Developing a Backup Strategy

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Having a good data backup strategy can guard against data loss, support compliance with Data Protection regulations and protect your organisation from disaster. However, knowing where to start and what to buy can often be confusing. In this guide, we show how to develop a backup strategy, analyse the pros and cons of backup hardware and take a brief look at some of the software utilities out there to help you manage the backup process.

In our experience, smaller or ganisations running peer-to-peer networks or stand-alone computers not connected to a network are most at risk from data loss because of a failure to regularly backup their precious data.  This risk must not be ignored - statistics show over 70% of businesses do not recover from a catastrophic data loss.  With some planning and by following the steps outlined below, it needn't be this way.

How to develop a backup strategy

A good backup strategy should be affordable, robust, easy to carry out, and tailored to the needs of your organisation.

Start the planning process by developing a written backup plan that tells you:

  • What is backed up
  • Where it is being backed up to
  • Who is in charge of performing backups and verification
  • When backup will be run
  • Which software will be used to manage the backup process

Share the responsibility for backing up by getting this strategy approved by management.

What to backup and how often

The first stage is to take a broad look at the data your organisation holds, and sort it into three categories:

  • High priority - databases, financial data such as accounts, email, current projects.  This kind of data changes frequently as it is worked on day to day.
  • Archive for the long-term - closed projects, images, video.  This kind of data changes very rarely - it usually represents finished work.
  • Compliance - data retention.  Some parts of this data will change frequently, others less frequently.

Don't be tempted to skip this step.  You will regret it as backing up every category of data on a daily basis can be extremely costly and time-consuming, so it's important to identify how often your various data changes.  For the average organisation, the percentage of data that changes daily is somewhere between 2% and 5%.

High priority data

Ask yourself if your organisation could cope if details of contracts with funders, monitoring returns, mailing lists, financial records, payroll and other crucial company information were wiped out.  The answer is probably no - once lost these documents are almost impossible to replace or rebuild.  Where possible, these should be backed-up on a daily basis.

You may also have to do some housekeeping to organise work on current projects into folders that can be easily located and backed-up.

Don't forget to backup your email - this provides a valuable record of work on current and future projects.  If you have a web-based POP3 email service with your Internet Service Provider (ISP), don't rely on them to backup for you.  Many ISPs offer POP3 email accounts with limited storage space and will delete emails older than 30 days to make space for incoming email.

A safer alternative is to download a copy of your messages to your computer using an email client such as Outlook, Thunderbird, Eudora or Pocomail.  Although each client has a different backup protocol, email files should ideally be backed-up on a weekly basis.

Archive for the long-term

Archiving data from old projects is good practice as it allows you to safely store old files from closed projects and free up disk space.  You probably also have lots of images from events run by your organisation.  If you don't use these files very often, they could be archived to CD or DVD for safe-keeping.  These files also tend to be quite large and slow down the daily backup.

You may also want to archive emails from closed projects as they still count as part of the historical record.  Most email programmes will allow you to archive old mail or create archive folders and drag mail into it before exporting to CD or DVD.

Compliance

The laws concerning compliance with data retention are fast moving and constantly evolving.  A good first step is to visit the website of the Information Commissioner.  This agency enforces compliance with the:

  • Data Protection Act 1998
  • Freedom of Information Act 2000
  • Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003
  • Environmental Information Regulations 2005

Secondly, review the data retention period that many funders set out in their terms and conditions of grant.  A general rule of thumb is that financial information should be retained for at least 6 years.

Backup hardware

Choosing backup hardware may seem confusing, as there are so many different systems, each with their own benefits:

A good idea is to calculate how much data you need to backup.  TechSoup advises asking the following questions:

  • How big is each user's documents folder?
  • How big is their email file?
  • Add up the total of the above two figures for each of your computers, or multiply the average by the number of machines in your organisation.

The next step is to plan for growth and look for a device that offers at least 3 times as much storage capacity as you currently need.  This may sound a lot, but remember that data storage prices are falling, and investing in extra capacity now should get you a device will last 3 or 4 years as your data storage needs grow.

This quick guide aims to help you understand the different formats and pick the right option for backing-up your data.

External CD, DVD and Zip Drives

Advantages

CD and DVD combo drives are inexpensive and widely used.  DVD media offers a storage capacity of up to 4.7GB of data, easily dwarfing the 700MB offered by CDs.  Media is also cheap at 50p or less for a blank CD or DVD.

Disadvantages

Not suitable for primary backup because of limited data storage capacity of CDs.  Backing-up to CD or DVD is also time consuming, labour intensive and not ideal for automation.  Media for CD and DVD also has a reputation for being fragile and not always recording properly.

Ideal for

Blank CDs and DVDs are now retailing for 50p per each or less and are good for archiving old data, such as financial records, that you need to keep for historical reasons.  CDs and DVDs are portable, easily stored off-site and can be read by any machine with a CD/DVD drive.

USB flash drives

Sometimes called USB keys or USB flash drives, we've heard of people performing the daily backup of critical data to their USB key.  We suggest a better use...

Advantages

Fits into a shirt pocket and offers portable storage at cheap prices.  1GB USB keys retails for £60 or less.

Disadvantages

Not suitable for primary backups because of limited storage space, and frequent hardware failures.  Small size also makes them easy to lose.

Ideal for

Keeping a copy of work in progress for work on different computers.  Make sure this is backed-up, too.

Online storage

Online storage has recently emerged as a new player in the backup market.  Generally targeted at home users wanting to backup music and digital pictures, online storage offers an affordable alternative for the small organisation.

Advantages

Free packages of up to 2GB of storage (Mozy.com) offer the convenience of access to your files from any Internet connected computer with a web browser, any time of the day, any where in the world.

Online backup services generally require you to download their propriety backup tool - this is to keep track of files you've changed, backup schedules and storage space left on your account.

Paying for a backup service will buy you more space and extra features, such as the ability to send and share files with friends and colleagues.  For $5 a month Carbonite.com offers 40GB of storage.  The same price buys 30GB of storage with Mozy.com.

Mac users can invest in a .Mac account for £56 per year, which gives access to Apple's own Backup tool, 1GB of online storage and the ability to sync files between Macs.

For email, Google's Gmail offers 2GB of free storage. Just write a new rule in Outlook to forward on your mail to Gmail and you now have a secondary backup.

Disadvantages

Don't make this your primary backup. A minimum Broadband connection of 1MB/s is recommended.  Remember that no Internet connection means no backup, and slow upload speeds means time wasted.  Online backup is also not suitable for large files and you should be aware that some ISPs and cap uploads with a monthly allowance.

You're also entrusting your data to a business that may experience any number of problems itself, including going out of business.  Be sure to check their terms and conditions of service before going down this route.

Ideal for

Providing secondary backup for key files and email.

External hard disks

External hard disks are now so cheap that £100 will buy 1TB (A unit of computer memory or data storage capacity equal to 1,024 gigabytes) of storage.

Advantages

These devices are great for quickly backing-up large of amounts data on a regularly basis.  Most external hard disks are portable enough to be taken off-site if necessary.

Disadvantages

If you want to share an external hard disk across your network, the computer it is attached too will have to be 'always on'.  Not good if you are concerned with energy consumption and electricity bills.

Connection type

USB, FireWire

Ideal for

Situations where you need to backup large amounts of data, including files of over 2GB, and you're not bothered about sharing the device as a network accessible drive.

Can also be used as secondary backup to a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device in small offices that can't afford a server but still need to backup large amounts of data on a regularly basis.

Network Attached Storage

Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices are a new entry to the backup market.

Advantages

£95 of your hard-earned cash will now buy you a 160GB NAS device that connects to the Ethernet port of your router or hub, and allows you to share files, USB printers and backup data to everyone on the network.  NAS devices are also light on power consumption and unlike external hard disk don't need a computer to be 'always on' to work.

Disadvantages

Not ideal if you're backing up large files of over 2GB on a regular basis - just watch as your network stalls and grinds to a halt.

Connection type

Ethernet, with USB ports for direct connection to other peripherals.

Ideal for

Small offices that can't afford a server but need access to shared files and a single accessible location that everyone on the network can backup to.

For more information on NAS see the knowledgebase article Network Attached Storage

Tape drives

There are a variety of competing tape formats, from the de facto DLT, LTO, DAT/DDS, Travan, VXA and SAIT/AIT.

 

Advantages

Modern tape media is designed offer durable and high capacity storage at inexpensive prices.  Since tape media is relatively cheap, many firms like backup to a different tape each day, making it easier to restore files if needed. Tape media is also highly portable and convenient to take off-site for those needing extra security.

Disadvantages

Not really designed for the small office without a fileserver.  You'll also need to weigh up the advantages of competing tape media formats and prices.

Connection type

SCSI

Ideal for

Tape media storage is primarily designed to offer reliable, high-capacity data storage for the daily backup of offices running servers. 

Transfer speed issues

If you are backing-up large amounts of data on a regular basis, speed of data transferred to your backup device may well be an issue.  This is worth noting since USB2.0 and FireWire 400 both transfer data at around 40MB per second, compared to 12MB per second for USB1.0 and 10MB per second for Ethernet.  The even newer FireWire 800 offers transfer speeds of up to 80MB per second, ideal for those working with large video or graphics files.

The good news for folks with PCs and Macs bought from mid 2004 onwards is that they should ship with USB2.0 enabled ports.  Unfortunately, older PCs will more than likely need to upgrade with a USB2.0 adaptor card (£15) to take advantage of the USB speed hike.

Folks without an Apple Mac or Sony PC will almost certainly have to purchase a FireWire adaptor card (£45) to take advantage of this technology.

Responsibility for backups

We suggest that your strategy names a person responsible for overseeing the backup and verification process.  This way, it becomes an accepted part of the job and time gets allocated for it, rather the backup being something that has to be squeezed in whenever anybody remembers it needs doing.

Backup schedules

The next part of your strategy needs to specify a backup schedule as well as regular tests to verify that the files you've backed-up can actually be opened, otherwise you're unlikely to find out until the point you need to recover lost data.

In an ideal world, everything should be backed-up on a daily basis, but in peer-to-peer networks or organisations with just 2 or 3 standalone computers, this isn't always possible or practical to do.  However, in step 1 you should have developed a clear idea of which files to prioritise and how often to back them up.  For example:

  • Daily backup - databases and financial info
  • Weekly backup - email and other documents

Automating backups

Backing up the computers and laptops in your office one by one is labour intensive and time consuming, and is one reason why backups don't get done on a routine basis.  Using a backup programme to automate the process will help produce consistent and regular backups.  You can use backup programmes to schedule backups to a folder on your computer, or preferably to a shared folder on a backup device accessible to all computers on your network.

Windows XP Pro ships with a well-hidden programme for backing-up your files:

Click Start, point to All Programs, point to Accessories, point to System Tools, and then click Backup to start the wizard.

Make backing-up your personal folder files (email, calendar, address book) easier by downloading the Outlook backup add-in.

Mac users wanting to use Apple's own backup utility will need to sign up for .Mac account and download it from the Apple website.

For Windows users, there are hundreds of commercial backup programmes, some offering the ability to write custom scripts and secure your data with military grade encryption.  For industrial strength backup of your computer, PC magazines regularly recommend Paragon Drive Backup, Acronis True Image or Dantz (EMC) Retrospect.

Mac users can choose from Dantz (EMC) Retrospect, Intego Backup and the shareware programme SuperDuper, amongst others.

Copyright © 2006 Lasa Information Systems Team

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