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Tech Tip for October, 2005

Backing Up to the Internet

Disaster Recovery
Imagine, just for a moment, recovering your business data after a fire. Can your customers wait a week for you to get your business back together or will they require immediate service despite your catastrophe? How damaging will it be to your business if the data that changed since your last off-site backup - sales receipts, contracts, drawings, etc. - is gone forever? If you've got to have the data quickly and you've got to have ALL the data, you must do Internet backup.

Even if you are already storing your data off-site, you are probably only rotating the media on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. A catastrophic loss of data, then, would wipe out all the business data that's changed since your last rotation. For most businesses, this is unacceptable. Internet-based backup is an effective way to protect your most mission-critical data in a secure off-site location.

The price of online storage has fallen greatly over the last couple of years, so Internet-based backup server can be a cost-effective media for general purpose backup as well. And it also has the advantage of being sharable between multiple locations and employees if you so choose.

Data is Fragile
It isn't only fire that threatens your data. Data can be lost due to equipment failure; it can become corrupted or be stolen, sometimes along with a computer theft. It can be compromised by hackers, by random human error, by intentional malice or through earthquakes and floods.

If you're already doing backups, think of Internet storage as a place to keep a safe copy of your most rapidly changing, essential data. A daily backup of this data will augment the good system you already have in place to store the vast bulk of data that doesn't change so quickly.

Your current backup software will treat the Internet storage as merely another container for your data, mounting it on your system as if it were another hard drive. How fast you can move data to this Internet drive depends on the speed of your network's "upstream" Internet connection. If you have 1.5 megabits upstream bandwidth, figure 9 megabytes per minute or approximately two hours for each gigabyte of transfer. But remember that even though you might be storing several gigabytes of data online, each night you'll only be uploading the files that changed that day, not the whole data set.

Finding an Internet Server
If you google "Internet storage", you'll see a crowded field of service providers that offer space plus add-on management features, but basically, 5 GB of space will cost you $10 a month. Take a look at the features to see which ones make sense for you. One feature is to have multiple sub-accounts, which lets you create discrete pockets of storage for use by multiple people or groups who want to keep their data separate and private from each other. Another feature is to have "snapshots" so that on Thursday, for example, you can have access to your QuickBooks file as it existed on Tuesday night, in case someone accidentally deleted information on Wednesday.

When you pick a service provider to try out, say, iBackup.com or xdrive.com, purchase a month-to-month plan at first to see if it's a good fit for your needs. Some companies have free trials, but many of these come with conditions that will quickly force you to upgrade to a paid account. My advice is to avoid the free stuff - you're only risking $10 to try it out for a month. If you decide to take out a yearly plan to save money, check back after a few months to see if the prices have fallen since you bought in. If so, you won't get your money back, but you can usually get an expanded plan for the same money.

For those of you who have not purchased backup software, most of the Internet storage companies provide you with free software that lets you schedule automated backups of the directories you specify. Although most of this free software only works with Windows, some of the companies (like iBackup.com) have utilities for the Mac as well.

Backups Should be Automated
An important tip - as with any other component of your backup strategy, Internet backup should be automated - humans are just not dependable enough over the long haul. And also, like any backup service, you need to monitor it to make sure it continues to protect you and periodically perform a practice data restoration to make sure that everything works and you're still backing up the right data.

Having "a server in the sky" is only one piece of a well-constructed backup plan, but it is a essential one for protecting your most critical and rapidly changing data.