Stop Disaster in Its Tracks - 01 Oct 2001

In light of last month's tragic events in the United States, one subject that surfaces is catastrophic-disaster recovery for computer servers. Disaster-recovery and backup plans are subjects that polite society hasn't generally talked about. Even when a plan is in place, the IT staff doesn't want to mention it. And the staff certainly doesn't want to execute it. After all, just keeping the network, its applications, and its users up and running is a full-time job. Worrying about what will happen when you need to implement a disaster-recovery plan adds more stress to the situation. However, as we are finding out, recovery and backup are important, and every company needs to have a plan in place. Now, more than ever, it's crucial to take the necessary steps to ensure that your disaster-recovery plan is the best one for you and your business.

I know too many storage administrators who rely solely on their backup software's data verification to check data integrity. You need to make sure that your backups are good before you encounter a situation that requires restoring the information. You don't need to restore from every tape in your library every day, but you do need to conduct regularly scheduled partial data restores (and maybe even an occasional full restore) on a test machine. Such checks ensure the backup data's integrity.

You must also pay careful attention to the number of restore cycles the tapes in your library have performed. (Most enterprise backup solutions track and manage tape-rotation schedules and tape-life expiration.) Windows 2000 Magazine's Lab guys have occasionally encountered backup problems attributed directly to tapes that had performed too many backup cycles. A fresh tape will solve this problem, so keep a supply of tapes on hand, especially if you use a less common or high-density format.

If you run a mixed-platform environment, each OS is probably running a different backup application. Each application might also use a different backup device. Unless you run some very obscure OSs, you can find a software product that offers support for all your OS clients through one interface. Keep dedicated or proprietary backup systems only when you can't use a standard backup system to replace them.

You can back up either to several backup devices, such as tape drives, or to one large backup device, such as a tape robot (e.g., Advanced Digital Information Corporation's—ADIC's—Scalar 1000) that supports terabytes of storage. (For more information about Scalar 1000, see Tom Iwanski, "Scalar 1000," Windows 2000 Magazine, June 2000.) If you employ several tape drives, pick one format for all drives so that you can move the devices if necessary.

Finally, don't emphasize a product's performance over its ability. A product that isn't the fastest in its class can still provide a homogeneous backup solution.

I've heard too many stories about executives of small or midsized businesses who take home the weekly or monthly full backup tape as part of the company's secure offsite backup copy strategy. Unfortunately, most stories end with the executive leaving the backup tapes in a car on a hot day and later discovering that the tapes are unreadable. I've even heard a tale of a dog eating the backup tape.

If having an offsite full backup copy is important to your disaster-recovery plan, you need to place the tape in a secure location. Many small-business network administrators keep a safe-deposit box at a local bank to store the full backup copy. (You can drop off the tape when you go to lunch on the day the backup completes.) This method provides a safe, secure, and inexpensive way to keep a copy of your business data off site. Offsite storage subscription services will pick up your backup copy and store it in a controlled environment. These services provide inexpensive insurance.

Most companies don't have the time or resources to perform complete backups of every client computer. To make sure no problems arise if a client system fails, administrators often set up clients so that network servers store the clients' email and data files. If you choose this backup policy, make sure to store all crucial user data on servers that you back up on a regular basis. Too many businesses have lost important data because Bob in marketing moves his reports to the network share only once a month. You need to make storing crucial files on the servers with regular backups part of company policy—not just a suggestion from the IT department. Then you need to enforce that policy.

If your traveling sales force, engineers, and business executives don't back up their laptop computers, buy them a backup device. If the employees are only occasionally in the office, you can obtain an application that backs up the crucial files whenever the laptop user connects to the network. If you have Win2K Professional clients, you can use offline files that automatically synchronize with the corresponding files on the network servers. A solution that doesn't require active user participation is a better choice than a solution that does. Choose a solution that works best for your organization, then make sure your employees use it.

Small and midsized businesses rarely address what to do when the company's Internet connection goes down. However, Internet connectivity has moved to center stage in the corporate world, even when the company needs access only to email. And loss of email connectivity isn't necessary.

You don't need several dedicated high-speed connections to different ISPs to keep your email infrastructure up and running. Instead, try using an ISDN connection. If my frame-relay connection goes down, I can have a dial-up ISDN connection running in less than an hour through the same ISP. A 128Kbps ISDN connection can easily support hundreds of email users. As a backup solution, ISDN is inexpensive, even if your business location is in an area that charges on a per-minute basis for ISDN connectivity. And you need to consider how much the loss of Internet connectivity is costing your business.

Following these commonsense tips should make implementing an effective disaster-recovery and backup plan easier. Don't wait for disaster to strike to decide what steps to take—plan ahead.

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