Data backup plays a key part in a firm’s business continuity  (BC) and disaster recovery (DR) planning. Along with making it possible to restore a computer system to a previous state at a given time, data backup offers a safeguard for pertinent data that keeps a business operating should a system failure occur.
Yet even in 2011, more than half of small businesses don’t have a plan to ensure that their operations will continue uninterrupted if disaster strikes, according to a January 2010 study by Symantec. That’s particularly shocking considering that small and midsize businesses experienced an average of six outages in the past year, generally because of cyberattacks, power outages, staff errors and software upgrades.
The inability to conduct business as a result of a disaster is costly. Not only does downtime cost small businesses about $3,000 per day, but customers of those companies can become dissatisfied and lose revenue of their own, according to the Symantec survey.
There is no question that disasters resulting in business interruptions will occur. Don’t wait for a crisis to spur action at your business. A number of good data backup solutions are available to small businesses. What’s more, establishing storage, backup and recovery systems is more affordable and less time-consuming than it was just a few years ago.
Business continuity and disaster recovery help businesses prepare for disruptions large and small. Of course, these could include floods or fires. But they also can include the most typical disruption: equipment failure. As might be expected, backup and recovery are key components of effective BC/DR planning.
BC is a broad term encompassing a logistical plan to ensure that a business can function following an extended disruption. This includes not only IT systems and data, but also communication systems and staff educational activities, plus roles and responsibilities.
DR — or high availability — is typically a subset of business continuity. Here, an organization replicates entire IT systems and data to ensure a certain degree of operational continuity in the event of a disruption.
Clearly, having a disaster recovery plan is important. In general, a DR plan focuses on data backup and retention: where data will be stored onsite and offsite, and how it can be restored quickly if required. Other elements of the plan could include how employees will communicate in case of disaster and where they will go to continue working.
For most companies, however, planning for data, application and system backup is the most critical piece of a disaster recovery plan. The word “plan” is not a misnomer; the only way to create a workable backup plan is to take the planning aspect very seriously. That means knowing your business, how much downtime it can tolerate, what your customers expect and what’s really important to the business.
“Businesses have to understand their requirements before they can even begin to develop a backup strategy,” says Lauren Whitehouse, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group of Milford, Mass. “Depending on the type of company, the business model, regulatory requirements and customer expectations, there are very different needs concerning how quickly you have to get back up and running and how recent the backups should be.”
It comes down to the recovery point objective (RPO), or how often you need to back up your data, and the recovery time objective (RTO), or how much downtime you can afford. “The recovery point objective is the point in time you want to be able to recover from,” says Michael Marchi, vice president of product and segment marketing at CommVault. “The recovery time objective is the amount of time to recover from a disaster recovery event.”
“It’s a matter of what you can tolerate,” notes Ben Ginster, channel marketing manager at Idealstor, a removable-disk backup manufacturer in Lakeway, Texas. “Based on your RTO and RPO objectives, can you afford not to have your backups deduplicated and compressed in 30 minutes? Depending on your business model, maybe you can and maybe you can’t.”
Backup may be a simple concept, but if you do it right, it should be multilayered , taking into account short- and long-term objectives. In most cases, each type of backup will take place on a different medium —disk, tape or online.
As a general rule, disk is best for short-term, accessible storage, while tape is best suited to longer-term, offsite storage. Then, of course, there is online backup, a newer storage paradigm that can have some real benefits for small businesses.
Disk-based Backup: While disk-based backup used to be cost-prohibitive for smaller companies, prices have come down quite a bit in the past few years. Disk offers fast recovery for short-term situations and tends to be extremely reliable.
What’s more, today’s disk-based offerings have become much smarter, offering features such as deduplication and snapshots, previously found only in software-based solutions. Numerous disk-based backup solutions are available today, including products from CommVault , ExaGrid , Idealstor , Overland Storage  and IBM .
Tape Backup: Although tape has long been a staple of small-business backups, it has become more of a long-term, archival storage technology, often taken offsite. Tape’s role in small businesses’ backup strategies is secure, at least for the short term, because it is inexpensive and has an extremely long shelf life (some even say up to 50 years).
Further, today’s tape solutions also offer deduplication and compression. But there is more room for error with tape backups — the backups tend to be less automated, and human error can cause tapes to be misplaced or overwritten.
Online Backup: As online backup has grown in popularity, it is becoming a viable alternative, ensuring that if something happens to a company’s site, employees can still access their data. In some cases, online backup works hand in hand with disk-based tools, which can back up data locally, as well as replicate that data to a remote location in the cloud.
These systems can, for example, set a month policy on retention on the local device and send everything else to the cloud, ensuring there will always be two copies. Many manufacturers offer online backup, including Acronis, CA Technologies, Symantec and Quest BakBone.
Online backup is a particularly good fit for small business, Whitehouse says, because its pay-as-you-go model requires no upfront investment and allows companies to pay only for the storage they use. While many companies have no problem with the online model, some — mainly those governed by a lot of regulations — are still wary of security concerns.
Choosing a physical storage medium is only one important backup decision. The other — regarding which features are most important — depends much more on those RPOs and RTOs.
“If you’re running a small retail chain, you have some flexibility in how long you can be down,” says Joe Disher, Overland Storage’s solutions marketing manager for disk-based products. “And you might not have to have up-to-the-minute information.
“However, if you are an e-tailer that depends on being up all the time, you can’t afford any downtime at all,” he explains. “So knowing your business and what you can tolerate will drive which features are most important.”
One of the most useful backup features is deduplication, a process by which duplicate data is deleted instead of backed up, so only one instance of the data is stored. This process reduces the amount of storage needed and allows data to be backed up faster.
Deduplication is most important for companies with large amounts of data to back up, regardless of company size, according to Susie Spencer, a senior product marketing manager at Symantec. An e-tailer that backs up a lot of data about customer transactions would be an ideal candidate, she says.
“If the business is concerned about backup windows, deduplication is a great choice,” Spencer adds. “This is because if you are deduplicating at the client first and then sending the backups offsite, you are using less bandwidth to send the data over the wire.”
Snapshots are another popular feature for backups. This technology, which makes sure only changed blocks of data are backed up, takes snapshots of the data at predetermined intervals. Snapshots can save space and allow businesses to set retention time.
Replication, which protects the most recent copy of data, is a popular feature of most backup systems. Continuous data protection (CDP) goes one step further, backing up all data whenever any change is made, but it can be pricy.
CDP is most important in situations where no recovery time is tolerated and businesses need up-to-the-minute information. But costs range from a simple license add-on to a backup solution to an entire appliance-based solution that requires a specific appliance. Although prices have dropped, it can still be expensive.
“Some businesses don’t need that level of protection,” Overland’s Disher says. “A retail chain, for example, would be less likely to deploy CDP, because it’s too expensive and more than what they need.”
Keep in mind that many of these features are now part of hardware-based solutions. And software vendors offer their own, generally more full-featured products focusing on a set of features.
For example, IBM, Fujitsu, Quantum and countless others offer disk arrays with built-in deduplication. And SonicWall, FalconStor and many others offer backup and recovery appliances with built-in CDP.
On the software side, many Acronis backup and recovery products offer near-CDP protection and deduplication. And while CA’s ARCserve Backup and Symantec’s Backup Exec provide deduplication capabilities, IBM’s Tivoli Storage Manager offers CDP and replication.
In addition, EMC’s Networker provides CDP, snapshots and replication technology. And software-based backup products also can integrate with and manage the hardware they work with.
Whether to choose a software- or hardware-based solution depends on a lot of factors. These can include the products already in use at the company, the individual capabilities needed, and the goals and objectives of the firm.