedule may leave them completely vulnerable to incoming viruses.

    Though it does take more resources, it is advisable to have the software scan individual machines throughout the day, triggered by specific events such as email being sent or received. With the frequency of email, and the number of viruses spread through this medium, it is highly advisable to have the software scan incoming and outgoing email.

  3. Add a firewall. A firewall is a virtual, software perimeter designed to keep hackers out of computer systems, and to keep employees from moving confidential data out of the system. While firewalls are often thought of as a big-business solution, for companies with complicated networks, with the growing use of Internet services they are becoming an important tool for small businesses as well.

    A firewall may be appropriate in many scenarios. Firewalls can either be software or hardware products. Symantec Firewall VPN Appliance, a small, hardware component that you plug into your network, is marketed as a "plug and protect" box. The firewall looks at incoming and outgoing Internet traffic and is designed to keep hackers out. This is particularly important for users of "always-on" Internet services, such as cable and DSL, which make it easy for other Internet users to hack into your system. Symantec Firewall VPN 100 supports up to 15 users, with a suggested list price of $775.

  4. Guard against blended threats. While the term virus is often used to describe programs that can compromise computer systems, many other vulnerabilities actually exist, including worms, Trojan horse viruses and others.

    For example, Nimbda, which rapidly infected systems earlier this fall, uses a combination of vulnerabilities to propagate itself, infecting computers both through email and through infected websites. In some cases Nimbda even inserted a backdoor on certain systems — if it found some of the vulnerabilities from Code Red — so that in the future the hackers could get in.

    Small businesses can no longer rely on a single, anti-virus software program to protect their computers. Krempulec recommends anti-virus software for both the operating system (such as Windows 9x) and the email program, along with a basic firewall, for protection against the threats we face today.

  5. Beware the latest and greatest. New hardware and software can be incredibly appealing. Unfortunately, when technology is initially released, testing and debugging is almost always incomplete. Quite often, bugs are not discovered until the hardware or software is well distributed to the end-user. This creates vulnerabilities that hackers can manipulate. For this reason, if you do not have solid IT know-how backing company operations, it may be advisable to wait until the major bugs are worked out before upgrading software and/or hardware.
  6. Keep your programs patched. When a bug or vulnerability is discovered, software and hardware vendors release patches to fix the problem. Unfortunately, customers are not automatically informed of these patches. You can try to track and download the latest patches yourself, but that can take a lot of time and is still no guarantee you will find out about all the patches. For example, to find the latest patches for Windows and links to updates for other Microsoft programs you would need to monitor several Web pages, starting with:

    Rather than tracking it yourself, it may be worthwhile to use specialized software or to retain an IT consultant for this job. Netrecon, a Symantec product, is designed to assess your system and discover which patches you need to stay protected. A good consultant is another option: look for someone who stays current on information and updates, and who can drop by when needed with new software patches on a CD-ROM for quick installation.

  7. Back up your data, both on- and off-site. It's a no-brainer. Your business data is important, and you could lose that data in several ways if you are not backing it up. Fire, computer theft ... why risk it?

    Many options exist for backing up data. If you don't have a lot of data, you may want to schedule a daily, off-site backup through a Web-based service provider. DVD write drives (DVD+-Rs), and USB and firewire hard drives from companies like Maxtor are all options. If you have a considerable amount of data to back up, you'll need to invest in a more robust system, and possibly a media assets management tool as well.

  8. Create a computer use policy. One of the best ways to stop viruses from infecting your system is to create a computer use policy that will reduce the likelihood of activating a virus, and then training your staff so they can follow the policy. For example, your policy could address the way staff download and use files from the Internet, surf the Web, and handle email attachments. Email attachments are probably your greatest vulnerability, so it is important that staff understand how they can identify an email that may contain a virus. For example, it's important to understand that your best friend or trusted colleague could — unknowingly — send out a virus. It is also important when using popular programs like Microsoft Outlook to ensure that attachments are not automatically opened when a user reads his or her email.
  9. Find a reliable IT tech, before disaster strikes. Finding a good IT support person can be tough, and you definitely don't want to start your search when disaster has already struck. To find a competent technician, ask trusted colleagues for referrals. When looking for a support person, consider their technical proficiency, their ability to communicate clearly, and their availability. Unfortunately, smaller companies may not have the amount of business that successful technicians need to take on a new client. Don't get discouraged: keep looking for someone until you find the right fit.

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