A Guide to Data Backup and Recovery for SMBs

By Jennifer Schiff | Posted December 14, 2010

No matter what the size of your business, if you store your business and/or customer data on a computer (and who doesn’t these days?) you need a safe, secure way to back up and store that data. Indeed, many experts argue that choosing a data backup system or service should be one of the first things you do as a business owner, right up there with finding an accountant, a lawyer and a bank.

“As soon as your business starts storing client information, you have a responsibility to protect that information,” stated Jennifer Walzer, the founder and CEO of Backup My Info (BUMI). “Because the chance that your computers [or servers] are going to fail is 100 percent guaranteed. It’s just a matter of when. And when that happens, the question is, are you going to be prepared?”

How to Choose the Right Data Backup System

When contemplating which backup method to use, business owners are faced with an overwhelming number of choices. Should you back up locally or use a cloud- or Internet-based backup service -- or both?

If you are leaning toward backing up locally, do you back up to tape or disk -- or to a virtual tape library (VTL) or removable disks -- or some combination of the two (e.g., disk-to-disk-to-tape, or D2D2T)? And if you decide to back up your data to a cloud provider, how do you determine which one is right for your business? For help with the latter question, see the article 7 Questions to Ask Before Choosing an Online Backup Service.

If you don’t have an IT staff, or even a full-time IT person who is knowledgeable about data backup and recovery, and are not that tech savvy yourself, the easiest most cost-effective solution (in terms of total cost) may be to just use an online or cloud-based backup solution.

“My advice for 99.9 percent of businesses out there is: don’t try to do it yourself,” said Walzer who, though biased, has seen and heard enough did-it-themselves data backup horror stories to know of what she speaks. “You have enough to do to keep your company moving forward,” she added. “Focus on what you do best -- and utilize an online backup provider,” that offers tech support.

Patrick Corrigan, a senior analyst at Storage Strategies NOW, also believes that small (and midsize) businesses should use online providers as part of their backup and recovery strategy.

“Typically what I’ll recommend to smaller businesses is that they take critical data and make sure it’s backed up in some local fashion, whether it’s to CD, DVD, tape, or removable disk or some type of backup server," said Corrigan. "They [should also] take the same critical data and back it up to some online service like Carbonite."

He urges SMBs to use both methods and not to rely on either option alone. He also recommends that you store copies of critical data in a safe place located offsite, in case of flood or fire or theft.

The leading advantage to backing up locally, said Corrigan: “It’s generally quicker to [retrieve data] off a local system than it is online, especially if there is a lot of data to recover.”

As to what type of local data backup system you should consider, both Corrigan and Walzer are fans of disk-based systems -- or systems that combine disk with tape. They've dramatically come down in price over the last few years (rivaling the cost of tape-based backup systems in some cases), and they're faster than tape.

However, both emphasized that it was ultimately a matter of cost and (or versus) recovery time. Business owners should weigh all factors, including ease of use, support and especially recovery time, into their decision when choosing a local backup system, and they should not be afraid to ask vendors questions.

Saving Data: What to Back Up

The general rule of data backup is to back up all information that you are legally required to keep or that is essential to running your business. Not sure what that is? “I recommend [owners] go through an exercise where you say, 'if I walked into my office tomorrow and nothing was there, what are the most critical applications [and data] I need?'” said Walzer. And don't back up files you haven’t touched in years, unless you have a legal or regulatory requirement to do so.

Do you need to backup your operating system and software? If fast recovery is an issue, go ahead and image your computer(s), said Corrigan. Though Walzer said many businesses, especially if they’ve had a server or operating system for a while, often prefer to go to the newest operating system after a major system failure or crash.

That said, if you have any proprietary applications, software you built yourself or had developed specifically for your business, “absolutely back them up,” said Walzer.

How Often Should You Back Up Data

Both Walzer and Corrigan -- and most data backup and recovery experts -- agree: You should back up your data daily. “Set your system up to automatically back up once a night,” said Walzer, even on days when the office is closed.

Check That Your Data Is Being Properly Backed Up

Most (if not all) backup software and services provide review logs and reports, so you can check that your data was properly backed up (or if there was a media failure). And ideally, you or someone in your company should check the logs each morning to quickly make sure data was properly backed up the night before.

If that task is too time consuming, or just unrealistic, here's the bare minimum: schedule a time once a quarter (if not once a month) to review your backup logs or reports. “I would love to say, 'do it once a week,' but people won’t do it,” said Walzer. "But if you say once a quarter, people are probably going to say OK and do it.”

If You Run an Online (Hosted) Business

If you run an online business, i.e., have an ecommerce site, chances are your hosting company or Internet Service Provider (ISP) backs up your site (including precious customer information) on a regular basis -- but don’t take it for granted.

That’s why, before you sign up with an ISP or ecommerce hosting site – or after you finish reading this article -- you should ask about its data backup and recovery procedures, as well as what steps it is taking to keep your customer data safe and secure. And don’t be afraid to ask the ISP or ecommerce hosting company to do a test restore, even if the provider charges a modest fee.

As an added precaution, consider keeping a backup copy of your site locally -- or backing it up to another online service, so you have the data stored in at least two places, advised Corrigan. “No matter how reliable your ISP [or ecommerce host] seems, stuff happens,” he said.

Stuff gets deleted; sites crash; breaches happen. “But if you have your data stored in two places, if it goes away in one place, at least you’ll have it in another,” said Corrigan.

The bottom line, said both Corrigan and Walzer: You can never have enough backup. And although it may seem expensive, backing up your business critical data to a secure device and/or service, and making sure that the data is properly backed up and stored on a regular basis, is much cheaper than having to re-start your business from scratch.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to SmallBusinessComputing.com and runs a blog for and about small business.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!


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