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In Case of Emergency...

June 5, 2013 - Dave Hecei

The last few weeks have shown that Mother Nature is not so motherly. Severe storms and tornados have ravaged the Midwest across the country all the way to Maine. While the threat to life can be substantial, there is also a threat to computer and data loss can also be catastrophic. There are ways to help minimize hardware and data loss.

So what are the threats? This can simply be the loss of power while working on your computer. If the power is suddenly cut to a desktop computer it will power down immediately. When this happens, whatever you were working on will be lost. Losing an hours worth of work is better than losing your computer. Sudden power loss can damage power supplies, cause hard drives to crash, amongst other things. This is not as much of a problem if you are working on a notebook computer since its internal battery will continue to power the system.

Another danger is lightning. It doesn’t even take a direct strike to kill electronic equipment. Most of the lightning damage I have seen came from the phone line being spiked, not the power. This might be less of a problem with many computer now connecting online using high-speed sources like cable or ADSL. Don’t be fooled in thinking you can’t get damaged. I have personally lost a DSL modem, the WiFi router connected to it, and Ethernet ports on a couple of networked computers. The phone line getting hit and the spike going through the home network caused all this havoc. Luckily I got away with only minor damage, but it could have been much worse.

There are ways to protect your equipment when power outages, spikes, or brownouts occur. Brownouts happen when there is not enough power coming to your home, which can be more harmful than power outages themselves. Spikes can happen from bad power transformers in your neighborhood or from the power coming on too quickly after an outage. Most spikes can be blocked using a good surge strip, which is similar to a power strip but has extra circuitry inside to remove the spikes. The only rule of thumb I can give you on buying one of these is not to buy the cheapest one or the most expensive. Too cheap probably isn’t going to work very well and too expensive is just overpaying.

While a good surge strip will help with spikes they can’t help with power loss or brownouts. For a bit more money you can get a battery backup solution, or what the industry calls a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Source). APC, Belkin, and Triplite make great UPS solutions for desktop computers. I would even suggest using a UPS on your home theatre system. You really don’t want to have to replace that expensive HDTV, surround sound system, Blu-Ray player, etc.? A good UPS will run you anywhere from $50-$300, depending on the power ratings. Check online at the APC site. You should find a calculator to help you determine how much power your system will require and how much time you can run on backup battery power.

Some of the other dangers are much more physical. This includes falling trees, flooding, or even the loss of your home due to a tornado. While there’s not much you can do in such severe circumstances, it is important to have a good backup plan to help save your precious data – like all your digital photos, videos, music files, documents, etc. In this situation having a backup drive next to the computer won’t help since it will likely be severely damaged too. This is when you need off-site backup.

When I say off site, I literally mean off site. Your data needs to be physically kept in another location. This can be done either with external hard drives or optical media and then taking them to work. It can also be using cloud storage. This is a term that you may have heard before. Cloud storage is storage you can access on the Internet. There are several commercial backup solutions that are great for this. One of the most popular is Carbonite. Another is Mozy. What makes these services so great is that they are relatively inexpensive and they are automatic. You set it up and works in the background uploading your data. There are other ways to backup your data in the cloud for free, but none have the automation.  Dropbox and Microsoft’s Skydrive are just a couple examples.

Of course it’s hard to think about a severe disaster especially in areas where tornados are uncommon. Even so, it’s probably best to think of the worst and hope for the best since they can happen even if it’s unlikely. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature.


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