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SMBs weigh online storage

There's no question that data backup and recovery is essential for all businesses. The emergence of Web-based storage service providers has some small and medium-sized businesses wondering what to do, as storage options are aplenty. But depending on who you talk to, the right answer for SMB storage devices remains to be seen. This article examines the pros and cons of implementing online storage devices for SMBs.

It's no secret that data that data backup and recovery is necessary for any business, even a small one. Pit traditional in-house backup devices against new online storage services, however, and the battle begins.

The emergence of Web-based storage service providers, such as EVault Inc., NetMass Inc. and AmeriVault Corp., has given small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) an alternative to doing backup on tape, disk or hard drives alone. For a monthly service fee, an SMB can schedule data backups to be delivered via the Internet and stored on disks at a storage service provider's data center. That sounds good to some SMB IT managers, who question the costs of traditional backup systems, which include hardware, media and continual human interaction.

Large enterprises may need and have the resources to pay for in-house backup systems and round-the-clock dedicated IT staff whose only job is to run backups and restores. However, for most SMBs, where data is just as critical to the life of the business, there simply may not be the resources for even a separate backup server, much less a dedicated IT shop. Often, an SMB's IT staff members are consumed with several tasks, and they might have to make the choice between running backups or running the business.

No question for some

To some users of online storage, an SMB IT manager who uses an online backup service never has to make that choice again. Daily and incremental backups are automatic and require no administration.

"I've always wondered why there are companies out there that still rely on in-house backup solutions for their critical data," said Bill Wall, controller for Mynatt Truck & Equipment Co. (MTEC), based in Olathe, Kan. Wall backs up his systems nightly through NetMass, a McKinney, Texas-based online data backup and recovery company. "I know when I walk out the door at night that I don't have to worry about my data, should something happen to my systems," he said.

Some IT workers do worry about the data stored by online vendors, however. Although Bryan Tidd is the only IT staffer for the city of Canton, Ga., he's not interested in outsourcing the city's backup. "With so much of our data bordering on public open records and private citizen information, I like to have my hands on things here," Tidd said.

Tidd uses autoloader tape devices, direct-connected RAID arrays and external firewire drives for quick access storage. He schedules automatic backups, so little manual intervention is needed. As for redundancy, Tidd suggests that people who don't feel comfortable with online storage options should follow his lead and locate a secondary backup device in another location.

Randy Kerns, an analyst at the Evaluator Group Inc. in Greenwood Village, Colo., agrees with Tidd's cautionary advice on using an online service. Kerns fears online security breaches, Internet connectivity reliability, and unmet recovery time and recovery point objectives. "I simply cannot recommend online backup at all," he said.

NetMass CEO Mark Martin strongly disagrees with Kerns' assessment of online backup. "If people are worried about our service, they just don't understand the technology," he claims.

On the security front, Martin asserts that all data is encrypted before moving over to the Internet and stays encrypted until such time as a customer would need to recall it. Then, only the business has the encryption key at its end.

Adam Couture, a senior analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based IT consultancy Gartner Inc., agrees that data is as safe as it can be while moving to and being stored by an off-site online service. "All the companies we've studied use the same types of high-level encryption technologies that the banks or the government use," Couture said.

Faster online recovery time

Martin asserts that recovery time for data can be faster over the Internet than on device-based backup systems. Tracking down a tape can take more time than an online recovery, especially if the tape is stored off-site. Once the tape is found, the IT manager has to find the files that are needed and download those files to a server.

I've always wondered why there are companies out there that still rely on in-house backup solutions for their critical data.

Bill Wall
controllerMynatt Truck & Equipment Co.

With online backup, no IT professionals are needed for simple file restores, Martin said. A few clicks on a file tree menu and anyone in or out of the office who has authorized access can retrieve a lost file in minutes. Also, for disaster recovery requiring the retrieval of large amounts of data, online services offer to download a DVD and overnight ship it to a business.

The speed of file restoration by an online storage service provider has impressed Joel Shaps, president of Los Altos, Calif.-based Bedrock Capital Management Inc. A customer of Emeryville, Calif.-based EVault, he recounts the story of a consultant to Bedrock who inadvertently deleted 17 years of client data. Shaps was able to restore all eliminated files with just a few clicks. "We were up and running in less than half an hour," Shaps said.

Martin points to the conservation of valuable resources as one of the most important reasons for an SMB to choose an online data storage service. "There is no need for the investment in equipment, media, storage space or personnel with our service," Martin said. "It just couldn't be easier."

Maxine Kincora is a contributing technology writer in Berkeley, Calif. Let us know what you think about this story; email

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