Even during tornado and hurricane season, buildings can go up in flames. The weather is unpredictable. A mishandled end-of-summer barbecue blocks away can spell the end for your office building all while your employees are safe and sound at home.
Three years ago, we published an article on how to protect files from flood damage. Whether you read that article or not, you probably are thinking, “What about protecting my files from fire damage? What about smoke damage, which is often overlooked?” The annual wildfires in California can be terrifying nightmare fuel for a small to medium business owner. With so many factors out of your control, where do you turn for answers?
Most important is getting your paper files under control through batch scanning and digitization. Then, file location and file storage type should be considered. You can prevent fire damage to your database by utilizing established best practices.
Digitizing and Document Management
Paper hasn’t died yet. It’s fine for reading a book on a tropical vacation. It’s great for crafts or for schools teaching students. But paper is on the way out for business. It’s reducing the size of our forests, painting companies that use it as environmentally reckless. It’s messy, leads to errors and lost files. It takes up too much space. Paper fades. More and more companies and government organizations are digitizing their filing cabinets. Whether archived or brand new documents, they are scanning their files in large batches and storing them on local servers. Some industries still demand physical forms and records, but the fact remains that a paper file can be lost, misplaced, or destroyed.
Content management, or document management, software allows you to store and process scanned files into your data architecture. Index newly input documents for easy search and retrieval later. Send and receive documents securely, or send them to a colleague within your organization. Create a filing structure that mimics the physical filing cabinets you’re finally selling off. Get rid of paper in exchange for digital counterparts that are more versatile and easier to control. Not to mention that digital files are cheaper and simpler to copy and store in multiple locations.
Redundancy and the Cloud
When you have a customer or patron fill out a carbon copy form, they keep a copy and you keep a copy. What if you could not only give them a copy and keep a copy, but could also keep a second copy and never have to buy or print out a single sheet at any point in the form filling process? Copies are for redundancy – ensuring that if the original is destroyed, we have another of that same document. With digitized files, we can create copies and store them in multiple physical locations. Similarly, we can file the same document into several folders. We can also give that file multiple tags ensuring it can be found by means of multiple avenues. Unexpected fires will burn paper. Keeping a copy onsite doesn’t make much sense, but storing and shipping in another location doesn’t save any time or money either.
Despite the frenzy for hosted storage over the past several years, there is nothing wrong with maintaining a local server. This is safe and often cost effective. However, many companies prefer to maintain a server at their headquarters, especially for secure access, as well as a server in a second location. This may be another branch of the company, or it can be third party cloud hosting. You can still host your document management solution with a cloud provider to keep your files not only secure but well organized and accessible to the right party.
Storage Locations and Chasses
Whether hosting locally or in the cloud, you should establish standards for the environments where your servers will sit humming. This includes the location, the setup, and the machines as well. When setting up in the office or at a site owned by your company or agency, consider on which floor the servers will be located. You must decide your criteria – there is no one-size-fits-all. Servers and server rooms become very hot, so they need to be well ventilated and kept cool. A stuffy, overheated server room can cause fires! Most of the time, your first floor will be the easiest to keep cool, the most secure, and the easiest to access for cleared personnel. If your servers need to be the hub of the company’s network, consider placing them in a central location in order to increase network speeds for your employees.
As is the case with potential flooding, also consider using a raised floor space. This helps cool the server racks from below. You can purchase fire-resistant server racks, or chasses if you are only housing a few machines. Many air cooling systems in heavy duty servers will also be working hard enough cooling down their components that the force will double to keep minor drafts of smoke out. You are also going to want to isolate the machines from contaminants such as dust, dander, or industrial particles. Dust particles can “gum up the works” and require more maintenance, but far more important is that they can also cause a fire hazard in a hot server room. While no rack or chassis is completely airtight, you can use a closed loop liquid cooling (instead of air cooling) system to get part of the way there. This eliminates the need for extensive A/C engineering without sacrificing security.
Fire-prone Regions and Safety Systems
While searching for the best location for your on-site server, also consider where to host your off-site servers. Certain regions are more prone to fire than others. Wildfires in California rage every Spring and Summer. Even in the colder climes of Alberta, forest fires can be devastating. Just as tornadoes have certain hot spots, so too do forest fires. Cloud companies are aware of this and try to build or rent their data centers in locations that are free from common natural disasters, such as wildfires, tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes. When shopping for a data center, ask them what they do to keep out these big four disasters and where they chose to park their facilities. It may be more convenient to have your cloud servers in the same time zone as you, but it may also put your data at risk.
Good data centers will also have contingencies for when their carefully chosen spot in the shade isn’t enough. Uninterruptable power supplies, backup generators, fire suppression systems, and raised floors should be standard for these facilities. Unless you can supply these same protections, consider hosting most of your redundant files in the cloud. It is also important to remember that an excellent file safety system has its own redundancies as well – ensure your location has security personnel on staff who know the signs and alerts to mind when on duty. Automated systems can fail. Sometimes smoke damage has a human origin. In both cases, the best defense is an extra eye on the site at all times.
A version of this article was published as Protecting My Files from Fire Damage on January 16th, 2019.