In the past few years, the creation of data has exploded exponentially. It is estimated that around 90% of the data available to us today has been generated in just the past 24 months. All businesses, large or small, are now coping with significantly more information than ever before. This introduces challenges for business owners, who must now manage and protect this key asset.
At TTP, we’ve had recent experience with a failed hard drive. We were fortunate that backups, and assistance from Apple prevented any data loss, however it did cost us time, and provided an opportunity to reflect on the importance of protecting our data. Here are some of our insights about the things you can do to be more aware of the data you’re creating or handling, how you’re managing it, and how to protect it from being lost.
The issue of data management can be distilled down to three basic questions. First, how do you develop a strategy to manage your data? Second, how do you store all of this data efficiently? Last (but definitely not least), how do you ensure that you do not lose your data due to hardware failure?
Answering these three questions can seem quite daunting, but considering the first (and least technological) question in detail, developing a data governance and management strategy for your business will help you to identify the appropriate levels of technology for your business.
Development of a data governance and management strategy largely centres around four key areas:
1. Identifying the data that your business is generating, receiving, and storing.
2. Deciding where that data is to be stored, and at which stage of its lifecycle it is to be placed in that designated location.
3. Determining an appropriate folder/naming structure for the storage and easy identification of the data.
4. Setting policies and procedures around security, retention, and backup of data. If handling very sensitive data, consideration may also be given to using a dedicated document management system to track file accesses and modifications.
Depending on the complexity or legal obligations of your business, the policy may be as simple as requiring daily backups of the PCs in the office, and the storage of the backup disks in a fireproof safe. Alternatively, it might require specific file-naming conventions, with each file being moved to a centralised storage location, or a document management system at the time it is created, with specific security restrictions to ensure that only authorised staff are accessing or changing the data. Every business is different, and the National Archives of Australia1 have created a document that gives a detailed outline of how these strategies can be developed.
Once you have a strategy developed, it is then possible to consider the issue of appropriate technologies to allow the strategy to take effect.
The second question appears, at first glance, relatively simple to address, as higher capacity hard drives have become both available, and affordable, in the past few years. It is not uncommon to find good quality 3Tb and 4Tb SATA hard disks retailing for under AU$250, while higher capacity drives of up to 6Tb can be obtained for under AU$400. This ready availability at low cost means that buying additional drives to store large quantities of data is a trivial exercise. It is certainly true that simply adding more, and larger disks to each PC is a solution to the question of storing more data, however we then need to consider Question 3, and look at protecting the data.
As with Question 2, the answer does seem, on the surface, to be trivial: we can add the extra drives to each of our PCs and take daily backups. If your overall data growth is small, this may work very effectively, however if a PC is stolen, or its hard drive fails, the data will be inaccessible until the backup is restored, which may cause you to miss deadlines, or otherwise impact your client and business outcomes. This is the point at which a business needs to consider taking the next step, and examine technology that can store large amounts of data, survive the failure of at least one (sometimes two) hard drives, while keeping the business’ data online and usable, and that can act as the hub of your data management strategy.
The technology in question is referred to as “Network Attached Storage”, or NAS. A NAS is simply a small, standalone computer, that manages multiple hard disks (a minimum of two, for data protection, but usually four or more), and whose primary function is to make those drives available across your office network to act as a secure, centralised storage system
Here are some typical NAS appliances:
All NAS devices use a technology called RAID2 (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) to protect data. There are different levels of RAID, which take different approaches to protecting data. The most common are as follows:
RAID-1: Each disk has a “mirror” disk. Both disks contain exactly the same data. If a disk fails, it can be replaced, and the data will be written back to the new “mirror”. This requires two disks at a minimum.
RAID-5: In this approach, three or more disks are configured so that each disk contains a portion of the data, plus recovery “parity” data, so that if one disk fails, and is replaced, the data from the failed disk can be recreated from those that remain.
RAID-6: This is the same principle as RAID-5, however it requires a minimum of four disks, so that it can store additional parity data to speed recovery, and provide the ability to cope with the loss of two disks without losing data.
Another advantage of a NAS is that many vendors provide excellent supporting software that runs on the computer within the appliance itself. This software provides core functionality such as a web interface to control the device, implement security, and manage the system, but also offers extended features that can be very useful in a small business, such as the ability to host websites or databases, or to store other media such as audio or video that can then be streamed within the business as needed. Vendors also frequently provide software that facilitates easy backups from desktop PCs, which run in the background while the PC is in use.
It can often be the case that purchasing a dedicated NAS device (which typically range from around $250 for a two-drive device, to $2000+ for an advanced, eight-bay model) plus sufficient drives to populate it, will solve the majority of the storage and governance issues for a typical business. For extra safety, most NAS devices also feature USB3 ports to allow for an external drive to be attached, and this can be used to backup the NAS content itself for off-site storage.
In conclusion, it is clear that we have entered an age where data is dominant, plentiful, and essential. We simply cannot ignore the fact that losing data, or having it unavailable for extended periods, will cost us time, money, and our reputation. We must plan ahead, and ensure that we give ourselves the best chance (within our budget) to avoid a catastrophic loss. At TTP, we hope that we’ve given you some food for thought, and that your business benefits from considering these points.
1 National Archives of Australia – Records Management
2 Wikipedia – RAID