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Going Backup Before Going Down

​As an insurance company, Multiple Risk Managers, Inc., handles a lot of sensitive customer information that it cannot afford to lose. It also must comply with regulations governing its records management. For example, in Alaska, where the company is based, state law requires that insurance firms document all changes to policies and claims and maintain these records at their site for a five-year period. Given its considerable record-keeping responsibilities, the company’s ongoing operations depend on successful data backup.

Company President Frank Thomas-Mears says that over the years he found reliable backup solutions but he nonetheless recognized that the mechanism itself or the media used could fail. In effect, he wanted a backup to his backups. “We’ve been worried for years about not having credible off-site data storage,” says Thomas-Mears.

The problem came to a head in late 2002 when the 8-gigabyte hard drive backup system his company was using began to generate error messages. Concerns such as this spurred him to look for other back­up alternatives.

Through AMS Services, Inc., which already provided workflow-management applications to the agency, Thomas-Mears was introduced to a Web-based product called LiveVault, which includes a multilayered backup storage system. (AMS Services is a partner with LiveVault and has incorporated the software into its own agency management package. The servers that store the data off site are handled by another company, Iron Mountain.) After AMS Services presented this option, Thomas-Mears attended a “webinar”—a Web-based seminar—with AMS Services and LiveVault that involved a virtual tour and lengthy discussion of how the system works. Impressed with the product and comfortable with AMS Services, Thomas-Mears de­cided to switch to the LiveVault backup system.

To start, Thomas-Mears received e-mail contact information from LiveVault, including a password needed to enter its Web-based system. Us­ing that information, he was able to log into a secure portal within LiveVault’s Web site and download the application’s software and a digital certificate, which can be saved anywhere on the server to be protected.

From there, “you use a very easy online system to set up the data backup,” he says. “Just tell it what files and directories to back up, choose the type of server you’re using, whatever.” The time involved in this part of the process according to Thomas-Mears was around 30 minutes, including the time spent reading the instructions.

The next step in implementation was the initial backup. For Thomas-Mears, this was the slowest part of the process. “In our part of town, the fast­est connection we could get was 256 bps [bits per second],” he explains.

“The backup took 11 days, and we backed up 16 gigabytes of data.” During this time, the company was potentially exposed to the loss of current data, according to Thomas-Mears, because the regular backup could not be run while the LiveVault initial backup was in progress. “You just have to trust that there are no problems,” he says.

Since the completion of the initial backup, the transmittal of data has been continual. “Every keystroke, every time we save a file, it transmits across to LiveVault,” explains Thomas-Mears. “This is one of the features we like,” he says, because “a disaster can happen very quickly, at any time.”

Another attraction is the level of security afforded the data. The data packets sent over the Internet are encrypted: If a packet goes astray or someone tries to seize it as it passes over the Internet, the perpetrator can’t tell where the packet originated or is headed, and he or she can’t read the data within.

Furthermore, Iron Mountain operates on a series of redundant servers and repositories. The data backup is first stored on disk, then after seven days it is taped; after 30 days, the backup for that entire period is taped again. As an extra measure, the data at one site is mirrored at another site. If one storage site is destroyed, the data will still exist at another location.

According to Thomas-Mears, he required no training to use the LiveVault application. “I can add networks or servers to the back­up by the click of a button at the password-protected site,” he notes. “Or, I can go in and edit the existing backup selected, or even suspend the backup, should I want to for whatever reason.”

But the real test came in late November when, as Thomas-Mears explains, “we had a catastrophic failure of the server that runs our GFI Fax­Maker software” and lost the fax ar­chive of 4,741 faxes.

When the failure occurred, says Thomas-Mears, everything worked exactly as promised. “We swapped in a new server and got running again with little fuss,” he notes. Then “using the customer interface at LiveVault, I requested a back­up copy of our in/out fax archives.” To save on bandwidth, he requested it by CD-ROM. He had an e-mail confirmation within one hour, and the CD-ROM arrived 26 hours after the request. “The on-screen wizard worked perfectly; the files downloaded to the computer in exactly the right spot. The entire operation took me under 10 minutes,” he concludes.

To verify that the back­up would function as it should, Thomas-Mears had performed several data-restore tests. “You select from the system the file you want to restore; afterward, the restore is saved to a history feature,” he says. That allows users to look back and see every restore made.

Thomas-Mears has been pleased by the level of technical support available as well. “Last week we put in a new server and needed some adjustments on LiveVault’s end. This was in the early afternoon at our location and 9:00 p.m. in Boston [where LiveVault is headquartered]. Within five minutes, we had one of the technicians calling back,” he explains.

Not only does the backup process protect the data, says Thomas-Mears, it protects the company as well. The company has to buy errors and omissions insurance, and insurers understand that LiveVault cannot alter the backed-up data in any way. “If we tried, it would be very obvious,” he says. “This makes [our information] very credible if we would have to produce documents under subpoena.”

But most important is the peace of mind the backup provides. As a company that itself offers insurance against such business risks as liability, Multiple Risk Managers understands the value of protection. Thomas-Mears explains it this way: “If I spent $10,000 a year and I never had to use it, I’d be grateful.” n

—By Rita Premo, staff editor for Security Management