10 tips for Windows systems maintenance for SMBs

Kevin Beaver provides you with 10 tips for keeping your Windows systems performing at their peak so they can work for you, not against you.

As the person responsible for IT in your small or medium-sized business, you've likely spent valuable resources on your computer systems and you need to make sure the systems are working as efficiently as they can. Below are 10 Windows systems maintenance tips.

Before you get started making changes and adding or removing software, make sure you have a good backup in case you accidentally delete something you need. If you're in doubt and can't find any information on the application you want to alter, consider posting a message to the TechTarget ITKnowledge Exchange or bringing in an outside consultant.

1. Defragment your drives. By far the biggest drain on system performance is a fragmented hard drive. I've seen studies showing that if companies would just defragment their hard drives more often, they wouldn't need to upgrade to bigger/faster systems as often as they do. Drive fragmentation means that the data is scattered randomly all over the hard drive's surface instead of the 1s and 0s lying in a straight, ordered line. Fragmentation causes the hard drive's heads to move all over the drive to access data, which results in mechanical delays that can cause your computer to run very slowly. I especially see this issue in SMBs where IT resources are limited.

There is a solution, though. You can manually (or show your users how to) defragment your drives or, better yet, set up the Windows disk defragmenter tool in the Windows scheduler to run on a periodic basis such as every two weeks or once a month. For more advanced scheduling and functionality, check out Executive Software's Diskeeper. Either way, you'll see increased computer performance and possibly even extended hard drive life, and you'll save everyone lost productivity time.

2. Monitor your Windows systems for unnecessary services. It can be pretty difficult to figure out what's running on your systems -- especially in Windows, because it hides most things from the user. If you're a techie at heart and want to see what's using up all that memory and other resources on your systems, check out some of the neat freeware and low-cost tools such as Sysinternals' FileMonitor or Uniblue Systems' WinTasks Pro. You'll be amazed. You can also use the built-in Windows program msconfig to see what services are loading and then disable the ones you don't want.

The real trick is to look for things like system management software, instant messaging programs, multimedia programs and so on that you may not use in your normal business operations. Referring to your software documentation or a quick Google search should turn up some good information. Odds are you only need 60-70% of what's loading. Check out Windows services you should disable today for a quick start on figuring out what is not imperitive.

3. Uninstall programs you don't need. Along the same lines of disabling unnecessary services, you'll probably be able to uninstall a lot of programs you no longer use or need. In Control Panel/Add or Remove Programs, look for programs such as expired trial versions of personal firewall software, duplicate antivirus programs and even word processing and spreadsheet software that might have originally shipped with the computer. Also, if you only use Arial, Times New Roman and a handful of other fonts in your daily operations, load up the Fonts applet in Control Panel and delete the ones you never use. A lot of this software is just taking up hard disk space and using valuable memory your computer could be using for other programs.

4. Scan for malware. Another big drain on system resources can be a virus, worm, Trojan horse or even spyware that's loaded on your computers. Be sure to enable real-time malware protection (both antivirus and antispyware software) and scan your systems periodically to make sure someone else's shenanigans aren't eating up your CPU cycles. Check out my Check IT List, Keeping malware at bay," for more information on malware protection.

5. Use network monitoring software to keep everything in check. If you really want to get a good picture of what's happening across your network, consider installing one of the SMB-friendly (lower-cost) network management programs from companies such as SilverBack Technologies or SolarWinds.net. You can also use a low-cost network analyzer like EtherPeek or a free one like Ethereal to do a lot of the same things. Look for things like network utilization, unusually high traffic coming from odd hosts and protocols that don't belong on the network.

6. Perform periodic reboots. We've all heard the debate of whether or not we need to turn our computers off at the end of the day. Whatever your stance is on that (I believe there are pros and cons to both options), if you reboot your systems occasionally, you'll refresh the memory in your computer, which frees up hung resources and makes it run faster. It definitely works for me.

7. Empty your Windows Recycle Bin. The Windows Recycle Bin is both good and bad. It's good in that you can salvage deleted files and bad in that it can create clutter on your drive that doesn't need to be there. If you have an add-on program that "better protects" your Recycle Bin, other issues can occur. For instance, I've seen disk imaging software used to back up data onto a dedicated backup drive fail repeatedly if the drive runs out of space. Why does the drive run out of space? It's because the Recycle Bin grows larger and larger during ongoing backups. You then have to go in, empty the Recycle Bin and restart the failed backups. Consider setting your Recycle Bin properties to delete files automatically or to only take up a small percentage of your total drive space. This will help cut down on help desk calls and prevent automated backups and other processes from failing.

8. Make sure everything is getting good, clean power. A great way to enhance the availability of your computer systems is to make sure they're not subject to power problems such as brownouts and blackouts, especially if your office is in an older building with known power supply problems. You can do this by using an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) or, at least, a good surge protector. This can prolong the life of your computers' power supplies and help make sure your computers are there when you need them and data is not at risk of corruption due to improper system shutdowns. Also, make sure every piece of equipment attached to your computers, including phone lines, printers and monitors, is on a surge protector. Otherwise, a power surge could hit one of those devices and still get into your computer via the attached cable.

9. Apply those patches. I've found over the years that having the latest and greatest versions of software usually creates an enhanced computing experience. Newer versions are often more efficient at how they use memory and access the hard drive and network. They also have bug fixes and other patches to plug known security vulnerabilities. If you can, test the new software on noncritical systems for a few days to check for problems, and then deploy the upgrades to all other computers if all looks well. This applies not just to standard SMB applications such as Word or QuickBooks, but also to operating system drivers for video cards, network cards and printers.

10. Schedule time for Windows systems maintenance every week. No matter how automated you can make computer and network maintenance, it's still going to require some hands-on time. Be sure to set aside an hour a week or even just five to 10 minutes a day to keep your systems clean and healthy. This can be some of your most wisely spent time as the manager of IT for an SMB. If you decide that you don't have time to keep up with all of this, consider hiring an outside IT consultant to come in periodically to help out. Check out my Check IT List, "Hiring an IT consultant" for tips on finding the right person for your SMB.

Kevin Beaver is the founder and principal consultant of the information security services firm Principle Logic LLC in Atlanta, where he specializes in information security assessments and incident response. He has more than 16 years of experience in IT and is the author of several books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies by Wiley Publishing. Contact him at kbeaver@principlelogic.com.

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