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Volume 27, Issue 4

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Lessons from Katrina

Unfortunately, due to the expense, that level of data protection is out of reach for many small businesses, leaving them in a difficult position. If they didn’t practice stringent back-up methods, some companies had to face the possibility of losing all of their critical data – client contacts, billing accounts, financial spreadsheets, proprietary documents – and facing the future without the information necessary to keep them operating. A recent Gartner study found that half of all small and mid-size businesses that experience major data failure – lasting more than 24 hours – will go under. Due to the sheer size of Katrina, however, even companies that thought they were well protected were not immune to data loss problems.

So what was missing from many disaster recovery plans and what helped some businesses survive despite a lack of usable backups? Data recovery. The type of data recovery referenced here should not be confused with how “data recovery” has often been defined to evaluate hurricane response practices. Many understand data recovery as working with a back-up company and restoring data from previously backed-up media. However, many companies did not have that type of relationship established before the storm struck. So, in this case, data recovery means working with a professional recovery service that can rescue the original (and most up to date) missing data directly from the damaged drives or media themselves after the damage occurs.

If Katrina has proven anything, it is that natural disasters have a way of putting our best laid plans to waste. Many plans that included data backup considerations failed to make the final step for data protection. Data recovery is the missing element of disaster recovery planning and can serve as a “hail mary” attempt when all other options have been exhausted. The following stories of two gulf coast businesses demonstrate the importance of having a well-rounded disaster recovery plan that includes true data recovery.

Sawyer Real Estate had been an institution in Gulfport, Miss., since it was founded more than 100 years ago. Carrying on that family tradition was in serious jeopardy as owner Lenny Sawyer surveyed the remains of his office days after Katrina hit land. The building was destroyed and six feet of water had filled his office, leaving computers submerged for several days. “Our life was on the hard drives in that office – rental records, financial data, everything,” said Sawyer.

His business did not have recent backups, so he figured they would have to start from scratch in the rebuilding process. This would take a great deal of time and be a significant expense – one that his small business could not afford since other hurricane-related costs were already a burden. Luckily, Sawyer had heard of data recovery services that could rescue data from damaged hard drives and decided to try his luck. He made contact with a service provider and was immediately relieved upon hearing that chances for recovery were good. In fact, the recovery company explained that their success rate for flood jobs was just as high as their normal success rate – meaning a majority of those storm-damaged drives were most likely recoverable.

Despite the outward appearance of his damaged PCs, after some intensive care in special cleanrooms, recovery experts were able to repair the damage and rescue his data. “Even though the drives were sitting in a collapsed building, under water for more than five days, the recovery company was able to recover critical data we thought was gone forever,” said Sawyer. Instead of having to dig through the debris to find paper copies of business records, Sawyer Real Estate had the means to contact customers and carry on with business throughout the difficult period.
Although they did not have useful backups available, Sawyer Real Estate was still able to access their recovered data and be a resource for their clients. Since a large percentage of companies that experience data loss never recover from the experience, it is crucial that different options exist for emergency situations. Even in cases where businesses think they are completely protected, the need for an emergency solution sometimes arises. In the example of Hurricane Katrina, the sheer magnitude of the storm threatened some companies even though they took extra measures to protect their data, thinking they were protected. Thankfully, Seemann Composites, also located in Gulfport, Miss., had a back-up plan for their backups.

As a custom fabricator of advanced composites and products, Seemann Composites has thousands of files with proprietary information that cannot be recreated. As Katrina approached, Office Manager Jan Niolon suspected their main office on the coast would be in danger, so she took the company’s back-up tapes and stored them in an offsite location three cities away. “We do custom work for every job so original files are crucial to our business,” said Niolon. Sure enough, Katrina flooded their main production facility with enough water to cover all of their computer equipment and files. Unfortunately, Katrina hit the offsite location as well, flooding the back-up tapes in the process.

Rather than panicking, Niolon had an additional procedure to supplement her data back-up plan – data recovery services. “We were in danger of losing several years’ worth of unique data,” said Niolon. “We needed access to our files since we do a lot of work for the government and are subject to defense contract audits. Utilizing data recovery eased those concerns by retrieving files we thought were unrecoverable and helping us get back to business as usual.” In only a few short days, Niolon had much of the lost data back, which helped Seemann continue with current projects and ensure they were protected for the future.

These examples do a great job of illustrating just how important data recovery services can be to businesses in need. Although a robust back-up plan is definitely the best way to keep your company protected, establishing a relationship with a data recovery provider is an excellent enhancement to include in any disaster recovery plan. In addition to the problems highlighted in these situations from Katrina, it’s important to note that backups are often susceptible to problems of their own. Reliability is the major issue, as a high percentage of backups fail every year. According to Microsoft, 42 percent of attempted recoveries from tape backups in the past year have failed. Strategic Research estimates that as many as 50 percent of remote backups fail.

The various reasons why backups fail are too numerous to mention, but the point is that they do fail, on a fairly regular basis. The only real way to combat data back-up issues is by spending a significant amount of money in hopes of achieving “perfect” backups – defined here as backups that are made regularly, tested periodically, and stored away from the computers they are protecting. The problem is that, due mostly to expense, “perfect” backups are extremely difficult to achieve, and getting close is simply out of reach for most small businesses. A better plan is to implement a back-up system that works on a regular schedule and utilize some type of remote storage – but also incorporates data recovery into the equation in case Murphy’s Law takes effect.

Businesses can waste valuable time and money looking for a data recovery solution when disaster strikes. Both Sawyer Real Estate and Seemann Composites avoided those difficulties by having an established recovery provider included as part of their planning. So whether your business has a high level of preparedness with strict disaster recovery procedures and data backup planning, or a low level without any specific measures established – you should always look at data recovery as an option to help get your business back up and running. Katrina was a wake-up call to companies across the country, so it’s important to use those lessons and ensure your company is protected with a complete disaster recovery plan.


Jim Reinert serves as director of software and services for Ontrack Data Recovery. In this position since April 2004, Reinert handles the technology and business development and product line management of the recovery services and software business lines.

"Appeared in DRJ's Summer 2006 Issue"

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