Category: Disaster Recovery

Travel Tips For Your Laptop, Part I

All Keyboards Should Come with a Help KeyMy consultants and I travel with a computer for living, and over the years we’ve come up with several travel tips for your laptop. Some technical, some not, all the product way too many passes through the security checkpoint. It’s not hard to get everything organized, you just need to do a bit of planning.

Pretrip Planning
Like many things in life, the better you prepare, the better the result. First off, you want to make sure your computer is running well before you leave the house. Here are a few things to check so you don’t have any unpleasant surprises on the road:

  • Disk Space – Check to make sure your laptop has adequate space. As a minimum guideline, we recommend you have at least 10% of your drive free. You can check it in Windows XP by going to Start>All Programs>Accessories>Windows Explorer. Right click the “C:\” folder in the left pane, and click on “Properties”. For Vista, click the pearl (circle with the windows flag)>All Programs>Accessories>Windows Explorer. In the left pane, expand the “Computer” folder by clicking the triangle right before the folder. Right click the “C:\” folder in the left pane, and click on “Properties”. If you don’t have enough space you can use the “Disk Cleanup” button. We don’t recommend the option to compress a laptop drive- since most of them spin at 5400RPM anyway, they’ll be noticeably slower. This should be fine for most people, if you’re comfortable with the computer’s file system, there’s a handy utility which can sort all of your folders by size, called Disk Data. It allows you to sort the folders by size, and also has graphs, so you can find that rogue temporary file and delete it.
  • Disk Fragmentation – One of the most common causes for a slow computer is fragmented drive. When your computer writes files to you disk, it does so in sequence whenever it can. Over time, as new files are added and removed, gaps are created, the drive heads have to go to more places to retrieve files. Since this physical head movement is often the bottleneck on your system (particularly laptops), performance of the entire machine suffers. The solution is to defragment your drive, which is easy to do. in Windows XP by going to Start>All Programs>Accessories>Windows Explorer. Right click the “C:\” folder in the left pane, and click on “Properties”. Now click the “Tools” tab at the top of the window, then click the “Defragment Now” button, and click “Defragment Now”. For Vista, click the pearl (circle with the windows flag)>All Programs>Accessories>Windows Explorer. In the left pane, expand the “Computer” folder by clicking the triangle right before the folder. Right click the “C:\” folder in the left pane, and click on “Properties”. Now click the “Tools” tab at the top of the window, then click the “Defragment Now” button, and click “Defragment Now”.
  • Anti-Virus/Malware ScanMalware can ruin your day, and if you’re on the road it can cripple your computer. Make sure you have a good AV program installed. Currently we like Eset for anti-virus, and Malwarebytes for anti-malware, we’ve had good luck removing a variety of threats. We’ve noticed it doesn’t load the system down like the competitors, which is particular important with the slower laptop drives.
  • Windows Update – With our corporate clients, we use a tiered testing approach to validate patches work before rollout to prevent downtime and minize bandwidth utilization across the WAN. For home users we recommend you have automatic updates enabled. The risk of potentially creating a conflict that disables an application or your computer is relatively low compared to the risk of damage from an exploit. Keeping a machine that is frequently on public networks (ie airports and hotel wireless networks) is doubly important, as they are frequently targeted and don’t have the benefit of an additional hardware firewall at the office. To check you setting in XP go to the control panel, then automatic updates. In Vista, control panel, system, security center, automatic updating. Got that? Great, now before your trip, make sure you visit Windows Updates (using Internet Explorer), and download all pending updates in case the automatic setting hasn’t installed before you leave. Reboot your computer after the install. There’s nothing worse than having updates pending, shutting down for a trip, and then opening up a computer that won’t boot. I’ve forgotten this simple tip and had to spend a few minutes before a presentation fixing my computer- this is an easily avoidable problem.
  • Have a VPN Client Configured BEFORE You Leave – There was a time when it took a skilled hacker to intrude upon your network. Unfortunately now there are many commercial and free applications that make casual snooping, or intentional theft exceptionally easy. For example, there’s a Firefox addon that will capture any plaintext transmissions involving social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and allow the hacker to immediately login as you. (It’s called Firesheep.) To avoid losing your email, password and privacy to these nusauances, use a VPN whenever you connect over a wireless hotspot. We like StrongVPN– they have great 24/7 support and reasonable prices.
  • Have a Good Backup – This one catches both our corporate clients and families alike. Backups aren’t fun. They’re not interesting. And unless something is broken, they just take up space. BUT, as soon as you have a drive failure, you learn just how important that backup is. I set up a home machine with an external drive for backups for a friend’s mother. Like I do for my clients and family and friends, I set up Acronis True Image on a schedule. Two years later, her hard drive failed. My friend called me frantic, wondering if there was anything I could do to help. You see there were some important pictures of a new grandchild that they couldn’t replace. One new hard drive and a couple of hours later, the entire machine was back. I was a hero, an IT wizard. Well the truth is I’ve seen data loss many times over the years, and learned that having a backup isn’t an optional step, it’s a required one. Depending upon your budget, when you travel with a laptop, there’s a few things you can do. Here are a few options:
    • At the very least, have a good quality thumb drive with a backup of all your important files, independent of the laptop hard drive. If you completely lose your laptop, you still have your files and can use a loaner to remain productive.
    • Moving up a level, we always recommend you have a good full backup. The best solution is to have the backup offsite, and there are a number of online services available which can store your files for you. If anything happens to your machine- a hardware failure or even a theft, you can still remotely restore your files. I managed a Connected Online backup implementation in a corporate environment, and Iron Mountain offers a solid service with their hosted option.
    • A external drive, which you keep away from the computer is an okay compromise.
    • Of course when you’re traveling, the best solution is to have a second laptop. That’s a bit heavy- but you can have an identical hard drive, imaged with the current drive contents. If you have a problem on the road, put in the new drive and you’re 100% productive. However, there are a few cons to this solution. It’s expensive, and it may be beyond the technical ability of the average person if you have to disassemble the laptop to get the drive. Also doesn’t help if the laptop bag is stolen (another reason we recommend offsite backups).
  • Continued at Travel Tips For Your Laptop, Part II

Disaster Recovery

Damage CircleI’d like to take the time to talk about something that most people find boring, but is critically important when it comes to your computer, at work AND at home. Backups. They’re not fun. They’re not exciting. And the only time they really get a lot of attention is when:

1. They’re not done and they’re needed.
2. They don’t work on a restore operation.

About 70% of the time when we present a Disaster Recovery plan I get a great deal of push back from senior executives on why it costs so much for hardware and software which they don’t use on a regular basis (Of course they are referring to Recoveries, they *should* be using backup software every day). I can usually put down all objections for them, and probably home users too, with just one question:

What would it cost if you lost your data?

Think about that for a minute- what if you lost your payroll data? Tax records? Or at home, the picture of the baby’s first steps? The movies of your son’s graduation? There really isn’t a good reason not to backup your data. The rule of thumb I use is if it takes longer to recreate it than to back it up, then back it up. So I wouldn’t worry about a grocery list, but your college term paper should be backed up (I speak from bitter experience on that). We have a thriving business with Disaster Recoveries, and our partners are the BEST at getting data back. The Top Causes of Data Loss is courtesy of their hard work and real world experience. They have highly trained engineers and clean rooms where they can take apart failed drives (and other media) to recover any readable data on it. You get what you pay for- and skill and facilities to do these recoveries are not inexpensive. In the vast majority of recoveries I’ve been involved in, the expense could have been spared by following good back up procedures. (If it’s too late and you found this post while looking for help on a disaster recovery, click the button on the Ontrack button at the top of the page and you can start the recovery process- trying to fix it yourself may make things worse).

Step 1- Decide what to back up.

  • Do you just need your documents?
  • What about email?
  • Your web browser’s favorites?
  • Don’t forget the stuff on your desktop either.
  • How about your operating system?

When in doubt, it certainly doesn’t hurt to just back everything up. Some terms you might come across:

  • Full Backup – All files (our recommendation if you have the time/resources)
  • Incremental Backup – All changed files since the last Full Backup OR the last Incremental. To restore, you’ll need your last Full and EVERY Incremental since then. Minimizes backup time and the expense of restore time.
  • Differential Backup – All changed files since the last Full Backup. Compromise between a full and an incremental- to restore you’ll need your latest Differential and your latest Full backup.

Step 2- Where do I put it?

  • In another directory on the same drive. This is the easiest and least expensive solution- however there are some potential pitfalls. If anything happens to the drive (hardware failure, virus, theft) they you run the risk of losing all the data.
  • On another drive in the same computer. I install an extra drive in every desktop system I build for this purpose. It makes fast backups possible, and provides some protection from hardware failure, however the data is still vulnerable to viruses and theft.
  • To removeable media. You can backup to DVD, CD, Tape or external drives.
  • To offsite storage. This can be shipping physical media out- on an online backup solution

Step 3- How do I back it up?

  • Well the least cost and most accessible option is to use the native windows backup tool. Here are the step-by-step instructions for Windows XP Backup, Vista Backup & Restore.
  • For set it and forget it backups, hands down the only product I recommend to friends and family is Acronis True Image. Simple, easy and fast, it will back up all your files in an image, and you can restore the entire image or any part at your convenience.
  • Regardless of the solution you use, set it to regularly backup your files, and every so often check it to make sure it’s working.

Step 4- Fire Drill!

  • This one gets missed a lot- even with our corporate clients. Periodically you MUST test restore your backups. Even if it’s a file or two, just check to make sure they work. The absolute worst time to learn your backups weren’t working is when you need them during an emergency. By periodically checking them, you ensure that you are as prepared as you can be for that day that you need you backup. Rest assured that day will come- it’s a fact of using a computer and you should be prepared for it.

About Cliff Hatch

Cliff Hatch, MCSE+I, ACE, Security+ is the CIO for Cliff Edge Consulting, LLC (www.cliffedgeconsulting.com), a Las Vegas based consultancy specializing in Microsoft Technologies. (You may republish article in its entirety on your site provided you leave the author credit.)