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Avert Disaster: Protect Your Practice with Online Backups

by Joe Hartley & Wells Anderson

October 2005

INTRODUCTION

Now is the time to protect your practice from disaster. Whatever your current backup system, you owe it to yourself and your clients to take additional, vital precautions. They can save your livelihood and quickly return you to helping your clients.

Why now? Because the fresh lessons of Hurricane Katrina can motivate you to take action.

Many disaster survivors want to tell their stories to spare others from a similar plight. They do not want their suffering to be completely in vain. By learning lessons from Katrina, we honor those desires.

This article explains why you need an Internet backup system, what the best choices are, and how to setup your system.

WHY YOU NEED INTERNET BACKUP

Traditional backup systems no longer suffice. Widespread disasters can strike anywhere in the country. In less than a dozen years, professional offices have been destroyed completely by the Los Angeles earthquake, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York, and now the hurricane winds and floods in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

In these catastrophes, thousands of firms lost most or all of their vital data both on their destroyed computers and on their backup tapes, CDs, DVDs, and removable hard drives. Some lost their on-site backup media, others lost backups stored locally away from the office, too.

Less sweeping events, such as equipment theft, mudslide, fire, or tornado can wreak similar havoc to individual offices or buildings.

By backing up your vital information to the Internet, you protect it from disasters that can reach both your onsite and offsite backups. By completely automating the process, you minimize or eliminate the threat that common human errors will defeat your system.

"But the Internet is too insecure to protect our confidential information," proclaim all too many lawyers. "We don't trust sending it out onto the Internet."

In truth their physical offices are less secure. These lawyers do not appreciate that freely available encryption technology enables them to make their data hacker-proof. They do not understand that files stored on their computers and servers are more vulnerable than securely backed up files in an Internet data storage facility.

Online services and do-it-yourself Internet backup systems now make it possible to store huge amounts of data confidentially and economically outside the region of your law practice. These services and systems can provide highly effective shelter from regional disasters like Hurricane Katrina and a wide array of lesser calamities.

The classic approaches to computer backups are no longer adequate.

WHY TRADITIONAL BACKUPS FAIL

Traditional backup systems fail in three ways:

1. The systems fail to record information onto the backup media — usually tapes, but also CDs, DVDs and hard drives.

2. People fail to rotate media to and from the backup device or to and from an offsite location.

3. The media is destroyed, stolen, or lost either onsite or offsite or both.

These traditional systems offer control, convenience, and critical protection in case a hard drive fails or is damaged, corrupted, or stolen. They are designed to restore data to a new drive or to a completely new machine. Unfortunately, they are prone to human error, mechanical malfunctions, and defective media. Many have discovered to their dismay that defective tapes or simple human errors have defeated their protection.

Only regularly refreshed, off-site backups can protect against catastrophes. Many firms rely on a lawyer or employee who regularly takes backup tapes home or periodically rotates tapes into a safe deposit box. While both can succeed, they remain all too vulnerable to human error, cannot be automated, and are often out-of-date. While an old back-up is better than no back-up at all, imagine the problems of losing even as little as a couple of weeks of billing data and attorney work-product.

None of the traditional backup systems is effective if the damage is so widespread that the lawyers' home or other local offsite location is destroyed along with the law office, as occurred with Hurricane Katrina.

Still the main risk stem from human nature. People simply fail to perform the mundane task of taking backups offsite consistently every day. An automated system offers the only highly reliable solution for a function so vital to the survival of a law practice.

STRONG ENCRYPTION WORKS

Too may lawyers shy away from Internet backup systems out of fear. They are afraid that either hackers or the very people who store their backups will unlock the files and violate the privacy of their information.

In 2003, the United States government adopted the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) as a standard for classified data. It is difficult to comprehend the immensity of this encryption technology's strength. To crack it would take 10 trillion years using a billion computers each of which is 200 billion times faster than today's computers.

If you do not trust anyone with the key to your data, you can use AES encryption software to secure your information before you transfer it onto the Internet.

INTERNET BACKUP SYSTEM OPTIONS

For the most secure, reliable Internet backups, choose a fully automated service from a well-established company. For a lower monthly expense, complete control over the privacy of your data, but lower reliability, set up your own Internet backup system.

The first factor to consider is the amount of data you need to back up. For a rough estimate of the space you will need for information on a MS Windows computer or server, do the following:

What files to back up and how to find them varies from practice to practice, and requires a separate article for a full discussion. A good rule of thumb is: When in doubt, include it.

For the more technologically savvy, we generally recommend that only data be backed up and the application programs be reinstalled on new machines.

The second factor to consider is the privacy of your data. Do you want to hold the exclusive "key" to your information or do you want a trusted company to be able to unlock your data if you somehow lose your key?

From the field of many good companies, the following are several that address differing needs based on the volume of data and the type of security:

Connected Data Protector

With this service, you set it and forget it. Once per day at a time you choose, the software automatically selects all new or changed files in the locations you have specified. They are encrypted and transmitted to two geographically separate data centers. You may check the status of your backups at any time and can initiate a backup manually at any time.

This service is not intended for file servers, but you can use a third-party utility to copy files from server folders to a local PC folders on a scheduled basis. If you backup these folders using Connected's service, you have both onsite and offsite backups of critical files. Prices range from 2 GB for $14.95/mo, 4 GB for 17.95/mo, 10 GB for 24.95/mo, 30 GB for 74.95/mo, etc.

iBackup Professional and iBackup for Windows

The iBackup services are designed to work with file servers, database servers, and PC hard disks. You have the option to encrypt your files or not before they are backed up. If you do so, no one at iBackup or anywhere else can open your files without your "key," a passphrase you create. You also have the option to backup complete hard disk images. That means you can a restore all data and installed software to a new, empty hard disk. Prices range from 4 GB for $14.95/mo, 10 GB for $34.95/mo, 25 GB for $99.95/mo, 50 GB for $199.95/mo, etc.

Data Protection Services

For medium and larger firms, this company offers customized pricing based on the amounts and types of data that need protection. It specializes in customizing the backup system to your requirements and types of data.

DO-IT-YOURSELF INTERNET BACKUP

To reduce the monthly cost of your Internet backup system, you can create it yourself using free or low-cost storage services and free software. The core of your system is your backup software. You use it to select the data you need to protect and create the backup files on a hard disk. The other vital component is software that securely transfers the backup files to a storage server on the Internet.

The best free backup software we have found is SyncBack from 2BrightSparks. SyncBack enables you to select folders and specific files to backup, compress the files into an industry standard ZIP file, encrypt the file, and automatically transfer it to a server on the Internet on a scheduled basis. For strong, AES encryption, you need the $25 version, SyncBack SE.

SyncBack can synchronize files in your office with files on the Internet server. That feature greatly reduces the amount of data that needs to be transferred on a daily basis and can reduce the cost of your storage service and make it practical to protect large folders of image files.

If you protect your data with strong encryption before it leaves your office, you can use a free or low-cost storage service without being concerned that your data will be compromised. From the many available services, here are a few suggestions.

IX Web Hosting

Rated Number 1 by The Hosting Chart, IX Web Hosting offers unlimited storage space subject to a 500 GB monthly transfer limit, currently for $19.95/mo.

Streamload, Inc.

Though marketed for playing or sharing music and videos, Streamload can store 10 GB and download 100 MB per month for free. You will need to apply your own encryption with a program like SyncBack.

GMail Drive

You can get a free Gmail account from Google that will hold two gigabytes. First you need to get an account, requiring that you receive an e-mail from someone with a Gmail account, then sign up. Next, download GMail Drive from: www.viksoe.dk/code/gmail.htm. The price (free) may be right, but Gmail and GMail Drive are in beta, meaning they are under development.

The old adage, "You get what you pay for," is more like a guideline than a hard and fast rule. For solos and small firms, we believe the combination of SyncBack SE for $25 and two different low-cost Web hosting services can offer both excellent protection and reliability. A small, affordable Web hosting company has a greater risk of going out of business than one of the well-established backup services, but the odds of two small independent companies both disappearing in different regions at the same time are very low. A do-it-yourself Internet backup system is well worth considering.

RESTORING THE INTERNET BACKUP

The best feature about Internet backup is that you can restore files to a computer from anywhere in the world. If Los Angeles sinks beneath the waves after an earthquake, you can restore your data and programs to a computer in Las Vegas, London, or Tokyo; anywhere you have a high-speed Internet connection. Log onto your storage account, start downloading, and your data is restored.

No bad tapes, no omitted files, no bad sectors on the RAID — just a clean, usable backup reinstalled on your computer.

CONCLUSION

In-house, fixed media backup solutions are important but no longer adequate to protect your data. You owe it yourself and your clients to protect your data from widespread damage in a disaster by getting it safely stored off site. Internet backup systems are safe, affordable, and reliable.

While the example of Hurricane Katrina remains fresh, choose a system and put it to work today, not tomorrow.

Copyright 2005 Joe Hartley & Wells Anderson. All rights reserved. Originally published in TechnoFeature.

 

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Joe Hartley teaches law at Concord Law School and writes and consults on litigation matters. You can contact Joe via e-mail <joe@hartley.com> or telephone (310-450-5316).

Wells Anderson, president of Active Practice in Edina, Minnesota, works directly with lawyers and staff across North America over the Internet to implement Time Matters software and provide training. You can contact Wells via e-mail <info@activepractice.com> or telephone (800-575-0007).

About TechnoFeature

Published on Tuesdays, TechnoFeature is a weekly newsletter containing in-depth articles written by leading legal technology and practice management experts.