Computer Backups

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Computer BackupsPreventing a customer-relations disaster

By Michael Richards

Have you seriously considered this scenario? It's Sunday morning and the phone rings. It's your manager. "Hey, boss, the office was broken into and the computer is gone. What do I do?" Do you know what to do? Do you have a contingency plan? A written one? Have you tested it? Practiced it? Be honest: If you are like most small businesses, you haven't.

The key to surviving any disaster is planning, and planning for your computer to break or disappear is essential. Your computer is a key tool in all of your day-to-day functions--especially customer service. Without it, how will you give receipts, provide statements or answer inquiries? Often, the computer controls the security system, which in turn determines who is allowed through your gate. And without your accounting data, how will you know who has paid and who is delinquent?

Recovering from a computer loss is not difficult if you have planned for it properly. Obviously, you must be able to replace or repair the lost computer, and you absolutely must have good backups of your data.

Replacing or Repairing Your Computer

Your replacement or repair strategy must be well-planned in advance. Is your computer under a warranty service? Is the service on-site or carry-in? What is the turnaround time? While you can always buy a computer to replace your broken one, this could be expensive and unnecessary if a repair will do. Therefore, you should consider plans for a backup computer. This could be your home computer, a rental or a loaner from your computer technician. If you will rent or borrow a computer, make sure you have made arrangements in advance, and that your staff is aware of your backup plan for repair and temporary replacement.

Ensuring You Have Good Data Backups

You must have backups of your data in order to recover from a loss. You also need backups to recover from potential errors. These may include human errors (for example, you accidentally add an extra late charge to every account), machine errors (the data is corrupted or erased), or errors caused by viruses or software bugs. Most software programs for self-storage come with built-in backup utilities that make it easy to back up your data. Disk drives such as the Iomega Zip come with their own backup utilities. Use the one that comes with your software if at all possible. Check these procedures and be sure all key personnel understand them thoroughly.

A good backup is not enough. You must rotate your backup tapes or disks. I strongly suggest using five backup sets: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual. Permanently mark each tape or disk with its place in the rotation (i.e., days of the week, months, etc.). Leave a space on the label where the actual date of the backup can be written in pencil, then erased and replaced the next time it is used. See the chart below for a suggested backup rotation.

The next important thing to remember is you must store the backups off-site. Storing the backups next to the computer is useless, and yet people make this error all the time. If you cannot store the backups off-site, then at least store them in a different building. If you cannot do that, then purchase a fire-proof safe (rated for computer backups) and store them there. If you are the owner, I recommend you store all the backup sets except the daily set (see chart) at your home, in a safety deposit box or other secure location.

You must also test your backups. At least once a month, test your backups by restoring them to another computer. This is usually done by a) installing your software onto the test computer and b) restoring the data from the backup disks to the test computer. Look in the help file of your software or contact your software vendor for specific instructions on how to test your backups. Make sure you know how to restore your data and have written step-by-step instructions for your staff to follow.

Backup-Rotation Schedule

All backup sets consist of multiple tapes that are "rotated" in the following schedule. (Note: "Tapes" can be backup tapes, Zip disks, CD-RW disks or any other backup media.)

A New Alternative

A new and exciting alternative to tape or disk backup is to backup your data over the Internet. Typically, your data is sent to a secure computer located in a data center. Multiple copies of your data can be stored, so you have the ability to restore from a previous backup anytime by retrieving your data from the data server. There are a number of advantages to doing backups this way: The process can be automated (for example, to run at midnight every night); you don't have to worry about the tapes being lost or stolen; you don't have to move the tapes off-site; and you don't have to worry about whether your staff is doing the backups each day. Really the only downside is that if you have a large amount of data, this option may not be viable until you have a high-speed Internet connection.

Set # of Tapes in Set A Backup is Done Description Replace Every
Daily 7 At the end of every day the business is open. One for each day of the week you are open. Rotate so each tape is used once per week. 1 Year
Weekly 5 At the end of the day every Friday (or other selected day) One for the each Friday (or other selected day) in the month. (There will be four or five each month.) 2 Years
Monthly 2 At the end of the day on the last day of the month, except the last day of a quarter. One for the first end-of-month in the quarter, one for the second end-of-month in the quarter. 3 Years
Quarterly 3 At the end of the day on the last day of the quarter, except the last day of the year. One for each of the first three end-of-quarters of the year. For a calendar-year business, this would be March 31, June 30 and Sept. 30. 4 Years
Annual 1 per year At the end of the day on Dec. 31 or the last day of the fiscal year. These tapes are archived permanently and never reused. You can use one of the tapes that you are about to remove from rotation. Most tapes have a write-protect tab on them that should be set. Never

Who Is Responsible?

The ultimate responsibility for proper backups rests with the self-storage owner. While it is perfectly OK to delegate the job of creating the backups to other staff, I strongly recommend that the owner personally verify the backups are being made and tested on a regular basis. If at all possible, the owner should do the testing himself.

Without a proper backup plan, you may find yourself facing the worst-case scenario: a disaster. You would not be able to tell who your customers are, who has paid, who owes what amount, who should be allowed into their units and, for that matter, who should be allowed to come through the gate. You most likely will find your system doesn't accept customers' codes and your accounting records are lost. In contrast, with a proper backup, your worst-case scenario is a few hours of downtime. Unfortunately, too many people learn this lesson the hard way. Don't wait until it's too late. Create your computer-disaster recovery plan today.

Michael Richards is the president of HI-Tech Smart Systems, maker of RentPlus® and Mini-StoragePlus® software for self-storage. Mr. Richards has been involved in the self-storage industry for more than 20 years, and has been a frequent speaker at industry events and a contributor to industry publications. He can be reached via e-mail at mike@hitechsoftware.com; phone 800.551.8324. HI-Tech plans to begin offering an Internet-backup service starting April 1. For more information, visit www.hitechsoftware.com.

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