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Smaller Businesses Need Better Back-Up Too

Small to medium-sized companies have as much at stake as larger enterprises when it comes to protecting data ? but often only a fraction of the resources to deal with it.

 

Date: 1 Sep 2005

Demand for backup technology among small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is currently growing faster than that from larger corporations. In fact, backup solutions for the SMB market represent more than half of all the tape storage units shipped and all the indications are that this trend will continue.

It?s not difficult to see why. Many smaller companies are now recognising that their data is their lifeblood ? and the loss of it can expose them to significant risk, resulting in loss of opportunities and subsequent revenue or even ruin of the whole company.

It?s a well-quoted ? but nonetheless frightening - fact that 90 per cent of all companies that lose their data because of some kind of disaster are out of business within two years and nearly 50 per cent never re-open their doors at all. Unfortunately, because of the way many small businesses operate, it is highly likely that they will be among this number if anything untoward happens.

So how can a smaller business ensure it has everything in place to cope with anything from a computer virus to an earthquake? Fortunately, the answer lies in having the right processes rather than rocket science. And also taking advantage of technologies, which are now affordable, that can simplify the processes, therefore dramatically cutting any risk. Here are some guidelines to help smaller companies adopt best practices:

Who?s in charge? It may sound obvious, but it is surprising how many smaller companies have a ?last one out turns off the lights? type of policy. Make sure your backup person knows who they are and what is expected. ? and especially the importance and implications of what they do.

Numerous surveys reveal that a primary cause of backup failure is human error. Larger companies have the resources to employ personnel responsible for establishing and maintaining proper disaster recovery procedures, but in smaller firms there many not even be a dedicated IT manager, let alone someone with time to spend on developing a reliable backup strategy.

Backup becomes one more thing tagged onto an already long job spec ? and a monotonous and thankless task it is too. The shuttling of tapes in and out of a backup tape drive is frequently delegated to staff who know little about data storage and security and just see backup as one more thing they have to do before going home.

The good news is that the backup process is generally reliable for the first month or two. Habits are formed and a few restores are performed to verify the process. However, as time goes on, the job loses its aura of importance, particularly after a few months pass without the need to restore data.

Once the backup process begins to erode, months or even years may pass before a problem is revealed ? and, unfortunately, it often comes to light at the worst possible moment.

Look carefully at the ?tape versus disk? question: This is, of course, an ongoing debate. But which is better for smaller businesses? In my view there is no doubt that tape continues to hold its ground for several key reasons, including cost, capacity, security and portability

Whether you are backing up an individual workstation or a small network, tape is an ideal medium because it is capable of storing high capacities of information for a relatively low cost. And tape is perfect for archiving because you can store cartridges off-site for enhanced data security.

While talk of disk to disk backup has increased lately, companies that have implemented disk based backup have realised that disk cannot replace tape and therefore, implemented disk to disk to tape backup. Tape remains complementary in these installations because of the inherent advantages tape offers in the following key areas. First, tape is offline making its data more immune to becoming corrupt due to virus or other intentional or unintentional threats. Second, because the tape media is much more suitable for longer term archiving.

But one of the main reasons that tape continues to be popular, despite predictions to the contrary, is the emergence of automated tape systems.

And is it up to the job? Then there is the problem of reliability and resilience of the tape drive and cartridge. Large corporations are likely to have their own data centre, housed in a controlled environment with temperature and humidity closely monitored.

In contrast, a smaller company is quite likely to store its tape drives ? well, just about anywhere and they will almost certainly be subject to temperature and humidity variations.

Recent research by Exabyte discovered that the market rated reliability and the ability to restore data as the most important attribute when choosing tape. Check on the track record of your preferred tape. The ability to restore data is critical to ensure business continuity after a disaster.

Have a clear policy on which files should be backed up: The most important files to backup are non-system files that users change on a frequent basis. The whole system should also be backed up periodically in case of a catastrophe. This periodic backup should include system files and application data. As user files reach the end of their retention period they should be archived on to tape, which frees up disk space and reduces the backup window .

Make a decision on how often and stick to it: Because data files change every time someone enters new information, many companies back up the data files every day (or only those files that have changed) and then perform a complete backup of the entire system on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. However, companies need to decide frequency of backup on an individual basis depending on how often data changes. In other words, how much data can they afford to lose without causing their business undue hardship?

It may seem that files should be backed up continuously, but that isn?t practical. The best strategy is to devise a schedule that works for the majority of data files. For example, a daily backup of new and modified data files can be scheduled and then a weekly backup of all files. If there are critical files that must be backed up more often, this can be done throughout the day.

And when? Ideally data should be backed up after regular business hours when demands on the network are at a minimum. Many small companies have an adequate backup window to perform backup at night and at weekends. However, if a business operates 24x7, or has staff working in different time zones, it needs to determine a time period when staff will be the least affected. If a business does operate around the clock, it is advisable to use backup software that has an open file option. This allows backup to continue while the files are in use.

Check how long backups should be stored: This of course depends on type of data and business requirements. Some data files that change frequently only the most recent files should be kept, however, other files such as engineering and financial files may need to retain all versions. As previous data becomes obsolete, tapes can be overwritten and reused. A full set of files on the system should be stored at a secure, off-site location. This will mean a complete file set can be recovered in case a disaster destroys the originals. There are, of course specific legal requirements for certain types of data.

Make sure they are stored well: One full set of company data should be kept on-site for immediate recovery and another copy off-site at a secure location in case the business suffers a fire, theft or other disaster. Many small companies choose to store backup tapes in a safe-deposit box at a local bank or even at the owner?s home.

Keep up-to-date with new options: Eliminating the daily insertion and removal of backup tapes by implementing robotic tape automation systems is the key to eliminating the risk of human error from the backup process. Although standard in large scale IT operations and data centres, until now tape automation systems have not been widely used by small to medium-sized businesses.

A survey by Exabyte last year revealed that 70 per cent of smaller businesses recognise the need for an automated system but thought the costs would be prohibitive. But over the years, autoloaders have evolved from scaled down versions of large tape library systems to simplified, streamlined designs specifically designed to be affordable to these smaller companies.

Autoloaders specifically address the challenge of successfully moving data to and from tape by automating the backup and retrieval processes, taking away the problems of human intervention and error.

Controlled by backup software, they enable specific backup routines to run automatically while simplifying data restoration. The autoloader?s robotic mechanism operates as a random-access ?changer? device with software that controls libraries or as a sequential-access ?stacker? device with tape drive control software.

With ten cartridge slots, a single tape loading operation, occurring weekly or even bi-weekly, addresses as many as ten backup events. By reducing the frequency of human involvement from daily to weekly, the autoloader eliminates the opportunity for human error or neglect by 80 per cent. Conveniently, a weekly tape loading routine also organises the tape sets for off-site rotation.

Also, the autoloader is invaluable when the size of the backup data set expands beyond the capacity of a single tape. The backup application automatically directs the autoloader to immediately load a new tape upon filling the first.

Anyone who works in a small to medium sized business knows they have as much at stake as a larger enterprise ? it can seem like more as often they are owned and managed by one and the same person. But with sturdy processes which follow best practices and good sense when it comes to assessing the latest technology, the smaller firm can make its backup as watertight as its larger counterparts.

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