It’s National Preparedness Month: Are You Ready?

The cruel and fickle hand of Mother Nature has dealt a mighty blow to the Gulf Coast, ironically ushering in September, also known as National Preparedness Month, and tragically affecting many lives. While serving as a horrific reminder that disaster can cause mass destruction, the lesson for small businesses is that contingency planning is really a year-round effort.

Should disaster strike, saving lives, of course, is paramount, and hopefully the lessons of Katrina will serve us to better react in the future. But one thing is for sure: you’re the only one who is going to look out for your business. (Not to mention that human error, far more common than Mother Nature’s nastiness, is ever-present and can also wreak havoc on day-to-day operations.) Whether or not you live in a region prone to catastrophic calamities, planning for the survival of your business is imperative to long-term success, and yet, so many fail to do so.

Consider this: Only 23 percent of small businesses back up their data to a separate, secure off-site facility, according to an HP 2005 Small Business Survey conducted with Harris Polls.

The stakes are high, with the very survival of a firm on the line. Industry analysts Gartner say 50 percent of small and mid-sized companies will go out of business within three years if lost data can’t be recovered within 24 hours, yet nearly 40 percent don’t back up their data at all, with only a quarter of small businesses having a recovery plan in place.

Furthermore, a University of Texas study of disaster-struck enterprises shows that 43 percent never re-opened with 51 percent closing within two years.

When it comes to data security, the numbers are no better. A Small Business Technology Institute/Symantec survey found that 75 percent do no formal planning to counter IT threats, though 56 percent have experienced at least one incident in the past 12 months.

An Ounce of Prevention
The good news is that planning for a crisis is far easier than enduring one. HP and Symantec teamed up to offer the Crisis Preparedness Resource (CPR) Guide: The HP Smart Office QuickGuide to Information Security for SMBs.

A launching pad for executing prevention measures, establishing a contingency plan and recovering data, HP’s Small Business Protection site serves as a valuable resource for the overwhelmed SMB-owner who doesn’t know where to begin.

If you’re at a loss for what you need to do regarding security, start by checking out HP’s Layers of Security Framework. It will help you assess your data armor and figure out what holes to plug. You can also refer back to the HP/Symantec CPR Guide, which recommends employing antivirus software, firewalls, virtual private networks and virtual private networks for wireless connections.

Additionally, HP has integrated a few of Symantec’s utilities into its solutions. For instance, the Smart Desktop security is powered by Symantec to provide antivirus, firewall, spyware, worm and Trojan horse protection.

While you can click over to the guide for a detailed outline, here we highlight three critical factors to assess as a part of any preparedness plan: data protection, which generally involves routine off-site backups; security issues, which involves keeping data safe from viruses, worms and spyware; and business-critical availability, or planning for the capacity to have your data accessible within a day or so of interruption.

For data protection, you might consider a program such as HP’s Smart Desktop Management Service. The new service provides integrated data protection, security and ongoing operating system updates for desktops and notebooks from multiple vendors and includes software, installation, startup and ongoing support. “This remote off-site backup solution is $20 a month per client, and if you were hit yesterday by a disaster like Katrina,” says Lisa Wolfe, HP’s Worldwide SMB Marketing Manager, “you’d have your data up and accessible tomorrow.”

If you need to continue operating as soon as 24 hours after a failure, consider a service such as HP’s OpenView Storage Mirroring. “What it does,” says Wolfe, “is replicate every byte to a remote server in real time so you can access a mirror site over the Internet. You don’t lose a click, you can sail right over to the mirror site, which is ideal for business critical applications that need to run continuously.”

Another recovery tool is Symantec’s LiveState Recovery, which runs regular back ups so you can access lost data after a breach or interruption. Note that back-ups must be set to run in off-peak times and at frequent intervals to ensure minimum data loss in case of a malfunction. You may also be interested to note that Symantec offers its own Small Business Center that’s well worth visiting.

In addition to data protection, security and recovery, a hardware solution that helps secure IT operations is the use of a “server cluster.” A server cluster is a set of independent servers (referred to as nodes) and connected storage devices that are managed together. One server takes over for the other in the event of a hardware or software failure. Some vendors let you build clusters with separate components, or you can opt for a package solution that integrates all the pieces.

However, all the hardware and software solutions in the world won’t help you if don’t have a plan in place that specially states who will do what when crisis erupts. The HP/Symantec CPR Guide suggests developing a “response tree,” listing problems and possible solutions. It also helps to include in any contingency plan a list of tasks, such as finding and installing back up files, assigned to specific personnel.

Finally, test your plan to be sure it works. If you ever have to use it, you’ll be glad you did.

When Michelle Megna began covering technology for computer magazines, the CD-ROM and AOL didn’t yet exist. Since then, she’s been on the byte beat for FamilyPC, Time Inc. and the New York Daily News. She’s still waiting to see a pair of 3-D goggles that actually work.

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