Beyond Backup - Data Protection and Business Continuity

By Beth Cohen | Posted September 30, 2004
Has this ever happened to you? A few years ago, at the small software company I worked for, the server hosting all the product source code crashed.

During the several days that it took to recover the system from backup tapes, 20 expensive software engineers were twiddling their thumbs. Although we didn't lose any actual code, it was still a very expensive lesson in the critical distinction between business continuity and disaster recovery.

You have all heard the mantra; back up your important files and you will be saved from computer disaster. OK 'fess up, how many of you have ever thought about how you'll actually recover if your computer systems fail?

Backups are boring, confusing and expensive; ultimately, you do not care about backups at all. All you want is an assurance that you can recover mission critical systems quickly and painlessly and continue business operations in the face of catastrophe.

According to the National Fire Protection Agency, 43 percent of all U.S. businesses never reopen after a disaster. Yes, that includes the damage from a devastating hurricane or tornado; but if your customer transaction application server suffers a system crash, you might not be an operating business again until the system is restored. Insurance companies don't regard that kind of loss as a natural disaster either, since it's completely preventable with a bit of advanced planning.

At this point, you're probably thinking your business is seriously at risk, or feeling just plain befuddled. Relax, in this article we will explain business continuity, disaster recovery and introduce the concept of data protection, a different notion of data that can help speed a return to normality.

Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery
Business continuity is the ability to conduct normal business, even if your major systems have been destroyed; while disaster recovery is how you can get back to business rapidly after a catastrophic event.

The distinction might seem small, but unlike big companies that can afford alternate data centers and contract outside help to recover quickly, for small businesses with limited resources, disaster recovery and business continuity are frequently the same thing. Both are important for a company's survival.

Here's a real-world definition of business continuity: Your office floods and you move operations into your living room. Disaster recovery is what happens when your computer system containing all the customer records crashes, and you spend three days rebuilding the database from either an electronic copy or paper records. If you can keep taking customer orders during the recovery operation, that's business continuity.

Computer Dependency
Over the last 10 years, there has been a hidden technology revolution within the small business community. You might run an architectural firm, but do you keep all of your records and drawings — on computers, of course. Basically, any business that manages information is computer dependent, which is just about everyone.

For many small businesses, IT support is a piecemeal combination of staff, computer-savvy relatives, or possibly an outside consulting company servicing a number of small clients. Disaster recovery is a box of backup tapes in the car. You might not think that you have the time or resources to do any better, but be aware that you are putting your business at great risk.

Backup vs. Data Recovery
On the surface, backup is relatively easy: purchase a tape drive, backup software, install the system and configure it to backup your important data files. Tape backup technology is old and increasingly out of alignment with modern, high availability, large capacity disk systems.

According to Brian Layton of Broadleaf Services, a firm offering data protection services, "Fifty percent of all tape backups fail. Most businesses learn this at the absolute worst time possible — while attempting to restore files. "When the average desktop system has 40-60GB disks and system files alone commonly filling 10GB, their slow speed and lack of scalability makes tapes increasingly obsolete," says Layton. "Tape backup can be reasonably transparent to the user, but data recovery is agonizingly slow."

Data Protection
When something goes wrong, you want to bring your data back quickly and transparently. Data protection's an integral part of your systems management — it shouldn't be done as an afterthought. Using the new paradigm, you can then create recovery strategies that allow you to access your data — wherever it is actually located.

The ideal system should protect your data transparently and allow you to retrieve your files quickly and easily, whether you're rebuilding an entire file server or just finding a critical file that new intern deleted accidentally last week. If you copy the data in enough places, enough times, then you will be able to recover it. (And those tapes in your car do not count.)

With the continuing drop in hard disk prices, a combination of near-line data protection using NAS (Network Accessible Storage) devices and disk mirroring has become an affordable and attractive option. Broadleaf Services offers an interesting alternative for companies that have large amounts of data.

Its combination of an on-site data protection server with a nightly off-site backup offers unmatched data protection, since the files are located both on-site for easy access and off-site for total data continuity assurance. For businesses with smaller amounts of data, the on-line services can be very cost effective, but you do need a reliable network connection to use them.

Rollbacks and Archiving
Many people think of backups as a method of restoring entire file systems in the case of disk failure. This does happen, but much more often, companies need to recover only a few files or create a permanent archive of a completed project. With a tape-based system, you need to locate the correct tape (assuming that it hasn't been written over because someone forgot to rotate the tapes) and then restore the requested files. Even with an expensive tape library unit, this process can take hours.

Imagine being able to recover up to three months of file changes with a simple drag and drop? According to Layton, rollbacks are actually Broadleaf's most popular product feature. "Our customers purchase the service because of the peace of mind that data protection offers, but they find that 90 percent of the time they're using the rollback function." To a small company with little or no IT support, being able to recover individual files without finding someone who can operate the tape-drive software represents an enormous savings.

Bottom Line
The next time you think about data backup, think about data protection and how you would recover your systems instead. Once you have identified the business critical systems and data, only then can you create a data protection plan that suits your business. Using a combination of off-site, near-line and mirrored systems, even a small business can protect its most valuable data assets and experience peace of mind knowing that the data is readily accessible no matter what happens.

Additional Resources
Broadleaf Services — On and off-site data protection services.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.

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