SMEs rely on luck for survival

Copyright David Lawson - Property Week 2004


Time for a quick break. Head off to the coffee machine or smoking room and a leisurely gossip about the new boss, the filthy weather and whether Big Brother is worth a new series. You hardly notice the lights flicker while drift back to work. Then you scream.  Computers aren’t meant to display blue screens and error messages half way through the monthly  audit. The room erupts into a cacophony of monitor slapping and curses. Ten years of records just evaporated into oblivion.

   Working on screen has become so fundamental that few consider what would happen if the system goes down. And it will go down. Cuts are becoming almost commonplace in overloaded areas like London while summer floods brought a tastes of things to come as sub-stations shorted.  ‘You can always reload Microsoft and your property software when this happens. But people can’t seem to grasp that they could may not be able to retrieve vital data’, warns Paul Halford of Kel Computing.  Even if data can be retrieved from filing cabinets, the sheer cost of  paying salaries to re-input a decade of rent reviews for a multi-let building can be mind-numbing.

   Backing up is standard procedure for bigger firms but a vast number of smaller operations rely more on luck than judgement. The Gartner Group estimates 40% of business data is not backed up and half of all companies that lose data go bust. Yet there is no need to play Russian roulette with what is the most valuable asset they have. A vast array of business recovery solutions are floating around out there – some costing less than keeping the coffee machine running.

   The most important task is to make sure the green light stays on. An uninterruptible power supply  [UPS] costing a few hundred pounds will sit in the corner happily ensuring the business does not collapse because power spiked or a cleaning lady pulled the wrong plug. Keep all data on a network server. It has been estimated that SMEs store more than half their business critical information on desktop PCs. Servers are more reliable and can run continuous protection. Microsoft Backup or a specialist program like Veritas will automatically copy data onto a special hard disk or digital tape recorder.

  But the information will still be in the same office, inducing nightmares about burglars, fires and flash floods. So shift it somewhere safe. Pendrives – a tiny sliver of plastic that plugs into a PC – have become popular for backing up personal and sensitive files.  But don’t rely on them. Halford fielded a frantic call from a customer one Friday evening who had lost his pendrive. ‘Thankfully, we had also backed up all his data,’ he says.

  Tapes are also ultra-portable, so designate a staff member to take a spare one home once a week. A  CD writer may be more suitable as, like the pendrive, disks can be accessed on a notebook or home PC for weekend working. But like the plastic sliver, they can also be broken. And make sure information is heavily password protected in case of loss.

  For those working entirely from home hard disk crashes are almost as much of a nightmare as a power cut. A simple solution is linking to a second PC. I have done this for years across a home network with a program called second copy from Centred Systems <> which costs a mere 30 dollars. This can continuously store files on anything from zip drives to CDs.

  Andrew Waller of Remit Consulting prefers to wash his hands of the whole business.  Faster phone links means data can now be backed up to a remote storage service. ‘We pay £15 per computer per month for 4Gb on each PC,’ he says. ‘We don’t need any equipment and all files are backed up online every evening.’

 BT Datasure offers continuous backups for less than £6 a month for individual PCs and around £12 per gigabyte for business servers. Files are archived for anything from a month to seven years, encrypted for security and accessible anywhere online [in case you need access away from the office].

   But even a small firm can generate enough data every day to rack up the bills. Kel  requires 100Gb  hard drives for overnight backups. Smaller firms are turning to specialists like Global Switch  which have poured millions into co-location centres such as those in London’s Docklands.  While these sophisticated data centres, with their ultra-secure, bombproof entrances and climate controlled interiors were initially aimed at big operators like banks, Global Switch estimates that between  20-30% of its customers are now smaller businesses.  They lease as little as a single computer rack to hold their back-up data for ‘rents’ as low as £5,000 a year.

   The increasing amount of data being generated can be a problem, however. ADSL might boast superfast downloads but it is often overlooked that uploading capacity is limited. A small business can generate gigabytes of data every day, and trying to push that through a wire limited to 256k/sec can stretch backup systems to the limit.  Heavy data users should be considering the next step up – SDSL – which offers the same speeds both up and down.