It’s official: humanity is creating more digitized data each year than places to archive it.

It’s no wonder that so many technology companies are jumping on the band wagon to build massive data storage facilities. Even in this economy, data storage is a red hot business. That’s not likely to change given a recent study put out by IDC Research earlier this year projecting that the amount of digital data will increase tenfold by 2011.

Finding a place to put all our information is one challenge. But there’s another problem that looms just as large, especially for the small to midsize business with limited IT resources.

“Archiving is less about where to put data and more about getting it back when you need it,” says Andrew Reichman, a senior analyst from Forrester Research. To quote the Old Bard himself, “Therein lies the rub.”

How to organize and retrieve

The big problem for most companies is organizing its data in the first place and then finding the best strategies for retrieval. “Typically where they go wrong is that they start out with one, two, five people in the business sharing one drive and now it’s 10 years later with more than 20 people all dumping their files into that same drive with no thought to organization,” says Matt Dubois, managing partner of D2 Business Solutions in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Dubois would know.  His company is often called in to clean up the mess. “We can spend up to two weeks full-time straightening it out. It’s not just confusing folders and subfolders or missing files that cause confusion. We had one client, a law firm, with an attorney frustrated that his file had not been updated by another employee. The employee claimed the file had been updated. They were both right. The problem was there was a duplicate file and they were working off two versions without realizing it,” says Dubois.

So for the business looking to spring clean their data storage, Dubois offers the following steps:

  1. Develop a naming structure. Does this sound familiar? One employee leaves and his/her replacement inherits a Byzantine filing system of oddly named folders and files that have no bearing on its content or importance. It may seem cute to name all your file folders after NFL teams. But what does that have to do with accounts receivable? Business managers need to establish a protocol for naming folders and files that make sense and that are literal enough that anyone can jump in and find what they need, when they need it. “It needs to make sense. It needs to have some logical structure,” says Dubois.
  2. Backup your data before you start. “When you’re ripping things up, things are bound to get lost,” says Dubois. Additionally as a company dissects its share drives, it’s not likely to know exactly what it has anyway. It’s wise to keep a back-up copy on hand just in case someone needs to go back and find something that got lost in the shuffle.
  3. Chunk it down. Don’t clean up your filing system all at once. Dubois recommends doing it one department at a time. For example, start with accounting, and then move on perhaps to sales. Prioritize which departments need a digital intervention the most.
  4. Reorganize files by department. As data is teased out and organized one department at a time that is likely the best way to structure it in the future -- by department. “Give all your employees access to the 'S' drive – 'S' for share -- but limit who has access to which files. Typically, only two people or so need access to each folder,” says Dubois. Bottom line: the fewer people with access to a file system, the fewer people with the ability to spiral it out of control again. It also makes it easier to hold employees accountable for sticking with the naming protocols.
  5. Tagging. The vast majority of small to mid-sized businesses these days are using Microsoft Sharepoint, which allows assigning tags and meta tags for search and retrieval. For companies storing their data on a third party “cloud,” chances are the cloud computing provider is using Sharepoint, as well, or a similar solution. Just like employers need to have naming protocols, there should be tagging protocols, as well, with suggested key words for certain types of data.

Where to put it all

According to a recent study by EMC, 53 percent of all small businesses are still backing up their data on tape. This can’t be very efficient when it comes time to find a file from three years ago that is now buried in a tape rack with a whole other filing system that may or may not make sense.

Tape is out, digital storage is in. Dubois sees most of his clients centralizing its data through products like Microsoft Sharepoint. Sharepoint is bundled in with Microsoft’s line of small business servers each costing just under $1,000. Businesses also have the option of storing their data with third party storage providers. Big name companies like Amazon and Google are renting space on their clouds at prices affordable to smaller businesses. There are countless smaller data storage vendors, as well. All have the added advantage of being off site. So if your building burns down or becomes inaccessible due to weather or a local disaster, the business can be up and running from a remote location.

Businesses shopping for a third party storage provider should be mindful of the features important for their business. How much space is needed? How often will it be accessed and by how many? What kind of security measures are in place to protect the data? How sophisticated are the retrieval tools to pull up files and can they be customized for your businesses specific needs?

If that sounds like a lot of questions to answer, consider this: it beats trying to find last year’s invoices under that Dallas Cowboy folder.