Back Up to the Net

Back Up to the `Net

For small companies and remote offices, backing up to the Internet may be more efficient than traditional backup methods.

Bill Krewin

Safeguard Interactive, Inc.

John is an IT manager at the regional sales office of a major international corporation. He oversees a sales team of 22 field reps and 10 administrative staff. One of his biggest technology nightmares would be to arrive at the office in the morning and discover that one of his reps` laptops had been stolen--or that a nasty storm had caused a couple of PCs to crash and that the hard drives were trashed.

A 20-year IT veteran, John knows the value of the data on the desktop; however, he also recognizes that backing up desktops and laptops is often the last thing on people`s minds. A lost or stolen laptop or an inaccessible hard drive can mean important client and sales data are gone for good.

"I`ve spent a large portion of my career around mainframe environments, and virtually all mainframe users execute a solid backup plan--nightly backup with off-site storage capability," says John. "The proliferation of PCs and the movement of data from the mainframe to desktops have distinct business benefits, but a real downside is ensuring that data is properly protected. Frankly, we`re not doing a very good job of it."

The problem he faces is common: Small companies with limited IT budgets often push desktop backup to the bottom of a long list of technology initiatives, if they include it at all. Why?

Until recently, there simply weren`t any solutions that were cost effective, easy to use, and reliable. However, as in many other arenas, the Internet provides a potential solution. Several vendors give users the option to back up their desktop hard drives over the Internet. Examples include Safeguard Interactive (www.sgii.com), Connected (www.connected.com), and Atrieva (www.atrieva.com).

Online backup can be particularly beneficial for small offices and medium-sized companies with 100 or less desktops. And even some large corporations are considering online backup as a viable option.

The main attraction of third-party backup is that it solves the key issues of desktop backup at a reasonable price. Since it is still a fairly new concept, let`s compare it to traditional backup methods for both local and LAN-based environments.

Online vs. Local Backup

Prior to online backup, there were two generally accepted processes for backing up desktops and laptops: one for individuals and small office environments, for which each person was responsible for his or her own local backup, and another for desktops that were part of a LAN, for which backup was automated over the network to remote servers.

The old standby for personal workstations is to make backup the responsibility of each user. For a standalone PC or laptop, backup requires either a stack of floppies or a high-capacity backup system (e.g., Zip, Jaz, or tape). But at $200 apiece for a Zip drive (more for Jaz) plus the cost of the media, the cost of a backup system for each desktop quickly becomes an issue, even in a small 10- to 20-person shop. A small shop can easily incur an ongoing investment of several thousand dollars. If a company isn`t prepared to make this type of investment, stacks of floppies are the only option, which means backup isn`t going to happen because it`s just too time-consuming.

With third-party Internet-based backup, the only special requirements are a modem and an Internet connection. In LAN environments, where there is typically a connection to the Internet through a server, desktop modems are not necessary.

Cost is not the only issue. Local backup places a great deal of faith in users to back up their data. Fortunately, existing backup software makes it easy to automate the backup process, either to tape or disk. But media management is still a potential problem. Where do you store the media? What if it gets lost or stolen? What if the backup tape or disk becomes corrupted? Or you mislabel it?

Again, Internet backup is a potential solution. Many of the service providers enable users to totally automate the process. After installing the software, users simply access the program and set up a backup schedule determined by MIS managers or the users themselves. Users then leave their computers turned on so the backups can run at the predetermined times.

Online backup also eliminates the need for media management, minimizing the hassles of buying, handling, and labeling media. Desktop files stored off-site are the responsibility of the vendor, not the user.

Off-site storage backup is the only way to be absolutely sure you don`t lose mission-critical data. The reason is simple: Suppose you`ve invested significantly in tape backup devices for each of your desktops and you`ve got everyone in the habit of scheduling an automated backup each night. So far, so good? But what happens if there is a fire in the office? Everything goes up in smoke, including the backup tapes from previous nights, which users usually store right next to their PCs.

Online vs. LAN Backup

At first glance, LAN-based backup may seem to solve many of the backup hassles associated with local backup. However, many of the problems are the same.

"Do we backup our PCs? Well, sort of. Actually, we mostly ignore it. We have a single tape drive for our project group, but each person has to hook it up individually to their workstation when they want to do a backup. It`s too much of a hassle for most of us. Some of us put files on the LAN server, if we think of it," says Janice, a project manager at a large information systems company.

On the plus side, you can set up servers on the LAN to act as central storage units and backup devices. Users keep all files on the servers, and the technical staff is responsible for backing up the servers. But this doesn`t protect executables or configuration files that reside on each desktop. And there`s no guarantee that users will adhere to the server storage policy.

Alternatively, you can install backup software on all the desktops on the network and set up automated processes to conduct regularly scheduled backups. Your tech staff can monitor the servers and manage the backup media, but they face the same issues as individuals conducting their own backup: labeling errors, media faults, lost media, and lack of off-site storage. In this scenario, you`ve moved the tasks under centralized control while minimizing involvement from the employees at their desktops.

The downside of LAN-based backup is cost. Imagine a LAN with 100 desktops, each with 2GB hard drives. On a nightly basis, you only back up files that have been altered since the previous night`s backup. However, a typical backup plan includes a regularly scheduled complete copy of the hard drive. Suddenly, you`re looking at several hundred gigabytes of disk or tape storage, just for the occasional backup.

Security is also a potential problem. How do you prevent one user from restoring data from someone else`s backup? Here, central control is critical, but you may need additional software to help identify which data belongs to which desktop.

LAN-based Internet backup is relatively new, but again, it can solve the irritating issues of traditional LAN backup. It requires no media or special hardware, and media management headaches are minimized. The process is totally automated, and as an added value, third-party vendors administer and monitor the activity centrally.

What about Security?

Anyone moving data over the Internet is concerned about security. Though third-party backup companies handle transmission security differently, they all rely on some form of encryption. Personal password protection is used to determine whose data is whose. Also, the data may be tagged to the hardware device where the data originated to prevent a user from restoring data that came from another user`s computer.

What about recovering data? Again, third-party vendors use different methods, but in general the user simply brings up the client software, which searches--over the Internet--for previously backed-up versions of lost or corrupted files. When the files are located, the user transfers them back to the desktop, providing all security checks have been cleared.

The popularity of third-party online backup is increasing as users become aware of the benefits of this cost-effective service. With the low cost-per-seat of Internet-based backup and the rising cost of lost data and employee downtime, it may be time for companies to review desktop backup strategies.

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Questions for Your Internet Backup Vendor

To choose the third-party backup vendor that best meets your needs, run through this simple checklist:

Cost: Are the backup charges based on the amount of data storage used or on actual connection time or are they on a flat-fee basis? Are discounts available for long-term commitments?

Ease of use: Is the backup software simple to install and use? Does it allow hands-off, automated backup? Does it perform both full and incremental backups? Is it easy to access and recover backed-up files?

Transmission security: Is data encrypted during both backup and recovery operations? How secure is the encryption/decryption method?

Data security: How is data stored at the vendor facility? Can the vendor read the data or is it maintained in encrypted format? Does the vendor also provide off-site data backup?

Facility security: Who has access to the vendor facility? How is physical access managed? Is the facility staffed 7 x 24?

User access security: When you need to recover a file, how does the vendor assure that you, and only you, can access your files? Is protection via user password only or are there other layers, such as a hardware identifier?

Facility infrastructure: What sort of Internet connectivity does the vendor have? Does the vendor have redundant power supplies? What about emergency power? What assurance is there that data is accessible 7 x 24 x 365?

Recovery methods: Are backed-up files easy for users to locate and retrieve? Can backup files also be retrieved to CD or other media if the user cannot gain Internet access in an emergency situation?

Administration: Does the vendor provide LAN-based online backup? If so, does the backup software track which desktops are successfully backed up, and when? Are exception reports available that indicate a desktop failed to back up? Can backup schedules be centrally applied and administered?

Bill Krewin is president and CEO of Safeguard Interactive, Inc. (www.sgii.com), in Pittsburgh, PA.

This article was originally published on December 01, 1997