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Choosing the best data backup system: An SMB backup tutorial

Choosing best data backup system for your company can be tricky. Learn which is best: tape, disk or cloud backup in this article by backup guru W. Curtis Preston.

Companies that measure the capacity of their data storage systems in hundreds of gigabytes, or a few terabytes,...

have many more data backup and recovery choices available to them than their enterprise counterparts. In fact, there are often too many choices. Unfortunately, small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) often don't have the budget to engage consultants to help them choose between all these options. So how does an SMB choose the best data backup method for their business? While we can't make the decision for you, this tutorial will help you choose a data backup system by helping you to understand the process a consultant would use to do the same task, and by grouping some of the main choices available to you.

Determining your data backup system requirements

Any good consultant is going to ask you to look at your requirements as the first step in selecting a backup system. You need solid answers to questions like the following:

  • How much data are you backing up?
  • What operating systems are you backing up (Windows, Mac OS, Linux)?
  • What applications do you need to back up (Exchange, SharePoint, SQL Server)?
  • How much time in the day do you have to complete your backup?
  • If you had to restore all your data, how long do you want that restore to take? (This is referred to as your recovery time objective, or RTO.)
  • If you had to restore any of your applications (or all of them), how many hours or days of data are you prepared to lose?

Make sure you also include the ability to get data offsite. SMBs (especially very small ones) often forget this requirement. The next thing you know, there's a fire or theft and you've lost every piece of data the company ever owned. Offsite storage is not an option or a luxury of large enterprises -- it is an absolute requirement that should never be compromised. In fact, it is easier to meet this requirement with an SMB than it is with an enterprise customer, since the amount of data you are dealing with is much smaller.

Another very important requirement is a fully integrated data backup system. SMBs often believe that agents designed to backup Exchange, SQL Server, etc., are too expensive and can easily be replaced by a batch file that does a dump to disk that would later be backed up. (Enterprises are sometimes guilty of this logic as well, but it's especially prominent in SMBs.) While the "dump to disk" method will work, it offers no reporting or notification when things go wrong, unless you're a very good script writer. It's much better to have a backup system that was designed to handle all your applications and data types.

The backup and recovery choices for an SMB can easily be broken down into three broad segments: tape-based backup, disk-based backup and cloud backup. Each offers a different set of advantages and disadvantages.

Tape backup storage

A tape backup storage system typically consists of a small server, a tape autoloader (for smaller companies) or tape library (for medium-sized companies), and some data backup software. Some tape backup systems actually come with backup software licenses, which can significantly decrease your cost. Unfortunately, some of those licenses don't include the agents necessary to back up your applications.

The primary advantage of a tape backup storage system is that it is easy to take backed up data offsite every day. Many SMBs can fit their entire backup on one tape, and that tape can be taken offsite every day. (Remember to do this in a secure, environmentally controlled way -- not just by throwing the latest tape in your trunk!)

Editor's Tip: For more information about tape backup storage, read this tip on choosing your first  backup tape library.

Disk-based backups

A disk-based data backup system typically consists of an appliance that includes enough disk to hold all of your backups. It is typically using some type of data deduplication or delta-based data reduction backup method that reduces the amount of disk storage needed to store multiple versions of your backup. (Look for systems that leverage Windows VSS, as that will help to ensure that they're backing up your applications.)

The advantage of a disk-based system can be cost and ease of management, but the challenge will be in getting the backups offsite. Most of the time the only way this is possible is through replication to another site. The "other site" can be a collocation facility or even a small server in someone's home (depending on the size of your data, of course).

Editor's Tip: For more information about disk-based backup, read this tutorial on implementing  disk backup storage systems.

Cloud backup services

SMBs are also perfect candidates for cloud data backup. The amount of data they're backing up is suited well for cloud backup, and the fact that it is completely outsourced makes perfect sense for a company that is not going to have a dedicated backup and recovery person.

Once the software is installed, you need to create your first backup, referred to as a "seed." Since your upload bandwidth may be extremely limited, the first backup could take an extremely long amount of time if the vendor in question does not have an alternate method to get that first backup over there. The usual alternative is to back up to a portable hard drive they ship you, and then ship it back to them. Once that is done, subsequent backups should only take a few minutes, assuming a moderate change rate. From that point on, backups can be run and managed by the cloud-backup vendor. This doesn't mean you have no control over when they run; it means that you don't have to worry about backups running -- that's someone else's job now. If they ever stop working, the cloud backup service should notify you. Disk and tape backup require maintenance, but cloud backup only requires that you pay a bill.

Editor's Tip: For more information about cloud backup, read this tutorial on evaluation cloud backup services.

Whatever option you choose, remember to put steps in place to make sure it's working. Do occasional restores of files and applications. Do something to "break" the backup system and see if the person running the system notices and tells you. This is especially true if using a cloud backup system. Trust but verify.

It's hard to give such an important topic the attention it needs in such short space, but hopefully this has helped. Never compromise on data integrity just because you're an SMB; SMB backup is just as important.

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