HR Magazine, October 2000: Create a Strategy for Data Storage

By J.W. Dysart Oct 1, 2000
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HR Magazine, October 2000

Vol. 45, No. 10

To ensure data isn't lost or locked in obsolete systems, keep tabs on the integrity of your storage solutions.

Like a root canal, the agony of a data loss cannot be fully appreciated until it is experienced firsthand. But chances are that at some point, anyone working with HR systems will experience some kind of sudden data obliteration. If you’re not ready, the prospects can be grim.

Just ask Michelle Leblanc, director of administration and finance for New Orleans-based Neal Auction Co. Earlier this year, a computer virus devastated Leblanc’s system, eliminating access to all records on the system—including HR records.

“Fortunately, I had an Internet back-up system in place, so restoration of all the data went smoothly,” she says. Leblanc’s data back-up firm, New Orleans-based Data Protection Services, rushed a complete copy of her records to her on CD-ROM the next day. And while restoration of her critical data was a snap, Leblanc still shudders to think about what would have happened if she hadn’t had a back-up plan. “I’d be crucified,” she says.

Leblanc and the data survived because she had already considered the worst and prepared for it—something many administrators fail to do.

“Many HR departments haven’t realized that they have the same responsibility for maintaining the safekeeping of their digital information as they have for their paper records,” says Arlie C. Skory, SPHR, a principal at Skory & Associates, an HR technology consulting firm in Dimondale, Mich.

Skory and other HR systems experts advise HR professionals to:

  • Understand the laws governing your industry’s HR records. Know what you have to keep and how long you have to keep it, and be aware of the possible legal problems should you fail to retain records properly.
  • Keep up with evolving options for records storage to ensure that information does not become trapped in obsolete technology. For example, an HR department that stored records on 5 ¼-inch floppy disks years ago would be hard-pressed to find a PC these days capable of reading such disks.
  • Learn about the different types of storage media so you can talk knowledgeably with IT about how to store your records.
  • Consider off-site records storage. This may require transporting tapes or disks to a storage firm or to another of your company’s own locations or sending data over the Internet to storage firms that operate online.

Target the Data for Storage

The first step toward a strategy of data storage is to understand the laws that apply to your organization. “If you don’t have required records, you violate the law,” says Donald S. Skupsky, president of the Information Requirements Clearinghouse, an Englewood, Colo., firm that sells resources and software on data-retention requirements. The penalties for failing to maintain required records can include fines, court-imposed sanctions and even orders to shut down, Skupsky says.

“The establishment of records-retention periods involves extensive legal research and analysis of organizational needs,” Skupsky says. “There will be different retention requirements for different records, and different organizations will establish different retention periods for the same records.”

Hundreds of laws regulate storage of records for various industries. HR needs to check regularly with the appropriate federal, state and local agencies to keep up with changes in such laws, Skupsky notes.

He notes that microfilm, shredding or record storage firms often provide printed schedules showing how long you should keep documents. Skupsky advises doing your own research and not relying on vendors’ schedules. Get your legal counsel involved to ensure that any data back-up system complies with legal requirements, he adds.

Protect Against Obsolescence

Once you’re convinced that you’re on the right side of the law, you’ll need to work with your IT department to ensure you have instant access to data required on a daily basis, as well as a long-term plan for data you must keep for legal or historical purposes.

Data-storage technology is continually evolving, and a technology that appears appropriate today may be obsolete in just a few years. Keeping data on an obsolete system sold to you by a vendor no longer in business, or a vendor that no longer wants to maintain its old technology, may leave you without access to your stored data.

HR can protect data back-ups against obsolescence by investing in technology with backwards compatibility and by continually updating its knowledge of data-storage technology, says John Drollinger, director for large format optical products at Plasmon Inc., a maker of both tape and optical storage products in Eden Prairie, Minn. “In a worst-case scenario, there will always be computer service bureaus with equipment on hand to read older media,” he says.

Guarding against obsolescence also means keeping an eye on software, especially proprietary software, says Ernst Mutke, director of product and field marketing for Eagan, Minn.-based LSC Inc., a firm that markets software to handle data migration. “Some software firms organize files in formats unique to their company. This is fine as long as you use their product. But if they go out of business or do not work out in some way, you are stuck with data that can only be read with their software.”

HR also needs to understand the pros and cons of the different types of storage media that are used by backup systems.

Magnetic media include magnetic tape and floppy or hard disks, with varying capacities as high as 10 gigabytes (GB) on some hard disks. But some consultants say they are disturbed that many HR departments rely on magnetic tape for long-term data storage. This is a mistake, they say, because data integrity on tape has a life expectancy of about 10 years, and tape may become the victim of environmental problems, such as heat and humidity.

“I have probably seen more data disasters due to not being able to retrieve data from a tape back-up system than any other,” says Skory. “This is not the best choice for HR departments.”

Another choice might be optical media, which include the familiar CD-ROM format as well as WORM (write once, read many) disks that can be as large as 12 inches across. CD-ROMs store about 650 megabytes (MB) of data, although some can hold up to 1 GB. Optical disks can store up to 6 GB of data. WORM and pre-written CD-ROM disks cannot be altered once they are written on, but erasable optical disks and rewriteable CD-ROM systems are available. The life expectancy of some optical media is probably at least 10 years and possibly longer, according to the Association for Information and Image Management. While CD-ROM is relatively inexpensive, larger-capacity optical disks can be expensive. And optical media may not be the choice for short-term storage or rapid access.

No matter what storage media you use, you need a data-migration plan that considers moving long-term data to other media when warranted. For example, consultants say you might use both tape and an off-site data storage firm for short-term back-ups, then move data for long-term storage to an optical disk, microfiche or microfilm. “The best strategy is one of regular review and, if needed, migration,” Skory says.

Consider Off-Site Storage

On-site back-up systems physically store tapes, disks or optical media at your work site. Off-site storage firms can keep your tapes or disks in vaults at their locations. But the increasing influence of the Internet is causing some people, like Neal Auction’s Leblanc, to consider online storage for the first time. “I just feel much safer knowing that our data is being backed up every night, and that it’s being stored off-site,” Leblanc says.

Using an online storage provider means the employer storing the data does not have to buy and maintain backup storage programs itself, says Susan Klees, vice president of development for Data Protection Services, the vendor that provides Neal Auction with its backup storage. “The responsibility for upgrading the service rests with the online back-up service provider,” Klees says.

For employers concerned about whether their HR data will be secure when transmitted via the web to a storage provider, Klees recommends looking for vendors that offer multiple security measures, such as data encryption and personal identification numbers for access.

Skory offers a caveat about security when entrusting HR data to a third party. “A third party might be less questioning of a court subpoena and willing to turn over your sensitive records with less deliberation and caution,” she says.

For those skittish about the Internet—and those with multiple locations—leveraging the employer’s own wide-area network (WAN) might be an alternative. Using the company network, you can store data at locations different from those where they are used. “Storage software can automatically route specified data off-site via the high-throughput lines of a WAN,” Mutke says.

Take the Reins

When you need cooperation from IT on data-storage strategies, Mutke suggests using the direct approach. “Show them the regulations and convince the IT department that they need to handle this data differently,” he says. “Or, you could try to convince them to handle all company data in the same, secure manner.”

HR also can take the lead, as Arthur E. Nathan, SPHR, did. Nathan, vice president of HR for Bellagio hotel and resort in Las Vegas and a vice president-at-large on the SHRM Board of Directors, says he is less concerned about storage obsolescence lately than he has been in the past. “I understand the concern with evolving technology,” he says. “But this generation of systems is now very well evolved and not so subject to changes that render them ineffective.”

Nathan combined an HR information system—in Bellagio’s case, Infinium—with forms and personnel files that reside on a Windows NT network. Everything is backed up to a redundant server in real time and on tape each night. These methods, Nathan says, are secure and proven. The combination of systems became available only recently when open database architecture allowed Bellagio’s systems to talk and interact with each other, he adds.

“I had to go out and research this topic, make myself an expert and then be the leader of this effort,” Nathan says. “The cost can be astronomical—ours were not. I kept it simple …. The trick was educating myself to understand these products, and then to lead the team in a simple development process.”

J. W. Dysart is a software analyst and Internet business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

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