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Putting together an almost fool-proof backup plan

Data backup is one of the most lucrative slices in the storage markets. Research Outfit IDC (opens in new tab)reckons that Online backup itself will be worth $715 million by 2011, representing a compounded annual growth rate of 33 percent

Backup is big business because more and more revolves around business service processes which generate a great amount of data and also due to legal requirements enacted by governments and regulating bodies compel businesses to keep track of every byte they produce.

Backup? What’s that?

Before planning for a backup plan, let's make sure we actually understand what backup means. Wikipedia defines backup as "the copying of data so that these additional copies may be restored after a data loss event".

People tend to confuse between backup and archiving (opens in new tab) and while similar, they are altogether two different beasts.

Backup is always a copy of something else whereas, archiving might be describe as the process of organising your least used data.

In effect, you can create a backup of an archive while archiving a backup would not be of much use.Why backup?

The need for backup arises from the risk of losing your data. Putting it bluntly, what will happen if your company loses part or all its data? For many, this would mean temporary closure or substantial revenue loss, for others it will mean winding up altogether. Backups can also prevent data tampering; which can be as damaging as data loss.

Below are the five most common reasons why you need backup:
- Errors caused by end users or by admin staff (like support)
- Failure (software or hardware)
- Hacking and data tempering
- Theft (data or hardware)
- Disaster (e.g. a fire)

Things to consider for your backup plan
1. How prepared are your IT staff
Things tend to go wrong and occasionally do go wrong. Most companies introduce their new staff to health and safety procedures and fire drill. It would be a great exercise to brief IT staff about any existing backup plans. If you do not have any in-house IT staff, assign the role of Data Administrator to one member of staff as it is the case for First Aid.

2. How much downtime in hours can you afford?
In the business of storage, this is known as the Recovery Time Objective (RTO) or how much downtime you can afford. The shorter, the better although this varies tremendously even across a sector; for some, a few minutes or a few hours would be the strict maximum while others can do just fine with a few days’ downtime.

3. How much lost information in days can you afford
Also known as the Recovery Point Objective (RPO). In an ideal world, the RPO should be the point in time just before the interruption occurred. Some companies can accommodate an RPO of several hours or days. However, mission critical applications like online banking require a RPO of less than one second. Having such a small RPO also means that any changes to the source data is applied to the back up data almost instantaneously.
4. What data needs to be recovered/saved first?
Any data saved is deemed important and precious. However, not all data needs to be retrieved at the same time. This means that for example, you can differentiate between which data needs to be backup frequently and which one needs not.

5. What is your budget?
Your budget will probably determine what kind of backup structure you will adapt. The aim is to get the lowest RPO and the lowest RTO for your money.

Coming up with the "almost" perfect Backup plan
Devising a back-up plan is like putting together a three piece suit for someone. No business is alike and therefore a backup plan template will probably need adjustment for use. Here are ten tips that are valid across the board.

1. Segregate applications and data. By separating them, you streamline the backup process, reducing the Recovery Time Objective thereby allowing companies to jump back on track quicker.
2. Minimize any downtime by having your applications ghosted (opens in new tab) and ready. These would be a standard list of applications (including your Operating system) that you use.
3. Have an onsite and offsite backup strategy. Keeping all your information on the same physical site is risky in the event of fire or theft.
4. Don't hesitate to use free resources like Gmail or Yahoo as spare storage. The probability that Google or Yahoo disappears, let alone suffer downtime, is remotely small.
5. Don't put all data eggs in the same storage basket. Use various providers for different types of data.
6. Enable “autosave” in your applications if available and adopt the good habit of saving your files regularly using Ctrl+S
7. A backup plan needs to be tested just like fire drills or fire alarm test. This ensures that your staff and equipment are ready for any circumstances.
8. Offline data needs to be protected as well. This includes signed documents, contracts, bills etc. Scan them and store them online.
9. Have a contact list with the phone numbers (landline and mobile) of people and businesses to be contacted in case of a disaster/emergency. This will include fire services, emergencies, local bank etc.
10. If everything fails, don’t hesitate to contact data recovery experts which can assist you in getting back your data on a no-recovery/no-fee basis. Before doing that though, try using recovery applications like RTT (opens in new tab) if the hardware suffered no apparent physical damage.

Another popular solution in the high end of the market is continuous backup (opens in new tab).

But even that would be unnecessary in some cases because (1) it can be taxing for your system (2) it would gobble up space very quickly (3) managing the changes would be very difficult (4) continual backup tend to be expensive (5) continuous data only saves already saved content.

For example, if you do a lot of editing in a session between two saves, you would not be able to recover a particular phase in the document editing process. Normally, you can only back up files that have already been saved on your hard disk.

Anything that is not saved remains in your computer's RAM and would be irremediably lost (although some might argue that this is not necessarily the case in Windows).

A backup plan brought to life

Below is a real life example of a backup plan for a small London-based 5-employees company.

The company has five desktop computers coupled to one NAS (Network Attached Storage). The NAS has a basic RAID-0 configuration (Mirroring function).

This means that the contents of one hard drive is mirrored to the other one in real time. If one hard drive experiences hardware problem, the second one can take over transparently.

The users do not store any important data on their computer hard drives.

They use a reliable, world class service provider that provides them with their mail services. Emails are both downloaded to the server and a copy is stored on the mail server.

The send/receive process runs every five minutes, so that any downtime only affects the last five minutes or so of mail.

They also have an automated system that synchronises the content of the NAS with an off-site storage provider every 24 hours (around 100GB) using the always-on broadband line. The off-site storage provider has two mirrored data centers and uses military grade 128-bit AES encryption. An automatic file backup application was also supplied.

The firm also archives its files more than two years by compressing, encrypting and uploading them to two separate web hosters on two separate continents. These files can then be accessed anytime, anywhere.

The employees are also encouraged to backup any non-vital data information (e.g favorites, rules, cookies etc) to their own personal email addresses or to their personal storage devices (USB Drive or Mobile phone).

As you might already have noticed, there are a few weak points in the above backup plan. What if the broadband line does not work? What if a power surge affects the Network Attached Storage? or what if a disgruntled employee decides to delete all files on the server? No plan is perfect, but at least this company has one.

If you do not have a Backup plan or were planning to have one soon, don’t put it off anymore. Getting a backup plan together will take half a day at most and that includes any rehearsal. If you already have a backup plan, then doing regular drills will make sure that the plan is water tight and that your staff is ready.

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.