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Effective backup strategies and storage options for SMBs

Our expert dives into SMB backup strategies, including disk-based and cloud backup options.

Backups are important. Without a decent backup strategy, the very survival of your business could be at the mercy of a stray strike of lightning, the theft of a laptop from a public place like an airport, or the failure of a critical piece of hardware in a completely unpredictable way.

Jonathan Hassell

However, midsized businesses have traditionally been in a difficult spot when it comes to managing backup strategies. Systems, hardware and management capabilities were mostly available for enterprise customers, but these solutions were too heavyweight for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). In addition, it was tough to justify spending thousands, if not tens of thousands, on backups when those businesses didn't even have dedicated IT departments.

But all of that's changed in today's environment. Now all businesses can afford simple but effective data protection at a fraction of what such insurance used to cost. Let's take a look at effective backup strategies for organizations in this market segment.

Disk-based backup options

Tape used to be the name of the game when it came to backup strategies -- nothing matched the reliability, relative ease and cost per storage unit of a good tape drive and associated media. However, as storage costs have plummeted and hard drives have become capable of storing more and more information, disk-based backup has become cost effective -- and it has the advantage of being faster to access and easier to manage.

Disk-based backup for SMBs can now be as simple as a set of removable hard drives plugged into a machine running Microsoft Windows Small Business Server, for example. For the midsized segment, software such as Microsoft's System Center Data Protection Manager can automate backups, set policies for clients, take care of archiving and even interface with Iron Mountain Inc., a cloud provider, to maintain remote backups (more on that in a bit). These businesses can also invest in more capable storage hardware that can be flexibly assigned among multiple machines. Disk-based backups allow for more dynamic backups, quicker recovery (since you don't have to insert a tape, find a location and then copy files over a relatively slow interface), and a lower cost of ownership overall, since disks are usable for a much longer life span than tape.

Much like tape backup, however, disk-based backup does require an investment in hardware and software to get started. There is also a management overhead requirement in configuring all of the hardware and software, and then the ongoing maintenance and administration of those components.

Cloud storage as a secondary backup strategy

In addition, as the Internet has become pervasive, cloud storage -- giant "blobs" of available disk space to which you can stream data for backup and eventual restore -- has emerged as an alternative for businesses with remote locations, multiple traveling employees and more. With cloud storage, data on your clients and servers is regularly uploaded to a remote site, usually at a provider with multiple data centers, redundant storage and guaranteed uptime and availability. This data is available to restore or re-download anywhere an Internet connection is live.

Backup packages, such as Seagate's EVault SaaS online backup solutions for i365, allow you to back up directly on the Internet without investing in disks, management software or the administrative time required to configure backup policies across your enterprise.

Of course, the main disadvantage and No. 1 risk of cloud backup solutions is that you have no way of actually assuring your data will be available should disaster strike and you need an instant restore. Businesses that go "all in" to the cloud, in terms of their disaster recovery strategy, are putting their continuing operations at the risk of download speed, provider availability and even something as mundane as a maintenance window. However, the cloud makes a lot of sense as a secondary backup strategy -- you can still rely on disks locally in case disaster strikes, but you can offload much of the monthly, quarterly and yearly archiving to the cloud and not invest your own resources locally into maintaining old -- and most likely stale -- data.

Small and midmarket businesses will find that disk-based backup strategies and cloud storage options make the most fiscal and logistical sense in today's economy. Disk provides quicker access, faster recovery and more dynamic backups, while the cloud offers a very good secondary layer of backup protection with many advantages over investing in expensive backup support hardware and software locally.

Jonathan Hassell is president of The Sun Valley Group Inc. He's an author, consultant and speaker in Charlotte, N.C. Hassell's books include RADIUS, Learning Windows Server 2003, Hardening Windows and, most recently, Windows Vista: Beyond the Manual. Contact him at

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