How to Keep Your Business Running After a Natural Disaster

Earthquakes. Fires. Floods. Tornadoes. Hurricanes. Power outages. Tsunamis.

No matter where you live, some kind of natural disaster can probably strike at any time, resulting in serious unscheduled downtime for your business.

It’s happened to me after a major San Francisco Bay Area earthquake and a few blustery storms; it can happen to you. But while you can’t prevent disasters, you can protect your most precious commodity – your office data.

To find out the best ways to keep your business running after a natural disaster, we spoke to Joe Markert, Founder of FunctionOne IT Services in San Francisco.

ISBB: What is the best way to protect your computer files?

Markert: The best thing you can do for your business is ensure your data exists in more than one physical location, preferably with the duplicate data out-of-state or copied to a data center out of your area.

What’s the worst thing you can do?

Doing something is better than doing nothing. But if you do nothing, be prepared for it to cost a whole lot more later on as we try to bring back or replicate your lost data.

What are some services to protect your data in the cloud?

Cloud-based data backup services like Jungle Disk, Mozy Pro, and Carbonite are great for small offices’ data protection. Larger offices or firms with a need for business continuity – the ability to keep your business functional even in the face of a disaster – can look into options like real-time continuous backups of their servers. We recommend Double-Take Software or StorageCraft, coupled with an offsite copy of your data that can be “powered up” in the event of a disaster. This enables your business to continue operations even if your office is lost or damaged.

Companies like ours can assist with implementation and it doesn’t need to be expensive – services like Doyenz.com make this offsite “hot-site” capability a tangible reality. They make a copy of your server and can get your data up within 30 minutes after a disaster.

“Virtualization” is a hot buzzword in technology circles and it’s a component of what makes solutions like this a reality today, but a topic for another conversation entirely.

Do you get a lot of panicked calls from clients after a big natural disaster because they realize they’re vulnerable?

Yes! Major events get people rethinking what they’ve put on their back burner. The hardest part of getting this sort of plan is place is starting with a conversation of what are your most critical issues.

But it’s not always an Information Technology issue; it’s business processes. We ask how they communicate. How they might work. If they have hard copies of client contact lists to pick up the pieces when everything falls apart. What software they need on their home computers. There’s a solution for every budget.

How often should you run an external hard drive for backup?

At the minimum, you want to have a daily backup of your data. Solutions like Mozy Pro can be scheduled to back up your data once or more per day and are smart enough to do this when the PC or server is not in heavy use, which minimizes impact on the office or worker.

For larger offices, we recommend a solution that can backup the server or desktop hard drives in real-time, allowing you to recover a file you lost as recently as 5 to 15 minutes ago. Think about how much time you’d have to take to recreate that Excel Spreadsheet you’ve been working on all morning and just lost due to a PC failure. Now, multiply that by the hourly rate you charge your clients for the employee. You can easily arrive at a justifiable number for your company to spend on this type of protection.

What do you recommend to sync data?

A great tool for copying data is Scooter Software’s BeyondCompare, which synchronizes data from one location to another. It lets you make an exact copy of that data, which is better than cutting and pasting files from one computer to another. Best of all, it recognizes your files, so the next time you sync your data, it copies only the files that have changed.

What about a portable backup through a small external hard drive?

We really don’t recommend these options for real-time backup of your critical data. The problem with using tapes or portable hard drives for backup is that someone needs to remember to do it – and let’s face it – we’re all too busy running our businesses.

So more often than not, this process never happens. This is why we recommend an automated solution. Basically you set it up – and then forget it. However, we do recommend you test your backups and recovery options on a regular basis – at least a couple times a year if not more (as time allows.)

Do you recommend thumb drives?

Small hard drives or thumb drives (aka USB keys) can do in a pinch, if that’s all you’ve got. It’s certainly better than nothing. Typically, we utilize this type of solution for archived data – data that is not as critical to day-to-day operations, so we only need to update it once a year. In this case, we recommend two drives with the same copied data stored in two separate locations – even the homes of two different employees can work. Of course, some companies may have more secure requirements.

Do you recommend a backup power generator?

No. This expense is typically out of the reach for most small office environments because generators large enough to keep a business operation going are not cheap.

How can you protect data from power outages?

If a company’s offices are prone to power outages, and other interruptions, we do recommend that larger companies consider hosting critical servers offsite. In most scenarios, we work with the customer to suggest the appropriate battery backup solution that will allow their servers to operate for up to 15 to 20 minutes in the event of an outage. This is usually just enough time for employees to save the data they’re working on and for the servers to shutdown properly. This is important since servers and desktops can be damaged when experiencing a loss of power that forces them to shut off without warning.

What’s the best purchase you can make with a limited budget to protect your investment?

For desktop computers or laptops, inexpensive battery backups cost about $40 to $60. We recommend three brands, which are competitive in price: APC, Eaton, and Belkin. In fact, my company just plugged in a battery backup device to our PCs before last weekend’s big Bay Area winter storm to power down gracefully, instead of immediately, in case of a power outage.

What about protecting against floods?

If your office location is prone to or resides in a flood-prone area, we would definitely recommend that all electronics be raised off the floor and on either stands or desktops. Again, the best protection you can have here is really to ensure your data is backed up.

As we’ve seen with the unfortunate events in Japan, no matter how good your planning is – Mother Nature can always go one higher. That’s why we recommend a solid business continuity plan be put into place that doesn’t just protect your data and server/desktop equipment, but considers how you’ll run your business in the event of a major disaster. 

Do you know of any government sites that can help in case of an emergency?

FEMA, along with other agencies, has created a website, Ready.gov, that can help your business to prepare a complete emergency business plan for how you’ll keep operations and communications moving during an event. We recommend that all businesses take the time to go through this exercise. You’ll thank yourself for it later!

For more information about preparing for an emergency or a natural disaster, contact Joe Markert at FunctionOne IT Services.

About Gil Zeimer

Gil Zeimer is the Creative Director of Zeimer's Advertising Shoppe. As a consultant with 25 years of advertising and blogging experience, he is a Mad Man who works with businesses large and small. Read his marketing musings at www.zeimer.com.
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