Protecting a Windows Network from Disasters

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Every company or organization that uses computers, especially servers, is concerned with data loss. This could be from a fire or any natural disaster, but most often comes from computer failure. This could be a critical component such as a motherboard or hard drive. Depending on the disaster, there is a strong possibility of downtime, which is what can cost a company the most money. Without critical business systems being up and operational, the company can lose money while printing presses, conveyer belts, or shipping and receiving systems are down. Most often, the downed system affects all other systems that are dependent on it. For example, in a paper-making company, if one of the first processes fails, it can affect the rest of the line, such as roll tracking, boxing, shipping, and inventory.

How can you determine how much your company can be affected by a disaster? You need to identify the critical systems and determine what effect the loss of these systems would have on your corporation. A workstation failing would not have as much of an impact as if the main file server were to fail. Database servers are becoming increasingly important because they contain databases that many different departments of the company use. For example, in a school, prospective students are tracked in the database by recruiting. If these students apply and are accepted, they are passed on to the Registrar for registration. From there, their information will be seen by billing, which will need to bill the student for tuition. You can see how each different department uses the student's information. If the database server were to fail, none of these departments would be able to access the student's information.

Messaging systems are also becoming increasingly important. Although it seems like most people use company e-mail for sending messages to friends, some companies actually conduct vital business through messaging systems. For example, a supplier company receives daily orders from a company, and they must fulfill these orders. The users that check the e-mail are usually the first ones, even before the Administrator, to know that the e-mail system is down. When they don't receive their daily e-mail from the outside source, they know something is wrong.

How can you protect your Windows 2000 network from disaster? Windows 2000 can only partially help you to recover from a disaster, but it comes well equipped to handle disaster prevention.

When a hardware malfunction occurs, this is not anything an operating system could have prevented, but the operating system can supply diagnostic tools to monitor the critical system components for irregularities that are indicative of hardware problems.

Motherboards are one of the most reliable components within a computer, even though they consist of many smaller soldered components. Some vendors will provide software for monitoring the motherboard components, but a failure is most often unexpected.

Memory also is a very reliable component of a computer system and, like a motherboard, it won't give you much of an indication there is a problem before it fails. You can expect a blue screen error on startup with bad memory, or the operating system will occasionally lock up.

Video cards also rarely fail, and will give you no indication of fault before they actually do.

Network cards also rarely fail, but they can give an indication they are failing by sending bad packets, or broadcasting excessively on the network. Most vendors supply software to monitor network card activity, and you can also do this to a certain degree with the Performance and Network Monitor that is provided by Microsoft.

Hard disks are the primary concern when it comes to hardware problems. Hard drives fail quite often because they are mechanical devices with moving parts. Hard drives are constantly moving, especially on busy network servers. The best way to protect your hard disk against failure is to use variations of RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) to reconstruct the data when a failed disk is replaced with a new one. Backing up data is also very important in case you need to restore information that was contained on the hard disk before it failed.

Power supplies do not fail that often, but when they do they can take other components with them. Luckily you might be able to discover you are having a power supply failure because the fan might stop working. However, if the fan stops working, you only have a short period of time before the power supply or computer itself overheats. Other than fan problems, it is very difficult to detect power supply problems before they happen. Usually they will cause components to fail, and you will replace that component and feel you fixed the problem. It is quite easy to overlook power supply errors when other devices are failing, but the power supply may be the source of the other problems.

Power failure can be avoided by using an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) for your critical systems in order to protect yourself from power loss, brownouts, spikes, and surges. It is not necessary to provide UPS devices for every computer on your network, because this is quite costly, and most computers on your network are not critical. Servers, hubs, switches, and routers are the most important devices to provide protection for. Windows 2000 supports a wide range of UPS devices and provides a number of features that coincide with these devices. The UPS will provide enough time for users to log off and for you to perform an orderly shutdown. If you want to guarantee that the system is shut down properly, without you even being present, you can configure the UPS to process a command file during a power failure. This file will contain commands that can be used to stop services and programs in an orderly fashion so that data will not be corrupted.

Network failure can occur for a number of reasons, including wiring, hubs, routers, and individual workstations. The most critical network failures are when a hub, switch, or router fail, because these devices affect more than one computer. You may not realize at first what has failed, until more than one computer is affected. From then, you can check the hub or switch and see if the device is giving you indication of failure, such as a fault LED, or the activity lights have stopped, or there are no lights on the device. If the hub or switch has failed, you will need a replacement in a hurry, or else multiple computers will not be able to communicate on the network. It is wise to have spares of these critical network devices onsite.

When a router fails, you won't realize it until you attempt to connect with a remote network. At first it will appear as if one computer cannot connect to the remote network. For this reason, you should verify the problem on more than one computer. If you determine that the router is malfunctioning, you may have to cycle the power. Pinging the router from both directions is also a good way to test the router. Routers are more expensive than hubs, so you may not have a replacement onsite in the event of a failure.

Vendors supply programs that can monitor the status of routers, hubs, and switches, and alert in the event of an emergency.

The failures that usually affect one computer are network card and cable errors. When you have determined that only one computer is unable to connect to the network, you need to determine if the problem is the network card, cabling, or a possible software issue. If the computer was working fine a few hours ago and no one has touched it since, chances are it is not the software configuration. It is most likely a hardware error, because no one has been working on the computer to cause the problem.

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