On average, about 70% of small businesses do some sort of data backup. This covers a broad spectrum of backup technologies from manual copying of files to fully automated backup and backup monitoring. Many small business owners out there do not know all of the technologies that are available and/or the implications of using each.
File Based Backup
I will start with the technology that most people are familiar with…..file based backup. File based backup is, simply stated, copying your critical files to secondary storage media. The desired result of file based backup is to have the files available if the primary storage media fails or a file gets lost, corrupted, etc.
File based backups work well if your business is document centric. In other words, if you can buy another computer off the shelf and install one or two software packages, copy your data from a backup and be working at full speed again, file backup is a viable option.
For any backup to provide the proper level of protection it must be executed properly. Many small businesses, especially micro businesses rely on manual file copies. Relying on human beings to copy critical data to a secondary source is never an effective backup plan. Too much opportunity for error is introduced. Most small business owners are far too busy to back up data at regular intervals. Another problem is consistency. It is far too easy to accidentally copy files to the wrong location. I have even seen cases where a person selected an entire directory (all their critical files) and accidentally pressed delete. Depending on where that data lives, it may or may not be in a recycle bin.
File based backup solutions today are cheap. Windows 7 even has a built in backup feature (works okay for file based backups, but not generally recommended for image based backups which we will discuss later in this article). Now the decision has to be made to either backup to storage media on your network, or to the ubiquitous cloud. I generally recommend backing up to the cloud simply because it provides an “off site” backup so that if your office was destroyed in a fire or some other disaster, your files are still available. Searching the internet for file backup solutions will result in page upon page of vendors. Some of the most current and the coolest technologies backup your files anytime they change and allow you to share your files with others. Some also offer file versioning. In other words, each time you save a file, it becomes the current version of the file, but the old versions are still available. Some of these systems can even replace the functionality of shared drives. This would allow everyone (or a sub set of everyone) in your business to have constant access to a set of files without the need for an expensive file server.
Image Based Backup
Now, let’s take a look at a more complicated scenario. Consider an engineering company for example. An engineer may have specialized software on their computer or laptop such as AutoCAD. AutoCAD can be quite configurable with custom menu bars and commands. Engineers may also have other statistical and graphical software and various input methods such as tablets. If this computer fails, manual recovery is a much longer process. Recovery of a system like this using file based backups and software reinstalls could take a couple of days depending on how well the system has been documented and how available the software is.
This same issue can apply to servers. Servers normally have extensive configuration done over time to provide the functionality that the business needs. So how do we handle these situations? The answer is image based backups.
You may be asking yourself, what is an image? An image is an exact copy of a hard drive. If I make an image of my laptop’s hard drive on another hard drive, then pull my existing hard drive out and place the new one in my laptop, my laptop would boot as if nothing changed. Sounds wonderful, right?
There are some problems with image based backups. First, an image contains drivers for the hardware it was created from. So, an image cannot always be restored to new hardware. The better image based backup systems out there have a feature usually called “universal” or “bare metal” restore. This means that the image created with their system is fully prepared to be installed on hardware that may be dissimilar from the hardware on which it was created.
The next problem with a hard drive image is the size. Since you are doing a sector by sector copy of a physical hard drive, the image files can be somewhat large and if you are backing up on a regular basis, repeated full image backups will take up a huge volume of storage. The better image based backup vendors employ some level of compression to reduce the file size. These vendors also provide incremental backups, so each time a backup runs, only the sectors that have changed are stored. Some vendors take the recovery process one step further by creating a standby virtual machine. It would take another complete article to describe what I mean by a virtual machine, but let’s just say the recovery would be fast. How fast? I could have you using your crashed computer in the time it would take me to copy the image file to a different computer. It’s much easier to demo the process than to describe it.
Monitoring and Testing
Regardless of which backup method or combination of backup methods you choose, a backup is only good if it actually runs. Most businesses choose to run backups on a schedule. Do you know with absolute certainty that your last backup completed successfully? In my opinion, a backup plan is useless if it is not monitored. Many vendors provide automatic notification of the status of scheduled backups. My only advice is…..do NOT rely solely on the notification messages. Check the status of your backups from time to time.
The other key point in a backup plan is testing. The backups are no good if you don’t know how to restore the recovery points. I’ve seen excellent backup plans fail miserably because nobody ever tested the recovery process.
Monitoring and testing (in addition to backups) are functions that would be the responsibility of an I.T. department in larger businesses, but are often overlooked in smaller organizations. If you’re unsure of the right approach for your business, get help. I’ve quoted this statistic before, but it says a great deal about the importance of solid backups – 75% of small businesses that experience significant data loss go out of business. Some of the 75% are businesses that though they were backing their systems up properly.
I hope that this article has provided some food for thought on computer system backups without being overly technical. I welcome further discussion and can gladly go in to more detail or clarify some points if needed.
Fuel I.T. Services, LLC