Putting out the firewall

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The search for appropriate security held up one remodeler’s launch of a computer network, but according to Mike Fast, the delay and the extra effort has already paid off in peace of mind.

May 23, 2000

A year-and-a-half ago, when Professional Remodeler spoke with Mike Fast, CGR, president and CEO of MRF Construction in Tacoma Wash., he was just beginning to implement a computer network to streamline his operations. Now, he''''s finalizing a critical stage of the process--installing security--to protect his business and allow him to move forward with his upgrades.

According to Fast, finding the right security has been the most difficult part of the process to date. "It poses certain challenges," says Fast. "We've heard of all the viruses, and we''''re conscious of making our information protected."

To keep his company moving forward while he searched for appropriate protection, Fast transferred all of his company's financial and other critical information to a single computer: one of five that MRF uses. He then removed that computer from his network, so that the computer could not be accessed via other computers or the Internet. "We started thinking about our security before we ever got hooked on the Internet," he says.

The other four computers--two in the office and two in remote locations--were then networked to one another so that they could all share information electronically. Fast's system has developed to the point that information can be shared from the field computers to the office in a matter of minutes. The next step was to secure the system so that the financial computer could be integrated.

As part of the development process for the whole computer system, Fast hired a local independent consultant for technological advice. The consultant helped Fast determine how tight and what type of electronic protection Fast would need. "Our biggest fear was not that someone would find out what we have, but that they would come in and screw something up," he says.

Fast's fears were reinforced last March when the e-mail-capable computer at MRF was attacked by a virus. The virus, Happy99, attacked the e-mail program that MRF uses. Thankfully, the virus was discovered before it could do any serious damage. Having protection from further attacks is worth the cost, according to Fast. "I would rather err on the side of caution than have a virus take our hard drive down," he says.

It took Fast nearly a year and a half, since he began his technology integration, to find a security system he was happy with. In addition to working with the consultant, Fast also picked the brains of Microsoft employees around the Tacoma area. Eventually, Fast decided to purchase a pre-made system and customize it. "It did about 90 percent of what we wanted it to do," he says. "We had to make the other 10 percent happen."

The new security system will use a firewall, a computer program that can check which computers access a system, and block access from computers coming from locations that haven't been pre-approved. The firewall also includes a password system, so users at a proper computer must enter the correct password before access is granted. The system will also block websites from "stealing" information from your computer as you visit them.

Fast's advice to other remodelers looking for security: know your needs and make sure that the software you buy can really meet them. "The biggest thing is to read through the lines of [the software's] claims," he says. "See what they say they can do and make sure that they do it. There's no need to spend a fortune to do this kind of thing."

The implementation of this system cost Fast more in time than it did in money. Fast estimates that between the consultant's fees and the software, he's spent less than $1,000 in securing his computers. Was it worth it? "Absolutely," Fast says. "It's peace of mind and cheap insurance. I know someone who lost their hard drive. They were devastated and had to start over again from ground zero."

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