Tech Tips

Tech Tip #1: Avoiding Blackouts and Power Outages

Once again this summer, power outages and shortages are big news, from New York City, to St. Louis, to California. Big blackouts are not the only way your business can suffer from power deficiencies. Even minor daily power fluctuations can harm sensitive electronic equipment. Over time, fluctuating power can damage a computer and, perhaps worse, lead to intermittent failures that are difficult to diagnose. Inexpensive surge protectors may not be adequate to prevent such damage. This is why having a good quality UPS unit is imperative.

A UPS, short for Uninterruptible Power Supply, does more than prevent surges from reaching your equipment. It also evens out power dips by supplying battery power, and can monitor and report power issues as they occur. The devices help give a system the power it craves and help prevent serious damage from surges, spikes and brownouts. In other words, it is inexpensive, easy-to-deploy insurance.

There are three main types of UPS units: standby, online and line-interactive.

1. Standby units electrically connect a PC directly to the wall outlet, only switching the PC to battery power when there is a severe problem with utility-line power. This offers basic protection, but other types offer additional features.

2. Online UPSes always power the PC from the batteries. This is an expensive approach that heavily taxes the batteries and circuitry over the life of the unit.

3. Line-interactive UPSes allow utility power to reach the PC, but also keep the batteries online in case of a power problem. This means line-interactive models respond faster than standby units and are less expensive to install and maintain than online UPSes. They also last longer than online units because there is less stress on the circuits.

Your consultant should carefully examine the environment to determine which UPS to install. All three types of UPS units will protect equipment from brownouts, but the line-interactive and online types are more likely to protect against sudden power surges, because standby models have a slight delay in responding. When power is restored after an outage, there is typically a surge. Therefore, in buildings with frequent outages and subsequent surges, line-interactive and online UPSes are preferable. Both types will constantly suppress excess voltage, keeping the levels of power that reach your computers within acceptable limits.

It's also important to check the UPS regularly, because these devices do not last forever. UPS batteries must be replaced every two to three years - or even more often if the unit is heavily used.

A UPS is one of the best investments you can make to protect your investment in technology. Data-recovery services easily cost much more than a good UPS.

The Tech Tips of the Month have been contributed by Leonard H. Shostak of L&D Computer Consulting Corp.,

Tech Tip #2: 11 Ways to Avoid an Expensive Support Call

Even the savviest techies sometimes overlook the basics. And let's face it, wouldn't you rather have checked before the tech support guy asks you "Is it plugged in?"

If you're an expert, save this checklist for the next time someone calls for help – and you know they will! If you're not an expert, do these simple things before you call in the big guns.

1. Is the power on?

This is as basic as it gets. You may not have touched a thing, but anything, from a cleaner looking for a place to plug in the vacuum to moving your feet under your desk, could have dislodged a connection – it happens surprisingly often! Check that the power cord is plugged into an outlet, the surge protector switch is on, and the power cord is plugged into the computer. Don't forget to check the power cables for the monitor and other peripherals while you're at it, especially if the computer turns on but one component is out of commission.

2. Check ALL the wires - then double-check them!

Make sure you're looking at the right cord. Check the connections between the system and peripherals. This is important if the computer starts but a peripheral doesn't. If the monitor turns on but there is no picture, check the monitor's connection to the system. Do the same for the network, modem, keyboard, mouse, printer, or scanner. Make sure all those cables are seated firmly and in the right places – sometimes everything looks fine, but a connection is actually a bit loose and not working. If that's the case, unplugging and replugging will fix it right away.

3. Have you rebooted your machine?

Don't just sit there staring at a frozen screen. Give it a few minutes and then try restarting. Sometimes it takes multiple reboots to make a problem go away.

4. Is it a problem with your PC cards?

If any of the cables attached to your PC seem to wiggle around despite being firmly screwed in, it could be that a cable getting tugged on has somehow wiggled one of the add-on cards partly out of its socket. Since you have to open the computer to fix this, a call to your support person is in order.

5. Is there a diskette or CD in one of the drives?

A disk accidentally left in a drive when the computer was shut down can cause it to try to boot from that drive when it is started up again. This can cause strange error messages, so make sure all the drives are empty, then restart.

6. Is there ink/toner in the printer?

Yes, it's obvious. Yes, we've all been guilty of forgetting to check this once in a while. And yes, this one is easily fixed by a non-expert!

7. Is the phone jack working?

When you plug a regular phone into your modem line, do you get dial tone?

8. Is everything up to date?

Have you been running your software updates regularly? Is your hardware compatible with the currently installed versions of your software? If you're in doubt about this, call your support person and schedule some routine maintenance.

9. What have you changed recently?

Adding peripherals or updating software can sometimes cause conflicts with other peripherals or other software. If it's something you installed yourself, try removing it to see if the functionality comes back. If someone else installed it, call them to come back and fix the problem.

10. Is your disk or memory out of capacity?

It never hurts to check, especially if you've recently installed new or updated software or you work with large files such as video.

11. Have you run a virus scan?

Have you been keeping your antivirus program up to date and checking for “spyware”? Have you been following good security practices?

If none of these basic troubleshooting steps does the trick, take it to the next level. You'll be able to provide your support person with some clues to the problem by letting them know the results of your efforts.

The Tech Tips of the Month have been contributed by Leonard H. Shostak of L&D Computer Consulting Corp.,

Tech Tip #3: Use Unique Passwords for Your Computer Systems

One of the simplest things you can do to safeguard your computer systems and important, private, business information is to use and protect all your system passwords, and make sure all your employees and users take care with theirs. With today’s faster, more powerful computers, it’s getting easier than ever to crack passwords through “brute force” attacks. This means automatically trying every possible combination of letters, numbers, and punctuation. The longer and more unusual a password is, the harder it is to crack this way. And best of all, unlike some other security measures, a good password is free!

One way to come up with a password that’s easy to remember is to use the first letter of each word in a phrase or a line from a favorite song or poem, such as DsomBss for "Don’t step on my blue suede shoes." To make it even harder to crack, insert a special character, for example Dsom$Bss. Another idea is to make nonsense words that are easy to say and remember by alternating a consonant with one or two vowels, such as routboo or quidpop. Or you can combine two short real words with a special character, like beer%flop, Cat$Sock, or cookie#cup. Pass-phrases are another easy way to make passwords harder to crack. For example, instead of using your pet’s name (very easy to guess or crack), make your password my_favorite_dog_is_Spot. Still hard to forget, but now hard to guess or crack too.

No matter how clever you think your password is, be sure to change it every month or two, and never give it to anyone. If anyone ever learns your password, change it immediately. (Make more than a token change. Changing from Lassie to Lassie1 won’t do much to improve security.)

‹ Less than 6 characters 
‹ Any part of your name - first, last, middle, initials, user or log-in name 
‹ License plate or car model 
‹ Names of people or places 
‹ Birthdays, social security numbers, phone numbers or addresses 
‹ Words from any English or foreign dictionary 
‹ Keyboard sequences such as "12345" or "qwerty"; or repeating the same letter or number 
‹ Minor variations of any of these, such as doubled, reversed, or adding a character at the end

‹ Special characters or punctuation (!#$%?) with letters and numbers 
‹ Mixed upper- and lower-case letters - using capitals in random locations 
‹ Nonsense words that aren't in any dictionary 
‹ Six or more characters 
* Try to type your password without looking at the keys, and don’t let anyone watch while you type. 
* And last - but not least - never, ever write your passwords down.

The Tech Tips of the Month have been contributed by Leonard H. Shostak of L&D Computer Consulting Corp.,