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Data Has No Value

November 12, 2007

Jack Ganssle-November 12, 2007

Cost of a 72 GB tape cartridge: $13.99 from CompUSA.

Cost of years of work by 690 people: Millions of dollars.

Homework assignment: Evaluate the value of a routine backup strategy versus the cost of the tape.

Tough problem, right?

I'd think the answer would be obvious, but am routinely astonished at how many organizations get it wrong. According to Stuff, a New Zealand news media site, a New Zealand Health Board lost all of the computer files created over the course of years by their staff of almost 700 people.

Whoever runs that datacenter should be held criminally responsible. Everyone knows the importance of backups. Everyone knows multiple copies must be kept. Everyone knows to keep them off-site.

Yet these sorts of data losses are common. An article in USA Today claims 70% of business people have lost data, yet only 57% bother to back up at all.

My brother lost all of his digital pictures in a hard disk crash - thousands, completely gone. You'd think an adult would learn from this experience, but he replaced the computer and continued to place his faith in a single rotating high-density disk that's doomed to fail. He just can't be bothered to burn DVDs periodically. I gave him a second hard drive and installed SecondCopy, which copies new and changed files every night, but that's a poor solution as it, too, depends on failure prone disks.

Apparently people, and businesses, can't learn from their own mistakes.

This year three companies contacted me when fires destroyed their engineering labs and backup servers. One didn't keep copies off-site. That company is now out of business, having found too late that the lost data was irreplaceable. 100 jobs lost for the want of a few tapes or DVDs.

Even for my home data I'm obsessive about backups. SecondCopy mirrors important files to an external hard drive every night, keeping copies of the last three versions of changed files. They get copied to a laptop weekly, to a USB stick every morning, and to DVDs Fridays. Those are kept off-site.

Cost of a DVD: $0.25.

Value of decades of work: priceless.

We learned from Hurricane Katrina that "off-site" isn't enough. "Off-site" better mean someplace a thousand miles away. One event can take out an entire city.

Data has no value. We know that, because accounting doesn't count it as an asset on the company's balance sheet. They track inventory - every lousy resistor - and furniture. Till the CPAs wake up and realize that the data means much more than a collection of easily-replaceable desks and chairs, backups will remain a haphazard affair, and the so-ephemeral data that is the lifeblood of any technology company will remain at risk.

And that's truly criminal.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at jack@ganssle.com. His website is www.ganssle.com.

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