Keeping Road Warriors' Data Safe

What would we do without our notebook computers? Actually, what would we do without the data on them? Columnist George Spafford shows you how not to be in the position to find out.
A notebook is the crucial companion of every business traveler. What would we do without them? Or more specifically... what would we do without the information on them?

We've all seen ads or heard stories about notebooks being dropped, beverages being spilled on them, or, worse still, machines being stolen or left behind in a cab. We're all aware of these scenarios but they seem to always happen to someone else. Not so.

In my case, a recent notebook hard drive failure almost incapacitated my business. There is a considerable amount of data stored on that hard drive that my company could not afford to lose. Moreover, when there are system problems, time spent recovering data directly detracts me from my goals, resulting in decreased revenue. Recovering from the hard drive failure made me pause to reflect on the need for effective backup and recovery plans for people constantly on the go -- people who rely extensively on their notebooks.

Employees of medium and larger organizations often have a backup process mapped out for them by their IT organization. The methodology typically includes a system image of the hard drive that they can restore in a very short amount of time to reload the operating system and key applications. This is then coupled with some form of synchronization effort that uploads key data to a recovery host somewhere via a VPN. Hardware support and spares are handled by the organization's IT department or contracted vendors. Thus, those individuals are usually pretty well protected.

The small businesses and individuals who don't have those kinds of resources have to face the most challenges.

My firm is in this category and so are many others. The following are preventive and corrective measures that can help reduce the risks associated with traveling around doing your work on notebooks.

The first thing to bear in mind about notebooks is that they will eventually fail.

Because notebooks are constantly moved and the components are subject to less than ideal environments, notebooks have a higher failure rate than stationary desktops. Coupling this knowledge with the need to have a relatively current machine, I opt to lease my notebook for two to three years with a premium support plan that covers next-day, on-site repairs for the life of the lease. My personal preference is a Dell notebook because of reliability, durability, decent pricing and proven technical support.

When reviewing different vendors and their support plans, be sure that each covers the hardware for the life of the lease or at least the duration for which you expect to have the unit. Opt for on-site repair, which limits your leg work to simply a phone call to the support department. You don't want to be in an unfamiliar town trying to find a way to ship your notebook three states away for repairs. Furthermore, consider next-day service plans since your time is money.

Note that some plans are strictly for the hardware and offer no software support of any kind. If you are concerned with operating system and/or application support coverage, you may need to buy an additional plan.

Moving past vendor-related options, there are many solutions that you can put in place to safeguard your operating system, applications and data.

In my case, I use three external USB drives to backup my notebook. The first USB device is a flash stick that I use to copy critical documents that I am working on during the day while on planes, at client sites, etc. The second drive is an 80GB Western Digital that is the same size as my internal drive -- small and very portable. I use this target drive with my EMC Dantz Retrospect software when I am on the road.

From experience, restoring Windows XP, all of my applications and data takes almost three business days. Granted, the core Windows XP and Office software can be reinstalled quickly but other important tools, like Acrobat, Visio and Project, cannot. They all take a considerable amount of time to install and this time could have been utilized doing productive research or billable work.

I take the 80GB drive on the road along with the Retrospect disaster recovery CD. With these tools, I can recover my notebook in a few hours wherever I am. Lastly, the third USB drive is a 300GB Maxtor located in my office. I use this drive to back up the notebook on weekends, using Retrospect, on a predefined schedule.

The basic intent is to have key data in more than one place at any given time. Whether you opt for one drive, or multiple drives, the goal is to have your key data, at the least, stored in another place, as well. Whether it is on hard drives, a flash stick, CDR or even an ancient floppy disk, your data should be in more than one place in case the notebook fails.

Regardless of how you backup your data, be sure to review both your backup and restore processes to make sure your data is being backed up. Before I moved to Retrospect, I used a simple XCOPY command to backup my data including 6GB worth of Outlook mailboxes. Little did I know that I had run out of disk space on the target backup data drive a month earlier and, as a result, lost some of my archived data. I now make sure to review my backup logs to check that the backup tasks are performed as expected.

In short, having a plan to recover data is a necessity these days. Notebooks will fail eventually so begin by purchasing a good support plan for your system and have reliable backups that you can count on. How complex your backup and recovery plans should be must be commensurate with your risks (both to you and your clients) and the level of investment that you can afford.

In other words, the intent should be to spend enough to limit your risks and protect your ability to achieve your goals. Data storage may be cheap but your data and time are not.






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