Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    You can do a lot to protect your data and your hardware, but if the lights go out unexpectedly...

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #338 April 16, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    If you're using a computer for anything more serious than playing Doom, you will no doubt have felt, at some stage, that everything's stacked against you and your data.

    There are computer viruses. Hardware failures. Hackers trying to steal your password to get onto your network. Thieves who'll steal the RAM and CPU right out of your computer's case. Fire. Flood. Earthquake. The year 2000.

    So you keep your antivirus program up to date. Change your password every month or so. Have a regular schedule for backups. Put a deadbolt on the office door. What could possibly go wro

    You guessed it. Electricity. Can you take your electrical system for granted? Do you know what would happen if the power went out while you were working on your data? Would your vital files get corrupted or lost? Bad enough on your stand-alone machine, but what would happen to the network?

    This kind of disaster can be as dramatic as a power-grid failure shutting down the entire Lower Mainland or as mundane as your toddler playing with the wires behind your desk (especially with the growing numbers of telecommuters working from home). And how about voltage drops as summertime air-conditioners strain the power system? Or sudden spikes during a lightning storm? Depending on the problem, you may suffer burned-out components or data loss. Fluctuating voltage can be more subtle, causing intermittent hardware problems, or taking on the form of an apparent virus infection, often difficult to diagnose.

    Many of us have bought a power-bar-type surge protector for $20 or $30, hoping that this will provide protection against power system problems. Sorry--no such luck. These provide little real protection against voltage spikes or drops, and no protection at all against sudden blackouts.

    There is, however, a solution--uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs). These resemble a car battery in a fancy case, and can cost anywhere from $150 to $10,000. At the low end, you'll get a unit that will provide 5 to 10 minutes' worth of power for a single computer, which should be enough time to save your data and shut down in a safe, controlled way. As price goes up, so does capability, eventually providing protection for an entire network for longer periods. More complex systems may also require software to automatically monitor and shut down unattended systems.

    Only about five per cent of computers are protected by UPS backup power, mostly computers connected to networks. BC Tel Electrical Services is hoping to increase awareness of the need for businesses to protect computers and other mission-critical business equipment, and to that end, they're hosting a seminar on "Bullet-Proof Power Protection" on May 15th. The morning, with specialists Robert Murray and David Hilbich, costs $25. Phone 444-8808 for information.

    But if knowing about UPSs makes you think it's safe to stop worrying, here are a few more things to fuel your paranoia. With razor-thin profit margins in the sale of computer hardware, some less-than-scrupulous dealers have been reported to have resorted to "shaving" the tops of CPUs to relabel a lower-priced, slower chip with a higher rating and then selling it in a higher-priced computer, and repackaging older or returned hardware in new boxes.

    Is there a serial number on the outside of the box? Does it match the hardware inside? As always, know your supplier, and get your warranty in writing.

    Finally, last on my list of things to worry about when everything is going too well is software bugs. Any software product is a complicated piece of craft, and inevitably, every piece of software contains bugs--bits of code that work differently from what the designers planned.

    Before the official release of Internet darling Netscape's latest version of its popular Web browser, it made beta test versions widely available, holding a contest with prizes for people who found bugs. Despite that, with Netscape Navigator version 2.0 now available, word is out that its built-in JavaScript scripting language allows outsiders to "steal" users' e-mail addresses from Navigator's preference file. (You can see this in action under controlled conditions at http://fox.

    As well, there are other potential security problems with JavaScript (which, despite the not-entirely-coincidental similarity of names, has nothing to do with Sun's much-hyped Internet programming language, Java). Netscape, realizing the potential for abuse, has rushed a fixed version, Navigator 2.01, out the door. If you're one of the 80 per cent of Web wanderers using a version of Netscape, make sure you have the fixed version. (Older, version 1 copies of Navigator are also safe.)

    Enough worrying. It's spring. Turn off the computer, go home, and work in your garden.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan