Disaster Prevention and PC Security

This document briefly outlines ways of protecting your computer and your data. It covers all areas except viruses, which we cover more fully on our Viruses web pages.

1. A Short Guide to Trouble Free Computing

When you buy a personal computer you expect it to work and continue working for a long time. While this is true for many people, sadly there are all too many cases of machines failing. 

Since computers have a nasty habit of failing two days after the warranty runs out and a day before your dissertation paper is due in anything that can be done to prolong the trouble free life of your PC  is good news. 

In the same way that your car or bike works better given regular servicing, computer systems are also a good candidate for some care and attention. 

1.1. Top Tips for prolonging your computer's life (and maybe your own!)

  • Try not to place your computer in a dusty environment - if its in your bedroom, dust around the fan inlet at the back regularly. Wipe the machine with a damp (not dripping) cloth - it is better to do this with the machine off!
  • Is the electricity supply to your home/room prone to surges or spikes (do your lights flicker a lot)?  If so, it may be worth buying a surge protecting plug for your computer - these are about £20 and are available from high street electrical stores (a good one has a light to tell you it is working) and will protect your computer from sudden increases in mains voltage.
  • Much electrical energy in today's latest computers is burnt off in heat so it is important  to ensure that the air vents of your system are not blocked and that there is enough space above the monitor for the heat from the screen to escape.
  • Many problems are caused by the heating up and cooling down of components inside the system. If possible try not to locate the computer near radiators/heating vents or in direct sunlight during the summer. 
  • Leave the computer on for as long as possible rather than switching it on and off throughout the day - most of the stress in a computer's life comes in the first few seconds after the power is turned on.
  • TAKE REGULAR BACKUPS -if your hard disc fails, then strangling your supplier will not rescue your thesis!
  • Use the disc tools supplied with your operating system (eg Defragment and Scandisk for Windows 95) regularly (eg once a fortnight) to keep your disc in an optimised state - this can help prevent disc problems and alert you to impending hard disc failure.
  • If you want to transport your computer any distance use the original packaging - computers can take knocks and bumps but just like you they would prefer not to!
  • Register your equipment with the University PC Maintenance Scheme - for a small annual charge you have peace of mind if the machine breaks down.

1.2. Laptop Care (Keeping it running for longer....)

When travelling abroad pack the machine well and do not place any hard objects in the same case or pack the case over tightly. A common cause of screen failure on laptop machines is the crushing of the lid of the laptop (which forms the back of the screen casing). This may leave no visible damage but can render the screen unusable. In the worst cases seen by IT Services micro consultants the screens have been cracked due the to external pressure of an over packed suitcase on an aircraft.
The battery life of many portables can be greatly increased by following the manufacturers instructions for battery cycling.  For most modern laptops this means running the battery flat  (leave the machine on and play games etc.  - don't run it flat while you are working on your dissertation!) and then fully charge the battery again.  Perform this AT LEAST once every two weeks (read the instructions for the machine to find out the recommended interval - older machines may require once a week) and this should prolong the useful life of your battery.
Almost all latop power supplies are auto-sensing. This means that you don not normally need a voltage converter to plug in your laptop (you may need an adapter to make the plug physically fit) BUT CHECK FIRST. An auto sensing power supply will be marked 100~240VAC  50/60 Hz; if only a single voltage and frequency are shown (for example 100VAC 60Hz) then DO NOT plug in the equipment outside its country of origin/purchase without checking first!! IF IN ANY DOUBT CHECK WITH A QUALIFIED ELECTRICIAN

1.3. Help! My Machine is broken.......

Sometimes, even following all the above is not enough, so what do you do? 

Firstly DON'T PANIC! - many calls to support personnel are the result of very minor problems or misunderstandings  - yours may be too.  There are a few simple checks you can  make yourself before calling in the experts:

  • Is the machine plugged in - make sure by following the lead from the plug to the system unit - if it is plugged into an extension lead is that also plugged in - has your spouse/child/cleaner etc. unplugged it ? Do other things work in the same socket? (If not, check the fuse or get a competent electrician to check the socket for you.)
  • Ok - so its plugged in - is it switched on ? Check! 
  • Is the whole system dead ? If only the monitor is dead, does it have a separate power switch ? Is this on? 
  • Are the brightness/contrast controls adjusted correctly or has someone turned them right down?
  • Is it just sleeping - some machines will go into a deep sleep if they are left running and not used for a long time - try pressing keys on the keyboard or moving the mouse to wake it up.
  • Are all the other connectors firmly pushed in at the back of the machine - if you are seeing nothing on the screen but the monitor power light is on, check the video lead from the monitor to the system unit is firmly connected at both ends.

These may sound silly and obvious, but think how silly you'll feel if an engineer calls and discovers your roomate unplugged the computer to plug in their kettle. You may also have to pay if an engineer is called and there is no fault with the equipment.

If none of the above has helped, why not try your supplier (for equipment under warranty), contact your IT Officer or if they are unable to help, visit the IT Services Help Centre for further advice. If it is a hardware problem and the machine is registered on the University PC Maintenance Scheme then instructions on calling an engineer will be with the registration documents or can be obtained from IT Services. 

2. An Introduction to Data Security

The following is a very brief outline of some of the issues relating to data security and services offered by IT Services relating to these issues.

Guarding the integrity and security of data falls into two categories:

  • Looking after the hardware it resides on,
  • Protecting the data from software corruption and malicious attacks.

2.1. Looking After the Hardware

Normally a new machine will be under warranty for a year after the date of purchase. After this warranty expires any hardware repairs are likely to be costly, (parts can be expensive and generally a company offering a repair service will charge labour costs at approximately 50.00 an hour). Many of the companies selling computer systems offer extended warranty schemes which may be worth considering after careful investigation.

The University Computing Services offers a very economically priced maintenance service for the repair of hardware faults on IBM compatible PC and Apple Macintosh personal computers, as well as their peripherals. It is available to University Institutions, Colleges and to University members on a personal basis for their privately owned equipment. Essentially, for a modest fixed fee, the service provides for an engineer to visit on-site within 8 working hours of a fault being reported. The fault should be fixed within a further 8 working hours, or an equivalent item of equipment will be offered as a loan until the repair is completed. Equipment must be in full working order when it is registered with the service. A full description of the IT Services PC Maintenance Service is given on the Web page.

It is recommended that this is read for a full understanding of the service.

Students and staff can register their personal IT equipment on this service, and pay online via the web interface at https://maint.oucs.ox.ac.uk/private/. Departmental and College staff can register institutionally owned IT equipment on this service via the web interface at https://maint.oucs.ox.ac.uk/acct/. Payment is made by specifying a departmental or college purchase order.

If your computer or printer is already faulty, you should contact an appropriate dealer to arrange a repair.

2.2. Looking After the Data

There are three basic ways of ensuring that, even if the hardware fails, you will still be able to access your data:

  • Back up all data that is important to you. This is the most important step in securing your data. Keep more than one copy. Ensure that the back up data is free from corruption.
  • Run anti-virus software. Keep the software up-to-date. Test your hard disk, floppies and all back ups regularly.
  • Where you are dealing with sensitive data, which falls under the Data Protection Act, ensure that the data is password protected/encrypted and not readily available to malicious abuse.

3. Backing Up Your Data

This is the most important step to maintaining the security of important data. Whatever else may happen, if your data is kept on a media other than the hard disk of your machine you will be able to recover it. In the simplest terms this can mean copying files to floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, memory sticks, external hard disks or a networked drive.

There are other options you should consider.

IT Services provides a large scale back up service on the Hierarchical File Server (HFS). Systems are backed up to tape on a regular basis via the IBM TSM client software. If you wish to take advantage of this service the system to be backed up must have a network connection and be registered for use of this service. Details of the HFS service can be found on the HFS web site.

You can register for this service via the Web.

Files or complete directory hierarchies can also be recorded onto a CD-ROM. This is useful for archiving files consuming large amounts of valuable disk space on your system. The Help Centre has a number of machines with CD writing software, and blank CDs can be purchased from the IT Services vending machine.

Whatever mechanism you choose always keep more than one copy of the data, IT Services recommends a minimum of three copies of all important data.

4. Anti-virus Software

In academic environments where there is a great deal of exchanging data and a very mobile user population computer viruses are a very real danger. Data loss through virus infections is common at Oxford. IT Services supports Sophos antivirus software for which we have a site licence. The software can be downloaded by members of the University from the Computing Services registration system. It will run on many different operating systems including Windows and MacIntosh OS X.

Our Viruses web pages have details of the software and news of virus alerts.

5. Protecting Sensitive Data

Where data contains personal information or is considered sensitive it should be protected by passwords and encryption. If the data is particularly sensitive the system on which the data resides should be protected from malicious attack. Details of the Data Protection Act.

Information relating to security issues and pointers to sources of software and documentation can be found on the Oxford computer security web pages.

Oxford University has an IT security team called OxCERT (Oxford Computer Emeregency Response Team). All security related incidents should be reported to OxCERT

6. A Last Resort

IT Services will attempt to recover lost or damaged data on a best efforts only basis; it does not have the highly sophisticated facilities necessary to provide a comprehensive data recovery service. We cannot guarantee recovery of material and no attempts will be made to recover application programs. Where the information on a disk is regarded as vital, IT Services will always recommend that the data be recovered by a specialist data recovery company. Users should be aware that any efforts to recover data by a member of IT Services staff may mean that the disk is written to and subsequent attempts by a data recovery service may be hindered by such efforts. Data recovery is a very specialised field and such services are usually expensive; normally it will cost you in the region of £250.00 to receive a list of the files that the company can recover, you would then be charged again for the recovery.

For these reasons backing up of important data should be regarded as the most important step in protecting your data.

7. Data Backup and System Recovery

7.1. Introduction

It is lamentable that many computer users have an unerring faith in computer storage media. There are regular instances of people entrusting their only copy of a thesis or dissertation to single floppy disk. The simple fact exists that all forms of magnetic media degrade over time and will ultimately fail. There is far less certainty as to when a disk will fail or what the consequences might be. In any event the advice remains the same: Save your copies of your work REGULARLY and NOT to the same storage device.

Backup frequency will depend upon how much data you have and how regularly it changes. As a guideline, if you couldn't bear to loose something, it's time to make a copy! Choosing an alternative backup location is eminently sensible or your backup will suffer the same demise as the original. Various schemes for backing up your data are listed below.

7.2. Automated Backups using the Hierarchical File Server (HFS)

The Hierarchical File Server provides large scale file store and backup services to the University community. The service is managed and operated by Oxford University Computing Services and runs the TSM software from IBM. Consider using this service if you have a direct connection to the university network and require weekly scheduled backups. Daily backup schedules can be arranged for critical network servers where appropriate.

7.3. Disk and Partition Cloning Software

Create a snapshot of your entire hard disk or the partitions it contains. The resulting image file can be saved on CD, ZIP disk, tape, a USB Flash Memory (Pen) drive or a network file server for rapid disaster recovery.

7.4. Archiving to Removable Media

Utilising cheap, high capacity storage devices for data backup and system recovery.

7.5. Creating an Emergency Repair Disk

Windows 95, 98 and NT allow you to make an emergency repair floppy disk containing a snapshot of important system files. This repair disk can be used to recover the operating system later should it fail to start or become corrupted through disk failure or mis-configuration.


Service area: 

Written by IT Services. Latest revision 10 October 2014