Imagine that you own a small manufacturing company. One night you’re awakened by a phone call; there’s been a fire at your factory! You rush out, expecting the worst. But on arriving you find it’s not that bad. Your warehouse, factory, and most of the office are relatively unscathed. The fire chief explains that the only real damage was to a small portion of your offices.
It so happens that that part of the office is where your computer server was situated. Fortunately, your insurance covers fire damage. You’ll be able to replace the server. But what about the data on the server?
What about your accounting records, shipping documents, customer information, employee files, and product drawings? What about the email messages from your insurance company?
Fortunately you’ve got a backup. This article originally appeared on lightningstrikestudios.com. If you’re reading it anywhere else, it’s stolen. Please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
You do have a backup, don’t you?
What Should You Back Up?
Obviously you need to back up your data, those items we’ve already mentioned.
Do you use any custom applications? Most commercial applications can be downloaded from the vendor’s website and reinstalled fairly easily. But if you have custom applications, these should be included in your backups.
Should you back up your operating system? A premium disaster recovery plan may include off-site storage of identical server hardware, configured and kept in sync with production servers for quick turn-around. In that case, having a full backup including the operating system is essential.
However, if you’re replacing your hardware — because it’s been damaged by flood, fire, or some other disaster — it’s not likely the new hardware will be identical to the old hardware. A “bare metal” restore — restoring your entire system to a server with no operating system or applications — usually requires identical hardware. Any differences in manufacturer, processors, network controllers, or disk storage systems may render the restore useless.
Do you use databases like Oracle, MariaDB, or MS SQL Sever; or virtual servers like VMware, VirtualBox, or Hyper-V? These often require special procedures to back up the data files or virtual disk drives without corrupting their data.
What about email? Is it all in the cloud with your service provider? Or do users keep additional local files as well?
If your business uses groupware products such as the Microsoft 365 suite (Teams, SharePoint, OneDrive) be sure that is also backed up. Yes, the groupware provider likely backs up your data, but it’s still your data and therefore your responsibility.
What about employee’s desktops, laptops, tablets, and phones? Without rigorous controls in place, you may find that much of your important data is dispersed among a number of mobile devices, rather than housed securely on a central server. Does your staff back up that information to your servers? Do they back up at all?
How Often Should You Back Up?
Perhaps a better question is, how much time can you afford to lose? Are you producing new files and modifying old files every day? Would you really want to have to repeat that work if you suddenly lost a day?
There are a number of backup schemes, each with advantages in terms of storage space, bandwidth, and time required.
A full backup gives you a complete copy of your data, but it requires a lot of storage space and may take a long time to complete. It may not be practical to create a full backup every day.
Among other options, the two most common are incremental backups that capture only new and changed files since the last full or the last incremental backup, and differential backups that capture new and changed files since the last full.
Typically, you would create a full backup perhaps once a week, and then either incremental or differential backups each day. If you ever have to restore, you need your most recent full backup and the latest differential, or the full and all following incrementals.
Where Should You Store Your Backups?
In our opening scenario, obviously it wouldn’t have been enough to have your backups stored with your server. Both would have been lost in the fire. So you need to store your backup files at a separate location, away from the computers you’re backing up.
In the past, it was common to back up your systems to high-capacity tape drives, and then take those tapes off site, perhaps to a safety deposit box at a bank or just to a trusted employee’s home. This had obvious drawbacks. What if someone forgot to take the backup tapes off site each night? What if the tapes were lost, stolen, or damaged?
The advent of relatively cheap high-speed internet presented a new option for off-site backups. Instead of being written to tape, backup files could be sent directly to the cloud — external data centers — managed by outside companies.
Of course, anyone can set up a server with a few terabytes of disk storage and call it a “data center.” But this could end up being less secure than just taking your backup tapes home each night. Choose a cloud provider that guarantees the security of your data and that can back up that guarantee with verifiable facts.
Who Can Read Your Backups?
You’re sending your data out over the internet. From the time it leaves your offices, your data may pass through any number of third-party routers, and at each step, it’s vulnerable.
Once your data reaches your cloud provider, it’s safe. Or is it?
You may trust your cloud provider enough to let them hold your backups. But no one, including the largest, most technically savvy company, is immune to outside hacking. Then there’s also the matter of internal security breaches. It only takes one disgruntled worker to compromise an entire system.
To protect your backups, your data should be encrypted before it leaves your premises, and your cloud provider should not have access to your keys. Of course, you’ll need to keep a separate copy of your encryption keys in case you need to restore your data. That’s why you may still need a safety deposit box with your bank, or some other secure location.
Do Your Backups Work?
A rigorous backup plan is only useful if it works. Imagine, in our opening scenario, that you manage to replace your server hardware but when you go to restore your critical data you find it’s incomplete. Key files are missing. Or it’s corrupt and none of it can be restored at all.
As part of your backup process, test your backup regularly. Choose a few key files and some random files, and try to restore them.
If you have database systems or virtual servers, try restoring those too. That may require setting up test servers, but it’s worth it compared to the cost of finding out your backups didn’t work.
How Do You Back Up?
So you’re convinced that you need to back up your data. You know when to back up. You know where to back up to. But how, exactly, do you back up?
As with anything, you’ve basically got two options: Do it yourself, or hire someone to do it for you.
If you go the do-it-yourself route you’ll have to choose the software, install and configure it on each device to be protected, choose and configure your cloud (or set up your own off-site storage facility), run the backups on a regular schedule, and test them periodically.
There are dozens of backup tools available, both commercial and open source. Choosing the right option for your circumstances will take time. Then you should test it thoroughly before relying on it as your primary backup tool.
Managed backup services make the process easier. A capable managed service provider will create a customized backup system specific to your needs, maintain and test the backups regularly, and perform restore operations when needed.
You Need A Reliable Backup System
For many businesses, their most valuable asset is information. But it could all be lost in a moment due to hardware failures, natural disasters, hacker attacks, or simple human error.
Whether you back up your data yourself or higher a managed service provider to do it for you, you need to back up your data.