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SMB backup options and a solution: Bypassing the cloud for now

CIO Scott Lowe is sticking with tried-and true backup options and looking ahead at a hybrid backup solution. Find out why cloud backup options aren't part of his plan.

It's an established fact that IT changes at an incredibly fast pace. We even have a law -- Moore's Law -- to prove it. There is, however, one constant that has stayed mostly universal since the beginning of IT time -- the need for and the challenges around taking backup copies of critical information. While the need for backup has not changed, carrying out the act has changed, and new backup options become available on a regular basis.

To be sure, the world of backup options for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) is a dizzying place, with solution after solution being added all the time. Today, there are three primary classes of backups available:

  • Tape: The tried-and-true tape drive is still alive, well and even thriving.
  • Disk: As disk costs have plummeted, disk-based backup solutions have risen in popularity.
  • Cloud: Also on the rise is cloud-based storage, although …
Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I would venture to guess that most organizations still use tape at some point in their backup strategies, particularly when it comes to long-term storage. This is particularly true for smaller organizations that have either outsourced or very small IT staffs. With the right tape hardware and backup policies in place, tape can be a sort of set-it-and-forget-it solution that doesn't require that much care and feeding, with the exception that they need to be changed and taken off-site every so often.

And therein lies one of the most significant benefits of tape: portability. With disk-based backup, portability can be difficult unless you're backing up to a portable hard drive that you take off-site on a regular basis. With tape, you can swap tapes and create a full backup rotation that doesn't break the bank and allows you to take tapes off-site as a part of that rotation.

From a budgetary perspective, tape remains an affordable prospect for most SMBs. For example, Sonic Solutions' Roxio Retrospect for Windows can be purchased in a bundle that allows the software to back up an unlimited number of other Windows servers at a list price of just $1,409. For users of Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server, Roxio provides a product that carries a list price of $729. Further, an organization can obtain a DLT S4 tape drive that boasts 800 GB uncompressed and up to 1.6 terabytes compressed capacity for just over $3,000.

Obviously, there are thousands of different product combinations out there that range from relatively low cost up to very expensive solutions. The key is to determine your comfort level when it comes to the potential for data loss and then purchase a solution that meets the needs of your business.

Disk backup options

Although disk-based backup can be used on its own, it's often used in conjunction with tape solutions in order to provide organizations with different recovery options depending on the need. Since disks are generally faster than tape units, disk-based backup tools can be used to reduce the amount of time it takes to back up a server. Further, because it's easier to add additional capacity to disk solutions, some companies opt to store large amounts of backup information to a disk unit. From there, the organization identifies critical information and offloads that to long-term storage -- generally tape -- on a periodic basis.

The beauty of a disk-based backup system really comes through during recovery, though. Because disks are significantly faster than tapes, recovery periods can be much shorter.

Disk-based backup options are growing in popularity as costs drop, and as the amount of data needing backup services rises at an accelerating pace. The shorter backup time with disk allows organizations to maintain existing backup windows.

Cloud backup options

Cloud-based backup solutions are also growing in popularity for a number of reasons:

  • Ease of acquisition and implementation. Cloud solutions do not require significant initial infrastructure investments, and can often be implemented through nothing more than a simple agent installation.
  • Simple costs. With no need for up-front costs to be absorbed, organizations can focus on simply analyzing ongoing operational costs for whatever service is selected.
  • Ease of ongoing maintenance. Since the provider is on the hook for providing the service, all the customer needs to worry about is making sure that servers are actually being backed up.

There are, however, some downsides. First, organizations need to make sure costs are actually well understood. Costs that can appear simple at the beginning may actually be very complex. Look no further than backup solutions that use Amazon's cloud services for examples. Second, since data is not always controlled by the company, there could be security concerns. Finally, many small companies use DSL and other slow Internet connection options, making it difficult to upload mass data.

The Westminster College backup solution of the future

At Westminster College, we back data up to a tape drive that resides outside our data center in a different, secure campus location. In the event that the data center is destroyed, our backup device sits safely ensconced in its alternate location. On the software side, we use Symantec Backup Exec – it has served us well for some time, but we're also finding it relatively expensive as we add more servers.

Keeping backup services in-house is a clear winner in the
long run.

To address the backup window issue, as well as to aid in recovery, we'll be adding an intermediary disk-based backup unit. In order to handle the cost issue, we are considering alternatives to Backup Exec; most notably, we're considering using Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 (DPM 2010). Initial testing has been positive, but we have a ways to go before we declare victory.

Assuming we move to DPM 2010, and add the disk-based unit, we'll add the DPM agents to all of our servers, configure them to back up to the disk-based unit and, from there, back up to the tape drive for long-term data retention needs.

For the reasons I outlined above, we are not currently interested in cloud-based backup services. As we've looked at cost comparisons between cloud backup and our intended solution, keeping backup services in-house is a clear winner in the long run. Further, from a security perspective, I have difficulty copying all of my institutional data to a third-party site. While a third-party service will certainly have better defenses than we ever can, these kinds of services are also much more likely to be attack targets due to their holding so much information.

Scott Lowe is CIO of Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. Write to him at or

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