Data Backups: An Important Business Continuity Consideration

Today, computers store virtually all of a company's critical data. While there have been major advances in quality and reliability of servers and computer systems, it is crucial that a business have a well-defined back up process to ensure data is not lost in a crisis. Below is an excerpt from Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses by Donna R. Childs, which provides more information on how to properly plan and create a backup strategy:

You have data that must be stored safely. Most of it is mission-critical. Types of digital information may range from the product documentation created by your employees to the details of key customer accounts, business contacts lists, sales databases, and e - mail correspondences, just to name a few. For yours as well as for many other companies, the competitive advantage resides in these information assets and the trained staff who can work with them. But they are the very same people who make mistakes from time to time. User-training can only do so much, as user errors will continue to occur.

Making data backups regularly is your second line of defense after training your users. But these are not the type of complete system backups that are made as a precaution to equipment failure-we will discuss those later. The backups needed here must address the needs of the users, therefore be more frequently done and initiated by users themselves. Restoration must also be simple and quick. A small business cannot afford long downtimes or call an IT specialist for retrieval of your files, merely when an important file has been mistakenly altered or deleted. The fact that it was important already indicates that it is most likely used and modified frequently.

Tapes as backup medium disqualify for this purpose for the reason that they store data sequentially, meaning data cannot be accessed directly; thus, recovery time is fairly long. It can take hours to find a particular file on a large tape. Other removable media, like USB sticks and CDs, allow the direct access of data. They are very limited in their storage capacity, and as such, usable only for small projects. DVD and HD DVD drives have much higher capacities, but still, you do rely on the user to make backups in a patient, regular, and correct manner. Users can make mistakes here as well. Nothing is more disappointing than finding out that your employee's backup did not store the important files correctly. In any case, users expect automatic backup of their work and will rightfully consider anything short of that a needless annoyance.

In addition, you need to be aware that creating backups on removable media could raise security concerns because employees could take large amounts of confidential data with them without leaving a trace. In fact, if data security is a major concern for you, you should restrict access to all high-capacity media drives and monitor online data traffic in and out of your company.

You will need a backup strategy that allows you to make quick backups with easy retrieval of files by each individual user. There are about 50 companies supplying the backup storage systems market. Most specialize in enterprise-size solutions, but some of them also offer downsized solutions from their larger cousins to small businesses. They are indeed fast and reliable backup solutions, but they come at a steep price that would leave a large dent in your IT budget or they are not intuitive to use. In any case, you should select an adequate backup system that fits your requirements as a small business in several ways. It must:

  • Provide the data security that you need, either on-site or off-site
  • Be able to handle to handle your typical amount of data within time frames acceptable to you
  • Provide a retrieval time suited for the disaster type case that you are trying to address
  • Provide a cost-effective solution for your targeted recovery time

For small businesses, in most cases, you do not need fancy storage area network hardware or the latest gizmo in online storage technology to provide an adequate contingency backup solution with fast retrieval possibilities. Imagine that you would like to make a snapshot backup every hour of all user data files. If the amount of user data that has to be transferred each time is less than about ten gigabytes, and this is true for the wide majority of all small businesses, a simple network-attached storage system with a couple of large hard disks and a basic network configuration will do just fine. If this system is configured for machine input/output (I/O) performance, you essentially have a solution that is otherwise sold for a multiple of the price.

With regards to online storage solutions, you send all your data to a safe data center located off - site. Preferably, your data should be encrypted and secured if you are using the Internet for this purpose. The use of such online storage solutions looks appealing at first glance, and is often an elegant solution, especially if they are directly supported by the operating systems’ drag-and-drop windows (e.g., Windows XP Professional/Vista or Mac OS X). Beware that you will pay a monthly or annual fee for the actual amount of storage used; your bottleneck in transferring the data will be your Internet connection, or the Internet itself. And then there are often limits on the amount of data you can transfer in and out of such a facility per month. By the way, similar limits will most likely also apply to your Internet connection, especially if you are using DSL or a cable modem. A small business should consider if online storage solutions really satisfy its needs, and compare them with the alternatives proposed in this book.

There are many different software packages in the market that allow you to create a backup of your data independent of the final storage media, be it another hard disk, a remote location, or a tape drive. A simple backup utility is already included in Windows XP Professional, Vista, or the Macintosh's OS Time Machine, and you may buy other software packages separately. Apple's "time machine" is a good example of an intuitive interface to UNIX built-in backup methods. However, for the amount of data typically handled by a small business and using it to recover from user error, special backup software is not necessary. You want to avoid many of them because they use proprietary backup file formats, and you do not have large business facilities at your disposal to ensure that you will still be able to read your backup file format after five years.

To create backups of user data, first familiarize yourself with any easy-to-use file synchronization tool. There exist a variety of such tools, some commercially available and others integrated in operating systems or simply for download as shareware from the Internet. The way these utilities work is that they simply scan your local files and all your files on the backup system and then determine which files need to be updated because they have been newly created, modified, or deleted. It is similar to a method used by mobile devices synching data with your desktop.

After the initial run (which might take some time if your overall data sets are large), these tools are usually very fast. They scan, for example, 10,000 files with 3 gigabytes total size in less than 10 minutes, and replace 100 altered files on a backup hard disk in less than one minute. The user can trigger the file synchronization anytime. In addition, an automatic update every hour or every night should be scheduled. You can keep as many of these automatically created snapshot backups as you have disk space on your backup system. Note that with hourly, daily, or weekly backups, you should clean up your backups to keep your datasets manageable.

If all users store their data on a file server, run a backup in the same manner between the file server and the backup system. However, be aware that usually no live file server for user data is needed for small businesses until you reach a certain size or data complexity. It is sufficient to keep data locally on each personal computer (PC), and then to consolidate this data by file synchronization, on- or off-site, on a network attached storage server that must be available at certain times. Since the data will be stored at two locations, no further backup of that file server is needed for this disaster scenario. You will be surprised at the cost savings that result from this simple solution.

The backup file system should be configured to provide all backup data with appropriate access rights to the users on the network, to allow everyone access and to rebuild the data at any time. For ease of use, you can even make all backups available through your Web browser, but again, review data access for adequate data security. And by the way, the availability and continuous usage also ensures implicit testing of your backup system, although you want to methodically check it out once in a while.


From Prepare for the Worst, Plan for the Best: Disaster Preparedness and Recovery for Small Businesses by Donna R. Childs. Copyright 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Used by arrangement with John Wiley & Sons, Inc.