Backups – How To Choose Your Data’s Safety Net

Most businesses cannot afford to lose their data, but often do not put adequate measures in place to protect this critical component of their business.  If the building where you operate your business was to sustain extensive damage from a fire, flood, or other damage that caused all of your data to be lost, how would your business recover?  If your server was to fail and all data become unreadable, how would you recover?  While insurance can help with some costs, it typically will not cover the cost of re-creating the data.  Data backups should be an integral part of your disaster recovery plan, along with other items such as recovery of critical documents, phone systems, and reduction of down time due to hardware failure.  Data backups consist of two critical components: the hardware where the backup data is stored, and the best backup software that places it there and manages the backup volumes and recovery.  In this article, we’ll examine the hardware aspects.

Tape Backups

One of the older types of backup methods was tape media.  You may have seen pictures or movie scenes of data centres filled with endless rows of shelves with reels of magnetic tape.  This technology was scaled down and capacities increased dramatically in order to keep up with growing storage requirements.  Tape backup has some conveniences:

  1. Backup tape cartridges are self enclosed and small, making them easy to transport offsite.
  2. This method can also be the only viable option where large backups are needed to backup multiple Terabytes in a single backup operation due to the availability of robotic drives capable of automatically swapping multiple tapes.

Disadvantages include:

  1. The relatively high cost.  For example a 160GB (so called 320 GB because of compression) costs over $3,000 and tapes cost some $40 to $100 each.
  2. The tape drives require care and regular cleaning using special tools or tapes.
  3. The lifespan of the tapes can be shortened 1) if they go through extreme temperature fluctuations, 2)are exposed to magnetic fields, 3) wear out with use and, 4) errors can develop even from just sitting in a shelf.
  4. The relatively slow restore speeds of tape.
  5. Advanced, costly backup software is required to properly manage backup jobs and tape drives.

Offsite Backups

The idea off offsite storage has evolved from data centres using file transfer protocols to transmit important data to offsite systems using data communication links.  With the growth of the Internet the idea was expanded to provide this as a pay-per-use service and this type of backup is typically referred to as “Online Backup” or “Cloud Backup”.  It involves standard or customized backup software that encrypts your data, then sends it off through the internet to servers hosted by the service provider.  It offers the convenience of automated offsite backups, but comes with some caution:

  1. You need a high speed internet connection.
  2. Even with a high speed connection, the initial backup can take days to complete, depending on the amount of data to be backed up.
  3. In the event of a full restore, this procedure can also take days.  Some service providers off the option of having the data placed onto a portable drive and shipped to you for an additional fee.
  4. The backup process needs to be monitored regularly to ensure that it does not fail and to see that backups don’t just continue to grow and take up increasing amounts of space and subsequently higher charges.
  5. Some of the backup software used by service providers is unable to properly backup servers.  Some make a complete copy of the data locally before sending it off the remote server, thereby requiring the same amount of free space available on the local system as the amount being backed up.
  6. Depending on the amount of data, this option can become costly, such as $100/month or more for 500MB of space.
  7. Depending on your internet service provider, you may incur additional costs due to the high amount of data transfer.
  8. If you require multiple snapshots in time over a period of months (ie: for accounting systems or possibly restore files deleted inadvertently and only discovered missing later), this capability may not be available.

Portable disk drives

Portable hard drives have emerged as a viable backup medium over the last three years or so, as capacities and reliability have increased.  These come as 2.5” or 3.5” drives in a self-contained and highly portable enclosure.  The smaller size is obviously easier to transport for offsite storage.  These drives have the advantage of low cost and fast operation that can dramatically cut down backup and restore operations.  An important drawback to note is that although rugged (additional carbon polymer cases are also available), these drives should still be handled with care and protected from extreme temperature variations, extreme physical shock, and strong magnetic field sources.  Some people may find the task of having to take the drives offsite awkward, although this applies to all methods involving actual media.  As of this writing, a portable 2.5” external drive with 500GB capacity costs about $110.

Solid State Storage (SSDs)

Solid State drives offer many of the advantages of portable drives, but with unique advantages and disadvantages.  This is still an emerging technology that has not yet achieved the necessary manufacturing volume to bring prices down.  As a result, a 300GB drive still costs about $800.  However, as prices drop, these drives provide very fast access, are very small and light (1.8” wide), and are very resilient with no moving parts.  A recent report released by the market research company IDC estimates that the price per gigabyte (GB) for SSD storage will fall below the $1USD by the second half of 2012.

USB Storage Sticks

USB Flash Drives are becoming an increasingly viable solution as well.  They are very small and resilient, making them easy to transport, and with increasing capacities.  While not appropriate for most servers due to the smaller capacity, USB sticks with a capacity of 16 GB cost about $25, while 32GB and even 64GB already available.

Digital Disks

Digital disks (CDs and DVDs) can be an acceptable backup media for smaller single workstations or to archive individual projects.  This type of media is easily accessible and transportable, and quite inexpensive.  Beware, however that this type of media can easily get damaged.  A disk whose top surface is scratched will typically be rendered unreadable.  Some manufacturers also claim a shelf life of 30+ years.  In practice, though, the recorded layer will sometimes separate from the plastic base, rendering the disk useless, and disks left on a location that receives direct sunlight can become unreadable within days due to the chemical discoloration of the dies used to record the data.


An important factor in any backup system is the software used to perform and manage these backups.  There are a significant number of factors to take into consideration, which are also dependent on the type of backup, type of data, and type of machine being backed up.  Backup and restore of databases and other server software has unique requirements.  These backup software requirements will be covered in a separate article.

Backup Cycles

If you have a file server that has redundant disk drives (mirrored disks or RAID), under no circumstances should you consider this as a type of backup.  You should also never backup onto the same media over and over.  Backup media must also be taken offsite, and only the media required for that backup operation should be at the business location.  Your own needs for backups will vary depending on a number of factors, such as how much data changes, volume of data, and retention requirements.  As a result, it is not appropriate to state that there is a “best data backup strategy” or “best practice” for data backups.  It is dependent on each unique requirement.  Some small businesses that use backup media and have a small volume of changes use 3 media for backups: they perform incremental backups onto one media through the week, then a full backup at the end of the week.  This media is then taken offsite and one of the other two is brought back into the office for the following week.  If several monthly or yearly backups are required, then full backups are performed onto backup media, which is then taken offsite.

As you can see, there is no single solution for all applications.  Yet, having proper backups is a crucial process for the protection and continuity of any business.  It is important to take all aspects and requirements into consideration to ensure protection of your business data.  Equally important is to perform regular checks and testing of your backups, not only to ensure that they are running, but also to perform sample restore operations of select files.  Another item of note is that all backups should be encrypted, whether to online/cloud services, or any other medium.

As a Toronto IT company providing a comprehensive suite of IT services and IT solution, we will be pleased to work with you to analyze your needs and help you implement the best solution and best backup strategy for your business.


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