Data backup and recovery choices for SMBs

SMBs have just as many data backup options as their enterprise counterparts. Here's how to decide what's best for you: commercial backup sofware, open-source or cloud backup.

W. Curtis Preston

Small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) need and deserve the same level of quality found in the data backup and recovery systems of their larger "enterprise" counterparts. The good news is that there are a lot of choices available to them. Where there are only a handful of data backup software packages that can meet the needs of enterprise customers, there are myriad choices available to SMBs. Among these choices are many gems, and many products that will be just fine. The bad news is that among these choices also lie a number of very disappointing products, too. The really bad news is that SMBs can't afford expensive consultants to help them navigate through the dozens of choices available to them. So what's an SMB to do?

It's all about the data backup requirements

The first thing that an SMB must do is to become familiar with their data backup requirements. What operating systems do you plan to back up (e.g., Windows, Mac OS, Linux)? What applications do you run on your servers (e.g., Exchange, SQL Server, SharePoint, Oracle)? How much data will you be backing up? How fast do you want to back it up and how fast do you want to restore it? How often do you want to back it up?

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One of the most commonly ignored requirements is the need to get the data offsite in some way. So many smaller companies have their only backup system onsite, and when disaster occurs, their system is destroyed right along with the servers it's protecting. The company in the office next to this author lost all their data when their main server and its backup drive were stolen together. Please do not forget to include this requirement, despite what you may have been told about its cost.

Another requirement that often goes by the wayside in SMBs is the need to have a fully integrated backup system. Many times smaller companies try to back up things like Exchange and SQL Server by dumping them to disk and backing up those dump files. While this is a viable approach, the preferred approach should be to use backup software that fully understands all your data types and backs them up directly.

Proprietary commercial backup software

There is not a shortage of commercial backup software available for SMBs. Viable backup packages start as low as $75. The cost starts increasing as you add agents for Exchange, SQL Server, etc. A list of many of these packages is available at Backup Central. Make a list of all of the packages that appear to support the data types you need, and make note of any pricing information you may find on their websites.

Open-source backup software

A very valid alternative for many companies is the use of open-source data backup software, and these software packages fall into two categories: free and commercial. The free packages tend to be built on a Linux core, so using a Linux-based backup server is required for their use. If that requirement would mean installing a Linux system for the first time, this is probably not a viable alternative for you. Learning a new backup system is hard enough; learning it on a new operating system can be a show-stopper. In addition, the free packages vary in their maturity, and some may require more customization and debugging than others. It's a good idea to check out the product's user community for postings to see the kind of bugs you may experience as well as the support you're likely to find with that product. Free products to consider include Amanda, Bacula, BackupPC, rdiff-backup, and rsnapshot.

Just as there is a community version and a commercial version of the open-source MySQL database, and commercial distributions of Linux, there are also community and commercial versions of open-source backup software. Commercial support for Amanda is provided by Zmanda and support for Bacula is provided by Bacula Systems. While both of these products obviously cost more than their community counterparts, the cost pales in comparison with that of many commercial packages. Whether you use the free or commercial version, the money saved can be spent on hardware.

Data backup hardware

While tape is still in use in most companies, it's no secret that disk has become a preferred target for backups, and this is especially true for SMBs, which may not have the resources to spend troubleshooting all of the things that can happen in a tape-based backup system. Depending on the size of your company, you may be able to use very small, inexpensive arrays like those provided by Drobo or Iomega, or the smaller versions of dedupe targets such as those provided by Data Domain, Quantum, or Exagrid. Again, one of the best things you can do for your backup system is to save your money on software by using open-source software, and spend the money you save on a really nice backup target.

Cloud backup services

Or, you can forget about backup software and hardware and hand all your backup problems to someone else -- a cloud data backup service. Install a piece of software on any system to be backed up and magic just happens. If the magic doesn't happen, it's someone else's job to notice and let you know. This is really the best way to do backups for many SMBs -- if you can find a company whose pricing you can swallow. Companies like Backblaze, Carbonite Inc., CrashPlan and EMC/Mozy are offering very reliable backup with pricing aimed at SMBs. (If you're willing to host your own backup server at a colo facility or at someone's home, you can actually use CrashPlan for free.)

Don't settle for less just because you're a smaller company. Demand reliable backup that is stored offsite so that your company will continue to exist even when your servers don't.

About this author: W. Curtis Preston (a.k.a. "Mr. Backup"), Executive Editor and Independent Backup Expert, has been singularly focused on data backup and recovery for more than 15 years. From starting as a backup admin at a $35 billion dollar credit card company to being one of the most sought-after consultants, writers and speakers in this space, it's hard to find someone more focused on recovering lost data. He is the webmaster of, the author of hundreds of articles, and the books "Backup and Recovery" and "Using SANs and NAS."

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