Business Data Preparation Tips for Natural Disasters

Business Data Preparation Tips Natural Disasters

There is absolutely nothing “fun” about a natural disaster.

Sure, during hurricane season in Florida, some people throw “hurricane parties” and use up all the meat in the freezer they know is going to spoil after the inevitable weeklong power outage. But once the barbecue is over, reality sets in. And if we learned anything from 2012’s Super Storm Sandy, there are some serious pieces to pick up.

When you run a small business, one of those largest pieces is your data. Customer data. Vendor data. Sales data. Whatever it is, if it was stored on your company server, and that server is now under two feet of water, you better have an archived copy somewhere. Backing up your data, refers to the process of archiving that allows you to restore original data after a loss.

But backing up data isn’t as simple as just putting it all on a hard drive and throwing that in a safe.

So what is the best way for your company to prepare its data for a natural disaster? We talked to some people at United Data Technologies, an IT company that specializes in IT management for small business, and they gave us some pointers.

What Are My Storage Options?

The first thing you need to consider is exactly HOW you’re going to back up your data.

Likely, the most secure and reliable way to back up your data in case of disaster is cloud storage. This method involves sending data – typically encrypted – to several offsite servers that store your data.

“One of the strengths of the cloud is that it gives small businesses access to the same technology as large enterprises,” says Darryl Sicker, Cloud Solution Manager at UDT.  “Cloud services come in many shapes and sizes and can be used to provide solutions in just about all business environments.” 

They’re also accessible 24/7 via the Internet. Of course the inherent problem with that is that you need Internet. Something not always available in the wake of a natural disaster.

You may want to plan out a location that will have Internet if your area does not – like a hotel or remote office in another city. Though at that point, colocation might make more sense.

Colocation is the practice of storing all your backed-up data in a separate location, ideally far away from your home office. That way if your area is severely damaged by a natural disaster, your data is somewhere that isn’t. And if you’ve got the ability to get out of town, you can access it pretty easily.

If you want to keep your data close to home, hard drives are like your old trusty friend that has stuck around despite the much cooler “Cloud.”  If they aren’t lost or damaged in the disaster, hard drives allow for far-faster retrieval and cost a fraction of clouds. For large amounts of data, some companies still use magnetic tape storage, though this is mostly for archived information.

Deciding On the Best Method for You

Cloud storage is the best option to ensure the data is safe, even if it’s not immediately accessible. But it’s also extremely costly—and keeping all your company data on a cloud might not be an expense you can maintain. So you’re going to need to prioritize.

Look at your most sensitive and crucial data – maybe the top 20% – and put that on the cloud. Then, put that top 20% plus everything else on hard drives or in remote locations.

“Preparedness is about understanding how much risk your business can actually afford,” says Matt Gallo, Director of Sales and Managed IT with UDT. “The risk I’m referring to relates to data retention, uptime, and your ability to get back to normal operation in an amount of time that will still allow the business to survive. This, balanced with how much you can afford to invest in it while still maintaining your competitive edge, is true disaster preparedness."          

If budget permits, follow the 3-2-1 rule: Three copies of all data, stored in two ways, one of which is not in your office. If you can manage that, you can weather almost any disaster.

Planning Ahead and Testing It Out

First, backup all your data frequently. Some companies literally do it at the end of every day, but even if your company isn’t that data-driven, once a week is probably wise.

Of course, spending a bunch of money on fancy backups is only half the battle. The last thing you want is to be sitting in the rubble of your office after an earthquake and realizing nothing you’d backed up is actually retrievable.

So make sure your small business has a disaster recovery plan in place and test your data recovery process regularly. At least once a month, run through your existing technology infrastructure and access your backed-up data from the cloud. Then run through your hard drives and tapes to make sure all the data is where it should be. You might even want to do this at random intervals throughout the month as well, if for no other reason than to get in some good practice for when the big one hits.

Also, don’t forget to test the backups for all your company laptops. Up to two-thirds of your company’s data can live somewhere other than your home office. Especially if you’ve got remote sales reps or employees in the field, back their laptops up and run tests on those just as frequently.

Even the best laid plans can still fail when a natural disaster strikes. But with proper planning, frequent testing, and effective practice runs, you can get back to work quickly. Even if other aspects of your business take longer to get back to normal, at least your data will be there when you need it.

For more tips to prepare your business for a natural disaster, visit the Small Business Administration's disaster planning page.

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Matt Meltzer

Matt Meltzer is a professor of business communication at the University of Miami. He is a veteran of the United States Marine Corps and holds a bachelors degree in business administration from UM, as well as a Masters of Mass Communication from the University of Florida.