It is not a question of if your hard drive will fail, but when.

June 26, 2009

Nearly anyone who has owned a computer for a significant amount of time has probably had to deal with a hard drive failure.  First, you may hear a squealing and knocking noise coming from inside your computer.  Depending on who made the computer, you may actually get a pop-up warning about “imminent hard drive failure”.  That is if you are lucky.  Eventually, the computer starts crashing repeatedly and finally, when trying to turn on your computer, all you see is a black screen telling you that the disk cannot be found.  Or you may not even get any warnings at all.

A hard drive is basically a disk, with springs, levers and an arm that races back and forth to read the data on the disc.  Hard drives are full of tiny mechanical parts, and eventually, one of those parts will wear out.  Outside factors, such as the environment or shock damage can also speed the process of wear on a hard drive.  Though drives are manufactured to last for many years, sometimes that is just not the case.

Is there anything that can be done to prevent a hard drive from failing?  Aside from never turning on your computer, and the obvious stuff like keeping it away from water, dropping the machine or placing magnets all over the case, the hard drive will eventually fail.  For this reason, backing up your important files is one of the most important things you can do.  If you use your computer to run a business, backups are even more critical.  What are some of the ways you can back up your important data?

Recordable Media

  • Nearly every computer nowadays is built with a DVD or CD burner.  These devices, and the media that goes with them, have become extremely inexpensive.  Using a CD or DVD burner to back up your files is an adequate solution, but it can be a little tricky and time consuming.  Most computers have built in software for burning disks, however there are some third party software programs that are effective.  Nero is a popular one, however, unless it came with your computer, it is not free.  We recommend CDBurnerXP.  This is a simple to use program that is absolutely free.

External Hard Drive

  • External hard drives typically connect using a USB connection, and provide a fast and easy way to back up files using simple copy and paste commands.  External drives are portable, relatively inexpensive, and can be a good way to quickly back up your data.  Another added benefit is that you can take the drive off-site, minimizing the risk of data loss if some unforeseen event took place like fire or water damage.  To help automate your backups to an external drive, there are many software applications, including one built right into Windows and Mac systems.  We recommend SyncBack Freeware.  This is an intuitive program that is free to use.  Just complete a wizard to start your automatic backups.

Network Storage Device

  • Sometimes referred to as a NAS (Network Attached Storage), these units are self contained storage devices that connect to a network connection, rather than directly to your computer.   Most NAS devices come with built in software to facilitate easy backup solutions.  The benefit of one of these devices over a standard external drive is that they usually have redundant hard drives, which means, two hard drives that mirror each other constantly.  If one drive fails, the other drive still has the data.    Another benefit of a networked device is that multiple computers can access the drive for backups and data.

File Server

  • A server is basically another computer that is primarily used to carry out functions like managing printers, files and databases.  A server is not used as a workstation.  A server can be any kind of computer, however, most typical servers are engineered to be more reliable and redundant than a regular computer.  With multiple hard drives, redundant power supplies, extra memory and special software, a server is a great tool to use for backing up data from multiple employees on a network.  By setting up a file server, and educating employees on using the server as the storage site for their documents and other digital assets, the risks of losing data from hardware failures are diminished.  Of course, a server can still fail, and measures should be taken to back up the assets on servers as well.

What should you be backing up?  To start out, make sure that your important documents and files are included in your backups.  Typically, these reside in your My Documents folder of your computer.  Remember to also backup the files that you have saved on your desktop.  Some people save more files to their desktop than any other location.

If you are using financial software like Quickbooks, or contact database software like ACT!, you should also back up the database files for those programs as well.  Losing all of your financial information can be devastating.  If you are using Outlook or another email program, the emails you have stored in the program may not be available if your hard drive crashed.  The key is to remember that all data has to be stored somewhere.  It is a good idea to assess the critical tools that you use, and take steps to insure that the data being used by those tools is safe and secure, and that regularly scheduled backups are taking place.

All of the free software mentioned in this article can be downloaded safely from http://www.download.com.

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Spyware, Malware and Viruses

June 26, 2009

Anyone who has surfed the internet knows how annoying it can be when a million pop-up ads appear, when all you really want to do is read the news or check your email.  Not only are those ads annoying, but they can also make your computer slow down to a snail’s pace.  Before you chuck your computer out the window in frustration, there are a few things you can do to easily speed up your computer and reduce those pop-ups.  These tips are fairly easy and can help you get back on the road to productivity.

Spyware and Malware are more than just annoying pop-up ads.  These two words are used to describe any kind of software that is installed on your computer, usually without your knowledge, that track and send data to outside sources about you.  Many times, if you install any “free” software, spyware and malware programs are bundled inside that free software and installed on your computer too.  The software can be used to track your surfing habits and display advertisements that are relevant to what you have been searching for on the internet.  They can also be used for more sinister purposes, like logging your keystrokes, stealing information like passwords and account numbers, and even turning your computer into an email spamming machine.  As more of these programs infest your computer, the slower it will run.  Many of these programs use your internet connection to send their data.  Having a lot of these programs on your computer can slow your internet speed as well.

Your first line of defense in keeping the spyware, malware and viruses off of your computer is to install and update a solid antivirus program.  Updating it means letting it connect to the internet, and downloading the latest definition files that scan your computer for infestations.  McAfee and Norton are the two largest names in the antivirus business.  Those software programs usually require paid subscriptions for the latest updates.  There are a few free antivirus software programs available, including AVG Free and Avast!.  Both programs work very well.

There are also some free programs designed to help remove spyware and malware specifically.  These programs usually do not run all the time, and will not stop the spyware and malware programs from getting installed, but they are effective in removing those nuisance programs once they are on your machine.  These programs include MalwareBytes, AdAware and Spybot Search and Destroy.  Using any one of these, or a combination of these programs on a regular basis is a good idea.  Most of the free programs described in this article can be found on this website, www.download.com.

Peer to Peer File Sharing is a popular way to download music, software and movies.  Typically, these downloads are not legal, and by using these types of programs, your computer is opened up to potential attacks by viruses and malware.  Some of the popular programs associated with peer to peer file sharing are Limewire, Gnutella, eDonkey, and BitTorrent.  File sharing is exactly that, sharing files on your computer with anonymous users all over the world.  It is in easy way for hackers and other nefarious computer users to easily obtain your personal information and wreak havoc on your computer system.

Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace have recently been used to spread viruses and spyware.  Members of these groups will receive an email or message from another member, usually a person that is in the members group of friends, requesting they click on a link for pictures.  A lot of times, this link will automatically install malware and spyware on your computer.  The person who sent the link usually has no idea their account has been compromised until all of their “friends” get infected.  A good rule of thumb is to never click on a link sent by anyone, even your friends, without first knowing what the link is.  Responding to the email and asking your friend about the link first, before you click on it, is a good way to avoid problems.

Updating your operating system is an important part of keeping your computer system secure.  Microsoft Windows and Apple computers both release security updates on a regular basis.  On a Microsoft Windows computer, the easiest way to find out if your computer is up to date is to run Windows Update.  Click on Start—ALL Programs and look for Windows Update or Microsoft Update.  Running either of those programs will access the Microsoft update website.  Follow the instructions on the screen to search for the latest updates.   Sometimes, a yellow shield will appear in the bottom right hand side of your screen.  By clicking on it, you will see updates that are ready to be installed on your computer.  It is a good idea to install those updates.   On a Mac, click the Apple Icon at the top left hand corner of the screen, then click Software Updates.

Computers are the tools for many businesses, and are found in most homes.  The internet has become a huge part of everyday life, and with life, there are risks out there.  By protecting your investment with these simple tips, you can mitigate the risks and keep your computer running smoothly.