Nine Real-Life IT Horror Stories

Nothing can screw up a well-managed network faster than the people for whom you built it. Whether it's user error, optimistic expectations, or simply that bastard Murphy, IT's job is rarely predictable.

Lucky for you, there are lessons to be learned from others' misfortunes. So rather than wait to make your own forehead-shaped dent in the office wall, familiarize yourself with the screwups detailed below. It will make you that much more prepared to safeguard your IT environment from the ever-evolving boneheaded tendencies of those you serve.

Stupid user trick No. 1: Home is where the malware is
It happens at least once a year, and this year it happened twice, writes one IT admin: "And though we make the point with memos and lectures, there always seems to be someone who gives their work PC to the kids at night."

[ Users are by no means alone when it comes to hard-headedness in the IT world. See "Stupid user tricks 3: IT admin follies [1]" and "True IT confessions [2]" for real-world tales of folks who should know better fouling up. ]

The situation is familiar: To save on expenses, folks buy fewer home PCs, but their kids want to use them more than ever. Enter the corporate laptop into the home Web surfing environment -- a recipe for disaster for IT.

And it's not just kids playing games and doing homework. It's spouses using social networking -- and that uncle nobody talks about surfing porn on your corporate machines.

"Our security tends to be better than the average home box, but that won't protect you forever if you actually run out and look for attack sites," our admin warns. Sooner or later, one of your user's laptops will get compromised, leaving your network exposed to infection the next time he or she logs on at the office.

"We've gotten better at catching these compromised machines early, so instead of it being the big problem it used to be, last year it mainly just confirmed our investment in end-client security," the admin says.

The worst offender? A procurement manager who was found to have a keyboard logger installed on his company-issued laptop. "And this was a guy who spent several $100K a year online for the company," the admin informs us.

Solution: End-point security goes a long way toward preventing infected machines from gaining access to the corporate net, but they'll never be 100 percent effective. Web browsers are the gateway to hell when it comes to attack entry points. Let your users surf helter skelter and your attack potential goes way up. The only preventative measure: a strong fair-use policy and a management staff that'll enforce it.

Moral: Users will continue to break your official-use policy as long as money is tight and they believe the consequences are minor. Include disciplinary action in your policy, and make sure users know you're tracking Web site visits and system access. Otherwise, you are simply setting yourself up for disaster. Another solution: Sponsor employee discounts on netbooks. That way, your users will be less tempted to transform company property into their home PCs.

Stupid user trick No. 2: Message to self: E-mail isn't for everything
Sometimes all it takes is a well-meaning IT management decision to set stupid users in motion, writes P. Lindo, an IT admin at a New York-based organization with more than 1,000 e-mail inboxes, which the firm first maxed out at 100MB per mailbox, then at 500MB.

"In 2007, we hired a new IT manager who got placed in charge of e-mail management," says Lindo. "He saw the load of user requests for larger mailbox space and decided this was where he was going to make a big difference."

And so he set about purchasing enough hardware to increase individual mailbox sizes to 1GB -- barely.

"He also used all the user requests to get backing to upgrade everyone to Office 2007 -- the one with the new Outlook mailbox search," Lindo says.

Throw in a new policy for teaching users proper inbox maintenance, and watch inbox utilization hover at a manageable 75 percent -- until you put policy into practice.

"Turns out users don't read documents titled 'Proper Inbox Space Management,'" Lindo says. What they see instead is the fine print that tells them they now have 1GB of mailbox space. And then they start using Outlook's handy new search feature to turn their e-mail clients into personal information managers.

"Nobody deletes attachments anymore. Instead they leave them in their inboxes so that they can run quick searches against them, where all they need to remember is a rough description of the attachment and the name of the person who might have sent it to them," Lindo explains.

Worse, they send attachments to themselves just so the doc will be in the inbox somewhere.

"Our mail servers got maxed out inside of three months."

The small saving grace?

"We actually saw a 35 percent decrease in the amount these users used their network home directories," Lindo reports. "Outlook became the main network gateway for personal storage. So we were able to repurpose some storage from the file server machines on the e-mail infrastructure, but we still had to make several large and unscheduled server purchases to keep up with new demand."

Solution: A big inbox may sound like a good idea, but proper capacity planning is an even better one. Moreover, planning for 75 percent utilization is a recipe for trouble. Instead, target 50 percent or less, or run a pilot project before committing. A low-cost SAN can help here as well; adding capacity to one of those is significantly easier than installing new servers.

Moral: If it seems like everyone's working harder these days it's because they are. Users will utilize any tool you put in front of them to get the job done. And if they're more familiar with their e-mail client than other network resources, they'll use it as a substitute -- as long as you let them. Expand your definition of "desktop management" to include reaching out to users to train them on the tools your company is spending money on.

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