Ounce of prevention: Keeping your computers cool
By Carol L. Schlein
Maybe because it’s summer or because I recently saw the film An Inconvenient Truth, or maybe it’s because I’ve spent a lot of time recently repairing clients’ billing system databases stemming from electric interruptions. Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to protect ourselves and our computers from preventable heat-related ailments.
Years ago, room-sized computers were more sensitive to heat, requiring a climate-controlled environment. Now, components are more tolerant to temperature variations, and in most of the country no longer require constant air conditioning. However, some precautions still are needed to protect the equipment, and, more important, the data stored on it.
Even if your office isn’t in a building prone to electric fluctuations, you’re well-advised to purchase an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) for the server and individual computers. This is a major step beyond power strips, both in functionality and price. A UPS has a built-in battery and includes software and cables connected to the server or workstation. When there’s a surge or dip in electricity, the UPS will condition the power to the computer and keep it at a steady rate, thereby protecting its delicate components.
I recently repaired a client’s billing system data because the office lost power while bills were being prepared. Power outages are more frequent in summer because of thunderstorms and increased use of electricity for air conditioners.
The price of a UPS ranges from $80 to $500, based on how much protection they offer and for how long. Depending on the unit, computers can run on battery from 10 to 30 minutes, allowing enough time to properly close programs and shut down the computer.
For more critical equipment like a server, you may want a UPS that allows more time, since all workstations should be shut down before the server. Most UPSs can be configured to close applications and then shut down. When connecting a UPS to a computer, Windows XP Power Management settings (under System/Control Panel/Power Options) also can configure the UPS and determine what happens if power is lost. Databases such as billing, accounting and practice management programs are particularly vulnerable to data corruption when not properly closed.
It’s good to have a couple flashlights with fresh batteries — it’s hard to see the keyboard in the dark.
And make sure any portable electronic devices that run on batteries are kept fully charged. When not in use, I keep my laptop and Palm-based cell phone in their chargers. In an emergency, they can be used instead of a desktop computer, server and internet-based telephone.
Sometimes, preventive actions can best protect computer files. A backup strategy is essential; it should include regular, distinctly named backup files of such critical databases as billing, case or practice management, accounting and e-mail records. I recommend performing daily backups from within the software with names like DataMonday, DataTuesday, DataWednesday, etc. This creates a week’s worth of backups that are replaced the same day the following week. These backups should be saved to the server so they’re copied, in turn, onto backup tapes.
This built-in backup serves two purposes: First, it ensures a snapshot of critical data on a daily basis. In some programs, performing a backup requires everyone to be logged off the program. While this may seem inconvenient, it ensures all files within the program are closed before the backup is made. Second, each backup is stored on the server so if something goes wrong with the application, there’s more than one recent copy of data to use to restore files. Additionally, each backup tape has the most-recent five days of backups.
A client called recently about corruption in the firm’s billing program. Unfortunately, I found the last backup was done more than three weeks before. The billing administrator explained all the lawyers had to be logged out of the program before she could do a backup. The attorneys there enter their time directly into the billing program, so there were no paper records from which to recreate that data. Finding a convenient time to do the backup was tricky. However, faced with the possibility of losing three weeks of data, the firm quickly realized it was in its interest to make the time — it’s just a few minutes — to make the actual backup. While I was able to repair the database, the firm learned a valuable lesson about daily backups.
Be sure those backups are rotated and taken offsite. Keep in mind that predictions for this year’s hurricane season include the possibility of a Category 3 or higher storm coming up the East Coast.
If your budget allows, this might be the time to look into an online backup service. While expensive, it ensures critical data is kept secure. If you can’t afford it, but your firm has a website, you might have enough capacity to upload critical backup files to your site under a password protected section. This way, a copy of those files are on the internet.
You should plan for and organize the information and equipment to bring if you must evacuate quickly. List the most-crucial items to grab if there are only a few minutes. Even better, keep an extra copy of those things in an area less likely to be affected by the same weather.
Select the primary person to take the data and a backup employee. Make sure someone has contact information for the entire staff and consider where and how you could work if your area is severely disrupted by an extended power outage or natural disaster. There were stories about attorneys who remembered their laptop and cell phone, but didn’t bring the chargers. Investing in spare batteries is a good idea.
Gather and organize all your software and license information, including manufacturer contact information. You might need replacement computers and software. Check your insurance options and make sure to take policy information and contact numbers with you.
If your firm has branch offices, make sure each one has a full set of critical information so it could become the main branch in an emergency. Lawyers in the area around the World Trade Center couldn’t return to their office for several months after Sept. 11; many chose to move permanently to other parts of the city and some set up systems at home. But last year’s devastating hurricanes destroyed people’s homes as well as offices. When considering where to store critical data, think beyond the immediate geographic area. Maybe small firms could pair with others elsewhere in the country as “backup pals” to keep a recent set of data.
The best way to be prepared for a disaster is assume when you leave your office tonight, you won’t be able to return for an extended period. If this sounds like a draconian mindset, just ask lawyers in small firms in South Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Texas what they would have done differently if given the chance.
Carol L. Schlein is president of Law Office Systems in Montclair, a
training and consulting firm specializing in law firm
automation. Copies of previous columns are on her company
For information about her quarterly meetings for Time Matters
users, check the website or e-mail
formerly chaired the Computer and Technology Division of the
ABA Law Practice Management Section.
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