In late March, Chrysler Leasing sent a letter to some customers warning them a tape containing some of their personal data – such as names, addresses and social insurance numbers – had gone missing while United Parcel Service was transporting it from Chrysler to a credit reporting agency.
Access to the data would not be easy and would require special software, Chrysler said, but the company advised customers to watch out for improper use of the information.
Chrysler Leasing was only latest in a long string of organizations to be embarrassed by the loss of data on its way from place to place.
One of the most prominent was the British government, which admitted last November that two disks containing personal data on 25 million children had been lost in transit.
According to newspaper reports, Chrysler stopped using UPS to send the data and began transferring it electronically instead. That raises the question: Why, in an era of plentiful bandwidth, is so much data still transported from place to place on physical media?
It’s partly because the volumes of data involved can put quite a load on networks – even today’s high-bandwidth ones.
“With faster network connections it can still take a long time to back up a large data store,” says John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
But it seems another reason so much data still travels by courier is that few people understand the alternatives.
“I think a lot of executives out there don’t really realize there is a technology out there that allows them to do this,” says John Tkacjewski, co-founder and president of Unlimi-Tech Software Inc., an Ottawa-area firm whose FileCatalyst software speeds up transfer of large files over IP networks.
Toronto-based Storagepipe Solutions specializes in backing up and archiving files through a Web-based service, providing an alternative to shipping backup tapes offsite.
“We still find many people in the enterprise that don’t know it’s an option,” says Steve Rodin, president of Storagepipe.
But online backup is gradually catching on, Rodin says – typically, when an organization’s backup hardware comes due for replacement, the IT department will start exploring alternatives, and many look at services like Storagepipe’s.
That’s just what happened at Shibley Righton LLP five years ago.
The law firm had been backing up data to tape at its Toronto and Windsor, Ont., offices and shipping them to a safe deposit box, says David Turnbull, IT manager.
When the tape drives were due for replacement Turnbull, who had been considering online alternatives for several years, decided the Shibley Righton’s Internet connection had reached a level of capacity and reliability that could support it.
Online backup costs slightly more than using tape, Turnbull says, but convenience and security made it worthwhile. Staff don’t have to swap tapes, and “you don’t have to worry about the tapes being damaged or lost.”
Such services are a viable alternative to shipping tapes, Sloan says. But he warns there are some questions to consider. The big issue is what will happen when the data needs to be restored. Will data be sent back over the network, or brought to the data centre on physical media, and how long will it take?
Turnbull says it would depend on the amount of data to be restored. If Shibley Righton needed to restore all its data – the firm is backing up about 120 gigabytes – it would be quicker to have Storagepipe ship it on tape than to transfer it over the network, he says.
Tkacjewski says FileCatalyst is particularly popular in the entertainment industry. Movie studios and television producers use it to transfer large video files, which previously would have traveled as video cassettes.
But a number of other businesses use it, including banks that transfer such things commodity pricing information files that need to be moved quickly among offices to keep up with markets.
Wade Tech, a Toronto-based printing firm that specializes in engineering documents such as blueprints, started using FileCatalyst in 2002, and now has incorporated some of Unlimi-Tech’s technology in electronic plan rooms it offers to clients.
These online systems allow contractors to collaborate online, and use Unlimi-Tech’s technology when the participants need to transfer files.
When Wade Tech started in 2001, 85 per cent of the documents the company handled were moved in physical form, whether on paper or by physically transporting storage media, says Les Wojcianiec, managing partner.
Today the proportions have reversed, with 85 per cent of documents transmitted electronically. About 10 per cent are sent using ordinary e-mail, the rest using file transfer software.
Wade also used to ship files among its six Ontario offices in physical form, but now “we don’t use a UPS courier any more – we just basically transfer the file internally,” says Wojcianiec.
Sloan says transferring data electronically is one way to avoid the risks of shipping it on physical media, but may not be the right answer for everyone.
For those who choose to keep moving data in physical form, he suggests, it’s important to make sure the mode of transport suits the sensitivity of the data. “If some of these cases of lost data are basically because of casual or insecure methods of transporting the data,” he says, “that’s bad.”