Your data equals money - protect it with the proper care.

No one ever realizes how important something is until it's gone. Odds are if you are reading this article about computing, you, too, have a hidden investment in your business and you probably don't realize it.

Your Data Equals Money! Let me illustrate with a story. It was a normal afternoon for me until I had a frantic call from an accountant. It was tax season and his hard drive had crashed that day. All of his clients' tax information was on the hard drive and it was critical he got it working again. Why? He knew he would have to spend a lot of time rebuilding the data and then triple checking his work. Thankfully, for him, we were able to restore the hard drive without any data loss by the next afternoon. Unfortunately, he did not listen to me after that to back up his data. (Yes, even we nerds have some good advice.)

Well, six months later the other system that his assistant used crashed and the hard drive was unable to be restored. The data was critical, again. Over the span of a week and a half, his hard drive was at a data recovery company. They were able to restore his data for just over $1,000. During this time, his assistant was unable to work because all of his files were on the hard drive.

If you still aren't convinced, consider this report from the University of Texas Center for Research on Information Systems. Of the companies that suffer a catastrophic data loss:

  • 43 percent were forced to close at the time of the disaster.

  • 51 percent continued operating for a maximum of two years.

  • Only 6 percent survived.

While some of the immediate failures are due to reasons other than the data loss (i.e., if the building burns to the ground), in many cases the data loss is what does the company in because insurance covers the rest. To make matters worse, 82 percent of companies have no method for data protection.

Robert Reed, director of the Emergency Administration and Planning Institute at the University of North Texas at Denton, reported similar statistics. Reed adds that on average, businesses lose 2 percent to 3 percent of their gross sales within eight days of a continuing computer outage. According to Reed, businesses experiencing a loss of their computers for more than 10 days will never fully recover.

Half of these will be out of business within five years.

So now, if you go back to the original story about my accountant client, you can realize why he panicked and was so afraid of the work in front of him if he had to reload his data.

Let me ask you two hard questions: Do you protect your data? If you don't, then why not? I hope by now you have come to the realization that your business should be protecting your data. If you haven't come to that conclusion, I offer two suggestions: Either trust me, or wait - and experience disaster for yourself.

In order to protect your data, let's first dig into the threats that may jeopardize your data. As we explore each threat, I will offer suggestions for you on how to defend your systems.

Power Hazards

As shown by the pie chart on data loss (Figure 1), the largest threat to your business is the actual lifeblood of your computer - its power. By the time you add in hardware/software failures and network failures (normally traced to power problems), we are looking at 58 percent of the reasons why data is lost.

Why are power problems causing so much damage? Well, there are two unfortunate realities of the electronics age:

1.Utility companies simply cannot provide the clean, consistent power demanded by sensitive electronics. The computer system I work on is attached to a battery supply that monitors the incoming power and adjusts accordingly. Last August, my computer logged 20 power events - 18 power spikes and two power sags.

2.The customer is ultimately responsible for the health and safe operation of his equipment. Good luck trying to sue or claim any type of damage caused by their power generation.

An IBM study showed a typical computer is subject to more than 120 power problems per month because of faulty power supply. The effects of power problems range from subtle impacts - keyboard lockups and hardware degradation - to the dramatic - complete data loss or burnt motherboards.

One of my clients moved into a new office building, but he never connected his new system to a surge protector. A power surge went through his system and fried his computer's power supply, computer processor, memory and motherboard. Luckily, his hard drive survived. In the end, it cost him about $700 for us to rebuild his system.

Dealing With Utilities

In the United States, spending on utilities has dropped from 2.3 percent of the gross national product in the 1960s to less than 1 percent today. From a business point of view, this has made us more and more reliant on a utility power supply that is being pushed beyond its capacity.

Let's look at how this impacts your business by first understanding the five types of power events your equipment has to cope with.

1.Sags: Also known as a brownout, a sag is a short-term decrease in voltage levels. Sags are the most common power problem, accounting for 87 percent of all power disturbances, according to a study by Bell Labs. A sag can "starve" a computer of the power it needs to function, and cause frozen keyboards and unexpected system crashes, which both result in lost or corrupted data.

2.Blackouts: Blackouts are a total loss of utility power. The effects of a blackout are the immediate loss of whatever you were working on. To make matters worse, the hard drive "file allocation table" may also be lost, which can result in total loss of data stored on the drive.

3.Spikes: These are also referred to as impulses. A spike is an instantaneous, dramatic increase in voltage, which can enter electronic equipment through AC, network, serial or phone lines. In power terms, a spike is a tidal wave of power that hits with a capability to damage or destroy your equipment.

4.Surges: Surges are a short-term increase in voltage, typically lasting at least 1/120 of a second. Like the spike, these are mere waves of increased power that will stress delicate components and cause premature failure.

5.Noise: Referred to as electromagnetic interference (EMI) and radio frequency interference (RFI), this is electrical noise disrupting the power. It is the same type of noise you will hear on a bad telephone connection. Like garbled words, noise will impact your data and keep your programs from running smoothly.

How do you protect yourself then? There are two common tools for defending your business from a power event - a surge suppressor or an uninterruptible power supply (UPS).

A surge suppressor acts as a barrier against spikes and surges that can effect your systems. A UPS is a battery for your system that gives your computer the ability to handle sags and blackouts. A UPS comes in two basic types, passive and interactive.

In the event of a blackout, an interactive UPS will supply the power while directing the computer to shutdown. A passive UPS will supply power when needed, and won't let your systems know that power is gone.

Which is right for you? Figure 2 will help you to choose which type to install.

Virus Threats

On April 27, I got a call from my pastor, Rich, who said his system wouldn't boot.

Uh, oh. While helping Rich with his system is normal, the timing was bad. The CIH, or Chernobyl virus, was supposed to hit that day. It did hit. Unfortunately, we overcame Rich's infection at the cost of his data and motherboard. Like viruses that affect the human body, there are some you recover from and there are those that kill.

So what is a computer virus? Essentially, it is a software program written to produce an undesired and unknown effect on your computers. Anti-virus programmers have divided the computer viruses into two primary types, benign and malignant.

A benign virus only irritates the user and does not cause irreparable harm to the system or misuse the owner's data. Malignant viruses, like CIH, are written with the intent to destroy the system or steal data from the owner. To give you a big picture about viruses, in

September 1997 there were more than 12,000 viruses. As of my last anti-virus update, there are 42,413 viruses that can impact your data. That equals a 350 percent increase in two years. If that rate continues, by September 2001 there will be 147,000 viruses to contend with.

Now that we have a basic understanding of viruses, let's look into how you get one. The first and foremost method of transmission is through the Internet. I refer to this as the "global germ swap." With the dramatic increase in Internet usage for e-mail and surfing the Web has come a marked increase in virus outbreaks. During this year, every major virus outbreak has come from the Internet by e-mail transmission (most common) or downloaded (and then e-mailed) files.

I want to clarify one point here: E-mail, by itself, cannot be a virus. E-mail is a text file, much like a letter you would send a friend, with an address and text of the message. Systems that process the e-mail "stamp" it with date sent and received information. Viruses are attached to the e-mail. This is like a package the post office delivers to you. The address and letter are okay, but inside is a bomb.

The classic and original method of virus transmission was the "sneaker net." Viruses were literally carried (sometimes by mail) from system to system by infected disks. This type of virus normally comes from pirated or stolen software that two users are sharing.

The least common and quickest to be killed off are malignant Web pages, which technically are not a virus. The software code on the Web page will gain control of the viewer's system and either steal data or try to destroy the system. These are very rare and are quickly put out of existence by an Internet service provider.

Let's talk defense now. Current anti-virus software will protect you from viruses whether you get them by e-mail attachments, Web pages or by disk. There are four key parts to solid virus protection plan:

1.Purchase an anti-virus utility for every computer. In order to protect yourself, you should keep the virus definitions current by downloading updates from the manufacturer. The definition file is like a medical book that a doctor uses to diagnose your sickness. The anti-virus program uses this virus' blueprint to detect viruses and then how to dispose of them. I suggest updating definition files at least monthly.

And always leave on the background scanning of your systems. This feature is normally turned on during installation anyway. This is like a patrolling security guard for your computer.

2.Back up your data routinely.

3.Educate your staff about virus threats, especially the use of e-mail.

4.Never use pirated software.

Ways To Back Up Your Data

It is a little known and widely ignored fact, but hard drives inevitably crash 100 percent of the time. It pays to be prepared. I personally found out the hard way when my system crashed last year. Thankfully, I had no appointments that day and my data was backed up. So what does it mean to back up your data?

Essentially, you are copying the data on your computer and putting it onto another media for storage in case Murphy decides to apply his law that day. Let's cover the different methods of backing up your data.

The most common method is copying your data to a floppy or zip disk. This is great because it has a low investment cost and the software programs you use for critical functions, like accounting, normally have a backup feature built into them.

However, the cons outweigh the pros. A floppy disk has limited storage capacity (only 1.44 megabytes, or 1.44 million bytes). A 37-gigabyte (GB) (37 billion bytes) hard drive is available, and IBM is projecting to have a 50GB hard drive on the market by Christmas. A zip disk holds 100MB, so to back up the 37GB hard drive, it would take 26,695 floppy disks or 370 zip disks.

As you can see, this would be very time intensive, which, in order to save time, would mean you would not back up all of your files. That last fact is the biggest flaw! Every file you work on, whether accounting information or word processing, is worth money.

The next method is using CD or DVD recordable/rewritable media for storage. I highly encourage this for companies who are looking for a long-term storage solution, such as archiving files. A good example of this is my accounting firm, which is looking into putting its hard copy, paper documents onto CDs for reference. This puts an electronic copy on a media that can last from 10 to 100 years before it is unreadable, and will not take up any hard drive capacity. From a data backup point of view, we again are facing the space limitation issue. That same hard drive would take 58 CDs (640MB capacity) or eight DVD disks (5.2GB capacity). We end up with the time quandary, with the result being most files are never backed up.

I recommend to my clients that they use a tape backup drive, an automated solution that requires minimal interaction by the user. By scheduling the back-up during non-business hours (an interactive power supply is a crucial component if this is done), the only interaction the user has is to check the log to ensure the back up was accomplished and to switch tapes - five minutes at most.

With only daily checks and tape switching, it provides the best protection in case of a system crash. Finally, after the initial investment, it provides the cheapest long-term data protection solution, because your time is money. The downside to this approach is that it will not handle data archiving in a time-efficient manner, and that it is expensive in the initial investment. To handle the 37GB hard drive, it would cost you about $7,000 for a tape drive, whereas a 10GB hard drive would cost you about $750 for a tape backup solution.

Now, let's cover how you should be doing your data backups.

  • Back up daily. I am a solid advocate of doing a data backup daily onto the media of your choice. How much will you lose if you backed up last Friday afternoon and your system dies on Friday morning? How long will it take you to reload or recreate all that information?

  • Protect the backup media. Either take the backup media off site or put it in a fireproof safe! I cannot count the horror stories I have heard of clients who do back ups, but never protect the media from catastrophic events.

  • Test the backup occasionally.

  • Be disciplined about doing items one through three. The oddest truth is that once you stop backing up your data, you will regret it.

I have left you all with plenty of information to ponder and work to do tomorrow. Remember to protect your hidden investment.