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Electronic data storage is a necessity in today’s business world. The good news is that there’s no shortage of products to do the task.

Way back in the olden days–around 10 or 20 years ago–data storage consisted of long hallways or big rooms filled with filing cabinets that held reams of paper behind their gray exteriors. When the so-called paperless revolution came, it seemed that the consumption of paper didn’t decline much as people printed out e-mails or long tracts from Web sites. However, one thing does look different than decades past: the filing cabinets are looking awfully empty.

Electronic data storage is a necessity in today’s business world. Not only does a company have to keep its financial records secure, but it must also lock down digital data like presentations, e-mail, employee files, and scads other critical information that keep a business running. The good news is that there’s no shortage of products to do the task. Over the past few years, many companies have discovered how attractive and lucrative the SMB market can be, and they’ve worked to tailor services and software for that audience.

Since technology isn’t perfect, data recovery firms have also been proliferating at a rapid pace, and they, too, have come out with packages that are kind to an SMB’s bottom line. They’re also comforting for anyone who fears their data is lost forever.

With so many data storage and recovery options, it may seem like it’s impossible to research all the pros and cons of each application. But with a few basic strategies, and a clear definition of what’s needed, an SMB might be able to throw away many of those filing cabinets for good.

Store house

The demand for data storage is vast, but sometimes it seems as if the supply is even more formidable. Companies that offer storage range from large ISPs to tiny startups that have a bank of servers available, and many application service providers that didn’t used to have the service now throw it in as part of package deals.

A small business owner should navigate the choices with care, says Bill Margeson, president of CBL Data Recovery Technologies. He notes that companies should hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Data loss can be devastating for a company, but if it could have been prevented, it’s even worse.

“Backing up nowadays is very, very important,” Margeson says. “When thinking about a data disaster, it’s not a question of if it will happen, it’s a matter of when. If it doesn’t do backup properly, a small business could really be hurt.”

Traditional storage options include hardware choices like caches, disk drives, tape drives, and CD-ROMs, and software accompaniments to manage the process. Increasingly, however, the trend is toward separating storage into its own network infrastructure. These storage area networks (SANs) can be invaluable for making information backup much less time-consuming, but they’ve also been out of reach for many small businesses that can’t afford them.

With more firms focusing on the SMB market, the ability to have SAN-type power at a lower price is becoming more of a reality. The most compelling option is network-attached storage (NAS), which is less expensive, and also less elaborate. Since small businesses tend not to need complex applications for storage, NAS can be attractive. Rather than operate in a separate network, NAS disks are attached to a company’s local area network. This semi-detached strategy gives a business owner the benefits of SAN, like faster application delivery, without the costs.

For companies that have a storage system in place, another inexpensive option to making it more efficient is iSCSI (Internet small computer system interface), a storage networking standard that uses Internet protocol to put different elements in an existing storage system. It can improve the system without overhauling it.

Ultimately, the choice of storage option comes down to three main points: capacity, retrieval, and safety. When choosing a storage solution, a business owner needs to think about how much room is needed and be realistic. E-mail alone calls for ever-growing storage capacity, and larger files like Quark documents or PowerPoint presentations can fill a space quickly.

Also important in planning is retrieval, since storage isn’t worth much if you can’t get your data quickly. Any storage medium should be able to be accessed quickly and easily, because if there’s data loss, the difference between an hour and a day can feel sizable. The third issue, safety, is a given in this age of worms and viruses. If data is insecure, it doesn’t matter if it’s a tape drive, a SAN, or NAS that’s being used; a small business owner will be affected.

Recovery time

If a disaster should happen, an SMB that’s backed up properly should be fine and dandy, right? Well, not always. Data loss between backups can put critical information at risk, and then it’s time for data recovery.

The data recovery field has boomed in the past couple years, predominantly because companies and individuals have been lax in implementing storage, or simply made a few missteps in their storage decisions. Jim Reinert, director of the data recovery group for Ontrack, says that it can be difficult for small businesses to achieve perfect backups, but that recovery can fill the gap.

“We continue to see growth year after year with recovery, even though improvements have been made in backup technology,” Reinert says. Because more storage is available, that means more data is getting stored, and thus, there’s more of a chance for error. He notes, “A lot has to do with the human element. Quite simply, mistakes get made.”

When errors do occur, there are several paths that an SMB can take toward getting the data back. Ontrack features remote data recovery, which allows someone to call in to the company and have a technician remotely recovery data. If the equipment is damaged, making remote recovery impossible, the machine is usually sent in and IT managers cross their fingers and hope for a good outcome.

Often, an inexpensive and trusty option for minor data loss is recovery software. Reinert notes that a user can download free trial software, run it on their drive, and if they see good results, buy the product. If they don’t, then at least they haven’t shelled out anything for the diagnostic strategy.

When data is feared lost, one of the most important things to remember is not to panic. Less might be lost than you think. Paul Mande, vice president of major recovery firm Cherry Systems Data Recovery, says, “Perhaps the most important point I can make is that it is usually possible for a company like us to recover data from a drive or a tape that others would say is a lost cause. Many individuals and businesses have been put through much hardship and expense, with some actually going out of business, because no one knew this service existed or was possible. The most important message we can give to people is to not assume that data is lost, but to contact someone in our industry and let the experts try. We have recovered data from computers burned in fires, submerged in water, dropped out of office building windows and cars.”

Whatever method is chosen, CBL’s Margeson says that the most important thing is have a plan in place, and not to panic. “Small companies tend not to have as many resources, but they still have many options for backup and recovery,” he says. “No one should be held hostage by technology.”

Douglas Owens of CBL Data Recovery Technologies offers these words of advice for the business owner unfortunate enough to see their screens suddenly go black:

The good news about system crashes is most data in most situations can be recovered. Some projects may require several days, or even weeks, but about three quarters of all assignments can be turned around in less than two days.

The bad news is organizations can sometimes make matters worse by delaying their response in a crisis situation, or taking action that makes their data more difficult, or, in a worst-case scenario, impossible to retrieve. Sometimes people fail to recognize that any loss of data is an immediate and urgent problem.

Together, hardware or system malfunctions and human error account for three out of four outage incidents. The rest are due to software corruption, computer viruses, and physical disasters such as fire and water damage.

There would be less work for data recovery companies if existing backup technology and practices protected data adequately. Backups and redundant storage technologies can be a successful backup strategy for many companies. But unfortunately, of those who do back up their data, not all of them could restore the data from backups.

There is a long chain of assumptions in a backup procedure: the hardware is working properly; users know how to perform the backup; the backup software works; the media is actually capturing the data; and, the data being backed up is the right information. Any break in the chain creates a dangerous vulnerability.

When systems do break down, clients can turn to a data recovery solution. One of the most important tasks is creating a climate of trust. By the time we are called in, the seriousness of the situation can no longer be denied and relieving the psychological pressure is crucial. In some situations, the client has to make some choices. ÔWhich data do you need first? Are you willing to sacrifice some data, or receive it in a different file format from the original?’

In the hardware environment, the organization should keep computers in clean, temperature-controlled, low-traffic areas to reduce accidents and equipment failures. Computers must be protected from power surges and backups stored in a safe, off-site location. Today’s magnetic storage media is becoming more vulnerable to Electrostatic Discharge (ESD) damage so protect your system from static.

Check hard drives at least once a month with software that alerts you to any problems. “New” noises like scraping and grinding noises are a signal to shut down the system immediately and call in an expert. They can mean serious damage. Running the drive in this situation could not only destroy it but all the data as well. Never use a hard drive or storage device that has been physically damaged in any way, or exposed to a harmful environment.

Control the software environment with regular, verified backups to make sure the right data is actually being stored. Scan for viruses with software that is kept current with new updates as soon as they are made available and screen all incoming data. Always create “undo” disks when new software offers that choice, so you can reverse any changes. In the case of suspected electrical or mechanical drive failure, never use file recovery software because it can make things worse.

Most importantly, create a human environment that creates awareness and responsibility. If data is critical to the success or even the survival of your organization, make sure those directly responsible have the right tools and training, and make sure all your employees know how important the data protection procedures and policies are to the business. They will be motivated to follow them.

Finally, when disaster does strike, recognize it, be decisive and get help quickly. The faster a data recovery service gets the assignment, the better your chances of getting back in business quickly.

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