Last month my trusty private e-mail address that I had used for many years stopped working with no explanation. Without warning the provider had gone out of business leaving thousands of disgruntled customers. Fortunately I already had several alternate addresses ready so I called up my key clients and sent an email update to my address book. I was fully functional and working in a day or two.

A couple of months ago I came back from lunch to find an ominous message about Root file system not found on my screen ... the main hard drive on my trusty laptop had died rather suddenly taking all my applications and data files with it. I had a deadline for a client deliverable that evening. Again, not to worry, I plugged in my external backup hard drive into another computer on the network and worked from there. While I took my laptop off to a local computer retailer to get repaired, I was able to continue to work. I lost a couple of files and a day of work at most.

For me my computers are my company; without them I am essentially out of business. Who has the budget for a full business contingency plan? Let us look at inexpensive and simple ways to insure that your company will continue to function if an IT disaster strikes.

The Problem
In the big corporations they frequently have entire departments devoted to studying business continuity. They will write disaster recovery plans and regularly test the contingency systems. For the small business it is a bit tougher. We have become so dependent on our computers for our businesses that we can no longer afford to rely on manual backup processes and systems to carry us through an IT emergency.

The Solution
The first and most important item on your IT emergency list is to think about the possibility that you will have computer systems and network problems and your need to plan for them. Just by reading this article you are taking your first steps in disaster recovery planning.

Fortunately, there are some fairly simple and easy things that if done on a regular basis, can save your company when (not if, mind you) such an event occurs. Implementing each of these simple items will not prevent disasters from happening, but it will allow you to get back to business that much sooner when they do.

    Seven Computer Maintenance Essentials:
  • Establish a relationship with a reputable vendor. This is probably your most important decision. The vendor should be easily accessible and have the ability to respond quickly to solve your problems. I use a small computer store a few blocks from me. They are not the cheapest place around, but they repaired my hard drive and restored the backed up files overnight without a fuss. My other alternative, the computer manufacturer promised me two-week turnaround if I shipped them the computer. No thank you.

  • Regular and automated backups. Disks have become so cheap that there is not excuse why you should not have some kind of easily recoverable backup. This item includes mirror or archive backup copies of your essential files. I can not emphasis this enough. Several of my clients have ignored this at their peril. Do not forget to test your file recovery occasionally. You don't want to find out about your failing backups when you are trying to restore a mission critical system.

  • Automated firewall and virus protection. Given the enormous amount of viruses and malicious activity on the net, an updated firewall and virus protection is essential. One client lost days of productivity because they thought that servers were immune from virus attack and had no protection installed.

  • Alternative Internet connectivity. Depending on the nature of your business and your budget, your alternative could be a simple backup dialup connection or a complete alternative service provider. I use a low cost dialup company that allows me to purchase prepaid access as I need it, but a local small college recently signed with a wireless backup provider when their main ISP went bankrupt and they were forced to scramble for continued connectivity.

  • Alternative email addresses and backup websites. For most businesses not having e-mail access can spell disaster. I have several addresses through a few providers. I also set my pop account to keep old mail for a week on the server. That means that if necessary I can access my mail from the local public library. I also keep copies of my website in a number of places so that if my main site is down, I can still send my clients to one of the alternatives.

  • Good records of your installed applications. It is easy to forget how many applications you have installed on your system. When I restored my accounting package, I had to reinstall the software certificate and serial number. It took me a while to realize that I had written it conveniently on the software CD itself. Now all my application software registration information is in a file that I print out and keep in a safe and memorable place.

  • Outsource external facing services to a supported data center company. With a variety of vendors and services to choose from, all for a reasonable price, why should you be tying up your company bandwidth and potentially opening yourself to malicious attack by hosting your own website or FTP server? This is one case that outsourcing is the truly best option.

So next time, your critical computer system or your Internet connectivity goes down, just call your trusted computer repair vendor (phone number conveniently placed near your computer) or your alternative provider, switch to your pre-planned backup and continue to work. No heart attack and no panic. Think of the peace of mind and happy customers that all your contingency planning bought you.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.

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