Archive or backup – now that’s the question!

It is easy to confuse archiving with backup – and no wonder. Both activities are broadly related to data protection, but they each serve two very different purposes. Which is why, before deciding which approach to take, your first step should be to figure out exactly what your organisation requires and why. In other words, what is the use case?

Evaluating the use case

Archiving primarily relates to compliance, governance and security. It is used for data that is not needed for day-to-day business operations, but still needs to be stored. The data is older, inactive and only accessed occasionally for historical reference – if at all. 

For example, if your organisation operates in a highly regulated sector like financial services, energy or healthcare, then it will be required to maintain historical records for a specified amount of time. Typically, this is referred to as compliance archiving.

But there are other scenarios that may call for the long-term retention – or archiving – of data. Potential disputes between a company and an employee, lawsuits and other investigations will necessitate the search of company emails or electronic files for evidence. The term for this process is eDiscovery.

Backup, however, is a safeguard that is used to enable business continuity and disaster recovery. It can be defined as the recurring, systematic copying of active data, which is being frequently accessed and modified, in order to preserve an organisation’s active content. Organisations backup data so that they can restore the information in case of a data loss event or attack, such as ransomware. 

Typically, a disaster recovery strategy will be designed to enable an organisation to restore operations in the event of a site-wide data loss. This loss could be caused by a number of reasons such as a data breach, employee accident like deletion of an important file, or technical issues, or even those caused by natural disasters for example, earthquakes. Thankfully, if you have backups in place, you can recover from this loss efficiently. 

Business continuity strategies, on the other hand, seek to maximise business process availability. A business continuity plan tackles a comprehensive planning process that focuses on long term or continuous threats to the success of the organisation. Potential business continuity problems could include catastrophic failures or critical malware infections. An intelligent business continuity solution will take backup into consideration. 

In the case of these respective use cases, archiving solutions will need to enable long-term data retention. Backup, on the other hand, is all about enabling quick recovery. But it is important to remember that the definition of ‘recovery’ has a different meaning in relation to archiving and backup.

Appraising recovery requirements

When it comes to archiving, recovery is all about rapidly identifying specific data – like emails, files, database values or streaming media – and marking it for retrieval. If your company operates in a sector that requires you to retain over a decade’s worth of archive material, that means you will need to employ an archiving solution that offers search and retrieval capabilities powerful enough to ‘crunch’ through massive quantities of data in a short amount of time. To speed up this process, archiving technologies will capture and store metadata such as time, date, sender and receiver for emails, in addition to the raw data.

In the case of backup recovery, however, the aim of the ‘recovery’ game is to get your organisation up and running as soon as possible following an outage or crisis. To achieve this objective, today’s backup technologies feature a variety of specialised approaches that are designed to minimise downtime; these include image-based, application-native and hypervisor-native backup solutions. Finally, if you are backing up constantly changing data like online transaction processes, then the ability to back up at frequent intervals will be essential. 

It’s worth keeping in mind that while performance metrics like Recovery Time Objective (RTO) for recovery speed and Recovery Point Objective (RPO) for backup frequency are vital for backup, these are both largely irrelevant for archiving.

Storage considerations

All of these differences have clear implications when it comes to storage requirements. 

Archiving strategies will look to save everything – or a protected copy of everything – for the long term. That means dealing with large volumes of archives such as email, imaging data and so forth. What’s more, archived files are typically maintained ‘as is’ and cannot be altered. As far as compliance and eDiscovery are concerned, data archived years ago will be just as important as data archived just a few hours ago.

Backup data, however, tends to be captured on a point-in-time basis. Typically, the most recent backup data will be the most valuable for restoring an organisation’s IT operations. When an organisation no longer needs a backup copy or file anymore, usually because it has a sufficient number of point-in-time copies captured, it simply deletes the oldest backup copy. This step will usually be automated for the organisation. Likewise, when an organisation wishes to restore a file from a backup copy, it may choose to select a certain point-in-time copy or certain version, based on a date criteria.

So, when looking to determine whether you need to backup or archive, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of data is my organisation looking to protect?
  • What situations and scenarios is my organisation looking to protect against?
  • Does my organisation need the data we store to be easily searchable?

This should help you determine the appropriate use case for each data storage requirement, and help you to identify whether an archiving or a backup solution will be the most appropriate for your organisation’s needs.

Ultimately, you are likely to find that your organisation chooses to employ both solutions for different use cases. Both backup and archiving solutions can be seen as essential to protecting and preserving data, but for different reasons. 

Jason Howells, EMEA Director, Barracuda’s MSP Solutions Business
Image source: Shutterstock/scyther5