Business Continuity: Email Backup for SMBs

For many small companies, email is the lifeblood of their business, yet too few protect it adequately against disaster. Not only is email their primary mode of communication, it’s also often a de facto document management system, a searchable repository of vital business data.

But on-premise email servers can fail, data can become corrupted, power can go out for hours or days, offices burn down and natural or man-made disasters can strike. How long could your firm survive without email?

“Email is arguably our most business-critical system,” says Jonathan Swan, director of operations and IT at Roythornes LLP, a mid-size UK law firm with 100 lawyers.

“Like all law firms, we run practice management, work flow, document management [and other] systems,” Swan says. “But the one that would hurt us the most if we lost it would be email because it’s our primary source of business communication.”

Luckily, there are disaster recovery and business continuity solutions available specifically for email — simple inexpensive ones for very small businesses and somewhat pricier solutions for bigger, more complex operations.

Email Backup for Very Small Businesses

Even if your business is small enough that you don’t run an on-premise mail server such as a Microsoft Exchange system, your employees probably still use Microsoft Office Outlook for email.

One simple solution for such companies: use a Web mail service such as Google Gmail to mirror and back up individual employees’ Outlook mail online (also called “in the cloud”). If your Internet service provider offers Web mail, as many do, it will probably work as well.

Gmail and related Google Apps (about $50 per employee per year) include both generous online storage for data and mechanisms for synchronizing Outlook and Google so that all your data — mail, contacts, calendar — is also stored on Google servers.

If your office shuts down or you can’t use your PC for whatever reason, you’ll still be able to send and receive mail from any Internet-connected computer and access all your information.

Many small businesses are opting to switch entirely to cloud-based solutions such as Google Apps, Zoho and Microsoft’s own Office Live.

Service providers’ facilities are more secure than most small business offices, they connect to the Internet via multiple routes to ensure availability more than 99 percent of the time, and customers’ data is regularly backed up.

If you don’t feel comfortable having data only in the cloud, you can always continue to use Outlook, but use cloud-based data backup solutions such as Mozy’s ($3.95 per user, plus $0.50 per gigabyte per month) to back up Outlook database files.

Email Disaster Recovery for Larger SMBs

If your business is a little bigger and you do run a mail server, you have another set of options for email continuity.

Some companies use on-premise appliances — backup servers running e-mail software — that replicate everything on the main mail server, including contacts, calendars and tasks for all employees. They can restore service and data instantly if something happens to the main server.

Other solutions, such as MessageOne from PC maker Dell and MessageLabs from security software firm Symantec — which Roythornes uses — do much the same thing. But they’re subscription services that use cloud computing.

That means your data back up is stored at the service provider’s secure facility. Data on your main mail server is continuously replicated to the remote server over your high-speed Internet connection, usually after it’s encrypted for security.

It’s possible to configure both on-premise and cloud-based systems so that your company’s email system switches over to the email continuity system automatically if something happens to your main mail server.

Online Data Backup vs. On-Site

A cloud-based, or online solution may make more sense for small businesses. For one thing, if you use an on-site system, you’re still at risk of losing email access and data if your physical office is destroyed, says Manish Kalia, vice president of marketing and founder of Teneros Inc.

Teneros started by offering on-site appliance-based solutions but has recently added cloud-based services for Microsoft Exchange customers. Kalia, whose company once denigrated cloud-based competitors, is now a born-again cloud zealot.

“Disaster recovery,” he argues, “is the perfect application for the cloud because disaster recovery by definition has to be done out of your main location to be effective.”

Big companies that have formal disaster recovery or business continuity programs in place typically maintain duplicate data centers or rent space from disaster recovery outsourcing companies — solutions that are prohibitively expensive for most small businesses.  

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