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Pros and cons of remote storage services for SMBs

For SMBs, managing remote storage can be complex and costly. This article discusses SMB backup service considerations, such as liability, security and cost issues.

Small law practices, clinics, contractors, neighborhood retailers and custom manufacturers might not need to manage hundreds of terabytes, but data is still critical for their daily operation. If data is lost, the small and medium-sized business (SMB) may lose significant revenue, experience legal repercussions or even go out of business.

The challenge for an SMB is to implement and manage data protection. Since SMBs rarely have the staff or budget to handle complex data protection in-house, third-party storage services can provide a cost-effective alternative.

SMB backup service considerations

The most important advantage to Storage as a Service (SaaS) is simplicity -- SMBs don't need to buy backup servers and software, configure the backup system or manage the backup media themselves. In most cases, the SaaS provider will supply compatible software tools for your backup process. Once the service vendor helps you install and configure the backup tools, data is backed up to its off-site storage facilities across the Internet. Users can typically manage and access their backups through a Web-based management tool.

Remote storage provides the speed and reliability of disk, while eliminating tapes that have to be tracked and stored, and sometimes get lost. Service providers can also be selected in other geographic regions that are free from fires, floods, earthquakes and other common disasters that might easily destroy a business and its data. So, storage services provide a measure of business continuity or disaster recovery capability that might otherwise be too expensive or complicated for an SMB.

Remote storage services typically support discrete backups and/or point-in-time snapshots. Discrete backups are the traditional bulk backups of a server or business environment. These can be performed nightly, weekly or on a schedule that is most convenient to your business. When traditional backup models are implemented, be sure to employ delta difference features that will only save new or changed data once the initial data set is backed up. This dramatically reduces the time needed to protect your data. Snapshots periodically capture changes to the data throughout the day and move them to the storage provider. Snapshots may be the preferred technique when the SMB needs to reduce its recovery point (minimize data loss) or recover individual files on a frequent basis. (Note that full backups may not allow for easy individual file recovery.)

Service security and reliability

It is important to understand how a prospective storage provider handles security. For example, your business data should be encrypted by the backup software before it is sent to the storage provider and then stored in its encrypted form at all times. Providers normally support AES 256 or another current encryption standard. Not all data needs to be encrypted, but the capability should be there. There should also be no "back door" for the encryption being used -- the SMB should be the only entity capable of accessing and reading the encrypted data again. If the service provider is able to decrypt or circumvent the encryption, the data is not truly secure.

Beyond encryption, look for remote storage management tools that are easy to use. Some vendors provide a management portal that allows users to access their data directly. But regardless of the specific tool or features, an SMB should always be able to check on the status of their data and account, and restore files or backups on demand.

Consider the implications of WAN and service reliability. While SMBs may not lose millions in revenue each hour their storage is inaccessible, the small business can still suffer losses due to disruptions at the storage service provider or anywhere in the WAN. Have a plan ready to deal with service disruptions.

Saving money with storage services

Storage service providers often tout low prices, but an SMB should take the time to understand all of the costs involved with a given level of service. Pricing schemes vary. Some service providers charge per gigabyte stored or per gigabyte moved and sometimes a mix of the two. Backup software licensing or other maintenance changes may cost extra. All of this can have a profound impact on your monthly storage costs. For example, suppose two SMBs store the same amount of data. The SMB that accesses that data more frequently may be charged significantly more than the other.

Another common pricing issue occurs when an SMB exceeds its service level without warning and receives an unexpectedly high bill for the additional storage or traffic volumes. It is important to know where the service points are, and be sure that you receive alerts or some other notification before exceeding the agreed service levels and invoking higher charges. Don't sign up with any service until you have a thorough grasp of the service provider's pricing structure and its estimates of your monthly fees. Take advantage of trial offers or start with very short-term agreements wherever possible.

Another way for an SMB to save money and stay within an agreed service level is to reduce the sheer volume of data being sent off-site. Features like compression (and even data deduplication in the backup tool if available) can reduce data, shrinking the total data stored and reducing the data volume moved. It is also possible to reduce remote storage volumes by eliminating unnecessary data, such as .pdf files, MP3 files and other nonessential data types. An SMB can simply relocate unnecessary data to another server or folder, which can be omitted from backup jobs.


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