It might seem odd for a Linux and open source pundit to try to convince you it's possible to operate your Windows environment frugally, but I have a reason for doing it. If you're going to use Windows, you should learn to do so for as little out-of-pocket expense as possible. There's nothing wrong with paying only for what you really need, which is especially true for computer support.
I've always had the attitude that a well-trained, in-house end-user support person is your first line of defense against expensive third-party support calls. By using the troubleshooting techniques described in this article, you'll be able to inform your contracted support that you've done all the easy stuff, and now it's time to call in the experts. You should always hand the external support person a list of things you've done to remedy the situation before he arrives then leave him alone.
Many well-meaning in-house support folks love to "talk tech" with these per-hour experts who are only, in most cases, too happy to oblige. Once the external support person resolves the matter, ask for a written report of the problem and its resolution. Retain this information for future reference. It might be something you can fix yourself next time, and it's also a line of defense against additional charges should the same problem crop up again too soon.
Common Fixes for Common Problems
If you've ever followed a computer support person around, you might have noticed a standard set of "fixes" they try almost regardless of the problem description. The first technique is to reboot the computer. I know it's a Windows cliché but it exists for a reason: It fixes many common problems. Rebooting a computer refreshes its memory, reinitializes all peripherals, restarts all standard processes and programs, and presents you with a fresh start in your operating system. The first type of reboot to try is what's known as a "warm" boot. This is a simple restart of the computer without powering it off.
The second method is a "cold" boot, where you power off the computer and power it on again. This technique troubleshoots any power-related problems allowing all electronic and mechanical components to be refreshed from a "cold" state. Watch the computer reboot. Watch it shut down and watch it all the way back up until you're presented with a desktop with no hourglass. Don't go for the proverbial cup of coffee; it's very important that you watch everything as it happens-noting any errors, notifications or warnings and write them down. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how many problems are fixed by a simple reboot, and it costs you nothing more than a few minutes of your time.
Keep your disks free of clutter (Temporary files) and periodically optimize (Defragment) them for better performance. How often? Twice per month should suffice. Don't forget to do this same maintenance on your server systems to enhance their performance as well.
Encourage all employees to save their work to the server since backups run every night. Most applications have a default directory where data is stored alter that default directory to point to your server or some central system. You are making those nightly backups, aren't you? Verify backups once a month by restoring a single file or folder. Saving data to a remote system keeps your desktop systems free of clutter, lowers the risk of data loss and is another method of covering your assets.
Be Proactive to Avert Problems
There's nothing like preventative maintenance to act as an ounce of prevention to avoid spending a pound or three on a cure. Purchase an antivirus program and use it. Do not disable the antivirus services in any way. Virus cleanup costs more time and money than any other support function in computing environments today. Being proactive also means you'll need to make sure each desktop computer has the antivirus software setup to scan the entire local disk(s) once a day. The best antivirus software programs have e-mail, web, network and instant messaging protection capabilities.
You'll need a good spyware program, too. Unfortunately, most spyware programs have to be run manually, but at least you can do this instead of paying someone to do it. Do it on "off hours," and start the scan on all your computers at the same time to save time. You know you're infected with spyware when your computer runs inexplicably slow, you have strange pop-up ads showing up even when you don't have an Internet browser open, or you attempt to connect to a site but are redirected to a site that you didn't want. Often spyware programs deliver payloads that require manual intervention to remove; in those cases, call in a third-party professional.
Tweaking Not Required
When I was a Desktop Support Technician, I noticed a few things about how people use computers. In general, men loved to "tweak" their computers and customize every aspect of their computing environment. Unfortunately, 99 percent of these "tweakers" work themselves into trouble from their antics, costing productivity and money to repair their enhancements. Tweakers, it seems, also love to talk and tell you how much they know about computers while you're fixing what they broke a further waste of time.
Women, on the other hand, treated the computer like a tool. When something broke and a ticket came to me from a woman, I knew that the computer was broken. I also knew it probably wasn't going to be simple to fix.
Advise your employees, especially the men, that tweaking is not a requirement of their jobs and the expense to repair their improvements will be borne by them personally. When individuals know they'll have to pay for their dalliances, it's surprising how much more productive they become.
Have Some Rules
Viruses, spyware, pirated programs, software from home and random downloaded software from the Internet plague every company, large or small, that I have ever heard about. The best way to avert potentially expensive problems associated with unauthorized software is to have some rules governing software installation. And, this just isn't idle rhetoric, the fines for pirated software are steep. If you think that you can't afford to pay for software, you really can't afford to pay the fines for illegal software.
You also must establish some "rules of engagement" for contacting technical support. There should be a very limited number of people authorized to engage third-party technical support. Otherwise, you'll find that you have a very large support bill that you'd really like to dispute but can't.
There's no reason to pay someone $75 to $150 per hour to scan a desktop computer for viruses or to reboot a system do it yourself. Sure, there are times when you need a professional. Know your limitations, but don't throw away money. Save the hard stuff for the geeks and get on with your business. Running a company equipped with Windows computers doesn't have to be a black hole where you dump a significant amount of your profit every month. Roll up your sleeves, click a few buttons and maintain those systems yourself.
Ken Hess is a freelance writer who writes on a variety of open source topics including Linux, databases, and virtualization. You may reach him through his web site at http://www.kenhess.com.