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The spate of recent hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes and other unavoidable disasters should start you thinking seriously how much computer data you can afford to lose.

If fire destroyed your computer room today, what would it cost to replace the lost files? If somebody stole your machine or lightning wiped out your hard disk, how long would it take to type all the facts and figures onto a new computer's disks?When would you be back to business-as-usual? How much income would you lose in the meantime? If your business depends on detailed inventory records, how long will it take to recatalog your stock? If you're in sales and keep leads in the computer, what will you lose while someone rebuilds your database of leads and suppliers? How many leads can't be reconstructed? What's the value of what you'll never recover?

For the rest of this week, tally up every time your work depends on some fact or figure stored in the computer. Then estimate the time you'd spend in a year doing that job without those computer files. That's the minimum you should budget for computer data insurance.

We're not talking hardware costs. You probably have computer coverage in your buildings and contents insurance. But we'll bet your computer data isn't insured for what it's worth. For that, most insurers charge a hefty premium. What's the best and cheapest insurance for data? Backups! When disaster or sabotage destroys a chunk of your disk's information, backups can almost completely restore all your files.

Backups put one of the computer's major strengths to work for you. They quickly duplicate massive amounts of data. A backup is an exact copy of what's stored on your computer's long-term memory disks. You can back up programs, data files and even the temporary files that some programs make while processing complex jobs.

Do you think you're in a calamity-free zone? Even then, you'd better make backups. Computers are reliable but not infallible. We guarantee that even the best of today's computers and computer operators will lose data sooner or later.

Most companies should make three distinct sets of backups. Make complete-disk backups every time a disk has about 8 percent new information (new since the last complete backup). For most of us that's about monthly, but for some it could be weekly or even daily. Your schedule should depend on replacement cost. It's as silly to overinsure as to underinsure! Store these backups in a safe, fireproof, antimagnetic location far from your business. We see lots of offices make good regular full-disk backups and defeat the purpose with careless or improper storage.

Then, more frequently, back up just your most-used files. We back up our accounting files daily and rotate our backups so that we always have yesterday's and the day before's records intact. This guards against small crises such as file damage due to electronic glitches. These backups can be stored someplace secure inside your office.

Finally, make constant backups of the file you're working on. That saves us from tearing our hair when we do dumb things like erasing data base records that we mean to just copy. You can store these backups in a desk or in another part of the computer memory.

(As we've worked on the file containing this article, it's been stored in each of our hard disks plus our file server disk.) Choose the hardware for doing your backups using a ratio of available time to money. Any computer with a hard disk drive can back up to floppy disks or to tape. (Warning: If you own an IBM compatible with 1.2 M floppy disk drive, don't use this drive to make backups!

Design flaws give inconsistent results with these drives and their disks. Tape drives may seem costly, but good ones make very fast and very accurate backups. They use cassette tapes that, depending on the system, hold from 10 to over 100 mega-bytes. That ranges from 25 to over 250 books' worth of data. You can buy many micro- and most minicomputers with an option that includes a built-in backup tape drive. It's simple and cost-effective.

For Macintoshes and IBM type PCs, you can also buy add-on kits. You'll spend from $300 to well over $1,000 depending on capacity and storage speed. Nowadays we seldom recommend any tape backup system but Irwin's for desktop computers.

The kits come with software that oversees the backup process. You can elect to back up files that were last backed up before a certain date, that were last used after a certain date, or that are in a certain place in your directory. Irwin's software is so clever, it can be set to automatically run backups at a given time and/or day. With that kind of automation, there's no excuse for insufficient backups.

For making backups onto floppy disks in Apple ProDOS, copy a "volume." On the Macintosh, copy a "disk icon." Better still, use the system utilities Apple designed for backups.

For PC or MS DOS users, read about the "BACKUP" command in your operating system manual. For a total backup, we usually recommend BACKUP *.* (DRIVE) /S, and for frequent backups, BACKUP *.* (DRIVE) /S /M /A.

Also be sure to read your manual's "RESTORE" command explanation. You'll need it to reload backups if disaster strikes. Warning: The RESTORE command won't work if you're trying to restore files that were backed up with a different version of the operating system! Sooner or later your computer will lose a large chunk of data. If you won't, don't or can't follow a rigorous backup routine, find somebody you can hire to do it for you. Consider it insurance. In today's automated office, it's the most important insurance a company can get!

Copyright 1989 P/K Associates Inc., 4343 W Beltline Hwy, Madison WI 53711.