In small business, as in life, there are two certainties. One is taxes. The other is the absolute guarantee that sooner or later a critical hardware or software system will fail, leaving your business to muddle through on manual systems.
When you run a small business, you don’t have the luxury of a full-time IT department to help you recover quickly. Nor can you afford to cobble together a backup program and expect it to work when the chips are down. That’s why, for my small business clients, I recommend thinking about how you’ll deal with a data disaster before it happens. (And trust me, it will.)
These are the four guidelines you need to think about today, while all your PCs and applications are working smoothly and your stress level is low:
Know what your data is worth.
If your PC-powered point-of-sale system spits out a hard copy for every transaction, you might be able to recover fairly easily if you lose your online sales data for a day or two, just by re-entering the sales information. But if you have a high-volume mail-order business, you’ll want to make sure the details of every sale are stored locally and backed up offsite, in real time. Knowing how much you stand to lose will help you decide what kind of backup system you need.
Find a repair/recovery specialist you can trust.
When I ran my own local PC repair business a few years ago, I was amazed at the number of people who called me for the first time after a data disaster had occurred. They were panic-stricken, and their business had ground to a halt (and their income had dropped to zero) while they tried to figure out what to do next. The best time to hire a computer repair/data recovery specialist is before disaster strikes. Grill a potential candidate the way you would interview an important new hire. Be sure that person understands how your business works and is capable of adapting his or her services to your needs. And be sure to check references carefully, preferably by talking to customers with businesses similar to yours.
Have a data disaster plan.
There’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all backup and recovery plan, just as there’s no such thing as a generic small business. What will you do if a lightning strike fries the motherboard on your PC? How will you recover is a failing hard drive damages the data files for your accounting program? Are you prepared if a thief walks away with the notebook containing your client database and billing records? A competent consultant should be able to help you tailor a system that matches your business needs, maintaining a stock of spare parts for critical systems, setting up on- and off-site backup routines, and implementing security features (such as BitLocker drive encryption) to prevent intruders and thieves from accessing confidential data.
Do regular data recovery drills.
The flip side of every backup plan is a recovery plan. Murphy’s Law guarantees that some critical system will fail at the most inconvenient possible time, and the last thing you want to be doing under those stressful conditions is flipping frantically through a manual figuring out how to bring back your lost data. Even worse is discovering that the files you really need were never backed up at all and are lost forever. A good repair/recovery partner can help you test your your backup system regularly to make sure that you can quickly recover the data you need when you need it. And make sure your employees know who to call and what to do (and what not to do) if a crucial computer system stops working properly.
I’m always impressed with the ingenious systems that smart business people devise to keep their crucial data always available. One friend, who runs an international consulting business that bills at breathtaking hourly rates, buys two identical laptops and keeps a mirror image of data and program files on each one. If one notebook fails, the second one can be pressed into service as fast as FedEx can deliver it. When my father ran a chain of dry cleaners, each with its own point-of-sale system, his employees ran backup tapes every night, and those tapes were included in the same envelope that held the day’s receipts.
Your emergency preparedness system doesn’t have to be that intricate (or that expensive). The important thing is to have a plan.
* * * * *
About the Author: Ed Bott is an award-winning technology journalist with more than two decades’ experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications, including stints as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World. He writes Ed Bott’s Windows Expertise and also writes a column at ZDNet.