Over the last few years, a growing number of hosted data backup services have emerged. The idea is simple. Rather than small businesses wrestling with backup software and backup tapes, they upload their data over the Internet to an online backup service.
While such services can be a godsend, there are certain questions you should ask in order to pick the right company to host your data. How secure is the company's offsite storage facility? How long will it take to backup your data, and how fast can they restore it? And, of course, how much will it cost?
To make onsite tape backup work, an organization needs to ensure that the tape cartridge is changed daily or weekly. Tapes should be labeled, copies should be sent off site, and testing should be done routinely to ensure that the system works and the files can be recovered completely. It sounds straightforward enough, but the problems with backup procedures are legendary.
"The primary issue for small businesses that use typical backup solutions is that they are software-based," says Tony Barbagallo, senior vice president at EVault. "You need a working knowledge of the software that includes knowing how to configure and set the various backup and restore options."
To make matters worse, most small businesses just perform backups, and then leave the tapes sitting right beside the server. All it takes is one overheated computer or a small fire and there goes the server and your emergency backup tape, too.
The problems with backup, then, run parallel to the problems with technology as a whole. Most owners have realized that the best technology tends to be the solution that involves the least internal work within the company. Small businesses typically don't have the money to support an IT department to run the network, develop code, run the applications, maintain the database and perform nightly backups. That's why more and more companies are considering online backup.
There are literally hundreds of online backup services now available. Some are excellent, most are okay, and a handful should be avoided. Let's take a look at some of the key points to bear in mind during the selection process.
Three factors influence your backup window, i.e., the time it takes to backup and restore your data: your Internet connection speed, the amount of data you need to backup and any technology the online vendor uses to speed up the process.
Obviously, if you have a DSL or an even faster T1 Internet connection, you'll be able to backup and restore data more quickly than you can over a dial-up connection. Some vendors, like NovaStor, use backup software that can resume a canceled backup at the point where it left off. That's a handy feature for companies with slower connections that need to backup but can't afford to be down until the backup is complete.
The initial online backup takes the longest amount of time because you're backing up all of your crucial data (files, documents, photos etc., but not operating systems or applications or anything that you can reinstall on your own). The first backup might take several hours or more depending on the amount of data you have. Subsequent backups are much shorter - a matter of minutes sometimes because you're only backing up any changes made since the last backup took place.
Some vendors use technology to speed up the backup process and shrink the backup window. NovaStor, for example, uses what it calls a FastBIT patching process. This technology compares different versions of the same file and extracts the differences, which are then saved as a new file and compressed into what NovaStor calls a Patch. The company says that the Patch is 85 to 99 percent smaller than the original file, which helps speed up the backup.
Be sure to ask the vendors you're considering how long it will take for you backup and restore X MB or X GB of data, where X represents the amount of data you have. And use the free trial to find out for your self. You know your business and how long you can afford to wait for backups and restores.
What to Back Up
The size of the backup window will obviously be affected by how much data you decide to backup. If you just need documents from your main server once a week, then you don't need to worry too much about the length of time it will take. But if you need to backup several servers, a dozen workstations and have your sales database backed up daily, then online protection can take more time.
Some companies keep things simple by backing up their files once and then only backing up changes to their main server once a day or once per week. Others insist on doing a full backup of all operating system and application files so they can rapidly recover their systems in the event of a server crash. It all depends on how complex the applications are and how long it will take to reload them.
If, for example, you have a relatively simple set up with Microsoft Server 2003 and a couple of applications that have not been heavily customized, then it might be easiest to just backup the data files so your data is safe. If the system collapses completely, you insert the CDs to reload the software and then restore your data onto the new server.
That brings us nicely into the matter of cost. The price you'll pay is directly proportionate to the amount of data you need backed up and the level of speed/performance you require bigger and faster is always more expensive. Further, prices vary depending on which company you choose and the level of service you select. Here are a few general examples of what online data backup can cost.
- EVault Protect This online backup service for small businesses costs $85 per month to backup 5GB of data
- @Backup charges $4.95 a month for 250 MB and up to 10GB a month for $64.95
- NovaStor backs up 5GB for $55 per month or 10GB for $100
- DataProtector from Connected, an Iron Mountain subsidiary, provides 30GB for $74.95 a month
- Iomega's iStorage costs $55.20 for 5GB
Remember that some of these backup companies offer more comprehensive services than others, so don't make a decision purely based on price.
iStorage, for instance, has a Home Edition and a Professional Edition. The home version is probably good enough for some small businesses. It has a limit of 5GB and offers most of the features of the pro version. But if you want to backup more than one machine, you need the upgrade, which also comes with better administrative and backup management features.
In some cases, it may be worth paying more if only for your peace of mind. For example, your data will be much safer if you choose a vendor that offers top-of-the-line hardware, security and procedures.
"It's best to select an online backup service that uses enterprise-class hardware such as EMC or Hitachi Data Systems disk arrays and storage networks, and then stores data in Tier-1 data centers," says Barbagallo. "We co-locate many of our data centers at SunGard facilities across the country."
Check out the Web sites of these and other providers to find the terms, capacities and services that are right for you. Most offer a free, 15- or 30-day trial that lets you see how the service suits you.
The ultimate test of any of these services is how easy is it to restore your data. If you can't get your files back when you need them, find another vendor. The best way to test recovery is to download a free trial version and stage a disaster.
Pretend you have lost files and need to recover them. See how quickly you get the data back. In most cases, this is a simple procedure that shouldn't take you more than a few minutes. The reputable companies don't charge extra for restoring data, they promote it as a feature of their value. "Test, test and test again," says Roberta Witty, an analyst with Gartner Group. "Perform a variety of tests including a full recovery."
Obviously, you shouldn't trust your valuable information to just anyone. The last thing you need is to find out that your backup vendor is leaking your critical data. Therefore, it makes sense to check out the company's credentials before you sign on.
You want to be sure the vendor provides the best encryption, firewall and security procedures available. Iomega iStorage advertises 128-bit encryption data transfers (SSL or 3DES), firewalls managed by dedicated security monitoring systems, files copied onto Telco-grade disk drive systems and redundant backups. Security procedures, technologies and standards vary from vendor to vendor.
Maintaining a Distance
One final point should be mentioned on backup services don't sign up with one that's physically located nearby. Reason: say there is an event such as a power loss, fire, flood or hurricane that knocks you offline. You don't want your data stored with a provider who is enduring those same conditions. Pick one that's at far away so that when you need to restore data, your provider is able to send you the data.
"You have to have your backup sites far enough apart to make sure that conditions in one location are not likely to be duplicated in the other," says Mike Karp, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates. "A useful rule of thumb might be a minimum of about 100 miles, although the other side of the continent might be necessary to play it safe."
Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.
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