From the September 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

M arc Pezzolla has always taken great pains to protect his company from data disasters. As co-owner of Sine Systems, a small manufacturer of remote broadcast equipment in Nashville, Tennessee, Pezzolla backs up his computer files daily, has two hard drives set up so that everything stored on one automatically copies to the second, and even bought extra insurance to cover the cost of data recovery.

On April 16, a devastating tornado ripped through Nashville, lifting the roof off his building. Water drenched everything in sight, including his three computers. Although two started right up after the disaster, the third one--with critical financial data--started up once, then died. Upon review of his backup tapes, Pezzolla discovered that his backup software wasn't working--and he didn't have a copy of the missing data.

Pezzolla shipped the damaged computer overnight to DriveSavers, a data recovery company in Novato, California, to see if the crucial information could be retrieved. Thankfully, the company was able to restore everything except his last two weeks of financial data, which Pezzolla was able to recreate.

Most companies aren't so lucky. When it comes to protecting your business from data loss, you can never do enough. It's imperative to have a well-designed recovery plan in place so you'll know exactly what to do if disaster strikes.

Backup Plan

Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to protect yourself from a data disaster. Start by repeating this mantra: backup, backup, backup. So many companies don't back up their computer files on a regular basis because they lack the time, aren't familiar with the latest storage mediums or simply subscribe to the notion "It won't happen to me."

Experts say the easiest way to protect yourself from data loss is to have a backup copy of all your work. Find a way to perform regular backups that works for you, says Nikki Stange, a data crisis counselor with DriveSavers. Establish a regular time to perform backups. Be sure to put one copy of the data in a secure place off-site, such as a safety deposit box, so it's protected from natural disasters. Backing up the information to floppy disks may work fine for you, or you may need the added flexibility and security of removable media.

Tape backup drives are an extremely affordable option as well. Although they aren't as fast or as flexible as other storage devices, they're great for backing up large amounts of data, particularly across a network. Hewlett-Packard's HP Colorado 8GB tape drive ($285), for example, provides up to 8GB of capacity on a single cartridge. It also has one-button and automated backup features, a backup scheduler, and disaster recovery software for Windows 95 that enables you to retrieve data without having to reinstall and reconfigure your system.

Iomega's new Jaz 2GB removable storage drive ($499) is another option to consider. Because each disk holds up to 2GB of data, you've got lots of room for backing up files.

CD-rewriteable (CD-RW) drives are a slightly more expensive option. They make it possible to record, erase and rewrite large amounts of data onto CDs at very fast speeds. Hewlett-Packard has a product for small companies called the HP SureStore CD-Writer Plus 7200 drive. It provides users with up to 650MB of removable data storage and comes bundled with leading antivirus and document management software. Both internal ($499) and external ($610) drives are available.

A number of companies offer remote backup via the Internet. Although they can be slow and relatively expensive (about $20 a month) compared to other backup solutions, they offer automatic backups and the additional security of off-site storage. Two Internet backup services to check out include Connected Online Backup (http://www.connected.com) and Atrieva (http://www.atrieva.com).

Extra Protection

The next line of defense is to purchase a good maintenance program like Symantec's Norton Utilities ($80 for version 8.0; $100 for Mac) to keep your hard drive in working order. Programs like this help monitor and clean up your system so there's less potential for problems. For example, Norton Utilities contains problem-solving tools that detect trouble with system files and software applications, and it offers crash protection and recovery assistance.

If you frequently copy data from disks or the Internet, you'll also want to install an antivirus program like Symantec's Norton AntiVirus (version 4.0, $49.95; 4.0 deluxe and Mac, $69.95). But before running an antivirus or maintenance program, be sure to back up, warns Stange. That way, if there's a problem and your software attempts to fix it but fails, you can always start over with your original information.

Keep an accurate inventory of all computer equipment, both in-house and off-site, in the same location as your data backups. This should include an itemized list of equipment, receipts and any other records you might need to speed up the claims process in the event of a disaster. It's also a good idea to contact your insurance company before any serious problems occur to find out what it needs to process a claim.

Finally, don't ever ignore your computer's odd symptoms. If you get an error message you've never seen before, write it down. If your computer makes a strange sound, begins to crash regularly or just starts acting funny, make a log of the symptoms so you can tell tech support what happened should a major problem develop.

When Disaster Strikes . . .

No matter how many precautions you take, sometimes it's impossible to avoid data loss. In fact, experts like to warn that it's not about if you have a data disaster--but when. If you run into trouble, don't panic. Doing so may only cause you to do something you'll regret later.

If you've accidentally deleted files and emptied the Recycle Bin or Trash Can, don't install any software or save additional files to your drive, because you might overwrite the information you want to recover. Just power down your system in the safest manner possible. If you plan to recover the data on your own with a program like Norton Utilities, be sure you're familiar with it beforehand and read all the recovery tips (and don't forget to back up your data before starting!).

Whether you need to call in the help of a professional data recovery service like DriveSavers depends on the importance of the data that's been lost. If it's critical information you can't live without, you may want to call a professional right away without attempting to fix it.

If you're dealing with hardware that's been damaged by a natural disaster such as a fire or a flood, your first step is to remove the computer equipment from the potentially damaging situation. Pezzolla, for instance, took all his equipment home the day of the disaster to protect it from further damage. Stange says you should never try to operate your equipment after it has been damaged because you could short out the electronics inside.

Don't try to thoroughly dry out the equipment either, Stange says. While it's a good idea to dry the computer's outer case, don't attempt to dry the internal components. Doing so can leave calcification rings on your hard drive, making data recovery even more difficult than if it had stayed wet. In fact, if the drive is wet, Stange recommends putting it in a bag with some floodwater so it stays damp (and in its original condition) before taking it to a professional.

Next, divide your employees into teams to speed up the recovery process. One group should be in charge of salvaging equipment, while another should survey employees to identify data that must be recovered. A third group should be in charge of collecting off-site backups and analyzing what data you have.

When seeking professional assistance to help you recover data, don't take no for an answer. If it's critical data you've lost and one person says it's not recoverable, get a second or third opinion. The data may be recoverable; it's just that certain companies may not have the ability to do it. DriveSavers, for instance, has a 90 percent data recovery success rate. So if you do experience data loss, take comfort in knowing that if you follow the proper steps, the situation is rarely hopeless.

Contact Sources

DriveSavers Data Recovery, (800) 440-1904, http://www.drivesavers.com

Sine Systems, (615) 228-3500, http://www.sinesys.com