Backup Strategies for Small Businesses

If your small business is like many others, the word “meticulous” does not define your data backup strategy. Perhaps you backup your hard drives once a week — if you remember. Or you count on employees to make sure their data is safe. Or perhaps none of the above, in which case one stolen laptop or fried hard drive could do serious damage to your business.

You’re not alone. Many small companies “don’t bother to backup, or do it here and there,” Fred Broussard, Senior Research Analyst at IDC, said. He recommends that business owners consider backups an insurance policy against disaster rather than another expense.

The Workstations
Businesses with just a few employees and a handful of desktops and laptops don’t need complicated and expensive backup software: copying files to removable media is just fine, according to Broussard. You do need to make sure the vital data on each computer is backed up on a regular basis. Whether that occurs daily, every few days, or weekly depends on how much work you can afford to lose.

As hard drives grow larger and larger — 60 GB, 80 GB, and larger drives workstations are not uncommon in workstations — saving all that data seems like an ever-growing chore. (That’s a lot of CD-Rs, and a lot of time spent watching them burn.) Broussard points out that you don’t need to backup the whole drive — just your own work, file templates, contacts, and other information that you’ve generated. Applications can be reinstalled if necessary. Keep the original applications and operating system installation discs offsite. “Backup your specific data and templates — you don’t need a whole hard drive image,” Broussard said.

What media should you backup to? Floppy disks may be an option, but floppies can store only about 1.4 megabytes per disk — a single data file may be too large to fit. A portable USB CD-R writer or Iomega Zip drive, which can be moved easily between workstations, is probably a better choice. “One of the biggest challenges for a small company is overcoming that technology hurdle,” he said. The breaking point for backing up to removable media is 50 to 100 computers.

The “when” and “who” of backing up is just as important as the “how.” Define who is responsible for backing up the computers, and how often it is to be done. The policy should state where backups should be stored – preferably in a fireproof safe or offsite, not near the computer – and how long backups are to be kept. A backup is useless if the media goes bad, so someone should be responsible for spot-checking backups from time to time. (Do a complete restore to a different computer, if one is available.) This is especially important for reusable media like tapes and CD-RW.

The Server
If your business uses a file server as a central data repository, ad hoc backups aren’t good enough. You’ll want to create a system for daily, automated backups. One effective method is to add an additional hard drive to the server — at least as large as the main drive — just for backup. Use drive cloning software to make a complete, nightly copy of the primary drive to the backup drive. DriveImage for Windows and Carbon Copy Cloner for MacOS X are popular cloning applications. This system protects you from a hard drive crash — in which case you can have the backup running in minutes, but leaves you vulnerable if the server, backup drive and all, is stolen or destroyed.

A safer solution involves making automated backups to removable tapes. The primary benefits of tape are that a single one can store gigabytes of data, and they can be easily stored offsite.

Richard Roher, president of Roher Public Relations, a small PR firm, operates a 6-node network with a Dell PowerEdge server as the central file repository. “The server runs a different tape every night to backup all company data files except for one large group of graphics files, which we backup separately once a week,” he said. “We store all daily backups, except the most current, in a locked fireproof safe on site. The most recent tape I keep in my brief case so that a fresh copy leaves the office if I do. When I travel, one copy of backups goes into a fireproof security safe in an off-site location.”

“I sleep well at night,” Roher said. And that’s what counts: knowing that in the event of theft, fire, crash, or other disaster, you will be able to recover your business’ vital data quickly.

“The biggest thing to think about is the kind of likely disaster you could face and how those disasters would affect you if they actually came to pass,” IDC’s Broussard said.

Kevin Savetz has been a freelance technology writer for a decade. Savetz’s knowledge of small business technology has been published by The Washington Post, Computer Shopper, and The Rotarian. He also operates NetNews Tracker, a free, personalized Usenet search service.

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