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How to tune up a computerized information system.

As computer hardware and software grow more powerful and data files more plentiful, many organizations place greater reliance on their management information systems. Yet few managers give their systems the attention they deserve, and that's because they rarely stop to figure out the systems' real dollar value. If they did, they probably would discover the true cost of replacement far exceeds the balance sheet total. In fact, the loss of any significant portion of the system could jeopardize their businesses.

This article tells how to give a computer system proper attention--by conducting regular computer system assessments, by protecting it from damage and data loss and by adjusting it for maximum performance.


The place to start a management information system assessment is a hardware review. If someone in the organization is a technology expert, that person should conduct what amounts to an "audit" of the system. If no staff member is available, management should turn to a consultant or a hardware vendor, However, vendors are not likely to provide unbiased assessments; after all, their goal is to sell equipment. The reviewer should ask whether

* The hardware (computers, printers, scanners, modems, etc.) has been keeping pace with the office's requirements.

* The system's throughput-the time it takes between entering data and generating output such as reports or checks--is fast enough to meet the organization's growing requirements.

* The application programs need bigger memories to work more effectively.

* The stored data are overwhelming the computers' hard drives.

* Breakdowns and data losses are beginning to affect the office's performance.

The upgrade. Often, upgrading a system without a major computer replacement is possible. In many cases, just replacing a few parts--plugging in new circuit boards, adding memory chips and installing new hard drives into existing equipment-is sufficient to meet the office's needs.

One relatively inexpensive way to boost system throughput is to invest in higher speed printers. In many cases, sluggish printers are the major bottleneck of an information system. Other steps to take are

* Optimizing the data on the existing hard disk, significantly speeding up a system. This is done by a defragmentation utility available from such programs as PC Tools and Norton Utilities. A defragmentation utility repositions stored data in a more orderly way, bringing together related data and eliminating wasted "space" between them.

* Uncluttering hard disks by removing duplicate and unused programs and data files.

* Decreasing file duplication by networking existing workstations, thus making communal data available from the network.

* Moving old data files from hard disks and archiving them on other media--tape or floppy disk.

* Increasing hard disk capacity by add* ing software that compresses both application programs and data files. In some cases it's possible to double hard disk capacity this way,

* Boosting processing speed by replacing old computers with new, high-speed models or adding a math coprocessor, a special plug-in circuit that speeds calculations.


The next area to examine is application software. Two key questions to ask are, Does every program in use continue to meet the needs of the organization? Is the organization using the latest version of every program it uses?

While upgrading each time new software versions come out is expensive, new editions usually contain enhancements that make them more efficient and effective than earlier versions. A user may feel stuck with customized software either because an upgrade may lose the customized features or because adding the custom features to the new version may be costly. Deciding to upgrade requires careful study and the understanding that software improvements are inevitable. As a business grows, programs must advance apace.

A common mistake of system managers is they often fail to revisit the software documentation after the initial installation. In most cases, to load new programs, data managers determine what functions they will need and then customize the application. After that, managers generally put the software manuals away, turning to them only when a program change is required or errors crop up. Instead, users should keep manuals handy and study them from time to time in an effort to discover new features and functions that would enhance use of the application.

Many companies require up-to-the-minute information from the computer; for them, even once-a-day updates are not sufficient. In computer jargon, the system must be capable of operating on-line and in real time, which means any data loaded into the system can be accessed and calculated immediately.

Other areas to examine are:

* Existing support and maintenance contracts.

* Management reports-are they serving the organization's needs? If not, purchasing alternative software may be warranted.


Here are some of the security measures that must be included in a review:

* Antivirus procedures and software should be examined to be sure the software and data are amply protected.

* Examiners should check equipment location for protection against fire, flood and other hazards. Also, they should assess whether unauthorized people are kept away from the equipment effectively and do not have access to data via modem.

* Insurance coverage should be examined. Any new equipment should be covered and the insured value of all equipment should be reviewed.

* All backup copies of software should be kept in a safe place--preferably off-site.

* Backup control-system procedures should be checked. Are the controls adequate? Are they strictly enforced?

* If an organization lacks a disaster-recovery plan (dealing with anything from a power blackout to a fire or earthquake), preparing the plan should be given high priority. If the organization has such a plan, it should be tested periodically.

* Password access codes should be reviewed and tested. If passwords are taped to the sides of computers (which is common), the codes should be changed and the users warned against placing passwords in conspicuous places.

* All software licensing agreements should be reviewed. Many companies often expose themselves to potential legal liability and public embarrassment by not complying with software licensing agreements (see JofA, Nov.90, "What Clients Need to Know About Software Piracy," by Sheldon H. Eveloffand Martin L. Faigus, page 134). Companies often share copies of programs with branch locations without the proper authorization from the software company. Violators are being tracked down and prosecuted even if the transgression is inadvertent. Aside from legal problems of using an unauthorized copy of a program, the user company is also at risk of losing invested productive hours by working with software that cannot be supported if errors occur.

As important as hardware and software are, people and the procedures they use remain an information system's backbone. Written procedures serve as instructions for processing data the way management prefers. These procedures must be reviewed regularly to be sure the operations actually performed are in compliance with company policy and are properly documented. The documentation is vital so a person unfamiliar with the particular system can step in during an emergency.

Finally, there should be a procedure for tracking new technology and determining whether any of it should be adopted. If not, management should give its creation high priority.

These review procedures are time-consuming and expensive, but the investment is cost-effective when the price of a breakdown or data loss is calculated. Even more important, a well-tuned information system can be a big plus for an organization by streamlining operations and providing data in a timely way.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:A Special Report on Office Equipment
Author:Laughlin, Susan Kazenas
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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Next Article:What to look for when buying a fax.

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