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Practice Defensive Computing – Your Biz Depends On It!

Last week, a friend of mine lost the use of her computer due to a virus. This week, other friends in New England are stranded without power or access to their PCs because of a bad ice-storm. In the past year, other people that I know have had their laptops stolen or damaged.

The businesses of all of these people – their livelihoods – are severely impacted by the fact that their computers are down. They cannot serve their clients, issue invoices or receive payments.

I love my friends, but I have to ask this one question to them – What in the h-e-double-hockey-stick are you thinking?

In 2008 there is absolutely no excuse NOT to practice “Defensive Computing”.

Defensive Computing means treating your data and your computer systems as the most important assets of your business. Defensive Computing is equal parts common sense, paranoia and suspicion.

Large corporations spend millions of dollars to physically secure their computing facilities and their data, because they know the importance of these assets to the very survival of their business. Luckily Defensive Computing for the solopreneur does not require a lot of cash… actually most of what you require is free or cheap!

Here are some suggestions to practice Defensive Computing.

1. Use Gmail, at least as a backup for all your e-mail

Gmail is great because it has “unlimited storage” in that they are always increasing the available space. I started using Gmail as a backup e-mail system in Jan 2007 (two years ago) and my accumulated e-mail size stays at about 30% of the always growing total space. I never have to delete anything, and in addition it has great anti-spam filters.

At first I set it to simply copy my main e-mail box, then I started to use my Gmail account as my main account, because of all the great search features on it, plus it is available anywhere. When you send me an e-mail now, it is forwarded to my Gmail address. I backup my Gmail using GmailBackup.com as well as with Thunderbird on my main PC. Now I never lose an e-mail, and have access to it anywhere.

2. Speaking of backups, DO THEM! (several)

You can never backup too much. Backup drives and software are so cheap that it is silly not to spend $150 for more space than you will ever need (unless you download lots of movies!). I have a 500GB FreeAgentPro always connected to my main PC, set to do a backup each day at 6pm. The backup works in the background and I don’t notice it. If I finish some major work, I manually trigger a data backup before shutting the system down for the night.

I also keep with me a $20 8GB USB key drive with a copy of my files and archives (using SuperFlexibleFileSynch), AND have a full backup of my files and archives on my laptops (see below). In addition, I keep another USB key with my archives in my bank safety deposit box AND a full backup archived through the web service Mozy.com All these backups are automatically scheduled so I am confident to not lose anything.

My USB keys also have PortableApps.com on them, which are miniature, portable versions of software I can use to read all of my data even when I’m not on my own systems. This way, when I use someone else’s computer, I plug in my USB key, use my own applications, settings and data, then remove the key without any trace of me being on the borrowed system. It’s like a PC in my pocket!

So no matter what happens, even if I don’t have access to my own computer, I can continue my business through any computer anywhere in the world.

3. Don’t open attachments, and even better, don’t send attachments

If you receive attachments by e-mail from people you don’t know, or from people you know – DON’T DOWNLOAD THEM AND DON’T OPEN THEM! This is another reason why I absolutely love Gmail: it allows you to open most attachments (Word files, Excel, Powerpoint, .pdf) right in your browser without the file touching your computer. I tell people never to send me attachments unless they tell me first, and even at that, I don’t download them in case they are infected (I use Google Docs to read them).

While we are on the subject of attachments, don’t send those cute powerpoint videos or singing postcards, even if they are “inspirational”. And if you get them, even from a friend, delete them right away.

And when you are on Facebook, MySpace or other social networking sites, consider any application (“SuperWall”, “Gifts”, etc) as being as dangerous as an attachment. I routinely cancel or ignore any invitations from my friends to SuperPoke, Kiss, Rate This or whatever. Don’t worry, they won’t be insulted (and if they are, it’s time to find new friends).

Treat all attachments like the slimy, gross, germy, pus-laden pieces of trash that they are (got the message?)

4. Make sure your anti-virus is always up to date (and if you don’t have one, you don’t deserve to lay hands on a mouse)

Operating a PC without current anti-virus software is like driving at night without headlights. You may get away with it for a while, but you’re setting yourself up for a horrible accident! Get good software, even the free stuff like Avast or AVG is good, and KEEP IT UP TO DATE!

5. Even Better, get off of Windows and move to Linux.

If you’ve had your main computer disabled by a virus, consider this your last warning. Get off of Windows, whatever version you are using. I highly recommend the latest “Long Term Edition” of Linux Ubuntu (currently 8.04). It’s free, it works, and your computer will run a lot smoother. You can download the version at www.ubuntu.com and burn it on a CD, then pop in the CD and boot your computer from it to test how it performs on your system. Once you see that everything works, then simply press “Install” and it will install itself on your system without damaging your Windows installation. From this point on you can start your computer in Windows or in Ubuntu. I often use Ubuntu for everyday work, going back to Windows for some specialized stuff.

If you find this a bit daunting, there is probably a Linux Users Group in your area who will gladly provide the software for you (for free!) and help to make the switch.

Once you get used to the slightly different interface, you will enjoy it. Ubuntu, because it is a more efficient system, will make your computer faster and more pleasant to use. Right now, if what you do on your system is mainly web surfing, YouTube, mp3s and word processing, then Ubuntu will definitely meet your needs and keep you safe… and did I mention it’s free?

6. Have a backup computer.

If your business depends on a computer, why do you have just one? For as little as $199 you can get a perfectly good used computer from a reputable used laptop store (corporate off-lease refurbished). Anything that is a Pentium IV processor and at least 512 MB of RAM and you’ll be okay for word processing, accessing your bank accounts and your billing system. Load your main applications on it, then put it away. If you’ve made a backup of your data to an external hard drive or large-capacity USB stick, drag out your backup laptop, plug in your data source, and away you go!

I have actually three backup computers: my MacBook laptop which has a mirror of the data on my main system, a Linux netbook (mini-laptop) which has another mirror of my main data, and an old but still functional Pentium II tank-of-a-laptop which is the one I keep stored away (It runs a current version of Linux and OpenOffice so it works perfectly fine as an emergency system, even though it is almost ten years old!).

Done right, Defensive Computing is actually cheaper, faster and more efficient than the alternative… losing your complete business because of a silly virus or hardware failure. How expensive would having to shut the doors on your business be for you, just because you had to see that video of a dancing dog?

For more information

Update (2010-10-16): Since writing this post, I now use Dropbox , a FREE service which synchronizes all my data on each of my computers to a master copy “in the cloud”. It works on Windows, Mac and Linux. I don’t need to carry around USB sticks any more. Get your own free copy of Dropbox (2GB + an additional 250MB of bonus space) by clicking this link: http://www.dropbox.com/referrals/NTExOTE0ODI5 (I get an extra 250MB too when you sign up for free, so we both win!)

Image credit: Amanda Tetrault (mandyxclear) on Flickr
Original image link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mandyxclear/3461234232/
Used under Creative Commons 2.0 licence

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