Sep 20 2005

Backup to the Future

Smart businesses set companywide policies to ensure regular backups.


In addition to lives lost, the 2001 terrorist attacks on Manhattan's World Trade Towers caused many business casualties. Fortunately, Childs Capital LLC wasn't one of them.


The economic development firm is headquartered six blocks from ground zero. The destruction kept its workers out of the office for weeks. Nevertheless, the company was back to business in a couple of days thanks to a sophisticated backup and recovery system.


"We lost physical access to our offices, but we didn't lose any data," says Donna Childs, founder and owner.


Childs never imagined that something on this scale would affect her company, but unlike some small business owners, she never believed a disaster "couldn't happen to me," she says. So she created a backup infrastructure that routinely saved data to hard drives offsite. For extra security, she contracted with a service provider that used the Internet to transfer daily data feeds to backup facilities outside of Manhattan.


This system not only got Childs Capital up and running, it also generated long-term financial savings. "After 9/11, businesses in the city saw a spike in their insurance rates," Childs says. But she negotiated a 30 percent discount in premiums after she argued that her backup system lowered her company's risk. "I earned a payback on my investment in a couple of different ways," Childs says.


Computer crashes, accidental overwriting of files, storms, power failures, fire—even terrorist attacks—can destroy data critical to a small business and threaten its survival. The Marietta Eye Clinic, a six-office outpatient chain headquartered in Marietta, Ga., would lose about $8,000 an hour if lost data brought operations to a halt, says Lloyd Pugh, senior network engineer. Even so, data backup systems traditionally haven't been top of mind for many entrepreneurs, who see them as secondary to the core business. But as attitudes change and small companies devote more of their information technology budgets to storage and backup systems, owners still need help determining what are the most cost-effective, reliable backup choices, and what policies are needed to run them effectively.


Storage Growth


AMI-Partners, a New York market researcher, projects 7.7 percent growth in small business IT spending through 2008. Storage technology will account for a disproportionate share of this growth, or about double the overall rate.


But no "silver-bullet" solutions exist for small companies. For example, Pugh relies on tape backups because they're economical and he can store tape cartridges offsite to protect against physical threats to his data center. But he's dissatisfied with the slow data-transfer speeds of tape and the difficulty of finding a specific file saved on a tape cartridge.


Hard disks run faster than tape and allow managers to search for specific files by name. But hard drives are typically housed inside servers, which makes them impractical to take offsite. Plus, hard drives are much more expensive than tape.


Rehab Designs, a medical supply company in Louisville, Ky., has an answer to the hard-drive portability problem. The company attaches one in a rotating group of 250-GB hard drives to its main server using an external USB connection. The company's data-management software automatically sends a copy of the day's data to the external drive each night. Because the drives are external, Rehab can save a redundant backup to a drive and store the device offsite. "If our building goes up in flames, we can just plug the USB drive into any workstation or laptop and have access to those files," says Tim


Barrett, operations manager. To save hard drive space, Barrett burns less critical data—e-mail archives, for example—onto DVDs once a week and stores the discs offsite.


Technology isn't the only consideration. Companies also must classify data according to its importance, says Peter A. Gerr, senior analyst at storage industry researcher Enterprise Strategy Group, in Milford, Mass. "IT departments may view all data as being created equal, but that's not the case," Gerr says. "Certain applications, such as databases or e-mail, are mission-critical."


Prudent Policies


Data backups should be part of a comprehensive plan, not a stopgap measure for a central server or a couple of main PCs. Particularly important are notebook computers. "It's more convenient to just back up the server, but there are often significant data on the laptops," says Anil Miglani, senior vice president with AMI-Partners.


Companies must also decide how often to back up data. Depending on the amount of data created each day, some companies perform full backups every night, while others opt for weekly, with incremental daily saves of just the data that's changed since the last procedure.


Either way, managers should look for backup software that gives them the flexibility to schedule incremental, snapshot and full backups based on how much data the organization creates. The software should also filter specific types of files to back up—spreadsheets, for example, but not stray MP3 music files that may be on a hard drive. Barrett says the "volume shadow copy" tools in some server operating systems save time by automatically clicking a snapshot of files in the morning and afternoon. If users accidentally delete a file, they can quickly locate it in a file directory without having to call on Barrett to hunt through the previous night's backup files.


Finally, backup systems aren't "set-it-and-forget-it" technology. Childs regularly reads backup logs to make sure the procedures ran correctly, and each quarter she spot-checks archives to confirm that important information was correctly saved. She also regularly runs drills so her staff stays current. "The most important thing I learned from what happened in 2001 is that the technology


infrastructure has to be a seamless part of our operations," she says. "If, God forbid, we go into recovery mode, people should not have to think about how to get online and reconvene electronically."


IT Takeaway
Concerned about justifying the cost of data backup systems? Estimate the cost of downtime if a system crash kept the company from mission-critical data, which can be thousands of dollars per minute, depending on the business.
Data backup isn't one size fits all, so compare price, capacities and portability (for offsite copies of important files) of hard disks and tape drives with the amount of new data your company produces each day. If cost is a prime factor, tape offers economy and easy offsite storage. Hard drives trade higher costs for faster performance and the ability to find specific files quickly.
Don't forget reality checks: Check daily backup logs to make sure the system is backing up all of the important data, and conduct quarterly spot checks to confirm archives are intact.
Run fire drills. Use regular drills to make sure employees know how to find information after a system crash or how to work remotely if physical operations are shut down.