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A person who wears both a belt and suspenders may be called a pessimist. But NASA in its space program has shown the value of redundancy: Systems that have several levels of backups permit multiple failures without compromising the mission

Recently, a staffer at a computer data storage company in a large Midwestern city told David Beckman how his firm helped victims of Hurricane Katrina. His customers run their programs and store their data on some of the hundreds of servers his firm has on its campus. He said the New Orleans customers, all large institutions, were the first to be up and running after Katrina. All they had to do was get a computer with an Internet connection, and they had their data.

The staffer said his firm is building another campus in the city. But when Beckman asked whether the campuses would be mirrors of each other, the staffer said no. Beckman asked what would happen if a tornado wiped out both of the campuses; the staffer said they have backups. But, even assuming the backups were good, the staffer said it would take a long time for the company to be back online.

Very few backup companies or services have mirrored servers, the staffer said, because it is expensive.

But, though it’s unlikely that both you and your back-up service would go down at the same time, disasters are made up of a combination of unlikely occurrences. Most law firms feel that regular backups are important, but they should also test the backups occasionally to make sure they can restore the data. And even then, what if the hardware is destroyed? Can the firm still buy the drive that the backup media runs in?

Testing, Testing

Even having good data and usable hardware may not be sufficient. After Katrina, Beckman wanted to install QuickBooks, an accounting program from Intuit, and restore its data on a home machine as a test of how difficult it would be to get bookkeeping working in the event of an office catastrophe. He found the program and its serial numbers, but because it was an upgrade, the old program and its serial numbers were also needed. He found that program, but not the serial numbers.

So he called Intuit. Checking to see whether the firm, which says it took care of Katrina’s victims, would take care of small, isolated emergencies as well, the answer came back as “maybe.” Intuit’s free technical support is for a limited time and only for installation issues.

We wound up buying a new version of QuickBooks (we needed to upgrade anyway) that we installed at the office and at our redundant, off-premises location. With both locations running, and with data regularly restored, it is almost like mirroring.

We would like to do something similar with Timeslips, the time-and-billing program from Sage Software, but we are using a very old, nonsupported version. Our data is backed up any number of ways, but we don’t have an easy way of printing bills in the event of catastrophe. And we don’t know whether our data will restore on the new version of Timeslips we would have to buy.

Several of our servers are clustered, automatically replicating data. But even with replication on off-premises machines, there is always a danger that bad or corrupted data is overwriting good data. Don’t rely on just one way of backing up. Even a paper printout of a brief in a major representation is a valuable backup of critical data.

We can remember a few decades ago when it took almost as long to get a major itemized bill out manually as it now can take to restore a billing program. But with law offices now running at rocket speed, redundancy is necessary to avoid catastrophe.

Catastrophe combines circumstances so that buttons fail on suspenders at the same time belt buckles snap. You need to know how to move fast to remain fully clothed: Anticipate your vulnerabilities, and plan and implement solutions now.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa.

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