During the recent wildfires in the West, many remote employees and small companies in California and Colorado faced the question, "I have to evacuate my home/business in 30 minutes. What should I take with me?" Many individuals took photo albums and important documents. Small businesses salvaged corporate documents and the most recent backup of data. At such critical times, you realize the strength of your backup system and your level of preparedness.

Here in Colorado, one of my 16-year-old son's friends had to evacuate his home and spent the night with us. I asked him the "30 minutes" question, and he said, "I grabbed my Maxtor \[external\] drive, my skateboard, and a few clothes. I was done in 5 minutes." My son's friend stores everything digitally: music, pictures, important documents, applications, and data. Grabbing his FireWire (IEEE 1394)-attached external storage device was all he needed to do to save all of his data.

Recently, Storage UPDATE's parent company, Penton Media, started shipping external storage drives and USB storage devices to all its remote employees. These external drives have 160GB of storage space and a push-button backup feature. For employees' upcoming business trips, the company provided a 128MB USB storage device that provides quick backup and easy file transfer between laptops.

Such small office/home office (SOHO) backup devices are quickly finding their way into small businesses as well as homes. I recently spoke with Katy Hunter, group program manager for Microsoft Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003. Hunter says that many SBS customers use the built-in backup server, which provides snapshots of data to tape or disk. "Many of our partners are configuring backup to disk instead of tape. That way, the small-business customer does not have to mess with changing tapes," says Hunter. A quick check of http://www.bestbuy.com shows the price of a Maxtor Personal Storage 5000XT 250GB external hard drive with dual USB 2.0 and FireWire interface is $299.99--with free shipping. That drive would provide more than enough backup storage for a small business, and you can set up the drive for unattended backup and easy restore.

For further protection, you can use an online backup service. These services require you to load a piece of software on your server or workstation and configure the system to back up your critical data on a scheduled basis. Typically, these services determine the data that needs to be backed up, compress and encrypt it, then transmit the data over the Internet to the service's secured data center.

Several technologies are available today for performing these online backups. I recently subscribed to Intuit's QuickBooks backup service. Intuit uses Connected's online backup engine and configures it to specifically back up the QuickBooks data files. Theoretically, if my computers were destroyed during a fire, I could install a new version of QuickBooks and restore directly from Connected's data center.

US Data Trust and other service providers use the LiveVault engine to provide backup and recovery services for small-to-midsized companies. LiveVault stores its customers' data at an Iron Mountain facility, and LiveVault's technology deals especially well with the specific software that comes with SBS, such as Windows Server 2003, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Microsoft SQL Server. (For more information about LiveVault, see "LiveVault's Online Backup Service," http://www.winnetmag.com/article/articleid/21888/21888.html .)

The cost of online services varies depending on the amount of data you want to back up. Data Protection Services charges $80 per month for 2GB of storage, and @Backup charges $83 per month for 2GB. At US Data Trust's price of $166 per month for 5GB of storage, you can see that you pay a premium for the extra protection of offsite backup.

I hope you'll never face the 30-minute evacuation decision. But if you do and you have a good backup system, you won't need to worry about saving your data.