Ten Administrative Tasks for Your Computer Network

It may seem like there are not enough hours in a day to get everything done. Some things never make it to the top of the “To Do” list. An area that is normally taken for granted is your network, server, and computers. It is easy to assume that everything is OK because you are not having any problems…well, not right now anyway. You could also drive your car for 40,000 miles without changing the oil and probably not have any engine problems. But, would you buy that car based on its reliability and the expectation that it has a lot of miles left in it?


Today’s dental office network is a lot different than the network of 5 years ago. One major difference is that your network is now connected to the Internet. If your network is not connected to the Internet, you are still exposed to viruses, worms, and other problems. If you don’t have a network, you can continue to read this article to find out how much fun you are missing. With the constant changes in technology comes the necessity to change how you manage and administer this technology.

I would like to provide you with a general list of tasks that should be completed on a monthly basis (except for No. 10, which should be done on a quarterly basis). Whether you perform these tasks or hire someone to do them for you is up to you. The topic of where your time is better spent is a personal decision you need to make. I highly recommend that you hire a computer professional to perform these tasks on a monthly basis because a few of the tasks can cause major problems if they are performed incorrectly, although some of my colleagues will accuse me of being the magician who is divulging how all the tricks are performed. 

The list of tasks is in no particular order and does not cover every situation. Your practice may need additional tasks or different tasks based on your network configuration. If you have read some of my previous articles, then you can probably guess what the first few tasks will be. Let’s get to work on our chores.

INSTALL WINDOWS UPDATES AND SERVICE PACKS
Microsoft releases fixes, updates, and patches (FUPs) on a regular basis. Currently, Microsoft is releasing these updates on the second Tuesday of each month. This could change by the time you read this article. The service packs are released with less frequency, about once a year for each operating system. (Windows XP and Windows 98 are operating systems.) You can use Windows Update to download and install the latest FUPs. These are changes to the operating system and should be installed with caution. Many larger corporations will test the updates in their labs before they install them on their PCs. I realize that you probably don’t have the staff or test lab, so I recommend that you have your computer support company install the FUPs for you.


Windows Update will also download and install service packs when they become available. Please do not be the first one on the block to install the service pack. Unless you want to be a test lab, let other people install it and work through the problems. Service packs are major upgrades for the operating system, and installing them can cause issues with your computer.

CHECK THE BACKUP LOGS AND RUN A TEST RESTORE
I know you are backing up your data every day, right? But are you checking to make sure the backup process is working correctly? Your backup software should create a log file for each backup or add information to a log file each time a backup is run. In some cases, the software may also include a section that shows a summary of each job and whether or not it was completed successfully. You should check the backup log or summary area every day to make sure the backup is working correctly. Get in the habit of checking when you change the media (tape, CD, external hard drive, etc). But (you know there is always a “gotcha” with this tech stuff), you should also run a test restore at least once a month to make sure you can read the data off the media you use for backup. Unfortunately, I do have people tell me that they never checked the logs and/or never tested the backup and lost all of their data. I am not recommending that you restore your entire server or even your application data. I choose a file that is not critical and rename the extension to .old. For example, I change the file manual.pdf to manual.old. I then restore this one file from the backup media to the hard drive.


Each month, I change the drive and folder location to make sure I am reading from different areas of the backup. You can also do this test if you have an online backup that will let you restore one file. It does not matter what software and hardware you use to backup your data; you should run a test restore. Please be careful and make sure you are 100% positive you are restoring only one file that is not a critical data file. If you are not sure, don’t guess or gamble. You should triple check the restore before you launch it to make sure the settings are correct. You may find out that the backup is working fine, but you are now stuck with using last night’s data.

If you have the time, the manuals, the intestinal fortitude, and the support contract, you can try restoring your practice management software to see if you can get all of the data off the backup media. I do not recommend that you try to do this over lunch. Also, due to the uniqueness of each network and the differences in the software, I will not try to guide you through this process. If you do attempt this, please make at least 3 different types of backup of your data before you start. This means that if you normally back up to tape, copy the data to another folder, also copy the data to an external hard drive, burn a CD of the data, and run an online backup of the data. Also, make sure the support department for your software is open and will be open for many hours before you try this. If you can sense the cautionary tone in my words, then I hope you understand that you can try this at your own risk.

CHECK THE SELECTIONS FOR THE BACKUP JOB
As part of the setup and configuration of your backup software, you need to select the files and folders that are part of the backup job list. You should check this list at least once a month to make sure you are backing up all of your data. The selections may not be the entire C and D drive (or whatever letters your server has for drives). If you have selected to backup just a few of the folders on the D drive and then install a new software program on D, it may not be added to the backup list. Don’t find out the hard way that your backup was working fine, but it was not backing up all of your data. I see this a lot with certain accounting packages. Such programs will put the data file in the same folder as the application files, under Program Files.
If you check the selections at the same time you are running the test restore, then you have saved yourself an extra trip to the server. Please take the time to look at your folders and files through My Computer or Windows Explorer and not just through the selections list. The list of available files and folders in the selections area may not be refreshing correctly, and you won’t see the new folders.

CHECK THE SERVER EVENT LOGS
If you are running a Windows server, then you have event logs that need to be checked on a monthly basis. You will usually find the logs under the System Administration, Event Viewer. The 2 most common logs to check are the Application and System logs. Usually the events with the blue icon are informational and nothing to worry about. The events with the yellow icon are warnings that should be investigated further. The events with the red icon indicate an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Here’s the “gotcha”… some red icon events are not critical and can be ignored. If you have driven in Massachusetts, then you understand that red does not always mean stop.


An event will usually have an Event ID and Application associated with it. You can try to find the solution to the problem by doing a search in the Knowledgebase at http://support.microsoft.com. This can be a very useful tool and a very frustrating experience. If you don’t find the solution using the Event ID, try using some of the wording in the error message to search for the solution. If that does not work, you can try going to the software vendor’s Web site and do a search in its support area.

CHECK THE RAID AND DISK HEALTH
Your server may have multiple hard drives in a hardware or software RAID configuration. This means that you are using more than one hard drive to store your data so that your server will survive a single hard drive failure with very little down time. If you are using a hardware RAID configuration, it may be possible to configure it so it sounds an alarm if one of the hard drives fails. There may also be lights on the front of the drives that will indicate a problem. But, the safest way to be sure that the RAID is working correctly is to check it through the RAID configuration software. This will show you the status of the RAID configuration as well the status of each drive.


The RAID software is not easy to use and can be very confusing. If you are not sure how to use it or are not sure about which selection to make to see the status, then don’t open the software or guess by clicking around in the window. It may be possible for you to erase the hard drives or reconfigure the RAID so that your only option is to reformat the hard drives. Either way, you are in for a long night of reinstalling, restoring, and reconfiguring. 

The way to check the status of a Windows software RAID is by using the Disk Management or Disk Ad­ministrator (depending on the version of Windows). The disks will show the status of the RAID as being healthy. You will normally find the Disk Management under Manage when you right click on My Computer or under Administrative Tools. If you are not using a RAID configuration, please go back to Task 2 and make sure your backups are working correctly.

CHECK THE UPS LOG AND RUN A TEST
This does not mean check to see what you have shipped via UPS. The UPS in this case is the Uninterruptible Power Supply that you have your server and maybe PCs plugged into. This is a battery backup that will keep the server up and running for a short amount of time if you suffer a loss of power. If the UPS is configured to communicate with the server, then it will perform a clean shutdown of the server if the power outage lasts for a predetermined amount of time. The UPS software may include a log file that you can check once a month to see how often the UPS has kicked in to provide power to the server. The log may also show you issues that are not obvious.


You can also test the UPS to make sure it will function properly if you do lose power. You should shut down any open or running applications on the server before you run this test. This may mean that you have to close the applications on the workstations as well. This is a precautionary step just in case the UPS fails and causes your server to shut off incorrectly. A UPS that fails will normally beep loudly, but the problem you have is that you have too much equipment plugged into it. The most common mistake that people make is to plug a laser printer into the UPS. The UPS cannot handle the load placed on its battery and will fail.

CHECK THE FIREWALL LOGS AND SETTINGS
If you have a firewall or cable/DSL router on your network, then it may keep a log of all activity. You should check this log once a month to ensure there is nothing suspicious or obvious going on. One thing that you will notice if you are checking the log around the same time that a worm (like Blaster or Sasser) has been released, is that there will be a lot of activity in the log. The log may not identify the worm, but it should tell you the port number that will also be referenced in the descriptions of the worm. Most, if not all, of the log entries will be harmless, but take the time to check it every month.


Also, while you are in the management area of the firewall, check the settings to make sure they are correct. If you are allowing access on a specific port number, then you want to make sure it is necessary for this port to be open. Only open the ports that you need to allow access for a specific application. For example, PCAnywhere uses ports 5631 and 5632 for the default settings. If you have a firewall and want to access your network using PCAnywhere, then you need to open up the ports 5631 and 5632. If you don’t use PCAnywhere, then there is no need to open these ports.

CHECK THE ANTIVIRUS SOFTWARE FOR UPDATES, AUTOPROTECT TURNED ON, AND VIRUSES FOUND
You should check your antivirus software on a monthly basis to make sure it is being updated regularly, the auto protection is turned on, and if any viruses have been found recently. If you have a server or more than a few PCs, then you should be using a corporate (or business) edition of the antivirus software. This edition will allow you to manage all of the settings and status from one PC. This means that if you install the management console software on your PC, you can change settings, check the status, and perform other tasks on all of the computers from the comfort of your office (and the server). This does not mean that you install the software that does all of the processing on your PC, just the management console to change the settings.


The auto protection may have been disabled when troubleshooting an issue, defragmenting the hard drive, or by a virus. This should be turned on and properly configured so it does not slow down your applications. You also want to make sure that any viruses that are found are cleaned, quarantined, or deleted. The amount of time it takes to check these settings is minimal compared to the amount of time it takes to recover from a virus.

CHECK WORKSTATIONS FOR UNAUTHORIZED SOFTWARE
This may be too much like Big Brother for some people, but rogue software programs can cause a lot of problems. The rogue software can be an illegal copy of valid, harmless software. I can assure you that the fine for illegal software will be issued in your practice’s name, not in the name of the employee who installed the software. There could be other software installed that causes perfor­mance problems with your network or opens your network up to viruses, adware, and spyware. If you rely on looking over your staff’s shoulder when you walk by to see if they are using unauthorized software, then you are not really protecting your network. You would not believe how fast the application can be closed as you approach. The fastest click in the West will occur at the sound of your voice or them catching a glimpse of you coming down the hall.


You can also buy monitoring software that will inventory the software installed on each PC, and it can provide you with a report and other features. This software can be pricey, but it may be worth the money if you are having a problem with illegal or unauthorized software. This is a risk/reward decision only you can make.

RUN A DISK DEFRAGMENT, CLEAN OUT THE PCS’ CASE, AND OTHER TASKS
This last set of tasks do not need to be run on a monthly schedule. They should be on a 6-month or 1-year schedule. How often you perform them is entirely based on your environment. If you have the PCs mounted up off the floor in a tiled room, then you may not have to clean out the inside more than once every 2 or 3 years. But, if the computer sits on the floor in a high traffic, carpeted area, then you may want to clean it out every 6 months.


The schedule for running a disk defrag is not as clear cut and will vary from tech to tech. If you are seeing performance issues, and running spy­ware/adware removal software does not solve the problem, it would not hurt to run a disk defrag. You should close all applications and disable your antivirus autoprotection before you start the defrag. Some people run a defrag once a month. As you can probably surmise, I am not an advocate of running disk defrag every month. But, I cannot fault those people who believe it is the right thing to do.

The other tasks depend on your network and will be specific to your office. You should take a look at your network and really give it some thought as to what other tasks should be done on a regular basis. Write the tasks down so you don’t forget. 

It should be noted that adware and spyware have become a major problem in the last year or so. Software programs are available to remove these annoyances. Also, new products are being released that will help stop the initial installation of these programs as well. You should run the removal programs once every 6 months, or when you start seeing a lot of pop-up ads or a noticeable slowdown of your computer.

CONCLUSION
I hope that this list is a good start for your network task list. Please understand that these tasks can cause more harm than good if they are performed incorrectly. You should check your ego at the door if you don’t have the technical knowledge or experience to perform the tasks with confidence. The task list is designed to help your network run smoothly, not to create new headaches for you and your staff. Give the list of tasks to your tech and go through it together to see which ones apply to your network.


Mr. Walsh is the owner of NDM Networks in Marlborough, Mass. NDM Networks provides computer and networking services to dental practices and small businesses in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. He can be contacted at (508) 624-9898 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 



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