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7 rules for effective data backup procedures

If you're responsible for data backups on multiple systems, strong policies are highly recommended. This tip gives you seven rules to follow for effective data backup procedures.

Consistency is not merely a virtue when it comes to handling data backups -- it's a necessity.

If you don't consistently handle all aspects of backup and recovery in the same way across the organization, then backups become a lot harder to deal with. You could also find yourself facing a nasty, expensive surprise the next time you need to restore from those backups.

Consistency isn't as easy as it was in the days of "One Big Computer" with "One Big Tape Drive." The world is changing even more rapidly today than before. Besides the usual business realignments that have to be reflected by backups, new concepts like information lifecycle management, new platforms like the cloud and new rules like GDPR require changing backup policies.

Equally important, enterprises often have to back up more than one system or type of database. Although consolidated backups are a major trend, there are still multiple backup systems to manage in many enterprises. The storage administrator's job is to get everyone on the same page and keep them there.

Whether you're responsible for backups on one system or multiple systems, you need not just backup policies, but also a well-understood data backup procedure for setting those policies. Follow the seven rules below to get on the right track.

1. Set consistent policies

Your procedure should encourage, if not demand, consistent backup policies across all the servers and backup devices in your enterprise. This isn't always possible, especially in the case of mixed backup devices, such as backing up the data center with a disk library and using cloud backup for remote offices.

In general, policies are low-level criteria, usually set within backup software, and data backup procedures are the higher-level constructs that determine policies. Thus, in backup, procedures manage policies.

So, for our purposes, "backup policy" refers to the rules that control the actual backup. These are usually enforced by the software under the term policy management. Data backup procedures are the methods used to set policies.

2. Make sure the policies are clear and as easy to implement as possible

A policy that isn't consistently followed because it's confusing isn't much better than having no policy at all. Ideally, everyone should understand the policy and why it exists. That means putting the justification in writing.

Backups involve critical data. Staff should recognize the importance of the data as well as the backup and recovery process. Data backup procedures shouldn't just sit on the shelf -- organizations should consistently update them and review them with staff.

3. Establish metrics

An effective procedure has clear, measurable and appropriate ways of checking to see that the policies are being followed. Modern backup software with automatic policy management features helps considerably.

Testing data backup procedures, just like testing overall recovery plans, is key to an organization's knowledge that it can follow the policies appropriately in a data loss event.

4. Strive to take the human out of the loop

A good policy takes people out of the backup process as much as possible, because machines are simply more reliable. It usually isn't possible or feasible to completely eliminate humans from the process for economic or other reasons, but minimizing their influence should be a procedural goal.

Your organization should have confidence in its backup software, whether it's taking differential, incremental or full backups, whether hourly, daily or weekly. However, staff should consistently check that backups are working.

5. Collect ongoing feedback

Effective data backup procedures create policies that are responsive to the real world. That means you need to make an effort to find out from the people in the trenches how well the policies are actually working.

Ideally, this is more than a passive effort. Storage administrators should actively seek opinions from the people affected by the stakeholders, especially the people who are doing the work.

6. Get buy-in

You've heard it before: Get buy-in from the people doing the work. However, it's especially important here because many backup and restore failures have human error as a root cause. In addition, media failures -- another common reason for backup issues -- are often a direct result of human error. And human error is notoriously influenced by the human's commitment to the process.

To be blunt, if you don't have buy-in, then you're going to have a much higher rate of failed backups. This is a particular problem with backups at remote locations, when the people doing the backups don't belong to the storage organization and running backups is an auxiliary job.

7. Make it easy to change policies as technology and needs change

The purpose of data backup procedures is to make it easy to establish good policies. Good policies are those that reflect and adapt to the real needs of the organization. A slow, inflexible and overly bureaucratic policy-setting procedure will hinder rather than help this goal.

As threats and backup technology both continue to evolve, data backup procedures must adapt as well. Make sure your organization's procedure is up to date and out in front of technologies. If you're in a backup and recovery situation involving critical data, you want to be ready to recover quickly and effectively.

This article was expanded and updated in June 2019.

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