Creating a Data Backup Strategy

Data is the lifeblood of most small businesses, yet many companies have not taken steps to ensure it is protected in the event of a network outage or other catastrophe. In fact, according to a recent survey by technology services company Symantec, only half of small businesses have a data backup strategy in place.

New technologies make it easier than ever to back up your critical business and customer data. Follow these five steps to help keep your information safe and accessible:

1. Identify your data backup needs

Ask yourself what information you need to continue running your business in the event of a catastrophe. For most companies, this includes financial records, human resources data and customer and supplier information, such as orders and accounts receivable. Also consider backing up information that would require a great deal of time or expense to re-create, such as email or phone contact lists, legal documents, files or website and blog pages.

2. Consider on-site data backup

The first line of defense is an on-site data backup system, such as external hard drives, a tape drive or a network-attached storage drive, which plugs into a company's network to allow additional storage capacity. The method you choose will depend on your needs — external hard drives allow individual users to back up files from their computers, while a tape drive or network-attached storage drive will allow you to store multiple users' data in a central location. While using these devices can provide an added measure of security, they won't protect you from threats, such as fire or flood that might wipe out your primary computer systems.

3. Explore online data backup

"Cloud" backup — or storing files on remote servers accessed over the Internet — can offer an attractive alternative to purchasing and maintaining storage equipment in-house. Dozens of service providers offer online data backup, so explore your options if you choose this strategy. Look for a system that provides automatic, continuous backup, so you can set up the system once and not have to update files manually. Ensure that the vendor follows best practices to keep data safe, such as encrypting data to and from your facility and storing data in multiple secure facilities.

4. Establish company-wide processes

Once your backup systems are in place, create a formal policy that spells out what data is to be backed up and how often and who is responsible for managing the backups. If you use external hard drives, decide how often employees will need to back up files from their computers — perhaps once a week or more often if what they do is particularly important. Once all the files on your list have been stored, shift to automatic, incremental backups, if your system allows. This method re-saves only those files that have changed since the last backup, allowing you to conserve storage space.

5. Test your data retrieval

Log in regularly to your online data backup systems to be sure you can access your stored data easily. Or, if you store data in-house, check that you can retrieve it from your storage devices. Depending on how often your business creates new files, you may want to test your backups once a week. Testing at least monthly will ensure that you don't lose more than 30 days' worth of data in the event of a catastrophe.