A Maintenance Miscellany

Sharpen the Saw” was #7 on Stephen Covey’s list of the habits of “Highly Effective People” The main point was that effectiveness requires continuous attention to self renewal and maintenance. The same applies to the technology systems we often just take it for granted. It is easy to go months without turning our minds to the mundane task of taking the time to keep it all working well. 

When an unexpected “disk full” situation arose recently the subject got my attention very quickly. A user “whoops” had inadvertently moved a large number of files. They seemed to disappear, so a quick restore from one of our five backup systems got everyone working again – but we came perilously close to running out of disk space on our main files storage system. A closer look revealed many gigabytes of unnecessary files that I did not realize were being stored, making a shambles of our disk space planning. For example, an Internet based document creation system we had been using was leaving large numbers of very large files in “temporary” directories for each user. Just deleting these restored years worth of disk space. 

So what should a computer system maintenance checklist cover? There are numerous such checklists online.( Examples: One, Two, Three ) For guidance on checklists, see the Slaw book review by John Gillies titled “The Checklist Manifesto and the Smarter Lawyer”. See also Gawande’s Checklist for Checklists

What follow here is a miscellany of technology related “maintenance” items to consider from time to time:

1. Check disk usage. Periodically review disk space on network and local drives. What is taking up all that space? What about email? Temporary files? Duplications? There is no doubt a maxim that correlates the timing of “disk full” with “critical work”

2. Test backups. Test the systems. Do I need to repeat that? What was a great routine can easily be eroded by the passage of time and staff. One of our backup systems had stopped working when the administrative password for a server was changed – and the dependency was not noticed. 

3. Check for heat problems.  Inspect all systems to make sure that vents and fans are unobstructed and working well. Fan failure in the power supply of computers is very common. Are all “hot” components away from combustibles materials? Is the A/C really working in the server room? (We discovered that our building was turning it off on weekends…) Periodically removing internal dust will lengthen computer life by preventing overheating

4. Be the master of your domains. Who is monitoring your domain names and web services? Are fees paid for? If by credit card watch for expiry dates and number changes. We discovered the importance of this the hard way when our site mysteriously went down due to expiry of a web contractor’s credit card and the improper processing of a payment by the host service.

5. Record all serial numbers, activation codes and passwords. In a panic you will not be able to find that scrap of paper with the 20 digit code for the critical software. I use “Password Safe” to record this information. The encrypted data file is automatically updated to 4 locations via Dropbox.

6. Manage updates and version changes. Carefully planed system configurations and software versions will trend towards divergent chaos. This is always the management dilemma between the autocratic lock down of user systems and recognition that they are personal computers. At the least have a culture of “ask first” in the firm.

8. Monitor System Capacity Creep. What seemed adequate will not be at a critical moment. For example, I’ve just noticed that we are very soon to run out of network hub ports.

9. Check Points of failure. Are the various protective systems really working? We had a partial power failure recently, and realized that though the large UPS that keeps our central systems running worked well, the phone system was not connected to it. The ESI phone system we use (essentially a small special purpose computer) now has it’s own UPS.

10. Renew and Review Staff Skills. What are staff and lawyers really doing? While a initial group may have had great orientation and training when a new program/service/system was introduced – staff changes and work pressures seem to inevitably lead to significant declines in the use of technology you already own.

11. Track supplies. Running out of the pre-printed bank account cheques at month end is really annoying. Is everyone clear on whose job it is to track the status of supplies such as toner for copiers and printers?

12. Document Outside Assistance. Is your list of outside contacts generally available? Often just the person who has the relationship with the supplier/consultant/service provider knows critical contact information. Summer vacations are best not interrupted by panic phone calls looking for Bob the phone guy’s cell number.

13. Track Critical Subscriptions. Are you in control of and managing subscriptions to services such as anti-virus programs and email spam systems. Is there a central list of such obligations and expiry dates? 

14. Maintain Local Hard disks. Check space, file fragmentation, etc. One of our users Outlook had become intolerably slow. A sensible archive plan and file defragmentation saved the day. For other users in our office we’ve taken to installing a second hard drive solely for the purpose of paging, temporary and email files with resulting miraculous performance improvements. This is much cheaper than new machines, the usual recommendation.

15. Label and protect small devices. All small and portable gadgets need to be labeled and provided with appropriate protective cases. The good news is that most lost items fall into the hands of honest folk who we frustrate by not giving them an easy way do the right thing and give us a call. I put “Belongs to” files in a variety of formats on phones, USB drives and camera memory cards. Buy and use a label maker – I like the various Brother P-touch labellers.

15. Have functional “extra” computers. Staff time is valuable, so plan for the quick swap of dead computers. We recently had a capacitor fail on a computer motherboard – fortunately not a common occurrence. Though the computer was repaired and returned a day later, the glitch did make it clear how important it is to have alternatives so staff can keep working.

There are of course many other points that could be covered, but the above list should avoid or minimize the impact of the worst technology emergencies.

Though not an “emergency”, I am going to have to come to grips with cleaning my favourite old Dell keyboard. It will likely take prying off every key, but at least I’ll be rid of several years of grime and the various “unknowns” that have accumulated to the point of embarrassing visibility.

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