Data backup - why it's important and what you should do to protect your business.
None of us likes to think about losing data. But whether it’s down to equipment failure, accidental deletion or virus infection, it’s a very real possibility. The best way to do that is to have an up-to-date, secure and easily accessible online backup.
Not so long ago, data was saved to physical tapes or disks and storing them away from the system. More recently, the internet and the availability of cloud storage have radically changed the way in which many people carry out their data backup procedures.
Backup can often be seen as a chore, but having online backups for your data is vital to business continuity if disaster strikes. There are a number of things to consider when planning a backup strategy as well as a broader disaster recovery plan and we’ll look at them in more detail.
It’s easy to assume that data backup strategy is just a matter of saving as much as possible as often as possible. And while that is true to an extent, it’s important to look into more detail at what you need to save and why, so the first thing to consider is which systems need to be backed up.
If most of your data is held centrally on a server then that’s the most important place to start. Production files need to be saved on a regular basis; daily or more frequently depending on the technology you’re using. Program and operating system files can be saved less often. Monthly is usually sufficient, but you need to be in a position to perform extra backups before and after upgrades and changes.
Planning your online backups
You also need to consider whether you need to backup information that’s held on endpoint computers too. While most of your core business information is likely held centrally on servers, there may well be items such as correspondence, spreadsheets and so on that are generated on desktops so you need to think about how important these are, whether they need to be backed up and if so, how often.
There’s also the issue of laptops and other mobile hardware. How do you back these up when they may only connect to the corporate network infrequently?
When you’ve identified what you need to backup, you now have to consider how often it needs to be done. This depends on how critical the information is to your operation; the more vital the data, the more often it needs to be saved.
Conventional wisdom leans towards what is known as a 3-2-1 backup strategy where you will always have three copies of any one file, at least one of which should be stored off-site. This might mean your original working copy and two copies are on separate backup drives, or one on a local backup drive and one in the cloud.
The use of cloud technology means that you automatically have an off-site copy and that it becomes easier to save more often. Even so, it’s worth considering saving you most crucial files to a local medium, such as an external hard drive for extra peace of mind.
Of course, it’s always important to store backups away from the system to which they relate. This means that in the event of a fire, theft or other unforeseen problems you won’t lose your backup as well as your main system.
If any data you store is sensitive you also need to think about how your backup copies are secured. For example, is it necessary to encrypt the information as you save it? If you are using cloud storage, looking at what security measures your provider has in place is another consideration.
In recent years, the availability of low cost, easily accessed cloud storage has seen a change, with many companies turning to business cloud backup solutions to save their data. The traditional solution has been to use tape or external disk to make backups. This means having multiple copies of the media so that you are able to return to earlier versions of files should you need to. Usually, this means a grandfather-father-son system wherein there are three copies of the information that are overwritten in sequence.
The drawback of this hardware approach to data backup is that it needs constant human intervention in order to swap the media around. Even if you automate the backup software so that it runs on a schedule, someone still has to make sure that the appropriate disk is connected at the right time, thereby increasing the possibility of errors occurring.
Saving to the cloud eliminates many of these problems. Backups can run automatically with minimal operator intervention. They can also be continuous so that files get backed up as soon as they are changed. There are benefits in scalability too; no need to buy more or larger disks as the amount of data in need of backup grows.
Of course, a cloud backup is only as good as the company providing it. Not only are there cost considerations, but also the performance and security measures that the backup provider has in place. Location is also important.
For example, when it comes to data retention, some types of sensitive data may not be stored overseas for compliance reasons so you should consider what mechanisms are in place to restore data should you ever need to.
Another example is how easy is it to restore an individual file in the event of it becoming corrupted or accidentally deleted, rather than restoring an entire library?
There are various issues you need to consider involving data retention, especially when ensuring you are in line with compliance rules. Cloud backups are a great way of reducing the concerns surrounding compliance, but you still need to be careful.
Archiving vs online backups
While we’re on the subject of backups, it’s also useful to consider the difference between a backup and an archive. While there are similarities, there are also important distinctions. Archived information generally consists of older copies of files that are no longer needed for current production systems but which need to be kept for compliance or reference reasons.
While archived data needs to be stored in the same way as a backup, it needs to be secured in such a way that it can be read but not changed or overwritten. You also need to consider the volume of information that you need to keep and how that will expand over time.
Again, the cloud has revolutionised the industry in this area with archive-as-a-service solutions becoming more readily available to simplify the management of archive storage, yet here, too, there are things to take into consideration. Archives, by their very nature, are long-term so you need to be sure that you choose a trusted supplier that isn’t going to disappear at some future point and take your data with it.
Disaster recovery for business continuity
While backups are an important part of operating your systems, we need to look at the bigger picture of disaster recovery planning. Of course, a backup is a key part of this, since data is the lifeblood of your business, but that data is of no use if you don’t have a system to access it on. With your systems suffering periods of downtime, you’ll quickly suffer a loss of earnings so you have to be able to get back on track as soon as you can.
Disaster planning, therefore, needs to look beyond the backup. Larger businesses, such as banks, will usually have ‘hot recovery’ provisions involving a shadow site that can take over the operation within minutes of a problem affecting the core operation. For smaller companies however, this isn’t a practical or affordable option, but there still needs to be a plan in place to continue working in the event of a major problem.
It goes beyond finding new office space:
- Do you have another site you could use or would you need to rent?
- Maybe you could operate by having some staff working remotely from home?
- Of course an office is only the start, you’ll need telephones, an internet connection and computer hardware. A cloud backup isn’t going to do you any good if you don’t have the systems in place to allow you to access it.
You must think about who within the business is going to be responsible for managing a disaster and beginning the process of getting the business back on track. In larger businesses, this might be a full-time job whereas in smaller companies, someone who can manage the recovery operation and has enough authority within the business to be able to get things done and bring together the resources needed is the best option.
As well as deciding who is in charge, you need to decide what happens to other staff in the business should disaster strike:
- Which staff do you need to get up and running again first and which can be kept waiting for a little longer?
- What are people’s individual duties in the event of a problem?
- Do they know where they should go and who they should contact and will they need any extra training to be able to complete the tasks expected of them in the event of a disaster?