Checked your backup lately?

 In advice, planning

Ever since businesses began using computers, they have been (hopefully) performing backups of their data.  Yet, it is still common among small and medium-sized business owners to underestimate the importance of backups.  Most people are content with the fact that they purchased backup software or an online backup service, or perhaps they receive an email every morning telling them that their backup completed, not even bothering to look at the details.

Merely purchasing an inexpensive backup service or USB drive and choosing the default settings does not guarantee that the backup is usable when disaster strikes.  Not to mention, a single backup plan may fail at the absolute worst time, leaving a business with no secondary disaster recovery option.

How can a company avoid costly disaster recovery costs, and feel confident that their critical data is protected?

While there is no ironclad guarantee that a disaster won’t happen to you, here are some solid guidelines for protecting the integrity of your data and IT hardware:

  1. Use a UPS on your servers and critical systems hardware – a UPS, or Uninterruptable Power Supply, is a device that provides both a battery backup and surge protection to the electronic devices plugged into it.  This is more than a mere power strip that one might use at home.  Better UPS models also provide voltage regulation and safe shutdown options.  Voltage regulation keeps power fluctuations to a minimum, reducing wear and tear on electronic equipment.  Safe shutdown allows for the UPS to send a signal to your server in the event of an extended power outage, gracefully shutting down the machine to avoid data loss.  It can even power up the server automatically once power is restored.
  2. Use more than one backup routine – a single backup routine can sometimes fail without any indication that something is wrong.  The worst time to uncover this issue is months after it first occurred, and in the middle of having to restore critical data today.  To add an additional layer of protection, add another form of backup, preferably using a different system than your primary backup.  For instance, in addition to running backups to a network storage device or USB drive, run an offsite backup using an online backup service.  Your IT service provider should make sure that the backup scheduling for both routines does not conflict, and also verify that the online backup service you’re using supports encryption and some type of file versioning or lookback.  Some online services are better than others; choose a provider that is suited to business-class data, not a consumer product meant for simple backups of a few gigabytes of files on a home PC.
  3. Test your backup media – this is probably the single-most neglected component of a solid backup system.  Backup media, whether it is tapes, hard drives, or an online service, should be tested on a regularly scheduled basis, without exception.  The time and cost of restoring some files every quarter is far less than the cost of rebuilding an entire system from scratch when it is found that the backup media is corrupt or unreadable.

What kinds of backups are suitable for the different systems businesses rely on?

There are many different types of data residing on business servers and systems these days, and it is important to know the correct methods for backing up each kind.  Though we can’t cover all of the different proprietary data formats in this article, we can explain how to backup some of the more common ones.

  1. Flat file data – Data that is referred to as “flat files”, are often the most common files found in businesses.  These include MS Word and Excel documents, PDFs, and other kinds of files that aren’t perpetually open and modified all the time.  This kind of data is easily backed up by most backup software, even a simple file copy.  However, it is always a good idea to keep more than one version of these files, as it is not uncommon to have to reach back to an earlier version if someone’s latest revision corrupts the file.
  2. Databases – Many multiuser applications utilize databases, which allow for efficient and robust data access by a large group of people.  The problem with backing up databases is that the data is constantly being accessed, which makes it difficult or impossible to back up using traditional flat file methods.  Some database software, such as Microsoft SQL, allow for the scheduling of maintenance plans that backup the database to a point-in-time flat file.  Also, many business-class backup software solutions include agents that can correctly backup the live data in the database.  Keep in mind, however, that some database applications utilize very specific methods to store and manipulate data, so make sure to check with your IT service provider and/or application vendor to determine the best method of backing up your data.
  3. Email – It would not be unfair to say that email systems are the life’s blood of almost any business.  Losing email data could cripple the functioning of even the smallest workforce, and may even expose you to costly legal troubles if you are required to adhere to compliance regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA.  If an on-premise email server is in place, it is best to make sure a proper backup agent is used.  It should have the ability to restore the entire email database, as well as individual messages.  Additionally, an offsite backup or email archive is strongly recommended if possible, and it may even be a requirement if you’re a financial firm or healthcare facility.
  4. Virtual machines – While the subject of virtualization is large enough to warrant its own article, it should be mentioned here, as it is quickly becoming a standard technology.  Many newer server systems use virtualization to allow for the operating system and applications to remain independent of the underlying hardware.  What this means in terms of disaster recovery is that it allows for the possibility of quick and effective restores of entire servers.  However, this setup requires very specific planning and setup, so make sure to consult your service provider.  Also, it is recommended that you have a current support contract with your virtualization software vendor, such as VMWare or Microsoft.

How does my disaster recovery budget affect the effectiveness of my backups?

Not many businesses can afford to spend frivolously in the current economic climate.  Some costs, though, should not be cut without careful consideration.  No sensible company owner would consider foregoing liability insurance for his or her employees , vehicles or office building, simply to save a few dollars.  Yet, many of these same business owners will be apprehensive about spending any money to update or improve their backup plan.  It is unfortunate that many businesses don’t see the value of comprehensive disaster recovery until they experience a data loss or failure of their current system.  Taking into account the labor costs, downtime, and lost revenue that comes with a catastrophic server failure, the price of a new backup solution may be much more reasonable by comparison.  That doesn’t mean that backup solutions should be exorbitant.  What is important is that the backup system should be able to deliver what the business requires for speed of recovery.  Generally speaking, the more you spend on your disaster recovery, the more quickly your business will be up and running after a disaster.  Some businesses can manage to hobble along without all of their files for almost a day, as long as they have access to email and/or hard copies.  Other companies are essentially dead in the water without their computer systems, and they cannot afford to be without full functionality for more than an hour.  Having several layers of backups, including full image backups of the most critical systems, can make for a much speedier return to productivity than a traditional flat file backup.  Redundant hardware on servers and critical network equipment can also alleviate extended downtime.

By no means does this article cover all the bases when it comes to backup and disaster recovery.  The best course of action is to consult with your IT service provider to design and implement a disaster recovery plan that suits your needs, and provides multiple backup options.


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