Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Prepare for data disaster and your business should be able to survive the inevitable

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #314  October 31, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    Computers are wonderful things, right? Could we imagine trying to run our businesses without them, as if we were back in the 1970s?

    Of course, this means we are more and more dependent on them. What would happen to your business if your computers suddenly stopped working? Or if you unlocked the door one morning, and found they simply weren't there? Has your business prepared for the range of possible computer disasters?

    One likely scenario involves theft: notebooks are popular targets--easily stolen and easy to unload. On the other hand, while the loss of a notebook may inconvenience a single employee, it is unlikely that it would be critical to the day-to-day operation of a business.

    Bulkier desktop machines can also be targets, and in at least a couple of cases I'm aware of, thieves opened up the computers, removed the RAM chips, and neatly put everything back together, leaving with about 200 megs of RAM (street value around $10,000) invisible in their pockets. High-end CPUs are also easily removed, and worth a couple of hundred dollars each.

    This kind of theft, while frustrating, is easy to recover from: just replace the RAM or CPU, and the computer is back up and running, data intact. More damaging to most businesses than the loss of the physical computer is loss of the data, which, while valueless to most thieves, can be vital to the company.

    Have you taken all the standard, low-tech precautions to secure your equipment? Dead bolts, alarms, motion detectors? Look at the physical arrangement of your equipment. A receptionist's computer may be vulnerable in a relatively open front area, but your far more vital network-server should probably be locked in a more secure internal office or closet. Where are your records, listing equipment for police and insurance claims? Are there multiple copies, possibly off-site? Make printouts of equipment inventory lists: if the only records are on the hard drive of the machine that is stolen, you've got big problems.

    Know your suppliers. In the event of theft or other disaster, can you get replacement equipment quickly? Will there be technical support to help you get it all set up and running when you need it? Theft, fire, water damage, earthquake--all these can result in loss of data. But disaster needn't be so dramatic. While micro-electronic parts like RAM chips and CPUs are pretty rugged, hard drives are mechanical, and prone to failure--usually when you need them most. While today's hard drives are much more reliable than those of a decade ago, they still may simply break down.

    So whether it's simple mechanical breakdown, theft or some other disaster, you need a way to ensure that your business's data can be restored quickly, minimizing loss and disruption.

    The answer, of course, is frequent backups. Some people suggest there are only two categories of computer users--those who back up regularly because they've already had a data disaster that found them unprepared, and those who have not yet had their disaster.

    Luckily, it is getting easier to make those backups. You no longer have to go out and buy boxes of floppy disks to back up a hard drive (about 700 diskettes to back up a one-gigabyte hard drive), and spend an evening shuffling them in and out of the disk drive. Tape drives are the most popular format for backups, and have come down dramatically in price, while tape capacity has increased, to keep pace with the rise in hard-drive space.

    Businesses with multiple machines to back up should look at tape drives that use the computer's printer port: that way, a single unit can be shared between many computers. (Keeping all important data on the network server will also simplify backups.)

    As recordable CD-ROMs (CD-R) become more affordable (units are currently hovering somewhere over the $1,000 mark), this will become a more practical way to make permanent backups.

    Develop a strategy that reflects your business's needs, based on how much data is generated and how much work it will be to recreate it, and then follow that strategy! For example, you may want to make a full backup of each network server and important desktop units once a week. In many cases, software can be set up to run overnight, unattended. At the end of each business day, run an incremental backup that quickly copies only those files that have changed since the last backup.

    Test your strategy by restoring a series of backups. That way, in case of loss or disaster, the most that will be lost is a single day's data--a problem, of course, but one you can handle.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan