Data Backup Solutions

Who’s Got Your Backup?

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For some reason, most people don’t seriously consider forming a backup strategy until it’s too late. Some people have no backup strategy in place; others have one but do not pay much attention to it; and others, the ones who can rest easy knowing they are protected, have multiple backup mechanisms in place.

Nowadays, there are as many ways to back up your data as there are ways to lose it. Backup solutions range from the venerable tape backup to hard drives to online backup services. No matter which product ends up being appropriate for you, the principals of sound data backup are the same:

  1. Determine what data needs to get backed up, how often and for how long.
  2. Keep it simple.
  3. Test your backups.
  4. Keep some sort of backup off-site.

What to Backup

The first step is common sense, yet it is frequently skipped.

Conduct a thorough analysis and inventory of existing systems with a focus on data storage. Start with a simple list of the directories on each server, PC, laptop or storage device in a spreadsheet. Add columns for:

  • The type of data in that directory (the content, not the file type—”Contracts” or “Bookmarks,” not DOC or XLS).
  • The owner (who would care if the files were deleted).
  • Identify whether the data is essential to your business.
  • In a more complex environment, add another column for a time when no one is using the file and it can be backed up. Note: Email and database servers usually require special technology to successfully backup in a constantly changing environment.

This brings up an interesting question: What is essential to your business? For a simple answer, ask yourself, “If I lose that file, could I lose money?” Note that the question is could rather than would; this casts a wider net for identifying what data should be backed up—it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Tip: Do not neglect laptops and the data stored on them. Because of their mobility, a different backup method may need to be considered to protect against data loss in the event a laptop fails, is lost or stolen.

Using the list of data, you can easily identify how much data you need to backup and evaluate how often it should be backed up, and how long your backup needs to be retained. For highly critical data, you may wish to have two separate types of backup to ensure your data is available when you need it.

There are a number of good backup options available to businesses today: tape, DVDs, external hard drives, and online backup. The more data you have to backup will help determine which of these media formats best meets your backup needs. Again, you may wish to implement more than one backup solution to increase your overall data protection.

If, for example, you opt for a tape backup solution, get a tape drive big enough to hold all your data. Keep it simple and do not substitute more complicated processes and additional labor to try to make an undersized tape system work. If your data doesn’t fit on one tape of the largest size tape available, then consider upgrading to an autoloader and treat the magazine as a single virtual tape – changing the entire magazine every day.

How Often to Back Up

Next consider your backup schedule. There’s a whole theory and science to backup rotations. As a result, we recommend that you skip to step number 2 – keep it simple. The more complex your system and schedule, the greater the chance that there will be a failure.

The most simple setup is to backup everything, everyday, with very limited and standardized exclusions. If at all possible, avoid incremental or differential backups. When incremental or differential backups are used, there is a corresponding increase in the number of tapes/media required for a restore. As a result, the chance of a successful restore decreases. Keep it Simple: Get a tape drive big enough to hold all your data.

Another “Keep It Simple Tip”

Do not attempt to create a “Swiss cheese” backup – in other words a backup with lots of exclusions. At some point there will be an exclusion where there should not be; and important data will be excluded from the backup. If data is going to be excluded from the backup, store it in a folder called “donotbackup”. Be disciplined and consistent in the spelling of this folder name and set a global exclusion for this name.

Another factor to consider when setting your backup schedule is how long it will take for the backup to run. Quite often there are two scenarios: the backup doesn’t take too long and can easily be run out of hours; or it takes ages and at least part of it has to run during office hours. If the latter is the case, the backup solution may need to be modified to enable a successful backup in an acceptable amount of time to ensure that your data is backed up.

How Long to Keep Backups

Save your backups for longer than you think you have to—something unexpected always comes up. (Why is it still unexpected? No one knows.)

Many organizations use an adapted version of Grandfather-Father-Son. What’s Grandfather-Father-Son, you ask?

Grandfather-Father-Son Backup refers to the most common rotation scheme for rotating backup media. Originally designed for tape backup, it works well for any hierarchical backup strategy. The basic method is to define three sets of backups, such as daily, weekly and monthly. The daily or Son backups are rotated on a daily basis with one graduating to Father status each week. The weekly or Father backups are rotated on a weekly basis with one graduating to Grandfather status each month. Often one or more of the graduated backups is removed from the site for safekeeping and disaster recovery purposes. Some organizations even include a Great Grandfather and keep a yearly backup off site for reference. There are a variety of regulations, such as in the financial industry, that mandate how long data backups must be maintained. If these types of regulations may apply to your business, be sure to consult with an expert before opting for a shorter backup rotation schedule.

Note: With the advent of online backup we’re often asked about how long to keep backed up data online. Online backup technology tends to use a different method for the actual data backup, but the data retention policies still apply. Set the online backup retention to match what you would use in a tape rotation scheme.

More Ways to Keep It Simple

Use a standard rotation schedule. It’s easier to remember to change the backup media every day than it is to remember to change the media once a week. If it becomes a habit for someone, it is much more likely to be done.

This is one place where online backup really shines because it no longer requires media rotation by an individual.

Help combat complacency by having a simple calendar or book that the person responsible for the monitoring and managing backup signs daily to ensure it is not neglected or forgotten.

Test your Backups

There is nothing worse than that feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize your backup process hasn’t been working. Just because you set up a backup job, load a tape, run the backup, and even read a successful report does not mean that files were actually backed up. Tapes fail (they are mechanical), files are locked and can’t be copied, and software errors do occur. Frankly, backup software is notorious for reporting that everything is satisfactory when in fact the job has failed.

Protect yourself, once a month, select a few files at random and restore them, making sure not to overwrite newer versions. Then open the files and confirm that they are intact and usable. A few times per year select a critical database, such as your email or billing database, and restore it, making sure that the restore is usable. If you find that your restores aren’t usable, you have time to address the problem before an emergency arises. If you wait to test your backup in an emergency situation, you may regret it.

IT Radix performs these tests on our clients’ behalf as part of our ManageIT plans. Learn more.

Always Keep a Backup Off-Site

The reason for off-site backup is simple: If something physically catastrophic happens at your place of work and your backups are there, they will be rendered inaccessible or destroyed. Store your off-site backup securely. Your off-site storage could be a steel-walled bunker in a secret location, or it could be your network manager’s home office. Either way, update it with a current backup every day to ensure that critical data is available when you need it most. This is another reason that online services are gaining in popularity; your data is automatically off-site without human intervention.

Tip: Keep copies of business critical software including the operating system software, serial numbers, appropriate userids and corresponding passwords offsite with the backup media to ensure it is available in the event of a major disaster.

By following these principles, you can backup your data and ensure that you will never lose your data no matter what Murphy’s Law throws at you.