The U.S. economy may be tanking, but Lilli Wiggins is as busy as she’s ever been.

Wiggins, the vice president and customer care manager of Gainsville, Fla.-based Computer Network Experts, is taking in more business than ever. Small and mid-sized businesses are flocking to the nine-employee IT solutions company to find ways to make their existing network equipment and systems last longer.

“Usually, when equipment gets to a certain age… about four years out, you’re on the edge, and thinking you’ll buy something new. Most people right now, though, are fixing rather than buying new. They’re not throwing anything out,” notes Wiggins, whose best customers are companies with fewer than 50 employees.

October’s grim news of the housing market’s collapse sent stocks tumbling around the globe, creating recession woes and a credit crunch that’s making banks leery of lending to any but their best customers. Faced with the prospects of less available capital and fewer sales, businesses big and small are holding off on many major outlays, experts say. In a mid-October report, Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research forecast that computer and communications vendors will “bear the brunt of IT cost-cutting” as companies tighten their belts.

How to make your networks last

But just how can businesses make their networks last longer? The experts offer these five suggestions:

  1. Be proactive.  Smart companies are taking a look at their networks now to make any fixes so that crucial systems don’t fail, says Wiggins. Clean out the hard drive and take care of any basic maintenance. “In this economy, people can’t afford to have a crash,” says Wiggins.
  2. Keep malware and spyware up to date.  Yes, it’s basic, but so important, and many companies forget to keep things updated, says Wiggins. For companies lacking the staff or know-how, hosted spyware solutions are offered by MessageLabs, Cisco’s Linksys, and others.
  3. Keep close tabs on Internet use.  Hammer down those inter-office and remote-worker policies about Internet use, and make sure employees aren’t downloading freebies onto the network. “There’s a fine line between open-source and free, and people are still downloading things that carry viruses and malware. It’s a quandary for many businesses,” says Wiggins.
  4. Schedule a check-up.  Consider bringing in a consultant to independently review your networks and make sure there isn’t something you’ve overlooked in terms of maintenance.
  5. Consider upgrades.  Adding memory, adding CPUs, or switches may be a good option for some companies wanting to use what they’ve got for a while longer, notes Jennifer VanDerHorst-Larson, CEO of Minnetonka, Minn.-based Vibrant Technologies, a business-to-business IT reseller that offers technical support. Consider buying them from a reputable reseller: by buying used, companies can save 50-80 percent on quality parts, says Larson.

CNE’s Wiggins notes that most of these suggestions “are just common sense.” But in this tough economy, common sense is something few can afford to be without.