What Is Your Data Backup Strategy Missing?

By RP Siegel
11/01/2013
Credit: ddpavumba via FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

It’s just about impossible to find a business that isn’t heavily dependent on computers, data, and software applications. Given the various risks that can cause critical information to disappear -- cyber-attack, natural disaster, computer virus, or coffee accidentally spilled into a laptop -- it is essential to have a strategy to back up computers and servers.

How does a small or medium business come up with a plan when they are already running as fast as they can just to stay in place?

Greg Schultz, founder of the StorageIO Group, an IT industry consultancy, said that any business that cannot go back, by retrieving the files that will inevitably get lost, will have a hard time moving forward. He raises three questions that should help companies develop an effective plan.

1. What are the chief challenges?

Each company has unique challenges, but some, like growing piles of data and shrinking budgets are common to many. The length of time that data must be preserved is also increasing. And the threats keep evolving and appearing at seemingly random times. Even the best security won’t always keep data from getting lost. Networker Information Hub adds other challenges of data protection, such as regulatory compliance and formalization. Formalization refers to the process in which information systems become more structured as a business grows. New structures may, at times, conflict with pre-existing structures and practices that were less formal.

2. What data should we protect?

This is a critical step. Attempt to predict which threats are most likely to occur and assess the impact of losing access to various data assets. For engineers, this is analogous to Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA), in which the probability, severity and detectability of failure are evaluated for each component in a system. Other questions worth asking at this stage include:

  • Are existing backup efforts built around available technology or are they driven by business needs?
  • Are the business needs really needs, or are they business wants?

Superimposed on these questions, are the issues of time and location. How often must data be backed up and how quickly must the data be restored in order to minimize the business impact? Is it sufficient to backup to a local disk? Should a remote server be used? What about a cloud-based backup? These will impact cost on one hand and restoration time on the other.

Local backup has the advantage and convenience of having all the data nearby, on separate equipment. But in the event of a disaster like a fire, all the data will be lost. On the other hand, remote backup requires software rather than hardware, as well as a reliable communications link and a service provider to house the remote backup servers. This option has many advantages. It is usually automated, so forgetting to back up is not an issue. Downsides include reliance on the Internet or other communication channel as well as entrusting data with a third party.

3. How can we reduce and mange what must be backed up?

The overall data footprint can be reduced through a combination of archiving, compression, consolidation, data management, and de-duplication. Using snapshots or incremental backups, copying only those files that have been added or changed since the last backup is also helpful.

Data flows are important. Bottlenecks should be identified quickly and remediated by re-routing some portion of the load. This frees up bandwidth for both backup and retrieval.

One common error is backing up data without maintaining the applications associated with that data. In case of a system crash, the applications will need to be restored along with the data. In addition to applications, backups should include procedures for recovering command scripts, applications, user-defined functions (UDFs), and stored procedure code in operating system libraries.

Understanding the company’s data requirements in light of the most likely risks will help define the policies, technologies, and ­services required for an effective backup strategy.

Kevin Lo and Elliot Harmon, writing in TechSoup, list several best backup practices:

Plan the backup strategy. Assign roles and responsibilities for the people performing the backups and for monitoring their success.

Think beyond just the office and its computers. These days many employees work at home or even on the road. Is that data being backed up? But what about data stored on staff members' home computers? Or on mobile devices? Is the website backed up? There is also still quite a bit of data stored as hard copy. How is that being backed up? Is it in fireproof, waterproof containers? Has it been scanned?

Give highest priority to crucial data. Database and accounting files are most crucial and should be backed up as used. Documents should be backed up weekly. No need to backup complete hard drives as much of that space is used by the operating system and related utilities.

Store and protect backups. Rotate a set of backups off-site weekly. Having two sets of backups kept by two people in two locations is also a good idea. If the area is susceptible to natural disasters, make sure the remote backup site is not in the same area.

Thinking about how you will access critical data and files. Consider walking through a data loss scenario. What files will be needed to restore full operation? Where will those files come from? If using cloud-based services, be sure to ask these same questions of your cloud service provider.

Test backups before they are needed. Go through a complete backup and restore trial run. The wrong time to find out about problems with the system is after a disaster. 

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