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Covering Your Back...Ups

In the digital graphics age, one of the easiest things to neglect in our busy day is the critical backup of all the client files and databases we use to remain gamefully in business. Are you backing up your companies data & graphics?

By Dawn Nikithser

It can be catastrophic when it happens, resulting in days, months, even years of work irreparably lost. It can mean lost clients, lost business, and many thousands of dollars in lost business, not to mention the many more thousands spent on recovery. And yet it’s one of the most preventable things there is, often easily and inexpensively preventable. So why do so many people ­ professional business people ­ fail to backup their computer files?

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  • “Anyone that does not back up their data and programs [is] a disaster waiting to happen,” says Bernie Lerner, owner of On-Line Sign in South Brunswick, New Jersey. “Computers can and do crash.” In a graphics-intensive business like the sign industry, computer files are often the lifeblood of any shop’s business. Signs are designed online; email communications between owner and client must be kept in order to figure timelines and provide back-up in case of argument later on. Computers and computer files are essential and those essential items must be protected and kept safe. File and data storage are important for business, whether past, present or future.

    There are a number of options for data storage. Short-term storage solutions are different from long-term solutions and it is up to individual shop owners and franchisees to determine what works best for them. Often, franchisees can turn to their corporate headquarters for advice. FastSigns, one of the leading franchises in the sign industry, advises on data storage for all of their franchisees. “Short-term storage is simply a way to protect yourself from accidental loss of data,” says Raj Croeger, the vice president of information technology for Fast Signs.” FastSigns considers this of particular importance with regard to customer contact lists and databases, which FastSigns recommends are kept electronically. This is an ideal example of how important backup is ­ losing a customer database is a very serious loss. It means frustration, trying to track down all that customer information, and it could mean lost revenue.

    Your computer’s hard drive is what most people consider an effective short-term storage option but what happens if the computer crashes? That data is then lost. Portable hard-drives can be a ready option, though most professionals consider them data portability solutions as opposed to true backup solutions. A portable hard drive is a great place to keep items that you would need to regularly access but don’t need to keep on the PC’s main hard drive. However, when you bring that portable hard drive online, it is susceptible to the same viruses, corruptions and accidental deletions that can plague the attached hard drive. For shops that have more than two servers already handling their data, this kind of solution is both primitive and inefficient; for smaller shops, this is a great option for transferring data, upgrading or migrating data to a server, and/or short-term storage of regularly-accessed files.

    An easy and efficient solution is simply backing up important files onto writable CD-ROMs or even floppy disks. A $35.00 investment in a CD writer drive can mean saving thousands in the long run. Writeable DVDs ­ now easily available ­ are another solution; spindles of 25 DVD-RWs can be had for about $50.00, with the DVD writer costing about $150 to $300, depending on make and model. Both of these options are excellent “near-line” solutions, good intermediate steps for data storage. They can both suffer from relatively slow read/write speeds, so its best to have either a long backup window or the ability to backup only those items that won’t need to be accessed on a regular basis. So, in theory, great for archived records but not necessarily a good idea for regular client files or templates. However, a great advantage is that the equipment needed to read/write CDs and DVDs can also be used for standard CD-ROMs, which means a shop with a smaller budget can leverage that equipment for more than just backup.

    Tape drives are another possible solution; they are popular for both short-term storage and long-term rotational storage, where the same tapes are recorded over again and again. The most common format for tape drives is DAT ­ digital audio tape; each DAT can hold up to about four gigabytes of uncompressed information and costs around $10.00 per tape. A DAT drive can be expensive, starting at around $600 for a single-drive solution to into the thousand for multi-tape autoloaders. For sign professionals running large shops, investing in the more expensive multi-tape autoloaders could prove wise, especially when dealing with large files from graphics-intensive jobs. According to Mark Dressel, a New Jersey-based technology professional, “As graphics-intensive professions generally require more storage space, the cost is reflected in backing up the data.” Larger files mean more costly solutions to prevent truly costly recovery.

    DAT can be used for long-term storage as well as short term, especially when one uses a rotational system, where a set number of tapes is purchased and recorded over on a regular basis rather than having an endless library of daily tapes. Beyond DAT but still staying in the tape family of technology, Digital Linear Tapes (DLT) are an option to consider if DAT is not enough for your data. Each DLT can hold up to 80 gigs of data and the sky is the limit. Each tape runs about $60.00; the drives start at around $1000 and can go into the hundreds of thousands, if one needs a “jukebox” style drive handling and autoloading hundreds of tapes at a time. The advantage to DLT is that more data can be captured at once; if your enterprise needs to capture moderate to large amounts of data, DLT is the logical step up from DAT.

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    After DLT is LTO ­ Linear Tape-Open. This is the ultimate tape storage solution and the most expensive. LTO tapes start at around $75.00 each and hold up to 200 gigs of information per tape. The drives start at around $3000 and, like DLT, can go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on both the level of automation and the number of tapes used at one time. LTO is best for large shops needing to store large amounts of data on a very regular basis.

    “Every professional shop has different needs,” explains Mr. Dressel, adding that shop owners must consider three things, “appropriate backup to the needs, appropriate retention for the backup, [and] appropriate disaster recovery solutions.” Tape is a popular option for long-term storage at a number of different price levels; DAT, DLT and LTO are the three biggest players in tape storage, though others are available as well. CD-Rom can be utilized for long-term storage but there are IT industry whispers that those CDs might not be as permanent as once thought and could mean expensive equipment will be needed further down the road. Luckily, those whispers are about innovations 20 and 30 years down the road, so CD is a viable option now. Regardless of which option, though, it is vitally important to keep that backup data in either a fireproof safe or in a separate location off-site from the main office, just in case.

    In addition to the aforementioned three considerations, shops must also consider how long they want to store data. Indefinite storage could mean the creation of a data library at some point ­ a place to store the backup tapes, disks or CDs, again preferably separate from the main office. Shops should consider their plans for growth as well. A DAT might be great now but what happens if the client base triples or quadruples or multiplies beyond even those numbers? DAT might not be enough; if the shop intends to grow exponentially, year after year, investing in a larger long-term solution now might turn out to be less expensive in the long run.

    Of course, all the equipment in the world won’t help you if none of it works correctly. According to Todd Palino, senior systems engineer for VeriSign, Inc., “Backing up your critical data is important, but it won't do you any good in a crisis if you're not certain that the backups are usable.” It is important to test your backup equipment on a periodic basis. This is easily accomplished by setting aside time to restore some or even all of the stored data to a test system, just to make sure it is all there and able to be accessed. If you note a problem, contact your system administrator if you have one or contact the manufacturer of the equipment. It’s also a good idea to talk to the manufacturer in order to get an idea of when backup equipment should be retired; all electronics have a shelf-life and it’s better to know that up front than to be surprised in the middle of a critical data storage issue.

    Whether you back up with a box of floppy disks or with a multi-thousand dollar storage system, the important thing is that you back up. Lost data is just that ­ lost. There are companies who can take your hard drive and attempt to recover damaged data. It’s not cheap and it doesn’t always work. They might be able to recover the pasta salad recipe someone sent you by email two weeks ago, but that client list may be gone forever. And recipe or revenue data, you’ll get charged for the recovery all the same. Avoid those costs ­ often huge costs ­ by investing in a backup solution now. But realize that your solution is only as good as your ability to do the backup. Implement a schedule and stick to it; storage is what you need to always know you can give your customers what they need.

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