Protecting Your Precious Data



An increasing number of businesses have moved from just having someone store their backup data tapes to using the Internet to download their records to a server located at another site. Businesses that want to have a constant presence on the Internet also seek to maintain a level of redundancy so that a system failure or power problem doesn’t knock down their Web site. There also is the growing trend of “cloud computing,” in which a business pays to utilize computer applications provided over the Internet by another entity. “With this economy, (having off-site data storage) is usually last on the ‘to do’ list, but it’s a must,” said Gina Smith, a former Silicon Valley technology analyst turned venture capitalist. “Storage on hard disks must be carefully monitored. There must be backups of backups, because hard disks are so prone to mechanical failure, as anyone who’s cracked their hard disk knows. Centralizing storage so it is easier to maintain and manage is paramount and worth every penny it costs.”

Bomb-Proofed Data Businesses are learning that it’s best to find off-site protection for their data — before a disaster strikes By Gary Fineout Originally published in the Apr/May 2010 issue of 850 Business Magazine

P aul Watts, chief operating officer and managing partner of Electronet, likes to joke that he has “the most expensive little building in Tallahassee.”

The small white brick building located in east Tallahassee could be mistaken for a simple utility shed. But up close it’s much, much more than that. Tucked behind Electronet’s main offices, at 3411 Capital Medical Boulevard, the building is a super-fortified bunker with a sophisticated security system.

Step inside the thick-walled building, which was built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane, and one will find rows and rows of sleek, black computer servers, replete with glowing blue lights that show they are operating non-stop. The air conditioners hum along to keep the temperature down.

It’s from this operation that Electronet performs the crucial function of providing off-site data backup for companies around Tallahassee and surrounding areas. The idea is simple: Regardless of storms, power outages or other disasters, crucial files that contain everything from business transactions to medical records remain intact and accessible.

Electronet, which has been in business since 1996, provides Internet and phone service to businesses. But its off-site data storage business has taken off since Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“After Hurricane Katrina, it became very important to have off-site data storage,” Watts said. “People realized how important it was to have their mission-critical information at a different site than their office.”

There are many different types of records storage. Some institutions still do a lot of work with paper, including medical records, which require a place to store them. The company formerly known as Florida Data Bank specializes in storing physical copies of records in a giant warehouse on Tallahassee’s west side where boxes are stored nearly on shelves that reach nearly two stories high. People can either drop off or pick up their records at the facility which is now owned by Access Information Management. Access also has its own fireproof vault that can be used to store computer tapes.

But an increasing number of businesses have moved from just having someone store their backup data tapes to using the Internet to download their records to a server located at another site. Businesses that want to have a constant presence on the Internet also seek to maintain a level of redundancy so that a system failure or power problem doesn’t knock down their Web site. There also is the growing trend of “cloud computing,” in which a business pays to utilize computer applications provided over the Internet by another entity.

“With this economy, (having off-site data storage) is usually last on the ‘to do’ list, but it’s a must,” said Gina Smith, a former Silicon Valley technology analyst turned venture capitalist. “Storage on hard disks must be carefully monitored. There must be backups of backups, because hard disks are so prone to mechanical failure, as anyone who’s cracked their hard disk knows. Centralizing storage so it is easier to maintain and manage is paramount and worth every penny it costs.”

Marc Ray of the Tallahassee-based Web development company Right Sprocket added that “companies today should be looking at off-site storage. The solutions are too easy and cheap.”

And that’s where a business like Electronet steps in.

Watts has a long list of reasons why business owners should consider using an outside company to handle their data storage needs. He said the benefits include everything from no fixed capital costs to easy installation, less down time because files can be recovered instantly, round-the-clock Web access to backed up files, and no tape storage costs.

Even if a major storm were to hit the area surrounding Watts’ facility, it would keep running. The servers and the air conditioning units that keep the building cool have their own backup generators. Electronet keeps diesel fuel on hand to run the generators and has agreements for additional supplies to be flown in if needed.

Deborah Carloni of Fort Walton Beach-based Professional Records Imaging Management gave another reason why companies should think about hiring someone else to handle their data storage needs.

“Information management has become so complicated that it diverts people in an organization from their core competency,” she said.

However, Carloni agreed the most important reason to use someone outside of the organization to store data is in case of an emergency. She said that placing valuable data somewhere outside of one’s own business reduces the chance of loss by 50 percent. It doesn’t do any good to simply back up a computer on the premises, because a natural disaster or fire could destroy all of the computers on site.

“Part of information management is planning for a disaster and having a disaster recovery plan in place that addresses the potential for risk from systems failure, all the way up to something catastrophic,” Carloni said. “Fires happen, floods happen, hurricanes happen — that’s all it takes.”

While Professional Records Imaging Management maintains a fireproof vault to hold backup data tapes, Carloni said her company also helps businesses back up their data electronically to locations hundreds of miles away.

“It’s far away,” she said. “The chances of your site and that site being destroyed simultaneously are unlikely.”

Professional Records Imaging Management has been in the records storage business for more than 20 years and stores paper and digital records. Carloni said that more and more companies are turning to off-site data storage — especially after a computer crash wipes out their existing records.

“We hear horror stories all the time,” she said. “The cost of recreating data is very, very high. The No. 1 disaster that befalls business is system failure — you lose everything.”

The cost of off-site data storage can vary. Carloni said her company charges based on how many gigabytes of space a business needs. Watts said the cost can range anywhere from $375 a month to as much as $3,500 for a company that has backed up its entire network. There are some companies that even have employees who are given special security access to interact directly with Electronet’s servers.

But Watts repeats the same thing over and over on why off-data storage remains valuable to any business.

“We have a safe haven for people,” he said.

 

The Evolution of Byte Storage

Do you remember floppy disks? Those small hard disks — invented in the late 1960s and ubiquitous during the ’70s and ’80s — were a key component of most computer systems.

But if you remember them, then you also know that pretty much no one uses floppy disks anymore. Since their heyday, there has been a succession of ever-more-powerful data storage methods, including the currently popular CD-ROM and DVD-R formats, memory sticks and secure digital cards.

Most current laptops and desktop computers no longer even have floppy disk drives. This means that anyone who stored data on the disks has had to transfer them over to a more modern format if they wanted to continue to have access to the information they contained.

And that’s what business owners need to keep in mind when it comes to storing electronic records, or dealing with what is called “digital preservation.”

Business owners need to consider various technical issues, including the technological capability of their equipment, as well as changes in software. In other words, is sensitive data stored in a format that may be difficult to retrieve three to five years from now? What happens if you switched from a PC to a Mac? You would need to make sure your business has the software to access those older files.

Another problem can be data decay or physical damage to data, which is a key reason why off-site data storage is so important. There also can be intellectual property rights and digital rights management issues that come into play. What happens if you let your Web site domain and hosting rights lapse? Has anyone stored all the information that is contained on your Web site?

Francine Berman, writing in the December 2008 issue of Communications of the ACM, a computing professional journal, noted that “digital data is fragile’’ and that people need to think about the infrastructure supporting virtual data in the same way that they would think about a physical infrastructure. — Gary Fineout