One-day IT projects to improve your business network

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Many frustrations and failures in business computing come from things that ought to be simple. The problem is, it’s easy to focus on big, showy, chewy problems and neglect the little things that can have a big effect on overall productivity. With a little planning – and sometimes a little user participation – there’s an awful lot you can achieve in a single day, with minimal disruption to the business and no need to book in expensive consultants or advisers. 

Aside from the direct object of a project, there can be a cultural benefit too. IT departments are largely reactive, but a one-day project gives them a chance to demonstrate a bit of proactivity and forward thinking, without completely rewriting their role. Involving the users encourages a bit of self-reliance too – an increasingly desirable trait as hybrid work becomes the norm. Ultimately, the odd one-day project can only be positive for the relationship between IT staff and the rest of the business. Here are some ideas to start you off.

Fire drill day

This is the granddaddy of one-day projects – when you take an afternoon out to pretend there are flames shooting out of the back of the server and spreading around the building. The experience can be both hilarious and chastening, with lessons that go far beyond the IT department as it sinks in exactly how reliant the business is on its flammable assets. 

Indeed, in these days of cyber resilience and perilous international relations, it’s worth considering extending the fire drill concept to specific bits of your IT environment. Take a day out to thoroughly investigate the failures and shortfalls that take place when a particular system goes offline and can’t simply be brought back with a remote power cycle.

Log file reading day

The logs of a Linux server as shown on a display

I can see the wrinkled noses as I type. Log files? What use are they on a laptop? Actually, they’re just as much use as they were on the Windows 2000 Server where you first saw them. It’s true that most Windows PCs go for years without the Event Viewer ever being opened, but that’s not something an IT department should be proud of – the information contained therein can provide answers to everything from obscure network problems to pinpointing the exact moment power was restored in one of those sneaky overnight outages we’re not supposed to fret over.

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It doesn’t require much specialist knowledge, either. Events aren’t mystical things; if anything they’re a bit too explanatory, making the beleaguered sysadmin work laboriously through the verbiage to get to the crucial information. But at the end of the hunt, you’ll often find references to illuminating knowledge-base articles. And you may start seeing patterns in distinct devices: persistent loss of connection to shared network drives? Exchange servers you can’t reconnect to after your machine’s gone to sleep? Such subtle failures become much more obvious when you let the Event Viewer do the searching.

There are a slew of management utilities which will consolidate many machine’s events and log files and go looking for patterns in the mash of data thus created. However, quite a lot of them are integrated into much larger network-management software suites, which with the best will in the world, you’re not going to deploy as a one-day project.

Hunt the temp files day 

Filing cabinet

While I might not want unqualified hands wandering about the file structure of my Exchange server, there’s definitely no harm in getting a bit of user-participation going when it comes to finding and nuking the myriad types and collections of files which you can’t see are being collected by your PC.

Don’t underestimate the potential gains. Some applications generate huge temporary files; others churn out smaller items, but in great numbers. I’ve seen printers create a single file per print job or sheet of paper, and not always cleanly delete them once the print run is over. 

It’s not just about disk space. There are a whole raft of different methods of picking up a file in a directory, from the perspective of a developer, and temporary files can have a big impact on performance. This is why things run faster in neglected Windows 7 machines once you clean out all the .txt files in the Windows directory, and why periodically emptying C:\WINDOWS\Temp can seem to turbo-charge certain operations.

There are downloadable utilities which can automate the process of clearing out temporary files, but it doesn’t hurt to engage your staff and help them gain some understanding of these not-too-mysterious secrets of business computers in action. 

The other Patch Tuesday: Physical cabling

Supermicro A+ Server 1114S-WN10RT cabling

Are you sure that all the leads and interlinks that make up your physical network are working as they should? Really sure? After all, even the small patch leads used in an equipment rack can get pinched by heavy servers and steel uprights.

This isn’t something you can do in software. Faced with a big pile of patch leads, your best bet might be to employ a Fluke cable tester, though those come with a reassuringly plump price tag. However, many modern switches can report on cable damage via their web interfaces, and there are cable-testing modes hidden away in some of Intel’s network card drivers too. Only the most hardcore techies tend to discover those, not least because they don’t show up when you’re using the default Microsoft drivers. 

Checking your cabling makes for an excellent one-day project, because if it gets to 4.59pm and you haven’t quite finished, you should still be left with a stack of known-good cables. Admittedly it’s quite a boring process and not one to leave with the users, but it shouldn’t get in the way of normal operations either – briefly pulling a cable out of a PC and replacing it barely interrupts the session, and both ends ought to resume the link seamlessly.

Drivers and firmware day

Two options shown on the Windows 10 start menu, reading "Update and shut down", or "Update and restart"

I’ve suggested involving non-IT staff in your one-day projects, but this is one I’d recommend you leave to the specialists. Playing with firmware used to be a reasonably safe proposition, because the sorts of device that had firmware used to be ones that did quite simple jobs. Now, though, the firmware has become more complex and the devices themselves have become more critical: even if your router isn’t running the latest firmware, you can’t just shut it down for an update. 

To be honest, when dealing with new clients and networks in unknown states of repair, I always try to see whether, rather than performing an in-place upgrade to a vital core bit of the network, we can replace it with something newer and better. That doesn’t always mean consigning that old device to the Cupboard of Shame: quite often it turns out that running two routers in a lightly connected setup gives you an overall faster design, while mitigating the risks of firmware upgrading. 

Of course, Wi-Fi routers aren’t the only devices with firmware. Even the humble network switch has a brain, and it’s worth making sure it’s up to date in the name of security and performance. Then, of course, we get into the wonderful world of user hardware: it’s quite incredible how much better the latest Intel Ethernet drivers are, compared to the ones burned into the initial releases of Windows 10. Unless you’re working in a very small office, however, it might be a stretch to get the drivers found, identified, downloaded and matched to all your PCs in a single day. And I’m willing to bet a small pile of actual coins of the realm that even if you can do that, you won’t have time to go round and optimally configure all the extra network parameters and controls provided by the driver. 

‘Wooden Spoon’ discovery day

A woman using a 1990s desktop PC

Businesses grow in fits and starts. It’s very unlikely indeed that all the PCs in your office are of the same age, spec, and operating system revision. I’d go so far as to say that the only companies where I’ve seen such standardisation are the ones in which I’ve recommended it, to provide a bit of resilience and redundancy when things start going peculiar. 

The Wooden Spoon is of course the award that goes to the oldest, slowest, most decrepit computer that’s still in regular use. For logical but ironic reasons, this will frequently be the one that’s doing the most business-critical job, and being used by the most hard-pressed member of the firm. If you can prise them off it for just a day, the gains can be enormous: I once replaced a Pentium 4 workstation with something that had two six-core Xeons and an onboard RAID card, representing a leap of about six hardware generations in one afternoon. The old machine had been taking about 40 minutes to run the developer’s modelling code; the new one ran the same code so fast we couldn’t press the stopwatch quickly enough. 

There’s no need to stop at workstations: printers, network switches and other key components of your business have a tendency to quietly reach retirement age while your attention is focused elsewhere. Tread a little carefully though. You can’t always just whisk away an outmoded item and have a fully functional replacement configured and running by the end of that singular day. Start with a focus on identifying the worst mismatches between hardware and job requirements, and make a realistic plan from there.

Password day

A list of poorly-constructed passwords on a notepad

Managing access – to cloud systems, websites, customers and all sorts of other things – has never been more important. Yet the actual management of passwords has become increasingly fluid. In practice, almost every worker nowadays has two sets of passwords – their own, and all the other ones they need to use in the course of doing their job. Password reuse has lamentably become so commonplace.

It’s vitally important, therefore, to find out what passwords everyone’s actually using – along with where they got them from, and who else knows them. Obviously this isn’t something that should be on a cloud-hosted spreadsheet, though: locking a password booklet in your office desk drawer might be smart. It might then even survive a fire drill.

Shadow amnesty day

A shadowy figure using a smartphone in front of the Facebook logo

“Shadow” here refers to shadow IT – the unsanctioned use of third-party services inside a business. It might be Google services, Skype or what have you; plenty of workers, especially the younger generations, are wholly accustomed to using free consumer tools to get things done, and won’t hesitate to fire them up in a professional setting. It could also include any sort of activity that goes outside of your documented and managed processes counts. 

The aim of a shadow amnesty day isn’t to cut out all the shadow service uses. Primarily, it’s to identify the areas where your in-house, properly managed IT department aren’t giving users what they need. If you can then use that information to set up a proper sharing platform that means people no longer need to put confidential documents on Dropbox, that’s a win for all concerned. 

Advanced project: Duplicates day

This one isn’t all that advanced for techies, but it can feel that way for users when you ask them to go hunting around their systems for duplicate files. Whether you use Windows 10 or Windows 11, the operating system doesn’t make this easy, especially when documents are spread across a variety of storage platforms and security settings. 

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You might question whether this is a worthwhile use of time and energy. Many people do – many people, that is, who haven’t seen the benefits of de-duplication, as found on the most upmarket NAS and storage server gear. These monsters – a single full-height rack packed with disks qualifies as a small one – can identify data that’s duplicated across multiple files and users, and refer hundreds of thousands of files all to a single block copy. The effect on storage requirements can be breathtaking: I’ve seen the time taken to back up an entire Exchange Server virtual machine (VM) drop from several hours to a matter of minutes. 

Okay, so we’re not going to match those benefits by clearing out a load of individual duplicates, but we can still make a significant difference to your storage needs, which will in turn have a knock-on effect on the speed and efficiency of your backups. 

The best approach is to standardise on a few lightweight utility tools. The first task is to analyse exactly where your storage is being eaten up, and to identify where you most need to free up some space. Then, you can use one of numerous free tools to search and destroy any space-wasting duplicates you may be harbouring. Personally I split up these operations by size; I start by searching for duplicate files over 500MB and then work my way down. This way, you can achieve big space savings very quickly, and it’s up to you whether you continue to inspect the smaller files.

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