A Few Good Tools for Online Data Backup
Every organization should back up its data, but it may not make sense for a small organization to mess around with complex hardware solutions. We talked to some nonprofit technology experts to understand what online data backup solutions are available to nonprofits.
You’re already aware of the importance of backing up your organization’s files and data, and with any luck, you didn’t have to learn it the hard way — at best, recovering from that kind of loss can be arduous and expensive. By now you’ve also figured out that backing up your data remotely is an excellent solution, especially when it’s done as one part of a backup strategy that also includes regularly scheduled local backups.
We asked a number of industry experts and nonprofit technology professionals with experience in this area about what works for their organizations, and what to consider when shopping for a remote data backup solution. We then combined their thoughts to come up with a set of tools that might work for you.
A Few Good Tools
Remote backup services remove some of the risk associated with local backups — like external hard drives, network drives or removable media — which guard against physical failure of a hard drive or server but not against more severe events. If your office falls victim to a disaster such as a fire, flood, theft, or even a virus on your network, your backup storage could be lost along with your primary one.
Remote backup tools transfer data from your computers to shared storage centers via an Internet connection. These services also have the added benefit of automating your backups, eliminating the significant risk of human error. A number of vendors offer services in this area. Which one most reliably and affordably meets your needs? Based on conversations with three experts who routinely consult on, install, and configure these systems for nonprofit organizations of all sizes, here are a few good remote backup tools, followed by some information to help you choose among them.
The small-business version of the popular Mozy Online Backup service, MozyPro offers a powerful, easy-to-use software interface and solid reporting features. The service automatically detects and backs up new and changed files, and supports bandwidth throttling, file versioning, and multiple restore options (including online, or by a mailed DVD, which you order through the vendor).
Mozy supports Windows 2000 and newer operating systems, and Macs running 10.4 and 10.5. It can also backup common applications running on Microsoft Windows and Mac servers. These can be tricky to configure, however. It’s recommended that you work with Mozy’s support staff to make sure you’re backing up the right data for these applications.
The monthly cost is $3.95 per license and $.50 per gigabyte of data for individual computers, or $6.95 per license and $.50 per GB for servers.
Carbonite doesn’t distinguish between home and business users, or individual machines and servers. Though you pay a flat per-computer rate for unlimited storage, restores are available online only, and can take a long time for more than a couple GBs of data. Similarly, the initial backup can take days, or weeks, to run. Like MozyPro, Carbonite supports bandwidth throttling, automatic detection and backup of new and changed files, and file versioning, although a file deleted from your computer is deleted from Carbonite after 30 days.
From a cost perspective, this service is more affordable on a per-computer basis, and might be a better option if you’ve only got a few computers in your office and they’re not networked. The software is less-configurable than MozyPro’s, but supports Windows XP and newer operating systems, and Intel-based Macs running OS 10.4, 10.5 and 10.6.
The cost is $54.95 per year, per computer, with unlimited storage.
Jungle Disk is a backup-management software application that partners with two third-party storage vendors – Amazon Web Services Simple Storage Service (S3) and Rackspace Cloud Files. You choose which you want to use — both charge a small per-GB fee, with the first 10 GB of storage for free. Jungle Disk essentially turns these online storage services into a remote backup solution, and is the most affordable of the options discussed here. It treats the storage like a local drive, assigning it a drive letter for ease of use.
It supports Windows operating systems 2000 and newer, servers running 2003 and 2008, and Macs (both PowerPC and Intel-based) running OSX 10.5 or newer. The vendor also provides open-source code, and offers reporting via email, web, or RSS feed. File versioning is supported, but bandwidth throttling is not, nor is automatic new-and-changed-file detection.
The service costs just $5 per month per server. A Workgroup edition for individual desktops and laptops costs $4 per month. Both Amazon S3 and Rackspace charge $.15 per GB after the first 10 GB. Beginning in July 2010, there will also be a $.10 per GB data transfer charge for Amazon S3.
Since backup management applications are used to manage local backups, it’s possible you already have one in-house — there are a number of competitive software options, including Symantec Backup Exec, ArcServe, or Retrospect, that range in price from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand. You can use one of these applications on top of the Jungle Disk/Amazon S3/Rackspace solution for a more robust backup management feature-set than Jungle Disk alone offers — especially in the areas of managing Microsoft Exchange and SQL servers.
Choosing the Right Solution
Remote backup services use a straightforward, simple process. Choose a vendor, download the software, tell it what to back up, and set a schedule. That’s it. When it’s up and running, you’ll also want to regularly monitor your backups to make sure they’re error-free — most vendors provide a daily email report to facilitate this. It’s also a good idea to restore a few files now and again both to make sure the system works, and to make sure you know how to use it. You don’t want a data loss crisis to be your trial by fire.
These are important considerations when choosing the right tool for your own remote backup needs. Let’s take a look at some other aspects of remote backup services to keep in mind.
While cost varies a bit among the different services, there’s not usually a big upfront investment — just a monthly storage charge and a fee for each computer or server on which you install the software. Some services charge a flat fee for unlimited storage. Others charge per-Gigabyte — you pay only for the data you store. (If you’re tempted to be more picky about what you back up as a cost-saving measure, resist the temptation. In the face of loss, storage is cheap.)
If you’re worried about sending so much data out over the Internet, don’t be — remote backup vendors invest a lot of time and money into protecting your data. In fact, they do a better job of it than you likely could without a significant financial investment. Encryption protocols are rigorous, and the shared data storage facilities are purpose-built, with redundancy and emergency generators to keep them running during power outages, as well as sophisticated safeguards against network intrusions, viruses, and other security threats.
Make sure you do your part — you access your data with passwords, and like all passwords, they’re only as strong as you make them. Follow good password-creation protocol, change them periodically, and limit the number of people with access to them.
Your data doesn’t do you any good if it’s all safe and sound on a remote backup drive but you can’t access it. How the various services help you restore your data, and how quickly, can make or break their usefulness. Where these services excel is in file- or folder-retrieval — say, if you accidentally deleted something and want it back, or need to see an earlier version of a document. This kind of data restore is done quickly and easily over the service’s web interface.
But in the case of a data-loss catastrophe where you need to restore an entire file server or drive, expect restoration to take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. The actual time will depend on the amount of data, the available bandwidth, and how quickly the vendor is able to retrieve the data from their servers.
In most cases, data restoration from a local backup is going to be significantly faster. An ideal scheme will use a local backup with a supplemental remote backup for contingencies. In addition, remote backup solutions don’t offer what’s called a “bare metal recovery,” or the ability to restore a system from a bare computer, including the operating system and software applications. You’ll have to make other provisions, again demonstrating the value of a combination of local and remote backups.
Setup and Ease of Use
You don’t need to be a computer genius to install and set up the software provided by these services. For the most part the software is automated with default settings. But if your organization has an IT person, even an accidental one, it’s not a bad idea to get them involved in the process. Or, if you have an outside consultant with whom you work from time to time, consider bringing them onboard to help set up your backup routine.
You’ll want someone who can help you find the right files and folders so you’re backing up the right data. In the case of some applications, this can be trickier than it sounds. In addition, someone with a little knowledge can help “tweak” your backup service to run efficiently for your needs — once you’ve done an initial system backup, most let you control how often they look for new or changed files. Some even let you “throttle” the bandwidth they use, giving them free rein overnight but scaling them back to a limited percentage during office hours.
Having a knowledgeable person help you set this all up will ensure a more accurate backup. Besides, if your daily monitoring reveals a problem or you need to restore data, it doesn’t hurt to have someone who can help. In any case, once you’ve established a backup scheme, it’s a good idea to document it so that if and when you need to restore some or all of your data, you know where to begin.
Backup Best Practices
Much has been written elsewhere on the best practices for backing up your data. (To learn more, see the Tech Soup article, Backing Up Your Data: Tools and Strategies for Protecting Your Organization Against Data Loss). But what, when, and how you choose to implement this process can be a factor in your decision about which tool is right for your organization.
What should you be backing up? There’s both a complicated and a simple answer to this question. The simple answer is, “everything.” Or at least, everything that’s critical, valuable, irreplaceable, or important to your organization. The complicated one requires a little more explanation. Think of your organization’s processes. You’ve got financial data, constituent data, and the materials you generate as part of your day-to-day operations (documents, spreadsheets, diagrams, PowerPoints). You’ve got your communications, like email. Maybe you’ve got personnel information, web content, or other valuable files.
Consider each process separately. Do you have a Constituent Relationship Management system? Financial tools like QuickBooks? Determine whether the information these applications use and generate is stored in a central location where you can find it, or whether it’s spread out in multiple folders. Don’t be afraid to reach out to software vendors for help — and while you’ve got their ears, ask if they have a system for restoring or reinstalling the actual applications in the event of a loss. Making sure you’re backing up everything you need to get back on your feet and running in the event of a loss can save a lot of time and aggravation when you need it most.
For the most part, the different backup tools will back up all your data regardless of the file type, as long as you tell them to. The default program settings often overlook specific file types that may be important to you.
Once you’ve chosen a vendor, install the remote backup software on all file servers that contain information of value from any of these processes. But remember, the best laid plans can fail in human hands — backing up file servers won’t do any good if individual staff members are storing their valuable data on local hard drives. Make sure networked computers all have access to file storage, and that everyone is using it.
If your office computers are not networked, then install remote backup software on every individual computer. Most services offer different rates for servers and individual computers. This is also true for board members or certain valuable staff members — if they’re important enough that you don’t want to ask them to use a shared network drive, they’re important enough that their local drives should be running remote backup individually.
Choosing the right remote backup service is not a decision to take lightly. Data can be mission critical, and ensuring its safety is important. In the end, the strategy you use to backup data will be as important as the service itself.
Once backup practices are in place, follow them rigorously, and make sure your staff is onboard with the steps necessary to secure the information you need to achieve your organization’s mission day in and day out. A combination of local- and remote-backup solutions is the best way to make sure your data is safe. With a few good remote options available, you should have no trouble finding the right one for your organization’s needs.
For More Information
TechSoup has a wealth of information about best practices and tools for disaster planning and data backup:
- The Resilient Organization: A Guide for Disaster Planning and Recovery
- Backing Up Your Data: Tools and Strategies for Protecting Your Organization Against Data Loss
- Remote Backup for Your Organization
- Local Backup for Your Organization
- Your Nonprofit’s Backup Strategy
Thanks to TechSoup for their financial support of this article, as well as to the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations, advice, and other help:
- Joshua Peskay, Director of IT, Fund for the City of New York
- Larry Velez, Chief Technology Officer, Sinu
- Paulie Heenan, Systems Administrator, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council
- Laura Quinn, Idealware