Business Continuity: Email Backup for SMBs

Thursday Feb 25th 2010 by Gerry Blackwell
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How long could your business last if you lost your email access and data? We look at a couple of Internet-based email backup and recovery options for different sized small businesses.

For many small companies, email is the lifeblood of their business, yet too few protect it adequately against disaster. Not only is email their primary mode of communication, it’s also often a de facto document management system, a searchable repository of vital business data.

But on-premise email servers can fail, data can become corrupted, power can go out for hours or days, offices burn down and natural or man-made disasters can strike. How long could your firm survive without email?

“Email is arguably our most business-critical system,” says Jonathan Swan, director of operations and IT at Roythornes LLP, a mid-size UK law firm with 100 lawyers.

“Like all law firms, we run practice management, work flow, document management [and other] systems,” Swan says. “But the one that would hurt us the most if we lost it would be email because it’s our primary source of business communication.”

Luckily, there are disaster recovery and business continuity solutions available specifically for email — simple inexpensive ones for very small businesses and somewhat pricier solutions for bigger, more complex operations.

Email Backup for Very Small Businesses

Even if your business is small enough that you don’t run an on-premise mail server such as a Microsoft Exchange system, your employees probably still use Microsoft Office Outlook for email.

One simple solution for such companies: use a Web mail service such as Google Gmail to mirror and back up individual employees’ Outlook mail online (also called “in the cloud”). If your Internet service provider offers Web mail, as many do, it will probably work as well.

Gmail and related Google Apps (about $50 per employee per year) include both generous online storage for data and mechanisms for synchronizing Outlook and Google so that all your data — mail, contacts, calendar — is also stored on Google servers.

If your office shuts down or you can’t use your PC for whatever reason, you’ll still be able to send and receive mail from any Internet-connected computer and access all your information.

Many small businesses are opting to switch entirely to cloud-based solutions such as Google Apps, Zoho and Microsoft’s own Office Live.

Service providers’ facilities are more secure than most small business offices, they connect to the Internet via multiple routes to ensure availability more than 99 percent of the time, and customers’ data is regularly backed up.

If you don’t feel comfortable having data only in the cloud, you can always continue to use Outlook, but use cloud-based data backup solutions such as Mozy’s ($3.95 per user, plus $0.50 per gigabyte per month) to back up Outlook database files.

Email Disaster Recovery for Larger SMBs

If your business is a little bigger and you do run a mail server, you have another set of options for email continuity.

Some companies use on-premise appliances — backup servers running e-mail software — that replicate everything on the main mail server, including contacts, calendars and tasks for all employees. They can restore service and data instantly if something happens to the main server.

Other solutions, such as MessageOne from PC maker Dell and MessageLabs from security software firm Symantec — which Roythornes uses — do much the same thing. But they’re subscription services that use cloud computing.

That means your data back up is stored at the service provider’s secure facility. Data on your main mail server is continuously replicated to the remote server over your high-speed Internet connection, usually after it’s encrypted for security.

It’s possible to configure both on-premise and cloud-based systems so that your company’s email system switches over to the email continuity system automatically if something happens to your main mail server.

Online Data Backup vs. On-Site

A cloud-based, or online solution may make more sense for small businesses. For one thing, if you use an on-site system, you’re still at risk of losing email access and data if your physical office is destroyed, says Manish Kalia, vice president of marketing and founder of Teneros Inc.

Teneros started by offering on-site appliance-based solutions but has recently added cloud-based services for Microsoft Exchange customers. Kalia, whose company once denigrated cloud-based competitors, is now a born-again cloud zealot.

“Disaster recovery,” he argues, “is the perfect application for the cloud because disaster recovery by definition has to be done out of your main location to be effective.”

Big companies that have formal disaster recovery or business continuity programs in place typically maintain duplicate data centers or rent space from disaster recovery outsourcing companies — solutions that are prohibitively expensive for most small businesses.  

Data Backup Cost Advantage: Online vs. On-Site

Even Teneros’s appliance-based, on-site solutions are too expensive for most small businesses. The company found that only certain verticals — mainly law and financial services — could justify the capital expense required, which Kalia estimates at between $10,000 to $30,000.

Since Teneros began in 2003, two trends have converged that make cloud-based solutions more viable, Kalia explains. Companies, especially small businesses, are now comfortable with the idea of storing their vital business data at an off-site location managed by another company, which they were not initially.

The other trend: server virtualization — which allows one powerful server to function as several virtual servers. It allows companies such as Teneros to put multiple subscribers on one server without any security or privacy compromises. It means they can provide service to a relatively large number of subscribers with much less computing and connectivity infrastructure.

In effect, cloud-based email continuity providers over-subscribe their facilities. They can get away with this because they know that only a small percentage of subscribers will ever need to access mail services and data from their facility at the same time.

“Providing email continuity in the cloud makes sense because there are significant advantages from over-subscription and virtualization,” Kalia says. “And that helps us keep rates down.”

Teneros’s cloud-based email backup solution, which is priced per employee or mailbox per month, is by no means the least expensive. Kalia estimates the minimum cost at $500 a month for a very small company. A more typical cost: $1,000 a month.

The Teneros service, though, has advantages over cheaper solutions. It uses “application-aware disaster recovery technology,” Kalia says. This means it can act just like an on-site Exchange server, and allow employees to continue using their Microsoft Office Outlook client software to access mail, and still see their entire database of saved messages, contacts and calendar items.

Teneros, like some other email continuity service providers, also offers integration with and backup of other types of messaging systems, including BlackBerry Enterprise Servers for mobile email — at an additional cost.

The MessageLabs service Roythornes uses is less expensive — the firm pays about $8,650 a year — but in the event of an outage, lawyers and support workers would use a Web mail system similar to Gmail to access their mail. And that will be an unfamiliar experience for many.

Ease-of-Use Comparison

Kalia argues that letting employees continue to use the familiar Outlook interface is a "crucial differentiator" for Teneros. Roythornes' Swan admits that, “This perhaps is an area where MessageLabs could and should put a little more effort — into making the user experience as intuitive as possible.”

Roythornes also did not implement the "automatic fail-over" option. If an outage occurs, Swan makes a decision about whether to switch to the back-up system based on the expected length of the outage.

As he points out, if you switch to a backup system, when you go back to the main system, you need to re-synchronize all the sent and received messages (and new and changed calendar, contact and task items) to the main system. “That can actually extend the length of the outage,” Swan points out.

With the Teneros service, subscribers can choose whether to fail-over automatically —Teneros can tell as soon as the subscriber’s main mail server is down — or manually, and if automatically, how soon after the outage begins.

Due Diligence

Small businesses need to secure their email service and data with a business continuity and disaster recovery solution, if they haven’t already. Most of these services, whether for larger SMBs with their own mail servers, or smaller companies, will increasingly be provided over the Internet…in the "cloud."

If you worry about sensitive, mission-critical data being held on a remote server outside your direct control, insist that prospective service providers explain their security and privacy provisions in detail. A reputable company will easily provide better security than most small businesses could ever hope to buy, install, update and maintain on their own.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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