Prudent small business IT planning for uncertain times

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The end of financial year is not far away and for most businesses, it’s a time for planning. This year the task is complicated by the business environment: It’s a difficult one to predict and this makes it hard to put together a realistic IT plan. Do you anticipate growth and invest based on projected revenues, or do you play it cautious and put off upgrades for another year? What happens if revenues slow? For small to medium enterprises (SMEs) the best advice is to design flexibility into your plans. 

Whatever the conditions may be in the year ahead, IT maintenance and support needs to continue. Following are some suggestions to help you build a flexible plan that will allow you to grow with business opportunities, minimise expenses when times are quiet, while at the same time, protecting your essential data.

In-house or Outsourced?

Start by considering whether you need an in-house IT infrastructure or if you would be better off outsourcing your IT. The increase in hosted and cloud services over recent years has made outsourcing a very real possibility for the SME, particularly for those organisations requiring scalability.

An in-house infrastructure offers complete control over dedicated IT assets and applications. It also means fast, responsive on premise IT support. This closeness helps to ensure that any decisions relating to IT infrastructure remain aligned to business requirements. On the flip side hardware is often kept longer than it should be, increasing the risk of failure. Support and maintenance resources are generally not scalable and system knowledge may reside with just a few staff. This can be a risk if key personnel leave.

The alternative, outsourcing to a hosting service or cloud provider, allows an organisation to gain from the advantages of a more complex, shared infrastructure. System management and routine maintenance such as backups are handled by the outsource provider, freeing up in-house staff to focus on more strategic tasks. Costs are generally paid on a per user or asset basis, thus decreasing capital outlay while introducing far greater flexibility and scalability. However, outsourcing also makes IT performance highly dependent on the quality of Internet connection and requires a high level of trust in your outsource provider. In addition, physically distancing infrastructure from the business makes it harder to understand the full end-to-end IT processes or to control project timings.

There are pros and cons for both approaches and neither is necessarily better than the other. Therefore identifying the right model for your business calls for consideration of business strategy, budget, resources and IT capability. Whatever approach you choose, you should also map out a data protection strategy to mitigate the risk of data loss. 

Protecting your data

http://www.ontrackdatarecovery.com.au/Companies lose their IT data for many reasons. Kroll Ontrack has found that the most predictable causes are mechanical failure such as a hard drive dying, user error and natural events such as fire, flooding or a lightning strike. Then there are the unusual cases. One that we were recently asked to assist with involved water damage to desktop computers and servers due to sprinkler damage incurred when a newly hired security guard tried to sneak a quick cigarette. On another occasion we were asked to recover the data on a laptop that was damaged when business partners held a planning meeting in the local pub.  One of the serving staff accidentally spilled a beer over the computer which was being used to map out the details of a future business venture. In every instance data was recoverable through but it required fast, careful and professional attention.

12 top tips for data protection

A concise backup strategy for personal devices and office equipment won’t prevent all loss, but it will go a long way towards protecting the organisation in the event of the device being damaged or stolen. Three practical backup strategy tips are:

  1. Invest in a quality non-mobile external storage device to backup valuable data. Always check that the backup is working correctly and accessible. Also, keep the storage device in one place to prevent damage or shocks.
  2. Create a backup of the backup and use a different type of storage device.
  3. Develop a data recovery strategy and invest in Data Recovery Insurance to minimise the cost and downtime in case of a data recovery emergency.

For portable memory devices including flash and SSD (solid state drives) you should also:

  1. Backup to a traditional drive storage device and keep the device in a safe location.
  2. Remember the passwords of your device encryption solutions. Store them where you can find them and not on the device itself.
  3. Understand that the devices are not indestructible and can make it far more difficult to recover data. Treat flash and SSD devices just as cautiously as you would a traditional storage device.

For companies whose infrastructure involves the use of virtual machines, I have three more tips:

  1. Restore backups to a different volume to make sure you do not overwrite data.
  2. If there is a RAID problem, test the backup by restoring it to a different location or image each drive from the RAID before attempting a rebuild.
  3. Do not run FSCK or CHKDSK file system repair tools on a virtual disk unless a good backup has been validated by restoring it to a different volume.

Finally, if you have chosen the outsourcing route and your data is maintained in the cloud, it’s still being stored on hardware components and therefore open to failure. To avoid data loss in these environments, check that at the bare minimum your cloud provider:

  1. Offers data recovery service options or will engage an external data recovery expert.
  2. Treats all your data in the cloud – from production to test data and temporary projects – with due safety diligence.
  3. Verifies where your data resides to prevent data jurisdiction issues.

The impending financial year end is a natural time to review the past 12 months and to plan for the year ahead. It’s time to consider whether your IT practices support business needs and whether any improvements can be made. In the current climate of uncertainty plans that include the flexibility to scale up or down may introduce beneficial cost benefits but they also highlight the imperative to protect your existing information investments. It is a cliché, but one of your most precious business assets is your data so when preparing plans that may change the way you gather and process that data, don’t forget the need for protection.

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