High availability – following the backup rule

Article (PSA-0005)
Submitted by: Billy Joe Long
Company: PSA Computer Services
Titled: High availability – following the backup rule
Original release date: September 23, 2017
Updated date: August 16, 2019

[High Availability is a characteristic of a system, which aims to ensure an agreed level of operational performance, usually uptime, for a higher than normal period. Modernization has resulted in an increased reliance on these systems. For example, hospitals and data centers require high availability of their systems to perform routine daily activities. Availability refers to the ability of the user community to obtain a service or good, access the system, whether to submit new work, update or alter existing work, or collect the results of previous work. If a user cannot access the system, it is – from the users point of view – unavailable. Generally, the term downtime is used to refer to periods when a system is unavailable.] – Wikipedia.org

Reliable backups are one of the foundations of “high availability”. Catastrophe can hit any business, no-matter how small or big you are, and catastrophe can come in many forms such as: hardware failure or “ransomware”. The more data lost, the greater the impact on your business. Part of getting your business back up and running after a disaster, is being able to restore operations to where they were before the problem occurred. Businesses who have learned the value of backups employ the 3-2-1-0 rule.

3: Maintain at least three copies of your data and applications. That’s the one copy you’re using and two backups. This way, if one of your backups is unavailable for any reason, you can still recover what you need in a reasonable amount of time.

2: Store your backups on at least two different types of media. One reason for this is each type of media has its own vulnerabilities, and you don’t want both of our backups susceptible to the same problem. By utilizing different media, you can reduce your exposure to the same incident preventing access to both of your backups.

1: Keep one of the backups in a different location. Consider a catastrophe at your business, such as a break-in, fire or natural disaster. If all of your backups are at the same location, they will all be affected. This can result in total data loss for your business.

0: Verify your recovery plan has zero errors. It is not uncommon for businesses to implement a backup plan but fail to verify it is performing as expected. Regular testing is critical to ensuring you can recover your business data and applications in the event of disaster.

It doesn’t matter if you are a business or home computer user, if you have anything on your computer that matters to you, it is your responsibility to make sure you have a backup plan in place. In my 20+ years of experience in the IT industry I have seen brand new hard drives fail within 90 days of purchase. I have seen years of family pictures vanish by accidental deletion and I have seen “un-tested” backups fail to restore important business files – files which everybody “thought” were being backed up.

How Antivirus and Antispyware Work

Article (PSA-0004)
Submitted by: Billy Joe Long
Company: PSA Computer Services
Titled: How Antivirus and Antispyware Work
Original release date: July 18, 2017

Both antivirus and antispyware software monitor your computer for potential threats.
If your computer is connected to the internet, you should have a functioning, properly licensed and updated antivirus and antispyware program. At a minimum the software you choose should offer “real-time” scanning, as well as “scheduled” scanning functionality.

“Real Time” scanning allows the software to continually scan files as they are downloaded to your computer, and will notify you if the file(s) you receive contain malware.

“Scheduled” scanning allows the software to scan all the existing files (or selected files) on your computer hard disk in a systematic effort to locate existing files that “look like” a virus.

  • For those of you using Microsoft Windows 7, Microsoft offers a free anti-virus product called Microsoft Security Essentials in 32-bit and 64-bit versions. It can be used by home users and small businesses with up to 10 computers. See Microsoft Software License Terms for more information.
  • For those of you using Microsoft Windows 8 or higher, Windows Defender comes integrated with the operating system and provides antivirus and antispyware protection.
  • Both Microsoft Security Essentials and Windows Defender come at no additional cost – there’s nothing to buy, no subscriptions and no nagware – yeah I know, awesome!

Most antivirus and antispyware tools can identify suspicious software based on a list of known threats called “definitions.” Definitions should be updated automatically by the software and new updates should be provided when new threats are discovered.

Preventing Infection with Antivirus and Antispyware Software

Antivirus and antispyware software are basic tools that no home or business should be without.

In short, a single antivirus program, a single antispyware program and a single configured firewall is adequate. Installing more than one of any of these programs can generate a few notable issues. Let’s take a few moments to look at the biggest issues.

  1. Each program running on your computer is using some of your system memory (RAM). The more programs running, the more RAM is used. When there is no more RAM available, your computer will begin to use your hard disk as a “type” of RAM. Hard disk access is not as fast as RAM access, and when your system has to start using the hard disk as RAM it greatly degrades the performance of your entire system.
  2. Having more than one of these programs running on your system can result in a software conflict. If both programs are scanning your computer for “malicious activity” there is a high probability they will see each other as “malicious activity” causing a software conflict. This particular problem can be extremely frustrating and can lead to the next very challenging side effect.
  3. Files necessary to the other scanning program can often be identified as “malicious”, and will be quarantined (made inaccessible) or removed, leaving the program corrupted. Trying to repair a program in this condition can be problematic to say the least.
  4. Finally, maintaining the licensing and updates for your programs can be time consuming and expensive. I am a firm believer that “less is better”.

What to Do if You Suspect Infection

There is no guaranteed way to keep malware out. Installing and using antivirus and antispyware software, along with a healthy dose of “common sense” is a good start. But what does it look like when these tools fail? And what can you do about it?

The following may indicate your computer is infected with malware:

  • Lots of pop-up windows or unexpected messages on your screen
  • Unexpected toolbars appear in your web browser
  • New icons or programs appear on your computer
  • Your web browser home page changes or you are redirected unexpectedly to unknown websites
  • Your computer suddenly seems slow, freezes, or crashes during regular use

If you suspect infection, you should:

  • Download the most recent definitions for your antivirus and antispyware software
  • Run a full scan using both tools (this will usually be much more in-depth and will take longer than the regular monitoring scans)
  • Follow the software’s instructions to remove suspected malware

If removing malware this way doesn’t work, or if the malware returns when you reboot your computer, you should seek professional help from a qualified computer service provider. There are a few qualified local service providers, but PSA, LLC offers a “no-fix, no-pay” work guarantee – most shops do not. Call us at (707) 506-6228 for service.

Conclusion

No home or business should be without malware protection. Antivirus software, along with a firewall, coupled with a healthy dose of common sense are the key components to protecting your computers and networks from malware.

Introduction to Malicious Software

Article (PSA-0003)
Submitted by: Billy Joe Long
Company: PSA Computer Services
Titled: Introduction to Malicious Software
Original release date: March 27, 2017

The Internet has become a dangerous place, and computer security threats are a very real concern for any organization or home that uses a computer. Symantec, a computer security provider, reported discovering more than 430 million new unique pieces of malware in 2015. That number is up 36% from the previous year. Kaspersky Lab, another computer security provider, reported close to 2 million registered notifications about attempted malware infections aimed at stealing money via online access to bank accounts.

So why is there so much malware, and what is the point? It really comes down to theft. Stealing, and selling your personal information, your banking and credit card information is a huge money making industry. These attackers not only steal your information, but once they have compromised your computer system, they can use it to attack others, and perform other illegal activities – masquerading as you!

Methods for infecting computers with malware are often quite sophisticated. Malware can spread through, what appear to be, legitimate files, links, or websites. What’s even worse is “attack toolkits,” can be downloaded for free or purchased from the internet making cybercrime easy and inexpensive to commit and can be perpetrated by relatively unsophisticated attackers.

It’s important for all computer users to have a basic understanding of these threats and to learn how to protect themselves. This series of short articles will provide an overview of malware threats, suggestions for infection prevention using antivirus, anti-spyware and firewall software, and steps to take if you suspect your computer is infected.

What Is Malware?
The word “malware” is a portmanteau, blended from the words “malicious” and “software.” It is most often used as a catchall term for computer related threats such as viruses, spyware, adware, and other software installed without a user’s consent or knowledge.

Malware can get into your system in a variety of ways. Here is a short, not exhaustive, list:

  • Infected email attachments
  • Infected removable storage such as portable “thumb-drives”
  • Downloaded software
  • Links in email, social media websites, or instant messages

Here are a few categories of malware, again, not exhaustive:

  • Viruses are a kind of self-replicating software that can slow down or cripple systems, and destroy or alter data.
  • Spyware is software that spies on computer users’ activity to steal passwords, online banking login credentials, and other personal information, typically by using a “keylogger”. A keylogger records the keys you press and sends it back to the attacker.
  • Adware displays annoying pop-up ads.
  • Scareware mimics a legitimate antivirus or anti-spyware service, saying a computer has been infected, then encouraging users to download (and pay for) a fake security solution. The downloaded software is usually spyware.
  • Ransomware encrypts files on a computer, making them inaccessible until a specified ransom is paid. More information on ransomware can be found in these two articles:
  • Botnets are networks of infected computers used for illegal activities, such as sending spam emails or “denial of service” attacks.

Do You Need to Worry About Malware?

So you may be thinking this all sounds scary, but does it really affect me at home or at my place of business? Yes! It is not just large companies or government organizations that need to protect themselves. Anybody, home user or business, can be a victim of malware if not properly protected.

If you are a business, your customers trust you with their personal information. If you are a home user you probably have precious family pictures or important documents stored on your computer. If you’re not taking steps to secure your data, including using antivirus, antispyware and firewall software, your information is not safe. Information security breaches can have major financial and legal consequences.

In the next article we will discuss how antivirus and antispyware software works.

Security, Is More Better?

Article (PSA-0002)
Submitted by: Billy Joe Long
Company: PSA Computer Services
Titled: Security, Is More Better?
Original release date: May 25, 2012

Is more protection really necessary? When is enough enough? Anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-malware and firewalls, where does it all end?

First off, each case is different and depends on how the computer is used, and what the computer is used for. As a general rule of thumb, computer security can be broken up into two basic categories: “Online” and “Offline”.

Internet Connected Security Considerations:

1.) If your computer is connected to the internet, you should have a functioning, properly licensed and updated anti-virus program. At a minimum the anti-virus software you choose should offer “real time” scanning, as well as “scheduled” scanning functionality.

“Real Time” scanning allows the anti-virus program to continually scan files as they are downloaded to your computer, and will notify you if the file(s) you receive contain anything suspicious. This is “preventive protection”.

“Scheduled” scanning allows the anti-virus software to scan all the existing files (or selected files) on your computer hard disk in a systematic effort to locate existing files which may “look like” malware. This is “active protection”.

 
For those of you using a Windows operating system, Microsoft offers free antivirus protection.

  • For Windows 7 you can download and install Microsoft Security Essentials. Not only is this free for home users, but it can also be used, free of charge, for small businesses with up to 10 computers.
  • For Windows 8, RT, 8.1, RT 8.1 and Windows 10 the anti-malware software is built right in. It’s called Windows Defender.

 

2.) If your computer is connected to the internet, you should have a functioning, properly licensed and updated firewall. A firewall is software or hardware that checks information coming from the Internet or a network, and then either blocks it or allows it to pass through to your computer.

A firewall can help prevent hackers or malicious software (such as worms) from gaining access to your computer through a network or the Internet. A firewall can also help stop your computer from sending malicious software to other computers.

A “Software” firewall is installed directly on your computer. Microsoft operating systems have shipped with a software firewall built-in since the release of Windows XP service pack 2.

A “Hardware” firewall in most homes and small businesses will be your router. Routers provide protection to help prevent your computer from being “seen” from the Internet. With a hardware firewall there’s nothing to install on your computer.

There are “paid for” firewall products available, but I would recommend taking a close look at the built in firewall of the operating system you are currently using (if it offers one) before running out and purchasing the newest firewall product. For the majority of computer users the built in firewall is more than adequate.

Non-Internet Connected Security Considerations:

If your computer will not be connected to the internet, ever, then you are at liberty to relax your protection considerably, allowing more of your systems resources to be used on applications. However, there are still some very important considerations. If you will be using storage media containing files from other computers which are connected to the internet, then there is still the possibility of infection. If your computer will never be connected to the Internet, and you will never load files from another machine onto your computer, then you can bypass anti-virus security software all together. If your computer will be using files from another computer then you should have an anti-virus program installed.

Is More Protection Really Necessary?

In short, for a computer connected to the Internet, a single anti-virus program, a single configured firewall and a healthy dose of common sense is adequate. Installing more than one anti-virus program can generate a few notable issues. Let’s take a moment to look at the most critical of these issues.

(1) RAM Depletion. Each program running on your computer is using some of your system memory (RAM). The more programs running, the more RAM is used. When there is no more RAM available, your computer will begin to use your hard disk as a “type” of RAM. Hard disk access is not as fast as RAM access, and when your system has to start using the hard disk as RAM it greatly degrades the performance of your entire system.

(2) Software Conflicts. Having more than one anti-virus program running on your system may result in a software conflict. If both programs are scanning your computer for “viral activity” there is a high probability they will see each other as “viral activity”, causing a software conflict. This particular problem can be extremely frustrating and can lead to the next very challenging side effect.

(3) System Corruption. Files necessary to the other anti-virus program can often be identified as “malicious”, and will be quarantined (made inaccessible) or removed, leaving the anti-virus program corrupted. Trying to uninstall or repair a program in this state can be problematic.

(4) Unnecessary Complexity. Finally, maintaining the licensing and updates for your anti-virus programs can be time consuming and expensive.

Revisions

  • May 25, 2012: Initial Publication
  • May 24, 2016: Rewording For Better Clarity

The Importance of Effective Data Backup

Article (PSA-0001)
Submitted by: Billy Joe Long
Company: PSA Computer Services
Original title: Is my data safe?
Retitled: The Importance of Effective Data Backup
Original release date: December 19, 2012

Life insurance, medical insurance, and retirement funds are all ways we try to ensure the things most important to us are protected. What about your data? Most of us store things like family pictures, legal documents, important thoughts and expensive software on our computers. How important is this data to you?

One way to gauge the importance of something is to imagine it is gone. So take a moment, and imagine your computer is gone. What would you miss? If you can honestly say, “Nothing!” then you can skip this article. If, on the other hand, you have a list forming in your mind of things you would miss, then please read on.

With so many backup ideas and tools floating around today, it can be difficult to know your files are safe. The intent of this article is to help you understand some basics about data backup, so you can know if your files are safely backed up or not. In the following scenarios, we are considering the ability to recover data in the event of a hard disk failure. Let’s consider three questions.

Question #1:

“Is my data safe if I copy it to another folder on my computer?”
No, your data is not safe. Consider the consequences of a failed hard disk. Not only is the original copy of your data inaccessible, but so is your “backup”!

An effective backup of your data requires, at a minimum, two copies of your data located on two separate storage medium. For example, you could have your original data on your computer’s hard disk, and a copy of your data on an external drive. Other possible backup media choices include: cd’s, dvd’s, usb flash drives, extra internal hard disk, network storage appliances, and online backup services.

Question #2:

“Is my data safe if I copy it to separate storage media?”
Using the example of a failed hard disk from question #1, let’s summarize the process of getting your computer back up and running. First we need to install a new hard disk. Next we install the operating system, hardware drivers, system updates and your favorite software. Finally we attempt to restore your data from your backup media … only to discover the backup is corrupt or incomplete!

Testing your backup for accuracy and integrity is critical. Just because the backup software says the job is complete does not necessarily mean the backup is useful. Take the time to test your backup now, and save yourself heartache in the future.

Question #3:

“Is my data safe if I copy it to backup media, and test the backup for accuracy?”
Consider the consequences of a catastrophic fire or natural disaster. Your computer has been destroyed and unfortunately so was the storage medium containing your backed-up data!

Your data should be stored safely “off-site”, or, at the very least, in a fire proof safe. Storing a copy of your data on an external storage media and testing your backup for accuracy and integrity is a good start, but in mission critical situations an “off-site” copy is a must!

How important are your files? By keeping a tested backup “off-site” you can rest assured that even in the event of the unthinkable your data will still be recoverable.

For more information on data backup or if you would like a consultation on your personal or business backup process give us a call..

Revisions

  • December 19, 2012: Initial Publication
  • November 11, 2015: Text Edits
  • May 24, 2016: Rewording For Better Clarity