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Computer First Aid Kit?

May 23, 2006

© 2006 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

Who would think of crossing an ocean in a boat with their family — without a first aid kit?  Ministries relying on computer systems are in a similar situation:

  • Your staff, like your oceangoing family, is trusting that you’ve done your homework assuring their well-being;
  • While out there on the computing ocean of life, islands of good support and safe harbor can be few and far between;
  • The chance of a problem being inconvenient is high; and
  • Poor planning on your part could very well end in mutiny!

Like so many areas in life, this is one in which advance planning pays off.  Hopefully, like an insurance policy, you won’t need to be thankful you had coverage in place.  But if disaster strikes, you’ll be glad you had a lifeboat with provisions packed.  More than that, your staff, will appreciate your thorough preparation.

The Potential Evil That Lurks
Computer problems come in all shapes and sizes.  As we look at what to include in our first aid kit, let’s keep these potential problems in mind:

Hard drive failure, virus infection (when someone’s negative calling in life raises your temperature), user error, natural disaster, electrical surge or loss of power, and theft.

Don’t Leave Work Without It
One of the most important system recovery tools is a recent back-up of all your system data.  The importance of a current data back-up cannot be overstated.  While you probably still have a copy of your programs on their original CDs (included when you purchased your software), your data is virtually irreplaceable.

We strongly recommend daily data back-ups.  Use at least two weeks of daily tapes that are continually rotated.  In addition, regularly make a full system back-up and take it off site, maybe weekly or monthly.  Also, consider sending your database backup to an off-site location so that it can be accessed via the Internet if your ministry suffers a Katrina-scale disaster.  Many network support teams offer this service at a low cost.  This will be helpful if your buildings are hit by a disaster, natural or otherwise.

Server Configuration
We’ve had the privilege of working on hundreds of ministry networks around the country, so we’ve worked with a lot of network engineers.  When we’re called in to help a ministry whose network or server that someone set up for them has crashed, we always ask for:

  • The network server boot-up files on a write-protected disk.
  • Server backup & restore software.
  • Hard copy documentation:
  • an overview of the network system;
  • the system login script file;
  • a user list with configurations, passwords, etc;
  • group configurations;
  • network printing configuration;
  • security plan; and
  • the network administration procedures.

Keeping this documentation up-to-date is challenging, but important.

We also ask for:

  • The server directory structure;
  • Network restore procedures;
  • The physical network layout including:
  • the network backbone;
  • all switches, with port assignments & office locations; and
  • print servers.

Internet Connectivity
So much is done via the Internet today.  Keep a list of all of your Internet connectivity specifics:

  • ISP (Internet Service Provider) and their technical support number;
  • Type of connection and speed; and
  • Your IP addresses.

If you have multiple sites connected via the Internet, then you should also document your WAN link information, type of connection, and equipment.

Power to Spare… And Then Some
Finally, protect your computers with high quality electrical surge protectors.  A high percentage of computer problems are caused by electrical fluctuations.  This is an area where a little money spent now may save you a lot of time and money later.

Surge protectors come in many shapes and sizes, and in a range of qualities.  They range in price from a couple of dollars to a couple of hundred dollars.  While you probably don’t need to spend two hundred dollars on a surge protector, you do want to make sure the surge protector you buy will adequately protect your computer.  Your surge protector should be:

  • UL 1449 listed (high level of surge suppression); and
  • UL 497A listed (modem and communication protection).

Servers and switches should be protected by uninterruptible power supplies, or UPSs.  You might think of these as high-end surge protectors, but they’re more than that.  They usually include circuitry that cleans up the electricity and batteries so that your servers will continue to operate even when the power goes out.  Our favorite brand is APC because they’re so dependable.

Know Your Plan & Test It
Most organizations have an undocumented disaster recovery plan that has never been tested.  As many ministries learned in last year’s hurricane season, waiting until the disaster hits is the worst time to test your system.  We recommend testing your disaster recovery plan annually and making adjustments based on the results.

If you follow these recommendations, you will find:

  • That almost any problem that strikes (of course, we hope your system never has a problem) will be relatively easy to resolve quickly; and
  • Your staff, should disaster strike, will be amazed at your thorough preparation and thank God for you.
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