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The Importance of Data Backup

If your business were to become victim to a disaster, would you be able to continue serving your customers? As businesses on the east coast continue to mop up after a series of tragic storms, Branko Miletic takes us through all you need to arm your business.

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Data backups. It’s a topic that may seem boring or blatantly obvious, but it is mind-boggling how often companies don’t perform this business-critical function correctly. And disk or server crashes do happen—regularly and nearly always without warning. So why do most businesses entrust their business continuity to hardware of unknown quality, a part-time employee or the junior admin person? Perhaps it is a case of out of sight, out of mind, but in reality it is akin to playing Russian roulette with a company, its client base, and its future.

So what is backup? Technically speaking, a backup is a copy of one or more storage spaces and logs that the database server maintains. The backup copy is usually written to a secondary storage medium such as disk, magnetic tape, optical disk, or another hard drive. Due to a considerable overlap in technology, backups and backup systems are frequently confused with archives and fault-tolerant systems. Backups differ from archives in the sense that archives are the primary copy of data and backups are a secondary copy of data. Backups are typically that last line of defence against data loss, and consequently the least granular and convenient to use. Since a backup system contains at least one copy of all data worth saving, the data storage requirements are considerable.

But, according to many businesses, backup is something they rarely think about until, of course, the catastrophic happens and they lose all their data. According to Alcy Infinity from Timesavers International, the catastrophe most businesses experience is not fire, flood or earthquake, but rather something much more insidious—malware. "The chance of a business burning down tomorrow is very small. The chance of a business suffering a malware attack (viruses, worms, Trojans, Spyware, keyloggers, etc) is very high and increases every week.

The corruption of computer data can have huge consequences, as it could be hard to detect and fix. Only a minority of attacks are detected. Out of those, only a very small minority are reported. Out of those, only a minority are explained. And out of those, only a minority have a fix on hand," he says.

Any backup strategy starts with a concept of a data repository. The backup data needs to be stored somehow and probably should be organised to a degree. It can be as simple as a sheet of paper with a list of all backup tapes and the dates they were written, or a more sophisticated set-up with a computerised index, catalogue or relational database.

According to Chris Barton, the ANZ regional manager for IT data backup company SonicWALL, when it comes to most small-to-medium businesses, there is usually no-one in the company who is an IT specialist, and when it comes to doing backups "this is usually a sub-function of someone else’s role".

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This is why he notes that for any backup software to be successful it must be "easy to use and it must be able to remove as many of the normal processes as possible".

Going further and from a company-wide perspective, whatever software a business uses for its backup requirement "it must allow the business to run efficiently and it must run automatically and anonymously in the background".

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Backups can have an unintentional consequence. That is, the huge increase in the amount of data that now needs to be stored. In fact, the amount of data increase can easily reach unmanageable proportions. However, there are products that overcome this problem. Shane Moore, product marketing manager of EMC, says that what his company offers is data de-duplication, which is a "unique and different way of doing backups". Typically, says Moore, EMC uses a 300:1 compression ratio in its Avamar backup software, thereby overcoming the problem of creating extra and massive data increases. Moore notes that data protection does not have to be complex, just "robust".

Jacob Van Der Eyk, Computer Associate’s (CA) customer solutions architect, says there are many layers in the reality of data storage. "These multiple layers include the software layer and the hardware layer, along with processes and infrastructure."

He says that from a CA perspective, there are two ways to prepare for an IT catastrophe. There is the traditional or standard backup which is managed and policy-driven, and requires certain processes to kick in. The other way is by using CDP. This, says Van Der Eyk, is where we are no longer talking about backup, but rather a solution that is used by the bigger end of town—continuous data protection. He notes that this system works by "replicating and copying the system and then just monitoring the deltas [changes]. This way, the amount of data does not increase to exponential levels and the company’s computer network isn’t slowed down to a crawl."

According to companies such as Sony, the future for backup storage is getting brighter all the time. Vincent Bautista, product manager for Storage, Sony Australia, says that "backing up using new methods like Blu-ray is also starting to get a look-in, particularly for personal backup. Blu-ray can store up to 50GB per single-sided disc—this is five times the capacity of DVD. Whichever method you use, data backup must be taken seriously. Unfortunately, many learn the hard way by only realising backup after they suffer from data loss or disasters".

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At the end of the day, the reality is that if you value your business and its continuity, then getting serious about data backups can’t come too soon.

And it’s not just for the good of the business that backups need to be taken seriously. In terms of legal requirements and depending on what vertical a company operates in, doing data backups may well be required by laws and international conventions (such as Sarbannes-Oxley), not just common sense.

Considering Options

Magnetic tape is the most commonly used medium for bulk data storage, backup, archiving, and interchange. Tape has typically had a better capacity/price ratio compared with hard disk, but recently the ratios have become a lot closer. As a sequential access medium, the access times of tape may be poor, but the rate of continuously writing or reading data can be very fast.

However, the majority of IT managers and business owners agree that tape does not work. Ironically, most organisations are still using fixed-schedule antiquated tape systems that are subject to human error, cumbersome to manage, and are notoriously unreliable. Statistics from Enterprise Strategy Group and Rowan Revivio Software show that some 30 percent of IT costs are associated with backup; 20 percent of nightly tape-based backup jobs fail; and 40 percent of dedicated, full-time IT managers can’t recover data from their tape backups.

The SonicWALL CDP (Continuous Data Protection) series provides a disk-based backup and recovery solution that meets the needs of organisations and remote offices. These business continuity appliances provide real-time, hassle-free, local backup, as well as hands-free offsite protection for servers, laptops, and PCs. This reliable backup solution integrates a host of other features in one centrally managed appliance to make it easier for IT managers and business owners to protect their organisation’s most important asset—their data. And, since SonicWALL CDP only backs up block level differences within each file, the performance of the network is not impacted or compromised.

Hard disk storage is also an option. The main
advantages of hard disk storage are low access times, availability, capacity, and ease of use. Some disk-based backup systems, such as Virtual Tape Libraries, support data de-duplication which can dramatically reduce the amount of disk storage capacity consumed by daily and weekly backup data.

Optical disk storage (CD/DVD) is also popular. The main advantages of CDs are that they can hold up to 700 MB of data and can also be restored on any machine with a CD-ROM drive. Another common format is recordable DVD, which has a capacity of 4.7 GB. Many optical disk formats are useful for archival purposes since the data can't be changed.

Solid state storage devices—also known as flash memory, thumb drives, USB keys, compact flash, smart media, memory stick, etc—are relatively costly for their low capacity, but offer portability, ease of use, and are to some extent even disposable.

Remote backup service, via the internet to a remote location, can protect against some worse case scenarios, such as fire, flood or earthquake. The main drawback for a remote backup service is that the internet connection is usually substantially slower than the speed of local data storage devices, so this can be a problem for people with large amounts of data and little time.

There are many software options available, too. The Acronis True Image 9.1 Workstation is designed for backup and to restore an office network or a local computer. This software gives users many opportunities, like backup to a virtual server or FTP, managing backup/restore tasks remotely on other computers and more.

After a system crash, the Acronis True Image 9.1 Workstation allows users to perform a full system restore, a bare-metal restore, or just a restore of individual files and folders in minutes. Complete system restoration can be performed to an existing system, to a new system with different hardware, or to a virtual machine.

Highlighted features include remote deployment, backup and restore of any computer in the corporate network, Acronis Universal Restore, Acronis Snap Restore, and save backups directly to DVDs without using third-party DVD burning software.

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Also in the software offerings is EMC Avamar software, which enables fast, efficient and reliable data protection by reducing the size of backup data at the source, before it is transferred across the network. Unlike traditional solutions, Avamar identifies redundant sub-file data segments within and across servers, desktops, laptops, and offices worldwide. Avamar’s patented global data de-duplication technology ensures that backup data segments are stored only once on a global basis. This effectively reduces the amount of data moved and stored daily by up to 300x, enabling daily full backups and rapid restores.

In addition to automatically scheduled backups, Avamar verifies the recoverability of all backup data—so there are no surprises. And backup data is encrypted during transit across the WAN and at rest for security.

Avamar uses a grid architecture that enables linear performance increases by simply adding storage nodes. Each incremental node increases CPU, memory, I/O, and disk capacity for the entire grid. When additional storage is added, data is automatically load-balanced for optimal performance. High availability is delivered by a patented redundant array of independent nodes (RAIN) technology, which provides fault tolerance across storage nodes and eliminates single points of failure. In addition, Avamar system integrity is verified twice daily via internal system checkpoints.

Whatever media you use, or whatever strategy you put in place, the end result should be the same: your business stays safe and secure.

  

Crucial Checklist

The essential elements of a good disaster recovery plan include:

Continuous data protection (CDP). CDP is an important component of the data backup solution because it automatically replicates any new or changed data – in real time. So, when there’s any new or changed data, it’s immediately replicated onto the CDP storage unit.

Local and offsite backup. The combination of local and offsite backup storage provides complete data protection: restoration from a local server saves time and internet bandwidth, while offsite backup saves company data from common disasters such as burglary, virus infection, or fire.

Bare metal recovery. This means taking a snapshot of your entire hard drive so if your system blows up, all you need to do is insert a CD in your new or repaired computer and the entire operating system (with documents and applications and settings) will be recovered. Users can recover an entire system through a simple management interface, in minutes as opposed to days.

Training. Ensure appropriate staff members and IT support are well-versed on how to properly manage your backup systems. And keep the process documented, so if that person was to leave the business today your systems continue to be backed up.

Insurance. Although we don’t like to think about it, disasters can happen. Ensure you have adequate insurance so your business can continue operation with little downtime.

  

Safe and sound

Losing valuable data is one disaster businessowners can arm themselves against, and with the many tools available, there is no excuse for insufficient security.

In this tech-driven world, small and medium businesses store valuable and confidential information in digital format somewhere—whether on a hard drive, online, or most likely both.

Businessowners can purchase the best equipment money can buy, yet they can bet that for every byte of information they have stored on it, there’s a ‘bot’ looking to steal it.

What’s concerning about this is that these hackers aren’t bored teenagers looking to impress their peers, they’re syndicates of online thugs who wreak havoc by creating huge networks of zombie computers and rent out access to hackers looking to steal your money and identity.

Security is a critical part of any business decision. Security software is easy to maintain and unlikely to eat into potential profits, giving small business owners and operators peace of mind that private information about their propriety information is safe.

As a trusted advisor in the area of security, McAfee has these handy tips for ensuring small business networks remain safe from online predators:

• Beware of those who have gone phishing: Phishing scams use phoney e-mails and phonier web sites masquerading as legitimate businesses to lure unsuspecting users into revealing private account or login information. If you get an e-mail from a business that includes a link to its web site, don’t click on it.

• If it’s free … be careful: Watch out for free downloads, surveys and online club registration. Many free downloads, such as games and wallpaper, include hidden spyware and adware programs. These can monitor your keystrokes, track your Internet logins and transmit your confidential information. If it says it’s free, chances are it’ll cost you.

• Secure your wireless network: Your level of risk goes way up if you access the Internet from a wi-fi network—It’s like walking away from the ATM with your card still in it. Since your wireless network’s radio waves travel through walls, a hacker with even a simple antenna can steal your information from hundreds of feet away.

• Remember to layer: Install comprehensive, multi-layered security software that guards against viruses, spyware, adware, hackers, unwanted e-mails, phishing scams and identity theft. Choose a global brand that you can trust to fit your specific needs.

&
bull; Know where you’re going online:
Use an option like McAfee’s free SiteAdvisor software, a downloadable tool that detects sites that push adware installations, online scams and excessive e-mail tactics.

Allan Bell, marketing director for McAfee, Asia Pacific.

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