Disaster Recovery For Small Business

by Gerry Blackwell

You may not be a Boy Scout, but the best way to protect your small business is to be prepared. We look at disaster recovery options to help you stay one step ahead of trouble and to sleep better at night.

According to a three-year-old study from Price Waterhouse Coopers, 70 percent of small firms that experience a major data loss go out of business within a year. It’s a sobering statistic. Yet despite the potentially devastating effects of data loss, too many small businesses don't adequately protect themselves with a disaster recovery plan.

"A lot of small businesses are not doing what they should," confirmed Rachel Dines, an analyst at Forrester Research who tracks disaster recovery trends and products. In one recent Forrester survey, 66 percent of small businesses with less than 100 employees admitted they did not have a business continuity or disaster recovery plan if their main office systems and servers went down.

"They're [small businesses] generally further behind on this than mid-size companies and enterprises," Jaworski said. “A lot put themselves at more risk than they should.”

Affordable Disaster Recovery Solutions

Part of the problem is that SMBs don’t know that affordable solutions exist, said Karen Jaworski, director of product management at i365, the company behind the EVault backup and business continuity products and services.

“This is a time of great change in the industry, with the emergence of cloud-based technologies and widespread availability of server virtualization,” Jaworski said. “We’ve been able to leverage this newly emerging delivery mechanism, and it’s changing the landscape and making disaster recovery a lot more affordable for small businesses.”

Many large enterprises still use remote hot recovery sites provided by companies such as SunGard, with duplicate systems and data so they can continue computing operations in the event of a disaster. But such outsourced services remain prohibitively expensive for small businesses and even some big corporations are looking for less costly alternatives.

At the other end of the spectrum, tape-based backup systems with offsite storage offer a simple and relatively inexpensive solution for SMBs, but they make recovery times unacceptably slow for most firms.  

Data Backup In The Cloud

Cloud computing -- providing computer services and storage on remote servers that you can access over a high-speed Internet connection -- makes it possible for companies like i365 to deliver relatively low-cost, near-real time online backup and data recovery services. (See What is Cloud Computing — and Why Should You Care?)

Cloud-based solutions keep data safe and allow companies to recover from anywhere even if their onsite computers and servers are inaccessible.

Server virtualization -- running multiple completely separate virtual servers on a single computer -- makes it economical for providers to offer low-cost off-site backup and recovery services by letting multiple clients share hardware and even software. (See 6 Tips to Better Small Business Server Virtualization.)

Virtual servers replicate not just data but entire applications or servers and make them available -- from anywhere over the Internet -- on relatively short notice if a company’s own servers and computers go down.

Companies that offer cloud-based services, like i365, offer online backup and replication of applications and server environments. If your systems fail, you can access your data from i365’s remote servers within as little as 24 hours.

The EVault suite also includes the option of onsite appliances -- computers running EVault backup software that automatically replicate data in near real time to a local server.

With onsite appliances, you can recover data and systems much more quickly than you could with cloud-based services -- but they don’t protect you if you can't gain physical access to your office or data center.

Many Disaster Recovery Options

i365 is just one of several companies offering cloud-based disaster recovery services. Others include IBM with its Business Continuity and Resiliency Services, Barracuda Networks, Double-Take Software, Iron Mountain and QuorumLabs, a small-medium business specialist.

“Cloud-based disaster recovery is very new and adoption is quite low,” Dines said. “But a lot of companies are now interested in the ability to replicate their data to the cloud and then fail over to the cloud in the event of disaster.”

Adoption is still low partly because many firms see it as too new, and therefore too risky, she said. “But I think a lot of companies are overestimating the risk involved in doing disaster recovery in the cloud.”

A Safer Disaster Recovery Alternative

For small firms that want more control or that can’t tolerate the perceived risk, there is a relatively low-cost alternative.

Colocation providers offer space in secure data centers where companies can install duplicate servers running key applications. They can then connect to the remote site over a leased or Internet connection and use software similar to i365’s to replicate data from onsite servers to the backup servers at the remote colocation site.

In the event of a disaster, they can fairly quickly fail over some or all of their computer operations to the colocation site.

Even very small companies with little or no IT staff can take advantage of this approach by paying the colocation provider for set-up, management and maintenance services, Dines said.

“SMBs, even those on the smaller side, are bringing disaster recovery back in-house – not at as fast a clip as enterprises, but this is still a feasible option for small firms.”

Colocation providers with sites across the country include Savvis, Equinix, CoreSite and Internap Network Services.

Which Disaster Recovery Solution?

Which of the disaster recovery solutions should you choose? According to both Dines and Jaworski, it will depend on a variety of factors and could be a mix, especially if you have different classes of data that require varying levels of protection.

The basic questions to ask: How critical are your data and applications? How quickly do you need to be able to recover from an outage? How much can you afford to pay?

Dines was reluctant to say that some companies have less need for disaster recovery than others. “Honestly, it’s really important for all businesses,” she said. But it’s clear some do have greater need.

Most companies in high-transaction businesses such as online order entry can't tolerate much, if any, downtime. If those systems do go down, you need to recover them quickly. This is why financial services firms, for example, have been early adopters of sophisticated disaster recovery solutions.

One of the first steps in developing a disaster recovery plan is to calculate the cost of down time, Dines said. “Companies are often amazed at how high the cost is. It helps to know so they can build a business case for disaster recovery.”

The Price for Peace of Mind

Jaworski cites data from Gartner, the consulting-analyst firm, suggesting that the cost for enterprise-grade online data backup runs between $1 and $2 per gigabyte per month. But low-end providers such as Mozy offer it for as little as 50 cents per gigabyte, Dines said.

Onsite appliances such as i365’s EVault Plug-n-Protect products start at about $2,000, Jaworski said.

If your business can tolerate being back up and running within 48 hours, then online server protection and recovery services start at about $250 a month per server. Shortening the recovery to within 24 hours raises the price to $400. Dines said such services can be had for as little as $160 a month per server.

A Radical Disaster Recovery Option

An even lower-cost but more-radical option: move all your operations to the cloud, using software-as-a-service (SaaS) products such as Google Apps instead of Microsoft Office or Exchange. There are products in most major business application categories available as SaaS offerings.

With cloud computing, your data and applications are always available over the Internet from wherever you are, even if you have to work out of hotel room after a disaster.

An all-cloud strategy doesn’t entirely eliminate data protection and disaster recovery concerns. You have to be sure the provider keeps your data in more than one place and has application servers available in more than one place. Otherwise you won’t be protected if the company’s facilities go down.

“Make no assumptions,” Dines warned. “But if small businesses do their due diligence and make sure the cloud providers keep multiple copies of data, then, yes, that does substantially reduce disaster recovery concerns.”

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

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This article was originally published on Tuesday May 25th 2010
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