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SMEs play IT fast and loose

Neglect basic housekeeping

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When it comes to managing their IT systems, small and mid-sized businesses (SMEs) have limited resources and in some cases this leads to neglect of basic IT housekeeping and consequent risk to their businesses.

A recent Quocirca report shows that one in three mid-sized businesses and 90 per cent of small businesses do not have an IT manager. When they do, it is often only their part-time job. Despite this, SMEs are pretty good at doing the obvious stuff like backing up servers and securing their main internet access point.

But when it comes to securing their employees' PCs things are far patchier. Desktop and notebook devices are the most common point of failure and therefore represent a major area of risk. But less than 50 per cent of SMEs were certain they had a backup up routine for PCs, and when they did, for the majority it was only carried out once a week or less. Around 50 per cent of the total were not even sure if they had basic PC security like anti-virus installed.

Few had automated patch management software leaving servers and PCs alike exposed to viruses and worms that get propagated as soon as software vulnerabilities are admitted to by vendors.

SMEs IT environments are fairly sophisticated. These days most are connected to the internet, 90 per cent of mid-sized businesses (50-300 employees) have servers and internal networks and this only falls to 70 per cent for small businesses (< 50 employees). Two fifths of mid-sized businesses are using advanced network based storage options.

So if they are able to manage this infrastructure, why leave their employees' workstations so exposed.

This is due to both the lack of resources and the complexities of their IT environment. Microsoft Windows may be pervasive on the desktop and the most widely used server operating system, but most SMEs are using old versions. For example more SMEs are using UNIX than the latest version Microsoft server operating system Windows Server 2003.

For many this use of old software is neither something they can or want to change. Many are reluctant to make changes to working systems just because a vendor wants them to for security reasons. This can be disruptive and expensive.

And it is not just the cost of the software upgrades themselves. Upgrading PCs to Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows XP, often requires additional memory to be installed or new hardware all together. This does not mean SMEs are tight fisted, just that their IT systems work and they have better things to spend their money on.

But this should not prevent them from having the same level of protection for PCs that they already have for servers. Basic security software can be installed on all PCs and set to update itself; this will help prevent operational failure of PCs. But hardware malfunctions will still occur on occasions and of course, computer equipment is often the target of thieves, especially when it is being carried around. So, PCs need to be backed up on a far more regular basis than is currently the case.

Again this should not be onerous. PC backup up routines can be automated, scheduled to run at quiet times and even from remote locations over the internet. Good backup software will only look for changes. PC backups can be aggregated on a central server or networked storage device if a server is not available. The regular backups of central storage, that most SMEs already do, will then include all data stored on PCs as well.

There are a number of other steps that SMEs could be taking. None of them are particularly onerous, disruptive or expensive. Quocirca’s report, “Protecting the IT and Data Assets” is free to readers of The Register here. A few extra steps taken now could prevent a lot of pain and cost in the future.

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