ImageDin-Zek Industries co-founder This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a rarity: a highly effective IT expert with top-drawer people skills. His ability to explain the byzantine functions of computers, networks, iPods and other modern marvels in terms layfolk like us can understand is a constant source of inspiration. So we decided to sit down with him and pick his astonishing brain about launching one's own business in these technologically mercurial times.

First, though, a few Dinda fun facts: He was born and raised in the Connecticut hamlet of Berlin (pronounced "BER-lin"). He has a massive comic-book collection, and particularly loves Aquaman and Green Arrow. His favorite food: sandwiches. He'll tell you the rest.

Editorializing: I'm starting my own business and will have a few other people working with me. What are my basic gear requirements?

Jim Dinda: The first thing you'll want to be able to do is have your computers talk to each other, which means you need a network. ImageAt a minimum, you'll need a router — most likely one that connects to your high-speed Internet connection, whether it's DSL or a cable modem. And typically, these days, you'll get a wireless router. You'll be able to hook up however many computers you have to that network, either with Ethernet cables or wi-fi. You may need a switch, another network device, which allows multiple computers to plug in together. That's the minimum.

Once you get the computers hooked up together, you also want to make sure they can talk to the Internet, and this is done through the router.

How much can I count on spending for that setup?

If you're just getting started, the same entry-level equipment you'd use in your home would probably be fine. Linksys, Netgear and others provide decent routers in the $70 range. One thing to consider for future planning, though, is starting with something a little better;
With a VPN, you can theoretically do whatever you do inside the office from without, and do it securely.
if you're interested in being able to access files in your office from outside your office — if you travel or frequently work from a remote location — you may want to consider a router with VPN (virtual private network) capability. This is a way to create a secure "tunnel" from outside of the office to the inside. It's done using encryption software that resides on your remote computer and also in the office. You can theoretically do whatever you do inside the office from without, and do it securely. These are more expensive; the price depends on their configuration and other factors. I typically recommend either SonicWALL or Cisco hardware solutions, which can cost between $300-600. For a very small office it may not be worthwhile, but as your business grows, it becomes more cost-effective.

What sort of security do I need? Should I have a firewall? What the heck is a firewall?

ImageA firewall is a device that blocks certain kinds of communications from going from one side to another. The name comes from the physical world — if you have a building, you might build an actual firewall, which is a big metal wall that prevents fire from spreading. In a network diagram, it always looks like a big brick wall; it's designed to keep a lot of something from coming through. Typically, it's designed to protect your computers from people on the Internet who want to get into them. Any router is to some degree a firewall. Some are better or more sophisticated than others, but even the basic $70 router has firewall capabilities.

Inside the office, if you go the wireless route, you have other security concerns. Wireless, by default, generally doesn't have security enabled because they want to make it as easy as possible to use. But if you work in a place where there are other people around, they can see your wireless connection and get on it if there's no protection. So you definitely want to get wireless-security enabled. The kind that's recommended now is called WPA (Wi-Fi protected access) or WPA-2; the older kind, WEP, is not secure and has become even riskier of late. WPA doesn't add cost; it's just a matter of making sure you have the right router and that it's set up the right way.

These are the most important security features: a firewall to protect you from people on the Internet and wireless security to protect you from people walking by, driving by or even standing by who might log on and get unauthorized access to your files.

What's involved in sharing files within an office in an efficient way?

ImageThe easiest and cheapest way is to share files that are stored on one computer. You can easily turn on that computer's file-sharing feature and make those files accessible to any machine on the same network. This is known as peer-to-peer file-sharing. It's just a matter of turning the feature on and setting up permissions the right way. With both Windows and Mac computers, this is very easy to do; they have little wizards that walk you through the process. With this method, you don't have to invest in any new hardware.

The next-easiest way up the ladder toward greater expense and capability is something called network-attached storage (NAS). The prices have been coming down substantially on these devices; there are several in the so-called SOHO (small office/home office) market. It's basically a bunch of hard drives, some server software that does the work of sharing, and an Ethernet port.
There's a saying that data doesn't exist unless it exists in three places.
You just plug this device into your network — it's usually managed through a Web interface — and then start copying the files up to it and down from it. One fundamental question when you're getting a file server — and this really applies to all of your files — is: How important is this data to you? There's a saying that data doesn't exist unless it exists in three places. Just because you have information on your desktop or laptop computer or even a file server, if it isn't backed up or stored in some kind of redundant way, if the hard drive dies, you lose all that data.

ImageTo achieve an optimal backup system, you'll want to consider a storage unit that has what are called redundant discs, abbreviated as RAID (redundant array of inexpensive discs). NAS units have different RAID capabilities, and what you're really shooting for is RAID 5, which means all but one of the discs is used for data, and the last is used for what's called parity; if any disc fails, there's enough data on that last disc that it can rebuild all the data onto a new disc that you'd insert into the array. This is strictly to protect you from losing data in the event of a disc failure, but it only works if you replace the failed disc before another disc in the array fails.

A bunch of fairly inexpensive NAS servers are available with RAID 5 capability, and if you're going to invest in this kind of thing, that's what you should look for.

For people who don't have that kind of automatic redundancy and have to do a manual backup, what practice do you recommend?

First of all, you need to know how much data you're backing up so you can pick the right medium for what you're backing up to. Nowadays people have so much information, even on their laptops, that it's difficult sometimes to back it up to removable devices. If you had a very, very small amount of information to back up, you could use a USB thumb drive. If you had a larger amount, about 800 megabytes or fewer, you could back it up onto a CD-ROM; for an even larger amount, up to 4.7 gigabytes, you could use a DVD-ROM. The new double-layered DVDs have about twice that much space. But those media all max out at a certain amount, so they quickly become impractical.

ImageThe next level is an external hard drive. They're fairly inexpensive and attach directly to your desktop, laptop or server via USB. External hard drives can match the storage capacity of your computer — typically between 40-160 gigabytes — and the prices have come down, even for ones with 500-750-gigabyte capacity. You can typically run a whole company on that much information.

The last level is a tape drive, which is rarely used in a small-office environment because it's very expensive, but it does allow you to back up to multiple kinds of media and take those backups offsite. An external hard drive that resides at the same location as the files you're backing up doesn't protect you from catastrophic events like fire.

Once you have your media in place, you'll need to figure out the most practical way to back up. Whenever possible, you'll want to have an automated backup system. You can get programs that will automatically back things up to certain places, which is really great with an external hard drive — it's always there and can back up in the evening or anytime you're not likely to be working on your computer.

CD and DVD backup is less practical because you have to insert the discs at certain times and do the backups manually.
How valuable is that information to you? How many man-hours will be involved in recreating it if it's lost, and what's that worth?
You'll want to back up once a day if you're making changes all the time. If you don't do that, once a week is good; at a minimum, you should do it once a month. But you have to realize that at any given time you could lose that backup. So: How valuable is that information to you? How many man-hours will be involved in recreating it if it's lost, and what's that worth? Unfortunately, this question is neglected by most people until it's too late. So it's important to think about what would happen and what it would cost you in time and energy if you lost the data on any of your devices.

Where do you stand in the PC vs. Mac debate?

You can't do everything on a Mac, and you can't do everything on a PC. The methodology used in the admittedly stodgy IT world goes like this:
  • Step One: Figure out what you want to do.
  • Step Two: Figure out which software will help you do what you want to do.
  • Step Three: Figure out which hardware you need to run that software.
As a writer, you may only need word-processing software and e-mail; as a visual artist, you'd need graphic-design programs or page-layout programs. For those things, a Mac is ideal.

ImageOf course, if you're running a business, you'll need financial software; QuickBooks and Quicken work far better on Windows. However, the question is somewhat moot now because the new Intel-based Macs are built on the same platform as Windows computers. So it's easier and cheaper than ever to run PC and Mac programs at the same time, where before there were huge performance issues. There's really no downside except for the additional costs for the Windows software you need to buy if you use a Mac.

Ultimately it's less important to choose one operating system (OS) over another, but there is still a matter of cost — if you only need to use PC programs, a PC will be cheaper; if you only need to run Mac programs, a Mac will be cheaper. If you need to run both, that can be done on a Mac but it will be more costly. Also, be aware that PCs and Macs can talk to each other on the same network.

Microsoft does support the Office platform on Macs. Of course, Microsoft intentionally doesn't support its programs as vigorously on the Mac; Office 2007 for Windows is leaps and bounds ahead of Office 2004, which is what's now available for the Mac. Eventually the Mac will catch up to a certain extent, but Microsoft wants to encourage people to buy PCs, so they try to make sure their software runs best on their OS.

One more Windows-related question: What's your opinion about upgrading to Vista?

ImageThat's very important. Microsoft has been working on Vista for so many years, and it was delayed so long, that they're really pushing it now — so much so, in fact, that they're going to so-called "end of life" or "end support" on Windows XP as of January 2008, which will force a lot of people to upgrade to Vista. They've also made it very hard to buy XP; they've pressured their dealers to sell only Vista-equipped computers.

As with a lot of Microsoft operating systems, they take a while to work out the bugs.
Many Windows users will be forced to buy Vista, and it seems this is what Microsoft wants. It'll cause a lot of pain for people who've been running XP for years.
So Vista is available now, but it has some drawbacks compared to XP, which is very mature and stable. Vista is very secure and also stable, but there are many incompatibilities with existing software and a lot of performance issues, because it's a much more complicated OS — if you were to install it on the same hardware you've had for years, it would seem much slower. Even with a brand-new computer it would seem slower than one running XP. It's a difficult time for Windows users; many of them will be forced to buy Vista, and it seems this is what Microsoft wants. It'll cause a lot of pain for people who've been running XP for years. It's fairly typical of the way they put software out.

The biggest advantage to Vista is security. They've redesigned the whole system so a lot of the "malware," or spyware, that's plagued the Windows platform for the last 10 years can't possibly run, which is great. Also, the whole interface is better designed and to some extent more user friendly, especially Office 2007. Microsoft typically releases "service packs" every 18 months; given the problems associated with Vista, I hope they'll release one sooner. And since live support on XP will stop in January, it would be nice for a stable Vista platform to be available.

Let's talk about laptops. If I want one that will work with my office network and also meet my needs on the road, what do you recommend?

Everyone has a very different idea of the perfect laptop. I would say after you get past the question of what software you need to run and what hardware will run it — PC or Mac — your options will be narrowed down considerably. Apple basically just makes two models: the MacBook, which is the smaller of the two and designed for a general user, and the MacBook Pro, which is more expensive and designed for professionals who need more power. Personally, I'd buy the smallest one, because when you're traveling, I think it's best to have the smallest, lightest computer possible.

Image

As far as pricing is concerned, the laptops in the middle of the pack are the most cost-effective because they can take advantage of the best hardware (since they're not trying to make everything work in the smallest size) but, at the same time, they're not extra-big, so they don't have the most expensive screens and video cards.

I think if you want a good laptop that will last you three to five years, you're going to spend $1,300-1,500.
If you want a good laptop that will last you three to five years, you're going to spend $1,300-1,500.
That's from a good company, with a warranty, and with a fast enough processor to run Vista and Office 2007, if it's a PC, and with enough memory to do what you want to do for the next few years. You can buy computers that cost half that much; you can get a decent laptop in the $800 range. The problem is, it'll feel great right now, but in one to two years it'll feel very slow and you'll be looking to upgrade again.

Many people who work at a computer also spend hours surfing the Web, playing with iTunes and so on, and this takes a toll on their bodies. What can they do to improve the ergonomics of their work spaces?

ImageI'm paying the price myself. I've worked on computers for nearly 20 years and have never had any discomfort. But recently I've been spending a lot of time working on a laptop with a trackpad in the middle, and I'm starting to feel pain in my arm. So I realize that while the laptop is convenient, you really can't work on it for very long without problems, especially if you're not sitting in an ergonomically correct posture, like propped up in bed.

Ergonomically, it's important that you sit feet on the floor, with knees and forearms parallel to the ground and hands in a natural position. I still think mice are the most comfortable option; some people swear by trackballs and ergonomic keyboards that conform to the shape of the hand. As I don't touch-type, the latter wouldn't help me; I'm a very fast hunt-and-peck typist, so a nontraditional keyboard makes it harder to find the keys! It's also important that your monitor be placed directly in front of or slightly below your eye line, so your neck stays properly aligned.

Once your ergonomics are correct, you need to remember to take breaks. I think it was an episode of The Office that had various recommendations about this, and one was to take a 10-minute break every hour: stretch, walk around, look at something other than a screen.

I spend a lot of time when I should be working just organizing my iTunes collection. Is there an easy way to make it accessible on my network?

ImageThere are many ways to make it accessible. The easiest, in my view, is just using the sharing feature on iTunes. Organizing music, especially as the volume people have from various sources increases, is becoming a huge task. This also gets us back to storage. Before, your record or CD collection took up a whole wall; now, all the work you've done organizing that collection resides on one little piece of hard drive that might die at any minute — at which point all that work is out the window. Not only do you need to think about how and where to store it, but also how and where you're accessing it, and what software you use to do that and how you're going to back it up.

Apple makes a lot of good products in this area; the new iTV is pretty impressive. You can plug it directly into your TV and it accesses your iTunes over your computer network, so you can play your music and videos even when your computer is turned off. Windows XP Media Center and the newly released Windows Vista Home Premium and Ultimate editions are also very good. Also, the Series 2 and 3 TiVos have a Home Media option, which is pretty impressive as well; you can access files from your computer and play them on your TiVo, or vice versa. If you do have a server, you can actually store the music files on there and access them with a variety of software, including iTunes, Windows Media Player and so on. Another good piece of media technology is a Slingbox, which is designed for people who want to access their TV shows on the road.

All of these products form your home theater/PC/media-management system. In addition, there are many open-source products, like Andromeda, which is a great, Web-based way to organize your MP3 files. It just depends on what equipment you have and what you want to accomplish. At a minimum, though, once you have a network, it's very easy to access all of your media from anywhere on that network.

I can't really afford a full-time IT person, but I'd rather chew off my own leg than rely on online or phone-based tech support. What other options do I have?

ImageThere's certainly a service class of IT professionals who provide support for people in home offices. The most generic and easiest to get hold of is the Geek Squad, which can be found through Best Buy and other retailers; I haven't worked with them personally, so I can't vouch for their competence. Based on feedback I get from my clients, it's hard to find good IT people at any level, from corporate to Geek Squad.

My company is in the middle of the spectrum; we pride ourselves on providing what we call enterprise-level support for small to medium-sized businesses. We try to provide the same support you'd get at a large company, or better. This means the same access to new technology, the same level of service — supplied either remotely or in person. Our goal is to minimize our clients' downtime, the time they spend unable to use their hardware or software the way they need to. We can't be available 24/7 for every single one of them, but we believe we can provide them significantly more value than relying on manufacturers' technical support. We deal with those manufacturers on their behalf. It's up to you to decide whether it's worth paying someone to do that. In the long run, it's going to cost you, if not in money, then in time.

Tell me a bit about your background.

ImageI've been working in IT for almost 15 years, generally in the entertainment business. Before that, I majored in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and took a job in the computer labs to pay my way. I became good with computers, and after my shifts I'd go home and stay up figuring things out, downloading and installing stuff — and eventually I become more qualified for, and excited about, IT work than mechanical engineering.

Engineering tends to be isolated work, which I don't enjoy. When you work IT, you're helping people, people who need help with their computers so they can interact with other people. I find that much more enjoyable than working in an isolated environment where you never talk to anyone.

So I went to L.A. and worked on Macs in the art department at Geffen Records,
When you work IT, you're helping people. I find that much more enjoyable than working in an isolated environment where you never talk to anyone.
where I had the opportunity to learn Windows and servers and networks, and I took that knowledge to other jobs. During the dot-com boom I had an Internet job, which required me to stretch outside my strict IT roots and get more involved in Web design and managing sites, but I was unsatisfied with the work and the kind of technology I was using. It wasn't as satisfying as doing straight IT, where you deal more directly with people: setting up their computers and servers, getting their desktops working better. I did freelance work for a while and realized pretty quickly that my clients would benefit from a company like mine.

ImageMy partner, Michael Skwarczek, has also been doing this for a long time. We launched Din-Zek Industries in August 2005. Our company has grown, our client base has expanded and we've hired some employees, but we're still very small and hands-on. Our goal is always to give you the best value in IT, and that's often in the form of advice so you can be more self-sufficient and call us less frequently — not because we don't want to talk to you, but because it costs you money when you call us. We'd like to help hundreds of people so effectively that they rarely need to call us.

How do you feel about being an entrepreneur?

Naturally there are pros and cons. The upside is we get a little more control and are more directly rewarded for our efforts.

It's sometimes hard to keep up with the running of the business itself, and that goes for anyone who starts a business but isn't really a businessperson by training. Being an entrepreneur, you may not be good at accounting or developing contracts or whatever. The best advice I've gotten has always been to find people who are good at those things; the way you succeed at your business is by finding people to do the things you're not good at and paying them what they ask for.