As we approach the one-year anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, there will be no shortage of media commemorations. Most if not all of them will focus, as they should, on the horrific loss of more than 3,000 American lives.

One of the most compelling images from that terrible day will probably not, however, be given the media attention it deserves. I'm referring to the sight (televised live on CNN) of millions of pieces of paper, hour after hour, drifting over New York City from the wreckage of the World Trade Center--legal documents, accounting statements, computer printouts and other important business and government records that could never be replaced.

Now please don't get me wrong. I'm not saying or implying that anything can be more devastating than the loss of loved ones, co-workers or friends. Those deaths can never be fully avenged or compensated for, and our hearts and prayers should go out to them, those that loved them and those that tried to save them. I merely suggest that we should spend at least a few minutes to reflect on the fact that a lot of businesses also died a horrible death on September 11, 2001. Many, if not most, of those businesses could not recover because their data--the living, beating heart of any business--were consumed by fire, crushed by falling debris or sucked out into the ozone over New York Harbor.

So, a year later, what have we learned as business owners? A recent University of Texas study tell us that more than 50 percent of small and midsized businesses that lose their data in a disaster go out of business within two years. Yet many, if not most, business owners fail to do all they can to protect their important information properly, leaving themselves vulnerable to fire, floods, computer viruses, terrorist attacks and other natural and man-made disasters. Why?

Bob Cramer, president and CEO of LiveVault Corp., a data protection and disaster recovery firm based in Marlborough, Massachusetts, thinks there are two reasons: "Most small-business owners either think they don't have the budget to properly protect their data or that they need a large in-house staff of experts to get the job done." Cramer says that's not the case, and that it's "an absolute requirement, no longer a luxury" that every business, no matter how small, have a disaster recovery plan in place.

A lot of business owners think they're doing a good job by backing up their computer files at the end of each week, or every night before they go home. According to Cramer, though, that's not enough: "The very scary fact is that 20 to 50 percent of all computer backups are not fully recoverable." Sometimes that's a result of human error--you back up all your computer files onto a CD-ROM or tape, but leave the backup lying on top of your computer, so that when a fire breaks out, both the computer and the backup are destroyed. A lot of times, though, even what appears to be a properly-done backup may not be 100 percent recoverable, simply because you configured the backup software incorrectly and you don't find out until it's too late.

For rates that start at $295 a month for a single computer server, LiveVault can automatically send copies of your business's computer records offsite via the Internet, either at the end of each business day or continuously throughout the day (for example, every hour), and store your data at a secure Iron Mountain facility ("You can't go there and I can't tell you where it is," says Cramer).

In the event of a disaster, says Cramer, "you go to your LiveVault account, click on a button, and you can recover everything that was backed up the night or the hour before."

For those who still want to do it themselves, here are three pieces of advice:

  • Make sure you back up all your business data every single day--if you have a small amount of data (less than 1 Gigabyte), recordable CD's are inexpensive, and you should be able to buy a year's supply for less than $200 at most office supply stores. (Save even more by buying CD-RWs that can be erased and re-recorded over and over again.)
  • Regularly check to make sure that you can recover data from your backup disk, tape or CD-ROM--try downloading specific files from the disk onto your home PC or a computer that is configured differently from your office server.
  • Make at least two backup disks, tapes or CD-ROMs, and keep one in a secure offsite location, protected from natural disasters and theft. One more thing: Don't forget that whoever hosts your Web site may also suffer a disaster. If a disaster destroys the computer server on which your Web site is located, your site is gone. Make sure that your Internet service provider or Web hosting service gives you a CD-ROM containing all the HTML, Java scripts and other software code for your Web site. Whenever you update or change your site, be sure to get an updated CD-ROM for the entire site.

Cliff Ennico is host of the PBS television series MoneyHunt and a leading expert on managing growing companies. His advice for small businesses regularly appears on the "Protecting Your Business" channel on the Small Business Television Network at www.sbtv.com. E-mail him at cennico@legalcareer.com.