The Hamilton Spectator
Friday, June 19, 1998
page C1

Online Back Up

Internet storage services offer an alternative for protecting your digital data

by David Akin, dakin@ham.southam.ca

One day - and it could be sooner or it could be later - your hard disk will die.

And when it dies, it will take with it all your data and programs.

Like death and taxes, the death of the hard disk inside your PC is something you can count on with absolute certainty.

Strange then, that for an event we can count on with such confidence to occur, few of us take appropriate steps to protect the energy, time, and intellectual capital represented in the bits and bytes stored on that small, round, magnetic disk.

Despite the proliferation of new easy-to-use software tools and dropping hardware prices, most consumers and not an insignificant number of businesses have poor data backup habits.

The data storage industry estimates that fewer than 10 per cent of all corporate PC users back up their data correctly. It also estimates that more than 90 per cent of all PC users have experienced data loss at one time or another.

For people who use their PCs to earn a living, the cost of data loss can have some serious bottom-line effects. One study suggests the average cost of recovering data is $1,000 per megabyte.

Now, though, some new services are emerging that can help eliminate the tedium and, to a certain degree, the expense of backuing up data.

These services back up the data on a local PC to a remote storage site via the Internet.

As a client, you specify how much data should be backed up and then, each night, automatically and behind the scenes, your local PC turns itself on, dials up the remote server, uploads the data, and then turns itself off.

When the day comes that your hard disk dies, you phone the online backup service, which prepares a CD-ROM with all your programs, data, desktop preferences, and even your choice of screen wallpaper and ships it to you overnight. The CD-ROM is installed on a new hard disk you purchase and away you go.

Catastrophic

For those who do not back up, a hard-disk crash can be a catastrophic event.

At the very least, it usually means sending the disk out to a service bureau that employs technicians with the highly specialized skills and equipment that can recover data from crashed disks. Those kinds of crash-recovery services, though, can often take a couple of weeks and there's no guarantee that all your data will be recoverable.

"Until someone actually goes through that pain, it just doesn't add up. They just don't seem to realize the importance of backing up", said Craig McLellan of Mississauge-based StorageTek Canada.

McLellan is the business manager for StorageTek's Rex online backup service ( www.bark.net )

Rex is one of several online backup services currently on the market for people who compute on Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and Windows NT platforms.

One of the few Macintosh online backup services is BackJack ( )

Other online backup services are available out of the US for those using Novell, OS/2, or Unix operating systems.

"We've interviewed a lot of people who've experienced data loss and they have a completely different attitude around the whole thing. They just don't risk it."

Those who already have data backup strategies in place are usually copying their firm's data to large removable media, like Zip or SyQuest disks, or writing it to a large tape-backup machine - processes which can involve a considerable amount of time and maintenance and a certain degree of investment in hardware.

Too often, that's too much of a hassle or expense for small businesses. Only larger firms with specialized information-technology professionals typically have a sound data backup strategy and execute the plan regularly.

Ironically, StorageTek has had its biggest success so far selling its service to those big firms. McLellan believes large enterprises are buying the service because they see it as an excellent complement to their on-site backup facilities or as a cost-effective replacement for some other backup strategies.

The small office / home office or SOHO market has been a tougher nut to crack for sellers of online backup services even though that segment of the market would seem to be ripe for a service that provides a kind of easy, automated data insurance.

"SOHO is low because we really haven't figured out how to get to them. With large corporations, it's been better than expected", said McLellan. "In the SOHO marketplace, our biggest competition is ignorance."

The Rex service is priced right now at $25 a month for daily backups of all data. At that price, the service is aimed at the corporate market but McLellan said StorageTek is considering introducing a consumer version of the service some time over the next several months.

Aside from ignorance, the other big hurdle McLellan and his team have to overcome as they market the service to enterprise customers is concern about security.

Market research done for the online backup industry suggests 3 in 10 Canadians would consider using an online backup service while only 1 in 10 Americans would. In both countries, survey respondents said they would hesitate to use such a service because of security issues.

Encryption

McLellan explains that data is protected from unauthorized access by encrypting or encoding the files, which can be unlocked only by a special six-digit code known to the user alone.

StorageTek maintains two separate facilities in Canada that house the Rex computers that store the data.

McLellan says both facilities have received an RCMP-approved site security certification. That means the sites are secure enough to store federal government data.

The Rex service hasn't attracted a lot of federal government customers, but McLellan believes his firm's service will make a lot of sense to municipal governments, many of which have the same kind of service requirements as small- and medium-sized businesses.

"They beauty of Rex is that, in addition to irreplaceable data files, a user's entire system - operating system, applications, drivers, fonts, configuration, everything - is restored. Even a user who experiences a catastrophic loss of their entire system can be up and running in the computing environment they know within 24 hours", McLellan said.


Copyright © 1998 by The Hamilton Spectator. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.