Why You Need Good Backups

A few days ago, in the post entitled “Seven things you need to do to keep your data safe,” we were talking primarily about some simple things that individuals can do to protect their data, even if (or especially if) they’re not IT professionals. In this post, we’re talking to you, Mr. Small Business Owner.

You might think that it’s intuitively obvious why you would need good backups, but according to an HP White Paper I recently discovered (which you should definitely download and read), almost 40% of Small and Medium Sized Businesses don’t back up their data at all.

The White Paper is entitled Impact on U.S. Small Business of Natural and Man-Made Disasters. What kinds of disasters are we talking about? According to Robert P. Hartwig of the Insurance Information Institute, in a presentation he made to the 2007 National Hurricane Conference in New Orleans, over the 20-year period of 1986 through 2005, catastrophic losses broke down like this:

  • Hurricanes and tropical storms – 47.5%
  • Tornado losses – 24.5%
  • Winter storms – 7.8%
  • Terrorism – 7.7%
  • Earthquakes and other geologic events – 6.7%
  • Wind/hail/flood – 2.8%
  • Fire – 2.3%
  • Civil disorders, water damage, and utility services disruption – less than 1%

If you’re here in the great State of Washington, you probably went down that list and told yourself, with a sigh of relief, that you didn’t have to worry about almost three-quarters of the disasters, because we typically don’t have to deal with hurricanes and tornadoes. But you might be surprised, as I was, to learn that we are nevertheless in the top twenty states in terms of the number of major disasters, with 40 disasters declared in the period of 1955 – 2007. We’re tied with West Virginia for 15th place.

Sometimes, disasters come at you from completely unexpected directions. Witness the “Great Chicago Flood” of 1992. Quoting from the White Paper:

In 1899 the city of Chicago started work on a series of interconnecting tunnels located approximately forty feet beneath street level. This series of tunnels ran below the Chicago River and underneath the Chicago business district, known as The Loop. The tunnels housed a series of railroad tracks that were used to haul coal and to remove ashes from the many office buildings in the downtown area. The underground system fell into disuse in the 1940’s and was officially abandoned in 1959 and the tunnels were largely forgotten until April 13th, 1992.

Rehabilitation work on the Kinzie Street bridge crossing the Chicago River required new pilings and a work crew apparently drove one of those pilings through the roof of one of those long abandoned tunnels. The water flooded the basements of Loop office buildings and retail stores and an underground shopping district. More than 250 million gallons of water quickly began flooding the basements and electrical controls of over 300 buildings throughout the downtown area. At its height, some buildings had 40 feet of water in their lower levels. Recovery efforts lasted for over four weeks and, according to the City of Chicago cost businesses and residents, an estimated $1.95 billion. Some buildings remained closed for weeks. In those buildings were hundreds of small and medium businesses suddenly cut off from their data and records and all that it took to conduct business. The underground flood of Chicago proved to be one of the worst business disasters ever.

Or how about the disaster that hit Tessco Technologies, outside of Baltimore, in October of 2002? A faulty fire hydrant outside its Hunt Valley data center failed, and “several hundred thousand gallons of water blasted through a concrete wall leaving the company’s primary data center under several feet of water and left some 1400 hard drives and 400 SAN disks soaking wet and caked with mud and debris.”

How could you have possibly seen those coming?

And as if these disasters aren’t bad enough, studies show that at least a third of data loss is caused by human error – and we all have users!

One problem, of course, is that it’s difficult to build an ROI justification around the bad thing that didn’t happen. Unforeseen disasters are, well, unforeseen. There’s no guarantee that the big investment you make in backup and disaster recovery planning is going to give you any return in the next 12 – 24 months. It’s only going to pay off if, God forbid, you actually have a disaster to recover from. So it’s no surprise that, when a business owner is faced with the choice between investing in a backup and disaster recovery plan and making some other kind of business investment that will have a higher likelihood of a short-term payback (or perhaps taking that dream vacation that the spouse has been bugging you about for the last five years), the backup / disaster recovery expenditure drops, once again, to the bottom of the priority list.

One solution is to shift your perspective, and view the expense as insurance. Heck, if it helps you can even take out a lease or loan to cover the cost – then you can pretend the monthly payment is an insurance premium! You wouldn’t run your business without business liability insurance – because without it you could literally lose everything. You shouldn’t run your business without a solid backup and disaster-recovery plan, either, and for precisely the same reason.

Please. Download the HP White Paper, read it, then work through the following exercise:

  • List all of the things that you can imagine that would possibly have an impact on your business. I mean everything – from the obvious things like flood, fire, and earthquake, to less obvious things, like a police action that restricts access to the building your office is in, or the pandemic that everyone keeps telling us is just around the corner.
  • For each item on your list, make your best judgment call, on a scale of 1 to 3, of
    • How likely it is to happen, and
    • How severely it would affect your business if it did happen.

You now have the beginnings of a priority list. The items that you rated “3” in both columns (meaning not likely to happen, and not likely to have a severe effect on your business even if they did) you can push to the bottom of the priority list. The items that you rated “1” in both columns need to be addressed yesterday. The others fall somewhere in between, and you’re going to have to use your best judgment in how to prioritize them – but at least you now have some rationale behind your decisions.

The one thing you can’t afford to do is to keep putting it off. Hope is not a strategy, nor is it a DR plan.

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