The Importance of Backups & How To Do Them Right

For any of you who DON'T have a comprehensive, automated backup system in place, put that at the top of your list of tech improvements you need for 2017.

One of the first things that the IT infrastructure of any business needs to have is protection for data - even if the data they have isn't the actual "work product" they deliver to their customers/clients. The data about their customers, records of communications with vendors and clients/customers, and other digital data that is just part of living and doing business in the 21st century is essential for small/local businesses to successfully compete against larger corporate chains, and whoever does the most with that data can outcompete local rivals as well.

Helping people make better use of their data is part of what Metamorphosis IT Solutions does - we don't just install, configure, maintain and manage systems, we try to help users do more with the systems they have by helping with their business processes - so witnessing cases of lost data and the consequences of that loss are unavoidable. We've seen what the loss of that data can mean. Safeguarding your data from loss is not optional, and having a single protective measure in place is inadequate. This relates to the concentric ring, “defense-in-depth” approach discussed in the Metamorphosis IT Solutions presentation on information security.

Always have more than one protective mechanism.

Backups don't mean "remembering to make a copy of the work I just did on a flash drive". Backups mean something that happens automatically, not requiring any user interaction or intervention at all, that happen whether anyone is sitting at a particular computer or not. If the "backup" doesn't happen unless someone makes it happen, it's not really a backup.

Continuous cloud-based backups like CrashPlan or Mozy or Carbonite are a good start, but obviously require internet connectivity to be able to restore files, and they can't restore files that were overwritten months ago by mistake but whose loss was just discovered today.Metamorphosis IT Solutions generally advises the use of at least two different types of backups for protection from all the different types of failures you can encounter.

First, an online backup service like those mentioned above, or those described in the article here. A popular alternative is having someone providing the sort of services Metamorphosis IT Solutionsdoes assist in setting up having all documents, work-related pictures and other data files reside in a cloud service like Google Drive or Amazon Cloud Storage. If the these important files are always synced to the cloud, the loss or failure of a particular physical device can't cause data loss.

Second, local, physical-medium-stored (non-cloud) backups of your data are extremely important to have both for historical reasons as mentioned above - such as mistakes discovered in current revisions of a document/file - and for cases where cloud connectivity is limited or where restore time is important. Remember that cloud services, dependent on the speed of the internet connection they run over, cannot restore data any faster than that connection can allow.

If a drive failure causes the loss of a large volume of data, the business may not be able to afford to wait the hours or days it can take to restore it. A local backup, even just using the built-in tools provided by the operating system - or other free/open source applications - can get data back much, much faster, since it's limited only by the speed of the connection between the backup medium and the computer. This is usually hundreds of times faster than the internet connection is likely to be.

The preferred medium for such local backups today is portable hard drives, not old-fashioned tape drives, though digital tape is still used in enterprise settings. A minimum set of drives for backup rotation is three of them: one that gets rotated only weekly, and two that get alternated daily. These drives have to be kept somewhere other than the location of what they’re backing up. After all, a fire or flood - or theft - that destroys the business is going to do the same thing to backups located in the same place.

The weekly backup drive should be offsite except when it's being used, and whichever of the two daily drives isn't in use on any given day should also be elsewhere. In enterprise settings, this is often done using offsite vaulting services like Iron Mountain. For those of us who can’t afford hundreds of dollars/month for climate-controlled vaulting services (most of us), the easiest way is to have businesses "partner" to act as offsite storage for each other.

If business A gives their weekly drives to business B, and business B gives their weekly drives to business A, unless they’re geographically near each other, a flood, fire or other disaster is unlikely to affect both locations equally, so they can act as protection/insurance for each other. With the daily drives, for non-home-based businesses, staff can take the drives home each day. These would preferably be different staff taking the drives to different homes in different areas. Home-based businesses have to get somewhat creative about who to use as “backup partners”, but the goal is to have the data-containing drives stored somewhere away from where the business itself is located.

Finally,Metamorphosis IT Solutions is a big fan of image backups of systems and servers - the use of disk imaging technology is a core tenet of the way Metamorphosis IT Solutions handles system deployment and backups (which makes us different from most non-enterprise IT providers).

An image backup contains an entire computer - operating system and all - and can be restored even to a completely different computer and boot right up and be ready to use. This is a crucial final step in business protection. The data isn't the entire technology usage story of a business. The software tools that were used to create the data are also important. Until all of our applications and their data live in the cloud, getting a computer set up to be "your computer" can take a lot of time, and that configuration matters for productivity, as anyone who has ever tried to do their normal daily work on a computer other than their own can attest. Trying to work on one that isn't set up like "your computer" can be frustratingly inefficient.

Image backups solve this problem by taking perfect bit-for-bit snapshots of a system that doesn't just contain data, but everything, including the applications, settings, and configuration. Restore the image to a different system (with the right imaging tools) and that computer becomes "your computer", even if the hardware is completely different from the system it was captured from. This is an often forgotten/ignored part of backing up businesses that is a centerpiece of how Metamorphosis IT Solutions manages workstations and servers for our clients.

It’s our hope that readers will find this backup advice helpful. Please don’t hesitate to ask questions about anything that was described in this article. If reading this has you contemplating your own backups (or lack thereof) and you want assistance with setting up better backups, please contact Metamorphosis IT Solutions through the links on our contact page. Backup assistance and configuration can be provided entirely remotely.