A Guide to Small Business Data Backup and Recovery

By Pam Baker | Posted January 10, 2013

There's no doubt that we live in a data driven economy. Without immediate and constant data availability, companies grind to a halt. Relying solely on the small business owner's ability to mentally recall the information is a high-risk venture that few would dare to bet their profits on. Yet gamble they do, either through becoming distracted so that data backups don't get done, or by thinking that new technologies have everything covered.

"Most small business owners know they should backup their data, but for many it stays on the to-do list until it's too late, which is a hard and costly lesson to learn because downtime equals lost business -- 29 percent of small businesses lost revenue and 52 percent lost productivity due to a typical outage," says Michael Krutikov, senior global product marketing manager at Symantec SMB. "For small businesses, this is a risk you can't afford to take."

Prepare for Data Disaster: Use a Larger Lens

Symantec's 2012 SMB Disaster Preparedness Survey reveals quite a bit about how prepared, or rather unprepared, most small businesses are. You might want to take a look at it to see how your company compares.

Unfortunately, of the small businesses that do make data backup and recovery planning a priority, many view data recovery through too small a lens.  

Typically they think of computer crashes, lost devices, and maybe a localized weather event. Such a myopic focus in data backup and recovery planning can lead to a total wipeout -- either from under-estimating the impact of lost data on company earnings or by losing even the backups in a much bigger catastrophe, as happened recently with Super Storm Sandy.

Other small businesses assume the cloud can best the mightiest of storms. But even cloud-based backup and recovery services can fail to perform to expectations.

"Many cloud storage solutions do not offer historical backups, in the industry sometimes called incremental backups," explains Jimi Mikusi, a small business cloud specialist.  "These vanilla, and often free, cloud storage solutions might only permit retrieving the most recent copy, and thus you are unable to recover data from the past."

Mikusi adds that "some solutions offer 'document revisions,' which are great for spreadsheets and documents but ineffective if used for proprietary accounting databases such as QuickBooks."

Take the smart approach; understand what your options are, the pros and cons of each, how each affects your security and compliance concerns, and what precisely you can expect should you ever need to actually recover your data and use it. In other words, due diligence is required.

The Cloud De-Fogged

Pretend that you've lost all your data. Now think about which data you need to retrieve first, how fast you need to retrieve it, and how you want to retrieve it. This exercise not only helps you prioritize your data so that you don’t lose time retrieving the wrong info after an emergency, but it also gives you a good idea which storage and disaster recovery options are best for your company.

For example, do you want to retrieve the data immediately using any mobile device? This could be handy if your entire facility is destroyed, and you have no servers at the moment to download the data to. In the case of a huge storm like Sandy, you may not even have a store nearby where you could buy new servers, nor can shippers easily deliver new hardware to your door. Also, your employees may be geographically dispersed after such a disaster or otherwise unable to physically report for work.

If you want immediate access from any device, then cloud-based backup and recovery services are a good choice. But don't just decide to use the cloud and think you are done with selecting the best option.

"An effective small business backup strategy must start with a plan detailing requirements such as how far in the past it is required to access data," says Mikusi. "Too often the decision-making process begins with budget, which often defaults to $0, leading to free services that miss business requirements."

Spend the bucks and get the services you truly need. In this case a penny saved is not a penny earned but rather the price of a ticket to disaster.

Remember too, that disaster survivors don’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. You still need to meet compliance and security requirements for your data. Make sure that whatever data recovery option you select meets those requirements.

While cloud services excel at keeping your data far from the disaster site, keep in mind that your data isn't really in a cloud hovering over the earth. It is stored at an actual facility somewhere. Make sure that facility is far enough away that a regional disaster will not affect it or, better yet, that your data will rollover to another facility if the first one or two are affected.

On-Site and Blended Data Recovery Options

If you own a micro-business, you may think a simple flash drive will serve as a backup. But that's a very limited plan. If something happens at your business or home, you can lose that flash drive just as surely as anything else. In almost all cases, a cloud-based backup and recovery service such as Carbonite is a good choice, especially since you can automate regular backups so that you don't forget to run them.

For small and mid-sized companies, an on-site or blended recovery plan may make the most sense in terms of cost and recovery time. But how do you get the physical distance you need for safety if your backup is onsite?

"Consider using replication to migrate data backups offsite to a remote location, MSP hosting facility or public cloud like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Windows Azure for disaster recovery," advises Bennett Klein, senior director of product marketing for the data management business at CA Technologies.

Here are 12 more great tips from Klein to make an onsite or blended recovery plan work at peak efficiency

12 Small Business Data Backup and Recovery Tips

1. Consider an image-based backup solution that takes periodic snapshots of the system, application and data for total protection. Image-based solutions are much easier to use and deliver fast backup and recovery. They also enable more frequent backups to help reduce the risk of data loss.

2. Look for Bare Metal Recovery technology that can slash system recovery time compared to building a server from scratch. This helps to reduce business downtime.

3. Examine solutions that protect both physical and virtual server environments. Organizations can avoid the unnecessary cost and complexity of using two separate solutions by choosing one of the many solutions available that effectively support both environments.

4. Look for a solution that offers granular file and application recovery, which is much faster than having to recover an entire volume or database. One example: shops with Microsoft Exchange should consider solutions that offer granular recovery of individual mailboxes, emails and even attachments along with complete Exchange database recovery.

5. Consider a host-based backup approach to protect all the virtual machines on a hypervisor. It's faster and easier.

6. Seek a solution that offers comprehensive security features like access control, auditing and data encryption to address compliance requirements

7. Use data deduplication to reduce storage requirements and associated costs.

8. Look for central management and reporting capabilities to help ease IT support and improve productivity.

9. Take a look at virtual standby and high availability technologies that help you quickly recover an entire system after an outage.

10. Consider using an archiving feature to reduce primary storage. Some solutions allow archiving to disk, tape and even public cloud.

11. Consider a SaaS solution, which converts what would have been large capital expenditure (CAPEX) into a smaller, more manageable operational expenditure (OPEX).

12. Evaluate a solution from a Managed Services Provider (MSP) where you can leverage their knowledge, experience, resources and even facility for backup, disaster recovery and business continuity.

Data Backup Wrap Up

The important thing to remember is that there is no one-size-fits-all, perfect data backup and recovery system. What works exceptionally well for one company may not work well at all for another. 

"It's important that small businesses understand the three basic types of backup solutions: software, appliance and cloud/hosted," says Symantec's Krutikov. "SMBs should also evaluate how virtualization and cloud computing can help in their backup and recovery efforts."

 Krutikov also urges small business owners to not fall into a set-it-and-forget-it mentality. "Backup systems need to be actively monitored for changes in the environment and for errors that need to be addressed quickly. Leveraging technology that automatically identifies and protects new virtual systems as they come online can help with this."

Krutikov advises small business owenrs to reevaluate their disaster preparedness strategy and test its effectiveness at least once per quarter.

Pam Baker has written for numerous leading publications including, Institutional Investor magazine, CIO.com, NetworkWorld, ComputerWorld, IT World, Linux World, Internet News, E-Commerce Times, LinuxInsider, CIO Today Magazine, NPTech News (nonprofits), MedTech Journal, I Six Sigma magazine, Computer Sweden, the NY Times, and Knight-Ridder/McClatchy newspapers.

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