Sunday, November 27, 2011

Backup, Backup, Backup

Executive Summary:

Bad things sadly happen to computers and files. Hard drives crash, files get corrupted, viruses destroy a machine, and the deletion of key data or documents accidentally occurs. It's like getting a flat tire on your car, it's just going to happen and is understandable and excusable. All you can do it pull out the spare tire and change it. Not having a spare tire or not knowing how to change a tire is NOT understandable and inexcusable. Not having your computer files backed up is also not understandable and inexcusable.

There are three main types of backups with advantages and disadvantages to each:

Local backup. Getting an external hard drive for around $50 is a simple way to backup all of your important documents, pictures, and music. This can either be left plugged in constantly with backup software running between constantly and daily or this can be plugged in frequently (weekly) and a backup performed then. This is simple, cheap, and easy. The downside to this method is that you are only protected against computer failure. Natural disaster, theft, or another event that affects your whole house will destroy both your computer and backup simultaneously.

Nearby backup. This method also has you backing up files to an external hard but then you take that backup to another location, like your office or relative's house. Make sure this is a place you can easily and frequently go. Backups made this way often happen about once a quarter by brining the hard drive home, performing the backup, and returned the hard drive to the remote location. This will protect your files in case of an emergency that affects your home but not your entire city. Also, since files are not backed up as recently you may not have valuable files backed up (like your child's most recent birthday party) but you do have everything except for the last few months.

Online backup. There are several companies including Mozy, Carbonite, Dropbox, and even Google and Microsoft that will backup your files to their servers for a small fee (between free and a few hundred per year based on storage size). These options often include software that is constantly backing up your files and have an option to view files online (so you can show off those latest pictures at grandma's house, check your child's homework from work, or quickly put that new song your just bought onto your work laptop). The security and quality of these companies is fantastic, but there will be rare times when an error occurs so you can't get to your backed up files or everyone has access to your files. Also, these are rich targets for hackers to go after but no attack has worked yet.

My professors were always very understanding when a computer crashed a student couldn't hand in an assignment on time. All my professors required was a backup copy of the assignment from the last 48 hours to grant a deadline extension. Computers do crash and it's something everyone has experienced. Losing files to a crash should never happen.

Full Explanation:

The story above about my professors is true, but I luckily never had to experience it first hand. I have had multiple hard drives crash on though. My wife's laptop once had the hard drive crash at the tech help at the store we bought it at were kind enough to take a week and replace the hard drive and tell us that all the data was lost unless we wanted to pay hundreds of dollars per hour to have a professional recover the data. We politely declined and I was able to recover about 90% of the data a short while later. The last 10% was a sad loss, but it wasn't anything tragic like early childhood pictures or a thesis paper. I had another hard drive die on me a couple of months ago. I went to the same store, bought a replacement hard drive, and simply restored the data from the backup that was made the previous night. I learned my lesson. So has most of the computer industry.

Both Microsoft and Apple have simple tools built into the operating system that now allow for backups to be made frequently, simply, and with lots of great options. My favorite new option is version control that allows you to not just backup a file from how it was at the time of the most recent backup but to go back and look at different versions of the document from 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months ago, etc. Setting up these tools is fairly straight forward, but most people just don't take the few minutes to do it with the purchase of each new computer. There is no reason not to. External hard drives and cheap and sold everywhere. Online options are plentiful and simple. It's a needed step for any responsible computer user.

There are several terms that you may hear in backup language. Here is the quick explanation of each:

Differential Backup - This means making a full backup of all your files
Incremental Backup - This is looking at what files have changed since your last full backup and just backing up the changed files.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Virus Protection

Executive Summary:

Computers need virus protection like homes need locks, it’s not strictly necessary unless the neighborhood you are in is bad.  Be careful where you surf on the internet and be extra careful of what you download.  Also be sure of links that you click on from your email. “Free” games and fonts are often a shell for viruses.  Peer to peer file sharing often have viruses as well.  Use virus protection that is free and won’t clog your system like Avast or AVG. Yes, they really are free.  Companies off free virus protection because infected computers are used to attack website and companies with denial of service attacks, gather personal information for identity theft, or host illegal/illicit websites.

Viruses are meant to exploit holes in programs or the operating system.  This is why so many updates are released.  Sometimes the update adds new features, but most also patch previous holes that have recently been discovered.

Think before you click.  Have virus protection as a second line of defense. Always update your computer.


There are lots of nasty programs floating around the internet.  It used to be that viruses were designed to bring down a computer just for the sheer destruction.  Viruses now don’t harm the infected computer as the programmer want to use the computer for their purposes.  I’m going to use the term “virus” here to refer to true viruses, spyware, adware, and all other malware. 

Viruses are usually found on small private websites.  These websites entice by offering free some type of free product, such as movies, games, fonts, or porn. They can also be reached by sending you an email promising you something interesting or valid but then the link takes you to their site. That is also how phishing works, but that is another blog post. The most sophisticated of these websites only require that you go to the website to be infected by the virus.  This is done by exploiting holes in the web browser you are using.  When a hole is discovered in a web browser, the company that makes it will issue a patch to fix it.  When web browsers are not kept up to date, there are more holes that can be used to install a virus on your computer.  Most web browsers including Firefox and Chrome will update themselves to prevent this problem. This can also be done through peer to peer sharing where a virus is disguised as something you want to download.

Less sophisticated website will ask you to install something.  This can be either disguised as a plug-in for the website to “work properly” or as a full program for you to download and install.  These programs will then either cause adds to appear, tell you there is a virus on your computer that you must pay to remove, track you for either advertising purposes or identity theft, or take secret control of your computer. This can also be done through peer to peer sharing where a virus is disguised as something you want to download.

The most advanced viruses can be targeted directly at a computer connected to the internet and look for a known hole in the operating system and use that to install a virus.  These attacks are often stopped automatically by firewalls on the computer or by the router or modem before ever reaching the computer.

Keeping the operating system updated will prevent or neutralize most viruses. Viruses can’t do what they want without using a hole in the operating system to allow them to do something they are not supposed to.

If your computer is infected by a virus, contact a computer professional immediately.  Often viruses can be removed without too much difficulty.   Occasionally, a virus becomes deeply entrenched in the operating system and removing the virus requires the removal of all data from the hard drive followed by the reinstallation of the operating system and all program and the restoring of data from backups. That is another reason why backing up data is so important, but that’s another blog entry.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mission Statement

Executive Summary:

I'm a computer guy with a Masters Degree in Information Systems that commonly gets asked good questions but my non-tech friends and family. This is a compilation of my answers to their questions about computers and technology in general. This is NOT "Computers for Dummies" because these are GOOD questions asked by SMART people with careers in non-computer fields. Each blog entry will contain an Executive Summary with a concise answer while the rest of the blog post will have a full explanation.

Full Explanation:

Hi, my name is Will Day and I'm a computer geek. I've always loved playing around with computers and learning how to make them do more and more (or just use more and more of the functionality already built in that most users don't touch). As I went through the business program at the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University, I found myself constantly on my laptop for each class working away at whatever problem had been assigned. Pretty quickly I figure out that I loved having my computer help me solve business problems so instead of getting a business degree with an emphasis in entrepreneurship, marketing, or finance I changed my major to Information Systems.

I've been the tech support for my family for years-decades now and they often ask me whenever they have a tech question including "What computer should I buy? Why won't my printer work? What's a mp3?" and my personal favorite, "I'm having a problem, can you come look at it?" After years of this, most people quickly get frustrated and refuse to keep helping. In fact, a common geek shirt simply states (in classic white text on a black shirt), "No, I will not fix your computer". This has led to a great divide between computer geeks and the average computer user that I'd like to try and bridge.

What will follow is a series of entries on different questions that I either have been asked or wish I was asked. Each entry will be broken up between an Executive Summary and a Full Explanation. While in business school, I had to write reports that went on for pages in many details about a process, idea, or concept but they would always have a short executive summary at the front that could be given to people who charge per hour what I charge per week and don't have the time, experience, or interest to read the full report. They just want a quick overview and trust my conclusions.

I'd like to caveat this whole project now by saying that I do not hold myself out to be an expert. Use my advice at your own risk. I do not work for any consumer software or hardware company and any products listed should be researched and tested before being used any computer system with valuable information.