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Issue of May 2006 

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The set it, forget it approach

Get proactive with your data protection measures with simple backup solutions for small businesses, says Yogesh Kamat, Country Manager, Maxtor

Yogesh Kamat

The success and even uninterrupted operation of many small businesses depends on making sure that critical data is backed up regularly and stowed securely both onsite and offsite. That said, what’s the best storage technology for the job?

Three primary backup storage technologies are available for small server backup: optical, tape, and hard disk drives. The premise of this article is that an external hard drive equipped with server backup software, when used as an element of a proactive backup and information security solution, is superior to rival backup approaches in cost, performance, reliability and ease of use.

Most small businesses will not amass the terabytes of information processed by large enterprises, but the ability to access business information is just as critical.

There are many reasons why data may be lost or inaccessible, these include natural disasters, human errors, malicious intervention, software errors, data corruption and hardware failures. Whatever the cause if you are running a business you can’t afford the interruption. And if it happens, most small business owners probably don’t have an IT department to call to bail them out.

Going the HDD Way

Today, mid-range small-business servers generally come equipped with hard drive capacities ranging from 40 GB all the way up to 300 GB. There is a dearth of cost-effective, efficient backup solutions to address these capacities.

Enterprise solutions such as network attached storage (NAS) devices and terabyte-class disk autoloaders are not ideal for small businesses. For faster and robust backup performance, hard disk drive based backups offer the only practical solution. But these are not just any hard disk drive-based backup.


Deciding which solution is best for your organisation means evaluating several criteria. Here are a few worth considering:

The most important factor to look for is simplicity. The more you can remove human fallibility from your backup process, the safer you’re likely to be. People get busy and forget, and they make mistakes. This is why an automated backup solution has the advantage over swapping media to complete a storage session. And ideally you should be able to start backing up right out of the box. A user-friendly backup solution will let you set it up easily and forget it as it does its job without requiring your attention or intervention.

Next is performance. You don’t want to twiddle your thumbs through hour after hour of downtime while a system restore is in progress. Restore times expose one of tape’s critical weaknesses. Unlike hard disk drive- and optical disk-based products, which store and retrieve data by direct access, tape is linear. Data is accessed by first finding the appropriate tape, gathering information from the media’s header area to find out where the desired file is located, and then mechanically fast-forwarding for seconds to several minutes to find and retrieve the desired file. By contrast, pulling up a given file from a hard disk drive takes milliseconds.

Cost is next on the line. There are many variables and considerations in the cost of backup devices. The most obvious is related to the hardware: the price tag for the drive and blank media. But don’t underestimate the cost of man-hours to perform backups and manually swap out recordable media. Also consider the complexity of the backup solution. With greater complexity often comes bigger cost for installation and maintenance.

Reliability is one of the prime parameters to watch out for. A number of studies have shown that optical and hard disk media can retain data integrity for decades. Tape storage, by contrast, does not offer anything close to the same longevity. In addition, tape media is known to stretch and can become brittle. Dust and dirt can also destroy a tape’s mechanics and the oxide within the tape’s data layer is prone to self-demagnetisation over time.

Another reliability factor is data verification, a process in tape backup that checks the backup version of a file against the original. This process adds substantial time to the backup function. When dealing with lengthy backup sessions, many owners disable data verification to avoid this increase in time. These time savings come at a price, though. Without verification enabled, there is no way to tell if any given file in a backup has been stored accurately. Plus, many tape backup products will not copy files that are currently open leaving those files without any backup. This is bad news for companies that keep applications running round-the-clock. All these factors impact the reliability of tape.

Portability is a crucial factor. Whether you elect to use optical media, tape or an external hard disk, never trust your critical files to one physical location. Online data backup companies may seem an ideal solution for offsite backup because the process is usually hands-off and automated

Portability is a crucial factor. Whether you elect to use optical media, tape or an external hard disk, never trust your critical files to one physical location. Online data backup companies may seem an ideal solution for offsite backup because the process is usually hands-off and automated, but annual costs can run from $100 to $350 or more per gigabyte.

By now you see that there are plenty of pitfalls and headaches inherent in small server backups. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a superior solution ready to resolve the shortcomings of traditional small business backup technologies—namely, a large-capacity external hard drive with automated backup software.

Such a drive, when used as an important element of an overall backup strategy, represents the best mix of performance, durability, style and value for the small-business user.

An external hard drive backup solution is optimised for maximum productivity, minimum maintenance and low cost of ownership. These values carry over into ease-of-use and management as well. You won’t find this simplicity on a tape- or optical-based solution.

The ‘set it and forget it’ philosophy behind such drives also means that backups are verified for data integrity, and owners need not hang around to confirm a successful backup or restore. Consider a drive that will send notifications to any selected client system on the LAN or even offsite to your managers via e-mail. You can also elect to be notified every time there’s a successful backup or only if the backup encountered a problem.

Because the drive is external, safeguarding data is further assured for those who rotate two or three drives to offsite locations as part of an overall backup strategy throughout the week.

No solution comes close to matching an external drive for small server backup. USB-based drive backup used as an element of a total backup strategy for small business servers is still a fairly new concept. For now, though, consider this: the less time employees spend managing backups and administering restores, the more efficient the operation.

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