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Choosing an Online Backup Provider for Your Smaller Business

Smaller businesses can back up data online with ease.

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By Howard Marks

You had a backup system. Your VAR set you up with a tape drive, backup software, and a box of tapes when it set up your network. You followed the directions. You backed up your . Then the busy season came. And the office manager charged with changing the tapes every morning quit; she trained the new guy to change the tape every day, but she didn't show him how to check the backup program's alerts. So, when you actually tried to restore from a tape, you discovered your last good backup was six months old. You had to face it; your traditional tape backup system was broken.

After the obligatory expletives, a few angry calls to the reseller, and a thousand dollars or so for data recovery, you bought a USB hard drive and climbed back onto the backup treadmill. Now your backup now runs successfully every night. Unfortunately, it's also still in your office, still connected to your server and still vulnerable to fire, theft, viruses, floods, and everything else but gloom of night.

Why do you face this problem? Because the backup tools you're using were designed for big enterprises with large IT staffs that make sure backups run right. The big enterprises pay couriers from companies with names like Iron Mountain and Recall to take away their backup tapes and store them. When these companies lose a tape, it makes the news, because most states require that the public, and affected people, be notified when their data goes missing. The cost of off-site data protection, not mention the couriers and in-house IT staff, adds up quickly.

Fortunately for smaller businesses, there's another option: Take advantage of your broadband connection and backup online. All you need to do is install a little agent on the computers you want to protect and the software does the rest. But how can you store your company's most sensitive information, trade secrets and financial records on someone else's server?

In reality, it's much easier to break into your office and steal your server than to steal your data from online backup providers. Their backup software encrypts your data before it leaves your computer using an encryption key that you know but they don't; your data remains encrypted while they store it and is only decrypted when you restore it. That does means you had better keep your access key and password in a safe place because cracking today's encryption is a lot harder than it looks on television, and no one at the online backup provider will have your key.

One knock on online backup services is that they take forever to restore. Though restoring all your data from an online service may take longer than from tape, restoring any given file is likely to be faster. Cable modem users should expect download speeds of 30 MB per minute. But that's just the restore time: 20 minutes to restore a 500-MB file is still likely to take less time than finding the right tape, mounting it, and restoring the file. If your server does go belly up, you can start downloading your most important files to a workstation immediately while the server is being rebuilt, long before you could restore from tape. If you do have massive amounts of data, most online backup providers will overnight you DVDs or an NAS appliance with your data.

Finding the Right Online Backup Provider

With online backup, the toughest step is finding the right provider. If you do a Google search for "online backup," you'll get more than 14 million pages representing literally hundreds of service providers with prices from free to hundreds of dollars per month. To wade through all that choice it's helpful to break down the providers into three classes: consumer, local providers, and commercial.

Consumer-Class Online Backup Services Consumer-class services typically have low prices and most charge less than $20 per month Two of the most visible providers are Carbonite and EMC's Mozy; Carbonite offers unlimited storage for $50 a year and Mozy offers free service for up to 2 TB of data. Both provide backup services for Windows and Macintosh systems, and each machine requires a separate account.

Some consumer services support installing their software on Windows servers but usually don't offer server or application specific backup functions for applications. For example, SQL Server and Exchange should be backed up using the application's backup API rather than as files. These services typically limit the number of versions of a file they will store and how for long. Most providers limit storage to 6o days, so if you didn't notice a folder was deleted until 90 days later -- say, at the end of a quarter -- you'd be out of luck.

Local Online Backup Providers

Another option is using a local provider. Over the past few years, VARs and hosting companies have begun offering their own online backup services using software from an array of companies. Some, such as Asigra, are repositioning software they've sold into the corporate remote office backup market for years. Others, including Ahsay, Vembu and NovaStor, are trying to enter the crowed U.S. backup market and see online backup services as a way to gain market share.

A local provider can setup and support your systems, providing backup as well as management services. If you need your backup, you can send someone over to the data center to pick up an NAS appliance. However, that convenience puts local providers at the same risk from natural and human-caused disasters as your business, and their smaller size makes them vulnerable to downturns in the business cycle.

Commercial-Class Backup Services

Commercial-class backup services are run by big, well-funded companies that are likely to stay in business for as long or longer than you'll need your data. Among the better-known commercial class providers are Seagate's eVault, Iron Mountain's LiveVault, Intronis eSureIt and Symantec Online Backup.

While some consumer-class providers allow you to set up common billing for multiple systems they still treat the process of backing up, restoring, and managing data independently for each protected system. By contrast, commercial-class providers typically let you backup several computers to a single account, charge according to the amount data you store and store multiple versions for a long period. Rates for these services start around $35 per month for 5 GB of data with charges from $5 to $20 for each additional gigabyte per month.

To insure the security of your data, commercial class providers write your data to multiple datacenters so a failure in their infrastructure doesn't keep you from restoring your data. Many also offer features such as continuous backup that allow you to restore from snapshots of your data taken as often as every 15 minutes as well as agents for applications such as SQL Server and Exchange. Some providers will even provide a caching appliance that stores your data on disk on-site for faster restores.

Howard Marks is chief scientist of Networks Are Our Lives, Inc!, a Hoboken, NJ consultancy where he beats networks and storage into submission for clients. He also writes the Backup and Business Continuity Blog for

Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Provider

Nine questions you should ask before choosing a provider:

1. Will they support all your systems?
Almost all online backup services support Windows workstations and, except for pure consumer players, Windows servers. Even if you only have a few Macs, they need to be protected too. If you have NAS servers, you should also ask if they can backup your NAS via a file share.

2. Will they support you applications properly?
Files are easy to backup and restore. Applications like SQL Server (including MSDE) and Exchange should be backed up with their backup APIs rather than as files.

3. Will you need/want the faster restore capability that a caching appliance will give you? Is it worth the extra cost?

4. Do you want to have your VAR, consultant or MSP manage your online backup system?

5. How sure are you that the vendor will still be around when you need your data?

6. How many versions of your data will they keep?

7. How long will they keep your data?

8. Where is the data center where your data will be stored?

9. Will your data be duplicated in multiple places?

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