Protecting Distributed Data

The company I work for has a significant number of employees who work at remote, distributed locations. Many, including me, work at small regional offices or out of their homes.

Recently a colleague of mine, named Joe, was hit with a laptop disk drive crash that wiped out his files. This caused a severe loss in productivity for Joe and impacted those whose work depended on him. He was able to quickly replace the laptop, but many of his working files were lost. Like many busy users, he hadn’t bothered to back them up. He could have sent the machine to a company specializing in data recovery, but that wouldn’t have been an option if his computer were lost or stolen. I’m sure you know of similar horror stories.

This is a significant problem for companies like mine, which are becoming representative of corporate America. More employees are working in remote environments and using a computer for their daily work. The data on these computers represents a significant portion of a company’s intellectual assets. In fact, industry analyst firm IDC estimates more than 60 percent of corporate data now resides on desktop and laptop computers. Many of these computers are not adequately backed up.

People don’t back up critical laptop and desktop files for a variety of reasons. This sort of thing is just like a car crash. Everyone knows they happen, but they never think it will happen to them. Remote users typically don’t have ready access to a server where they can copy files to be backed up. Even if a server is available, many IT organizations don’t want users using it as a backup device because their files can quickly consume large amounts of disk space.

Doing backups with floppies or 100-MB Zip drives can be inconvenient, too, because of the number of diskettes and time required to back up a modern multigigabyte drive. Last year, as I wrote a book, I dreaded the floppy shuffle I had to go through every few days to backup the chapters I worked on. Many users don’t want to bother with the expense and hassle of a tape backup unit.

There is no one complete solution that meets the needs of all users, but over the past couple years a number of companies, such as Connected Corp., @Backup, iBackup, X:drive, and, have come out with Internet-based backup solutions. This can be a satisfactory solution for remote users, but if you’re going to consider an Internet backup solution you should look for a few key features.

The software should be easy for users to install, configure, and manage. It should have a scheduler that can automatically run during the night, dial up the service provider, and initiate the backup without manual intervention. That way, all the user has to do is leave the computer turned on and connected to a phone line.

The software should have features to maximize throughput, especially if the user is limited to a dial-up line. For example, the user should be able to select files that must be backed up, such as critical data files, and deselect unimportant files such as cached Web pages or TMP files.

The software should be smart enough to copy only the changed portions of a file that has been updated since the most recent backup, rather than the entire file. This reduces the required time to copy an entire multimegabyte database or large spreadsheet when only a few rows have been updated. The application should also compress the data before transmitting it.

Since the data may be traveling over the Internet, it should be encrypted and password-protected against unauthorized access. It is helpful if the site can maintain versions for you, so you can retrieve a client letter you mailed two weeks ago but then inadvertently deleted.

Finally, make sure the vendor isn’t placing arbitrary limits on the amount of data you can save. Some enforce a 100 MB limit, while others offer unlimited storage.

Some companies only do backups, while others are more of an online file system that you can also use for a backup. You need to weigh the pros and cons of each approach and select the one that best meets your needs. --Robert Craig is vice president of strategic marketing at Viador Inc. (Burlington, Mass.), and a former director at the Hurwitz Group Inc. Contact him at