I’m sure that at one time or another, pretty much everyone who uses computers has had the sinking feeling that greeted me when I came back to the office one evening to finish some work on a review for eWEEK.
The primary workstation in the lab, the one that had test results, notes and the background information for the article, was showing a blank screen. The computer had quietly stopped working. It was unclear whether the data on it was lost or simply inaccessible because I couldn’t use the computer. But no matter how you look at it, I needed to implement my business continuity plan.
Fortunately, I have one. One of the things I’ve learned through my years of pontificating on the need for a business continuity plan, for backups and for an offsite storage plan is to practice what I preach. Back in the lab’s back room I have a rack of Windows 2008R2 servers. In addition, I have a couple of NAS servers.
Every so often, the primary production computers back themselves up, and they periodically store an image on the NAS server. There are also several test computers in the lab that don’t get backed up because they don’t contain anything but test data, and they get completely reimaged every time I test anything significant.
In addition, the primary production machines back up critical files, including all documents, e-mail, images and multimedia files, to Carbonite’s cloud-based storage service. This service works with computers and servers running Windows, and provides reasonably priced backup for small to medium-size businesses.
In my case there’s one significant advantage to using a cloud-based storage service, and that’s the fact that I can retrieve individual files from my backup from wherever I am. In other words, in addition to being able to restore all of my critical information to a different machine, I can grab a single document using my laptop if I need it while I’m out of the office.
So once I determined that this was really a computer failure, not a Windows update run amok (I’m still not totally convinced of that), I restored those documents that I thought I’d need in the immediate future to another machine in the office so I could continue work. Meanwhile, I spent hours on the phone with Microsoft tech support making sure it wasn’t just Windows having a very bad day. Sadly, it wasn’t.
So for the time being, I’ve shifted operations to another desk and another computer, and I’m up and running. What I haven’t done is reimage the substitute computer with the stored image of the original.
When a Spare PC Can Be a Wise Investment
There are two reasons for this, the most significant is that the machine that went toes-up (this is a technical computer term for “hardware failure”) has a pair of Xeon processors and was running the 64-bit version of Windows 7. The substitute machine has a single 32-bit processor, and while it’s also running Windows 7, I can’t just drop a 64-bit image in there and expect it to run.
So, between using my ThinkPad when I need to be near the phone and the HP workstation that’s filling in for the currently dead machine, everything is working, although it’s a little less convenient. And if I were to need some image or video files, it would take awhile to locate them and copy them in from the backups, but I can get them. I’m not out of business, and that’s the goal of business continuity.
But it wasn’t a seamless changeover. So I wondered what I could have done to make this work better. For advice I called analyst and consultant Jack Gold, president of J. Gold Associates. He said that I should have had a spare PC that would run the same software as the one that failed. “Having a spare PC around is not that major of an expense,” Gold said. “If a $2,000 PC can save a couple of days of downtime for one of your executives, it’s a good investment.”
Gold also noted that most businesses use three to five applications for business purposes. For most companies, backing up their data is really all that’s required. He did suggest that investing in a NAS system for backups and as a place to store images is probably a good idea. You can automate backups for your employees, and you have their data if their computer breaks or they decide to quit and take it with them, he said. “If you’ve got your own NAS, the backup stuff is getting pretty cheap. It’s a cost-effective solution now,” Gold said.
Gold also suggested that you aim for reliability when you buy computers, if you can. That includes having a technical services contract so that you can get help when you need it, both for true disasters and the disasters that visit quietly while you’re out of the office.
The missing piece for my office disaster plan turns out to be the spare 64-bit computer. It’s not clear whether I would have saved enough through reduced downtime and for not having to pay for expedited service with the folks at Richards Computer. But it would have reduced my frustration. And frustration is certainly worth something. On the other hand, maybe this is an excuse-or rather a reason-to go shopping for new, even faster computers.