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Laptops: the "wild west" of data protection; Bad backup habits affect business productivity, security.

The lost laptop. The stolen laptop. The crashed laptop. If these things haven't happened to you, they've happened to someone you know. If you're an IT manager, it has probably happened to your company's employees many times. And, in most cases, the results are usually the same: Lost data, lost time, lost money--and employees losing their minds with frustration.

Just as laptops exist on the physical margins of a company's IT infrastructure, they also tend to be fringe players within most companies' data backup plans--according to a recent survey conducted by Imation Corp. of more than 200 IT directors and network storage managers of small- to-mid-size businesses.

In fact, you might say laptops live on the final backup frontier. The survey, an annual look at corporate data backup and storage trends, confirmed to no one's great surprise that laptops are pervasive within corporate organizations. Of companies surveyed, two in five rely on extensive networks of laptop computers used by employees who work remotely.

Most of those laptops and their users, however, are going it alone, so to speak. Less than half of the companies surveyed have formal procedures in place for backing up mission-critical data hosted on laptop computers. And for those companies that have formal backup procedures for their laptop users, much of the responsibility for performing the backups falls on the users themselves.

In the group of companies with laptop users, the survey also found 57% of companies ask laptop users to manually upload their data onto company servers; with only 29% of companies using software to automatically backup laptop-based files to the corporate network.

These numbers all stand in rather stark contrast to the percentage of companies (90%) that reported the presence of an overall, formal data backup and storage strategy. With the value of corporate data appreciating more and more as a strategic asset at most companies, these findings illustrate an interesting disagreement between network-based and laptop-based data storage strategies. In many cases, the data on the server is covered, but the data residing on hundreds of corporate laptops is a crash, a theft or a virus attack away from being lost for good.

Not a Problem. Or is it?

Despite the growing number of laptop users and the high-rates of theft and failure associated with laptop use, laptop backup does not yet appear to have risen to the top ranks of IT managers' concerns, according to the survey. More than half the managers said "mission-critical" data loss on laptop computers was either "very rare" or "non-existent." Similarly, two-thirds of the managers ranked the risk of such data loss to be "low" or "non-existent."

With numbers of remotely connected users continuously increasing, what can account for this apparent lack of concern? We see several potential reasons.

Even with a large fleet of laptops deployed within an organization, most data considered to be "mission-critical" either remains within the organization or is replicated on laptops, and therefore not perceived as a risk. In the case of a lost laptop, the IT manager continues to run without hindrance. No IT department will miss its processing window, for example, due to a stolen notebook. Also, most IT managers are less likely than other employees within an organization to use and rely on a laptop for their day to day work, which may make them less personally aware of the potential for data loss.

None of this takes into account, of course, the toll laptop data loss can take on the business function--the wasted time and resources in restoring or recreating lost data. When a user has a hardware problem, it's usually reported to the IT department. The negative impacts of the problem are far less likely to be captured by most organizations.

While lost laptop data may not be "mission-critical" to the IT operation in the classic sense, it may be of huge interest to the CEO, the VP of sales, or other executives. Are the files on lost laptops critical to the user, a corporate goal, or a key sale? Much laptop-based data is critical by these measures, but the accounting of such can be rare.

Despite the lack of tracking, the business implications of laptop data loss are real and certain to intensify as mobile computing continues to gain popularity. It can pay for any company to audit their own procedures and, if they haven't already, to begin to put a process in place to lasso laptop data and keep it safe.

Advice for Companies

Because most mobile users aren't attached to the network all of the time, the responsibility often falls on each remote user to perform backups on his or her own, as the survey suggested. The best solution is to automate the process by implementing software that backs up laptop data directly to the corporate network.

If software is not an option, a common strategy is to issue individual "network share drives" to laptop users so that they can drag and drop copies of their files to a network drive. These network drives are then backed up to tape to ensure proper data protection.

For situations where regular high-speed access to the corporate network is not available, it can be wise to assign CD or DVD burners or high capacity USB flash drives to remote users so they can backup working files at least once a week to store or send to headquarters. In the past couple of years, the growing capacity of optical media has made this practice more popular. The survey indicated that about one in four companies with laptop backup procedures provide users with CDs or DVDs as data backup media. It also is helpful to ensure laptop users throughout the organization are equipped with the same or similar hardware platforms, including operating systems and applications. This allows for a more rapid recovery in the event of a stolen or damaged laptop.

Helping Remote Users Help Themselves

User education is a critical step. Too often, remote users are given laptops with no more than a "here you go" attitude. With regard to backup, a little bit of instruction can go a long way to protect laptop data and keep users happy.

Many users, for example, believe they must perform a complete C: drive backup to protect their systems, which is almost always unnecessary. Users should understand they need to backup working documents only--Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents, for example.

Here are three tips users may appreciate hearing from you.

* Stay organized. Instruct users to save all of their working files in the same place to make it easier to determine what needs to be backed up and what would need to be restored in case the laptop crashes or gets stolen (i.e., save all files in "My Documents" folder).

* While on the road and without access to your server, or if server backup is not available, backup your data to removable media. CDs, DVDs or USB flash drives are perfect for performing a quick, reliable backup of user data.

* Know what, when and how often the IT department conducts backups. Where employees copy their working files over to a network drive, understanding the company's backup procedures will guide where and when users should store critical data. If users are unsure of the details of the company's backup procedures, they should have a method to contact you.

Modest Effort, Many Benefits

With so many demands on most IT managers' time and resources, the prospect of addressing the backup needs of tens, hundreds or thousands of laptops can seem daunting. But it can be worth it for companies in terms of saved productivity and it's another way in which IT can add value to the day-to-day computing experience of employees at just about every level of an organization up to and including the CEO.

After all, while most "mission-critical" IT functions aren't something users see every day, they do know when the presentation they've been working on for three days has disappeared, or when they've lost their database of sales contacts. By establishing a process by which these users can get their data back, you'll have provided another reason for them to consider your IT department their hero.

Brent Ashton is marketing manager of Small-to-Medium Business at Imation Corp. (Oakdale, MN)
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Title Annotation:Storage Management
Author:Ashton, Brent
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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