Years ago, a network failure that resulted in a few days of a down e-mail system or data lost would be, at worst, an annoyance. In this day and age of online business, however, losing data is not merely an inconvenience; it can have devastating consequences. A relatively minor failure can result in major losses in dollars and consumer confidence. Thus, many more companies of all sizes are turning to data centers to help them protect their precious information.

Many data center customers come seeking solutions because they have had an incident in the past that they wish to avoid in the future. Others, however, use data protection as an “insurance policy” that they don’t necessarily feel they need, according to Alex Rodriguez, director of Systems Engineering at Expedient Communications. Expedient is part of a network of nine nationwide data centers, and offers a wide range of managed services such as back-up, premium monitoring, and management of firewalls, and enterprise e-mail servers. These managed services combined with reliable and redundant SAS70 compliant data centers enables Expedient to deliver colocation, network, and managed services to high-end enterprise, commercial, education, and government entities.

“The former type are usually very interested in keeping their data available in the event of an incident,” Rodriguez said. “The latter may not fully understand the consequences of a failure. It is our job to make sure that they know exactly what kinds of services they need and why,” he added.

It is imperative to do a comprehensive analysis of a customer’s needs before prescribing a solution, according to Rodriguez. There is no one-size-fits-all answer: A solutions provider must determine each client’s Recovery Point Objective (RPO, the amount of data a company is willing to lose in a failure) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO, the amount of time a company is willing to be down in the event of a failure).

Advancements in business technology have brought about the need for advancements in protection for many businesses. Business is no longer done 100 percent on paper; in fact, many businesses are 100 percent-or close to 100 percent-paperless. Therefore, the time and data loss they are willing to risk is less and less.

For the average person, one day of down time may not sound like a big deal. However, the numbers add up more quickly than one might think. For a larger company, one single day of down time could mean a $1 million loss, not to mention the residual losses that will inevitably come when that business’ customers-having once been forced to turn to another company-become loyal to a new company.

“Even a six-hour e-mail outage could be devastating to a business,” Rodriguez says.

Individual companies have different needs, however. A bank, for example, can function without its computer system for a time, but a loss of data cannot happen under any circumstances. On the other hand, a broadcasting company, for instance, may not mind losing some data but absolutely must have its systems up and running at all times. Offering a solution without fully understanding the potential problems would be poor service to the customer, Rodriguez says.

“A one-size-fits-all, blanket solution really doesn’t work on the cost side,” Rodriguez says, “Solutions absolutely must be prescribed on a case-by-case basis. There’s no shortcut to getting around the business impact analysis.” Further, individual applications used by a client must be considered. One application may need the highest solution available, while another can use a simple periodic backup.

“Your best bet is to research and find solutions that are inherent to the applications that are running,” Rodriguez says.

For companies that still rely mainly on paper records, a simple backup system may be sufficient. Those companies, for which a failure is still a mere annoyance, rely on the tried and true, a daily backup to tape and storage of the tapes at a separate location.

Clay Archer, owner of Archer Computer Services, says most of his customers are small businesses that gravitate toward these types of solutions. “I always recommend that people have a local backup, but I also recommend that at least one copy is held off-site,” he says. “The building could burn to the ground, but the data will not be lost.” Archer Computer Services, based in Park City, UT, provides IT support for small, medium, and large companies and actively assists many customers in Park City's busy year-round resort industry. In business since 1989, the company offers custom programming, repair, and data recovery as well as survey and consulting on potential security issues and surveillance solutions.

In fact, two or three copies in separate locations is even better than one. For very small businesses, backing up on the Internet is also an option. “I always tell people to have things at least two or three places,” Archer says.

For data that must be kept but won’t necessarily have to be accessed in a short amount of time, he recommends archive quality disks, which are guaranteed to store data for 100 years. While these types of solutions do not allow for zero downtime or data lost, they are very affordable for the business on a strict budget and without specialized needs. “It’s the most difficult and time intensive recovery scenario, but it’s also the cheapest,” Rodriguez says.

For the mid-level customer who needs additional protection, Rodriguez recommends snapshot technology. When one of the files within a volume changes, the snap volume (a copy of the volume) creates a copy before the new file is written to desk on the original volume.

“IT administrators have a second copy of data saved to disk that they can use for instantaneous recovery or as an offline copy for backups,” Archer says. In the event of a failure, a customer may lose only a few hours worth of data, highly preferable as compared to an entire day.

“This solution makes sense to smaller businesses, because it gives them less than a day of data loss and is less expensive,” Rodriguez says.

The customer who can afford zero time and data lost will find the most use in the high-end solution of replication. For the largest companies, and the ones that do the highest volumes of business online, Expedient will set up multiple primary sites that share the data load. If one site goes down, traffic can quickly be shifted to another data center, so virtually no time or data is lost.

“They can continue doing business without interruption, and their customers will never know there was a failure,” Rodriguez says. “The transition is seamless.”

Managed services, such as colocation, can make it possible for even small companies to take advantage of those top tier backups. Using a data center is much less expensive than purchasing and maintaining a company’s own equipment, freeing up resources to use on network backups.

“The amount of time and resources needed to effectively monitor an in-house backup system is too much for most small to mid-sized companies to handle,” Rodriguez says. “By using the dedicated resources of a data center, a company can save both capital costs and the time of internal IT resources.”

A data center is also better equipped for compliance with current regulations, such as Sarbanes-Oxley. The increase in costs as the level of services increases can be significant, Rodriguez says, which makes it all that much more important to perform an analysis and give customers no more-and no less-than what they need. Increases in cost for services can be anywhere from two to ten times more expensive as customers move from low- to mid-range and then mid- to high-range offerings. While most customers fall into the middle range of prescribed solutions, the most rapid growth is occurring in the highest range, a clear indicator of the move toward paperless record keeping and the importance of quality data protection.

Customers who have had a failure in the past may be eager to take their data protection even further, such as Archer’s customers who store data in two or three additional locations to ensure that there will always be a copy available. For those higher-end customers who are looking for another extra cushion of protection, the option is available to piggyback a low-end backup on a high-end one. It will give the customer a safety net without having to spend double the money.

“Cost is always a factor in determining what sort of solutions a business will use, but it is also important to ask how critical is the information,” Archer says.

A data center is responsible, too, for ensuring to a reasonable degree that the chance of a failure is the lowest it can be, recognizing potential problems and rectifying them before a failure occurs. Natural disasters account for a certain percentage of failures, but most are caused by human error, according to Rodriguez.

“Within our data centers, we constantly monitor our systems,” he says. “If we see that a customer is doing something that could potentially lead to a failure, we notify them immediately and take steps within our own company to rectify the problem.” The secondary part of this is education of the customer to ensure that the same issue does not occur again, whether it ultimately caused a failure or not.

“The last thing our company-or our customers-want is for unknowing personnel to continue a pattern that may, at some point, cause a failure,” Rodriguez said. “We take it upon ourselves to educate our customers about the best way to utilize their own equipment, as well as taking steps on our end to keep things working smoothly.”

Constant monitoring and regular reporting can not only save the customer and data center provider money and time but also help raise customer confidence and ensure continued business. The reports are also a convenient way for companies to satisfy the questions of auditors without additional investment.

“If you never hear from your data center, you can forget about all they’re doing to keep your data safe, making you feel in the end that they aren’t doing much,” Rodriguez says. “But if you let a customer know that a problem has been identified and solved without incident, they know their money is being spent on a valuable service, and that the data center they have chosen is a proactive one.” n

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