backup and recovery options business analyst and technical writer

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Many small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs), including franchise operations, don't pay much attention to backing up their computer systems. After all, how much have they got to lose? Backups are a hassle. Are they really worth it?

System backups are like any form of business insurance - a complete waste of money until something goes wrong. You don't use motor vehicle insurance until one of your drivers gets into an accident. You don't use workers compensation insurance until one of your employees is injured on the job. You don't use computer backups until you lose critical information.

It is common to think about natural disasters as leading causes of data loss. These include fires, floods, storms, earthquakes, broken water pipes, etc. However, it has been estimated that only about 2% of data loss is caused by these factors. 50-60% of data loss results from system malfunctions including equipment failures and electrical problems. Another 25-30% results from human error such as pressing the wrong button or failing to follow instructions. That leaves 15-20% attributable to all other causes including virus attacks and software malfunctions.

Safety precautions such as putting critical systems on uninterruptible power supplies and providing adequate training to employees are important but they will not eliminate the risk of data loss, only reduce it. Depending on the size of the company and the nature of the business, the risk of some kind of data loss rapidly approaches 100% per year. You will lose data. You need a way to get it back.

There are a variety of options available for creating copies of important information so that emergency retrieval is viable. These options include magnetic tape, optical disk, hard disk and remote online storage. Many companies mix and match these approaches to create a comprehensive backup solution.

Magnetic tape has evolved from reel format to cartridges, similar to cassette tapes. There are many cartridge types available though the primary differentiating factors are capacity and speed. How much data do you have to backup and how much time do you have to do it? Tape is the most widely used backup solution in SMBs. It is relatively inexpensive and widely available. There are long-term storage and reliability questions around tape but it works well enough for most people. Buy the lowest cost product that satisfies your needs and store the tapes offsite.

Optical disk technology has been around since the early 80's though it was very expensive and read-only at first. Today's digital video disk (DVD) format provides over 8GB of capacity (uncompressed) and growing. While too small to backup many server systems, DVD provides a fast and easy way to backup desktop systems or perform incremental backups of small servers.

There are a variety of magnetic disk options available though most have capacity limits that are too small to be useful for backups. Floppy disks and Zip disks are useful for transferring small amounts of data where electronic transfer means are not available. They provide a way to make a quick and temporary backup of desktop files.

Copying files to another hard drive, either directly connected to the network or attached to a PC, is a fast and convenient way to backup systems. This process can be automated to take place continually throughout the day as files change. The drawbacks are cost and/or lack of offsite storage capability.

Remote online storage is a relatively new and fast growing backup alternative made possible by the widespread availability of high-speed communication links. Data is transmitted across the Internet to a remote storage facility eliminating the need to handle backup media. There are a growing number of vendors offering this service at affordable monthly rates.

There is no "best way" to get backups done. The approach used largely depends on the available budget and the nature of the data being saved. Here are a few questions to ponder in selecting a backup approach.

- How much electronic information is stored on your computers?

Consider both servers and desktop/laptop systems. All corporate information should be backed up at least once and archived. What matters most is the volume of data that changes frequently.

- How often does the information change?

Data that changes infrequently generates minimal backup activity. It is important to estimate the amount of data that changes daily, weekly and monthly in order to select a backup technology with the proper cost versus capacity balance.

- What is the sensitivity of the information?

The information may include sensitive data about customers, employees or suppliers. It may refer to financial results, sales orders or physical assets. Sensitivity suggests minimizing duplication of the information and using encryption techniques.

- How long could you operate satisfactorily without access to portions of your information?

Quick recovery of lost data can be expensive. Longer operation without the electronic data means you can select lower cost backup options.

- Can some corporate information be recreated in the event of data loss?

If information can be recreated by manual entry or by combining other data and the effort is acceptable, backups may be minimal or unneeded. While rare, this is worth examining.

Finally, any backup solution should be tested periodically. There is many a horror story of a company that diligently backed up its systems regularly only to discover that they could not restore lost data. This can result from a physical problem with the backup device or media, a mistake on the part of the person running the backup software, or a change in file locations that was never incorporated into the backup procedure. Quarterly restore testing is a good idea.

Data loss is inevitable but it does not have to turn into a disaster. Keep these simple principles in mind. Select backup technologies appropriate to your business. Create and follow documented procedures for both saving and restoring data. Finally, test regularly by restoring data and comparing it to the original. A little backup insurance goes a long way.

Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO™. He is an expert in leveraging open software to drive growth. DAMICON provides Freelance Technical Writing, IT Disaster Response Planning, and Network Security Management services to firms throughout New England.

This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in December 2004.

To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.

Virtual Business

Virtual Business

This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.