March 2003  Volume 29, Issue 2
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Take Cover: Backup Tips and Options for Smaller Firms
by Mark W. Martin
With the invaluable client information stored on your computers, you court disaster if you slip and slide on backing up your hard drives.

Apart from its people, data is a law firm's single most valuable asset. It includes your time and billing information, accounting records, contracts, vendor files, employee files, insurance information and-most importantly-your case and client files. While it's difficult for any business to recover from a data loss, it's especially risky for a law firm to lose clients' sensitive information.

Every firm needs a backup and recovery plan to protect its information assets. These assets reside not only on large central servers, but also on laptops and individual PCs. In fact, industry analyst IDC estimates that 60 to 80 percent of an organization's data typically resides on individual users' hard drives. In smaller law firms and solo practices without IT staffs, all client information may be on individual drives. These firms usually bear the greatest risk of losing critical data.

Do what you will, the unexpected can and does happen. If you lack an effective backup and recovery system, you put your entire practice in jeopardy.

How You Can Lose the Irreplaceable
There are many ways that data on a computer can be lost, sabotaged or corrupted. Vandalism, theft, natural disasters and other unexpected events come quickly to mind. Plus, many experts predict an increasing risk of cyber-attacks, activities that might include more malicious viruses disguised as friendly e-mail messages, denial of service attacks to company Internet sites, blocking of incoming traffic and opening of holes in firewalls.

In addition, although catastrophic events are what people most fear when they think about disaster recovery, the leading causes of data loss are actually human error and hardware failure. Remember, a hard drive is just like every other piece of electronic equipment-eventually, it will get old and quit working. But unlike a CD player or a fax machine, the data accumulated on a hard drive may represent years of work that, once lost, can never be replaced.

Given all the ways electronic information can be damaged or lost, why would people risk it? But they do. According to a survey by Bruskin Research, nearly one in four computer users have lost content to hackers, viruses, blackouts or electrical failure. Yet only one-third of business computer users back up their data more than once a month.

Backups must be done on a regular basis-at least once a week and daily in many cases. Other procedures and policies will vary depending on firm size, philosophy, amount of resources available and type of backup system. For small to midsize law firms backing up individual hard drives, there are typically three options: backing up to a local area network (LAN) drive, backing up to a tape or Zip disk device and backing up online. Here is a look at each option.

All for One: Backing Up to a LAN
Backing up to a LAN is an effective tactic for protecting data, if firm policy dictates information's storage on the LAN, rather than on individual PCs. Typically, files are backed up in an uncompressed and easily restorable format. If a data restore is required, an IT person accesses the LAN and can quickly restore files over the firm's intranet. This method, however, has several disadvantages.

One disadvantage is that it requires significant capital outlay, owing to the enterprise-quality hardware required to deploy it. Because data is stored in an uncompressed format, which makes file sizes larger, the storage costs can be high as well. Additional problems arise when individual employees do not save or back up their files to the LAN on a regular basis. If employees neglect to back up their files-be it because they are forgetful, too busy or unwilling to share sensitive information-the firm's data is at risk. This method is also problematic for lawyers who are traveling and cannot back up new data without access to the LAN.

One on One: Individual Devices
Some firms provide a Zip disk or tape device to each employee, so everyone has a ready, close-at-hand means for backing up their individual hard drives. This method, while largely dependent on employee cooperation, can prove effective if managed properly. However, employees must manage the security and rotation of their backup disks or tapes. In addition, these storage media can become unreadable over time, and these backup devices are prone to failure as wear and tear increases.

Providing laptop users with a Zip or tape device does allow them to perform backups while away from the office. The disadvantage here, though, is that the devices can be lost, stolen or damaged. And, of course, it's just one more thing for the traveler to carry.

All Offsite: Online Backup
Another option is online backup, using one of the application service providers that offer Web-based backup and storage solutions. This allows users to safely back up large amounts of data, whether they are working in the office, at home or on the road. The data is transmitted over the Internet to secure data storage centers, maintained by the ASP, and accessible by users online at any time.

The most important aspect of online backup, in comparison with other methods, is that it offers an automated, hands-free process for individual employees. Backups can be done in the background without user intervention and at regular intervals using a built-in scheduler. The data can be restored to a pre-virus or pre-failure point with just a few mouse clicks, without the need for costly IT expertise.

In the past, disadvantages of this method were that (1) transmitting large files using dial-up connections was slow and unreliable and (2) data security was a significant concern. But ever-better technologies, using compression, optimization utilities and high- level encryption, combined with offsite and replicated data storage centers, now make online backup an attractive solution for solo practitioners and small firms.

Why Wait for the Roof to Fall In?
Anyone who has dealt with a nasty virus or a crashed hard drive is well aware of the importance of data backup. They can tell you that data protection is an issue that needs to be addressed proactively, rather than reactively. Don't wait until a disaster occurs before considering how you can restore your firm's critical data. As the saying goes, "The best time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining."


Mark W. Martin is the co-founder and CEO of NetMass, Inc. (www.netmass.com), which provides fully scalable backup, disaster recovery and data archiving solutions to businesses.