Is your Business Prepared for a Data Disaster?

Is your Business Prepared for a Data Disaster?

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.



Ed Bott 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.

18 Reactions
  1. My small business uses cloud services for most of our data storage needs. We count on these online services to provide data back-up and recovery. So far it has worked well and we’ve yet to have a problem. Do you think this is a good idea??

  2. @ Steve – Yes, I believe backing up online is THE best way to secure your data if you’re a small business that has a highspeed internet conneciton. The advantage is you get to tap into the expensive and well engineered backup system of the service you’re using without spending the big bucks to implement one yourself. I’d say online data backup services are far and away more reliable than whatever a small business owner can afford. That being said, it’s still a good idea to backup regularly at home onto an external drive. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but this is to ensure you have access to your critical data if something happens to your computer AND your access to the internet.

  3. There’s a lot of useful information contained within this post and it’s always important to keep this particular topic top-of-mind. There are many online services that can assist you with this type of thing also. It helps because even if you get distracted or forgetful, they operate without your intervention and cover you. Lot’s of peace of mind there. And always a bonus to have a “go to guy” on board, too!

  4. I decided early on to have a back up system and my files are backed up automatically each day to an external hard drive. The software and drive was not expensive.This proved to be a good idea because my computer crashed but I did not lose any data.

    I also agree about having a repair specialist. The guy I use comes to my business is always available and has saved me a few times when something has gone wrong.

  5. This is all great advice; my favorites are the on line backup and having a special computer person available.

  6. This is post is very true and very important to take note of. Back up data to an external storage device at least twice or thrice a week is healthy enough. Also, there are a lot of online resources that we can do back up daily for any updates. It is also important to implement once in a while system maintenance.

    Remember: A ounce of prevention is a pound of cure!

  7. Edited my comment:

    This post is very true and very important to take note of. Back up data to an external storage device at least twice or thrice a week is healthy enough. Also, there are a lot of online resources that we can do to back up daily for any updates. It is also important to implement once in a while system maintenance.

    Remember: An ounce of prevention is a pound of cure!

  8. One commenter above pointed out that many of personal and business data now are stored at different online services (i.e. the cloud). Most serious online businesses have backup plans and have procedures for recovery. However, there will be some bad decisions and you should not totally rely on them to get your data back. That’s why we should all demand the cloud, like Flickr, Gmail, etc. to have data portability, ability to export your data to your own computer or other media devices.

  9. I’ve been an IT consultant for small/medium businesses for 10 years, and there’s now a better product on the market to address this issue than ever before. It’s from a company called Zenith, and it’s a called a Backup and Disaster Recovery device (BDR). I know the focus of this blog isn’t tech so I won’t go into the 1’s and 0’s, but the business drivers are that it’s a fully managed (meaning no interaction is required by you) solution that does both backup and disaster recovery astonishingly well and at an astonishingly low price. Lots of consulting companies resell it (full disclosure: including mine), so if you are a small business owner, have a small server-based network, and are looking for a backup and/or disaster recovery solution, I’d recommend calling different IT consultants in your area and asking for the Zenith BDR.

  10. I honestly have never thought of needing a backup plan for my computer. That was until I read this article and it got me thinking. Everyone has provided a lot of good information here. It’s something I think I need to consider.

  11. I don’t want to spend lots of time on doing back-ups and saving data in different places. Don’t you think you will have automatically back-up systems and extra storage space online services in the future? Why store it physically, if you could access online? An alternative could be a smart new generation of the USB memory stick that could store all your important data and your favorite programs and tools.

    I am using an computer with Mandrakelinux operating system and I hope it will not crash… 😉 But I have to consult my brother who is a computer expert regarding the storage of my data in the future.

  12. I’m a little more techie, and this involves a little more upfront work, but I swear by using an SVN repository and something like TortoiseSVN.

    It turns the backup idea on its head a little, because the “master” document is in the cloud, and the document on your C: drive (and an employee C drive, etc) is the “working” copy.


    1) The “master” version of everything is in “the cloud” (i.e. the repository) where it is managed and backed up.

    2) You can “check out” a local working copy on your computer. When you make an update, you are prompted to check it back in to the repository in the cloud.

    3) Each time you check something in, the old version is tucked away in case you need it. You can go back to any version and even have the software tell you the difference between versions of a document.

    4) If you have multiple employees or computers, you can keep them all in synch with the latest versions of everything, by having them linked in to the master repository. Great if you need to distribute updates and/or have multiple people editing something.

    If you google “SVN hosting” you’ll find a lot of good providers…

  13. There’s some good information coming through via the discussion and comments here in addition to the informative post. I learned a thing or two just reading through the comments – nice 🙂

  14. You are absolutely right when saying small business owners need to have a data disaster plan. I tend to back up my data at least weekly so in case something happens I will not lose any of my valuable work that I spent hours putting into it. Good article and great advice for other small business owners.

  15. I’ve had to use Data Recovery experts in the past, and it is incredibly expensive, and takes a long time for them to get the data out.

    My advice is backup, backup, backup. But it is also important to know what to do with the backups in order to “restore” what you had before.

  16. Ed, thank you for this article, I hope more businesses will start doing proper things with their data. Here in UK IT services for businesses looks quite poor – it’s hard to find a specialist. I would add that there are people who once lost their data and people who are asking for disaster of not checking their backup. Even being an experienced IT pro I found you article refreshing – I do have a backup policy and check it often, but I also know few companies who had their data backed up a year ago.
    I think a proper step for any small business owner would be to find a proper advisor and have a backup procedure tailored to their bussiness. There are plenty of services to choose from depending on the budget and requirements. External hard drive is fine until real disaster – fire, for example. So some portions of data – like finance information should be kept off site. It would be interesting to see some backup and disaster recovery examples for businesses in the future article. I can provide you with real life examples.
    I found it very difficult to persuade business owners to part with some money when everythong is fine, but now I have a good article to point to so I hope it will change. Folks, remember, IT downtime is expencive.

    @Neil SVN is centralized and specifically designed to developers. There are several technical design flaws there (i.e. inability to keep timestamps and permissions, you should be online in order to check in) and that limits applicability of svn for backup or synchronisation non-developers files. If you would like to use SCM system for the company check mercurial or git. Or variation of svn – svk. On the other hand it may be wiser to use google apps docs for storing word and excel files and keeping track of history rather then svn.
    @Martin Lindeskog
    As linux user you already have all tools available for you. Just set up “duplicity” to backup your data externally – to amazon s3 for example. Just remember to write proper ignore files so you would not backup gigabytes of family photos to s3 as this will be expensive, my family photos usually goes to external hard drive. Another interesting tool called “ifolder” is a folder automatically synchronized with online server.

    @All if you in UK I may be able to advice you on your backup strategy.