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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: The blue sack
Network-based storage sounds like a boring business issue. Peter Cochrane takes a very personal look backwards and forwards and proves otherwise...

As a child I can remember being fascinated by the late evening ritual of the shops in my small town closing and the proprietors marching down the street, carrying their blue sacks, which would be pushed into a hole in the wall of the bank.

For years this mystified me. Then I started to understand the concept of money and the need for banks. What I had seen was the shopkeepers depositing their monies into the wall safe night on night.

Today that small town has grown dramatically and boasts a large shopping centre. No longer do shopkeepers ritualistically march down the street to deposit their daily takings. Instead the security companies arrive with their armoured vehicles to collect.

Some have a small safe for cash, given most transactions are now by card or cheque, but these businesses now rely on the PC to keep all transaction records and stock control. They have become bit-based rather than atom-based.

What is surprising is that these shops now close of an evening by switching off a PC and going home. So what happens if there is a fire that destroys the shop or it is burgled and the PC stolen? For most, their business would be wiped out because there would be no easy means of recovery.

The smartest corporations I ever worked with had a daily regime of backing up all individual PCs and workstations office by office. Each office had a central cache, that was in turn backed up onto a remotely located country server. The best multinationals would also back up each country on at least three continents. Such a daily regime ensures fire, theft, natural or man-made disaster cannot take down an entire business. It also provides an added degree of resilience against viral attack.

So, the demise of an individual PC, office cache or plant does not disable a complete business. Unfortunately for many small to medium-sized enterprises the culture of back up and security is not ubiquitous. Many are therefore at considerable risk from a number of directions.

In my own case, which involves a good deal of travel, the loss of my laptop would see the loss of my entire business. So my precautionary regime involves backing up everything on a server in my office, a server in my secretary's home and burning a hard copy onto CDs deposited in my daughter's home. The three buildings involved are geographically dispersed and the likelihood of a simultaneous disaster or hit is extremely remote.

On a personal level there is now another dimension to the loss of business data and indeed ultimately the loss of business as a result - the loss of critical personal possessions. If you talk to people who have suffered a house fire, burglary or some natural disaster that has taken away all their positions what they really mourn is not those pieces of furniture or expensive consumer gadgets but personal items such of jewellery and heirlooms. Family photographs in particular are prized by all of us and yet so easily lost.

I suppose the first time it became apparent to me that I should do something about the family photograph collection was when I noticed some significant chemical deterioration of prints going back 100 years. I was quite alarmed at the onset of this deterioration and the rate at which it was progressing.

So I employed my youngest son to scan in all of the photographs from all parts of the family and commit them to CD and hard drives. I now feel reasonably content that any natural disaster, fire, theft or other action will not deprive my future family of their recorded past.

Over a year ago now, my youngest son persuaded me to build a large server for our home of a capacity that I couldn't conceive we would ever need. Just 12 months later it is getting full. Not only does it contain business records and a vast photographic past of a family spread over several generations, it is starting to accumulate a library of movie clips, professional presentations, music and media of all kinds. My problem now is how to back this up.

Even during the construction of this mighty beast one hard drive mechanically failed and the read-write arm descended into the disc at full speed, totally destroying the content. Fortunately I had taken the precaution of having duplicate hard drives on the server.

What business, families and individuals will ultimately require is network caching on which to duplicate everything. Network-based storage is going to be big business in the future and the ultimate mechanism for ensuring we don't lose our heritage or our business.

Some years ago the city of Norwich saw its medieval Central Library destroyed by fire. In one conflagration its records were lost forever.

Prior to that and similar losses people decried computer technology and the committing of documents to bits rather than atoms. Even today I hear people arguing data storage is volatile and dangerous and everything should be retained on paper, parchment and velum. Yet, after a series of fires throughout Europe that have destroyed a great deal of heritage, people are gradually recognising bit storage over a number of dispersed locations is the only sure way we can establish any guarantee of longevity. Laboriously scanning in documents sheet by sheet may seem expensive until that information if lost forever.

This column was dictated onto an Olympus recorder, typed on an Apple iBook by my secretary, emailed to me via a cable modem, edited on my laptop on BA2019 flying London Gatwick to Denver.