Disaster Recovery

10 things to look for in an offsite backup provider


Automated offsite backup services are all the rage. Spare Backup, Dr. Backup, Remote Data Backups, and Mozy Online Backup are among some of the best-known contenders.

Unlike online storage services, such as those offered by ADrive, Xdrive, and Amazon with its Simple Storage Service (S3), offsite backup providers offer not only gigabytes of offsite file storage but also automated backup software designed to automatically back up the data you specify. That's a critical difference that should be noted: Online storage services don't provide automated backup functionality. Sure, online storage services are cheaper. But they're useless in protecting your data if you forget to manually back up files every day as they change or as new files are created.

Unfortunately, not all offsite backup services are created equal. Some of the services work better than others, and pricing varies, as does the quality of the automated backup software. Here are some things to keep in mind as you evaluate offsite backup providers.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Reliable software

Backup firms, like any other service provider, will promise the world. But actually delivering on all the promises (simple backup configuration, HIPAA-compliant security, easy recovery, seamless integration in Windows, etc.) is another matter altogether.

I've sampled and deployed automated backup services from a number of providers. Some that propose to provide easy 1-2-3 backup operations fail to run, prove incompatible on server platforms, or generate cryptic errors.

Backups are too important to trust to chance. Make sure that the backup software you deploy works well on the OS platforms you require. Many automated offsite backup services run best on Windows XP, while others perform well on Windows Vista and Windows server OSes. The only way to really know is to test a service's application before rolling it out on production systems. That's why item #8 (free trials) is so important, but more on that in a moment.

#2: Storage plans that meet your needs

Some offsite backup services bill by the gigabyte. That's fine. There's no trouble there, other than the fact that the fee structure makes budgeting backup costs more difficult.

Other service providers, though, sell accounts with specific storage limits (100MB, 4GB, 10GB, etc.) and flat fees. Those plans work well and simplify budgeting, at least until organizations unexpectedly exceed their storage limits.

Look for service providers with storage limits or pricing plans that meet your organization's needs while also proving flexible. Remote Data Backups, for example, makes it easy (just a few clicks) to upgrade from a 4GB account to a 10GB plan (or from a 10GB to a 30GB account). Clients need only pay the difference between the two storage plans (not start from scratch).

#3: Stellar reporting tools

A leading benefit of automated backup services is peace of mind. Knowing critical data is automatically being backed up offsite is more than just a relief. With critical data safely secured, you can move on to addressing other tasks.

IT professionals, though, are typically (and rightfully so) a skeptical crowd. So they want, or require, more than just a promise that critical data is being backed up; they need confirmation.

Only with detailed and accurate backup reporting (Figure A) can you be sure that systems and data are being properly backed up. Insist on file-level reporting with any backup service provider. In addition to a daily list of every file that's backed up, look for reporting tools that list file sizes, time of transfer, and any error details.

Figure A

Remote Data Backups creates log files that track numerous details about each file that's backed up.

#4: An approachable backup application

The backup application itself must be easy to use and as close to foolproof as possible. Many leverage Windows Explorer-like interfaces (Figure B), where you just need to check boxes for those files and folders that require backing up.

Take advantage of a trial period. Work first hand with the software. Confirm the service's backup application and interface are sufficiently simple to avoid confusion but flexible enough to meet the organization's needs.

Figure B

The Mozy Backup tool features a simple Explorer-like interface for specifying which files/folders should be backed up.

In most cases, backup software isn't Microsoft Exchange aware (or can't properly back up active databases). In such circumstances, confirm that you can automate an Exchange or database backup (using Windows' built-in or another locally installed backup program) and have the alternative backup program park copies of the backups it creates in folders the backup provider's software can accommodate. Better yet, seek backup applications that can manage active database and e-mail systems' data (but be prepared to pay handsomely for the privilege -- I've yet to find one that justifies the cost).

#5: Simple recovery

When hard disks fail, users accidentally delete files, or other systems errors occur, IT professionals need to be able to recover files quickly. Conduct tests of backup providers' recovery functions to confirm that file recovery is simple, fast, and secure.

In other words, make sure it's easy for you to recover data that's been backed up offsite but that unauthorized parties won't be able to do the same.

#6: Secure file transfer

Security has always been an issue with backups. Whether strategies involved giving one set of IT pros backup rights and another set restoration privileges, organizations have always struggled for a reasonable balance between security and operational efficiency when addressing backup issues.

Security remains a concern when selecting an automated offsite backup provider. Insist on deploying a service that meets HIPAA and SOX/Accounting security requirements. Most backup providers support at least 128-bit AES encryption and SSL security. Don't work with a provider offering anything less.

Further, when creating automated offsite backup accounts, protect the account information (and recovery hashes or passwords) carefully. Distribute such keys sparingly and change them whenever technology employees leave the organization.

#7: 24/7 support

Disk failures and other data loss episodes don't always occur during office hours, and they almost always require repair and recovery operations after hours (to minimize disruption to other users). Thus, you should confirm that your backup service provider's technicians will be available when you need them most. Many backup providers boast 24/7 support. Before signing any contracts or purchasing service, make sure you'll be able to reach its support personnel during odd hours should troubleshooting assistance ever be required.

#8: Free trials

The best way to determine whether an offsite backup provider works well for your organization is to sample its wares. Not only should you test the backup software application, support procedures, and reporting tools, but you should conduct a test recovery as well.

Only by walking through the process (creating an account, installing the backup client application, running backup operations, contacting technical support, reviewing report files, and performing a data restore) can you accurately determine whether a backup service provider offers an approachable backup program, quality support, and reliable reporting and recovery processes. Also, potential incompatibilities (between data files, databases, Windows, and the actual backup software itself) are too numerous to ever reasonably forecast, so the process of testing online backup tools on systems with similar configurations to those running in production environments will help eliminate any surprises and potential downtime when the time for real-world deployment arrives.

#9: Version tracking

Several backup providers support the ability to maintain multiple file versions. The ability to go back and reference several versions of a particular file can prove quite valuable.

When simple backup operations run, files from the previous backup (such as those backed up the night before) are written over. Most organizations back up data daily (at night). With such backup schedules, little time exists to discover errors (such as an accountant realizing he or she entered incorrect data in a budget file). If such errors aren't caught within a day, of course, the budget file with the correct data will be written over by the file containing errors that night. With versioning file systems, several versions (or historical copies) of the same file can be maintained to recover from just such mistakes.

Look for this feature. It can bail out harried users who mistakenly corrupt good data.

#10: E-mail alerts

Numerous distractions demand IT professionals' attention. Whether failed routers, nonfunctioning remote connections, new user accounts, or other common break/fix issues arrest your workday, backup operations must still be monitored. Unfortunately, in the heat of putting out fires and attending other crises, it's easy to overlook backup issues until it's too late.

Some offsite backup providers support sending alerts, bringing your attention to problems via e-mail. Without this feature, you might remain unaware that backups are failing or larger issues exist. By insisting on selecting a backup provider that supports forwarding e-mail alerts when backups fail or encounter errors, organizations can ensure their IT staff stays on top of backup operations and receive SOS messages when troubles do arise.

About

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...

18 comments
jacky2000
jacky2000

I would add a few more points. (1) Track record: if the service provider has a track record. You don't want to risk your data by being a beta tester. Choose a company that has been around for some time; (2) Data encryption: more than just secure file transfer, you need to encrypt your files for ultimate security and privacy. (3) Check if the service provider has a viable business model. Being a big company doesn't mean reliability. AOL's XDrive, HP's Upline, and MediaMax, Omnidrive, closed door in the last few years. www.DriveHQ.com is one of the first few companies offering such cloud based services. It is now offering the version 5.0 Cloud Storage and Cloud IT Solution. It can replace your file server, FTP server, email server, backup system, remote sharing and collaboration system, etc. There are no cons to our service as companies maintain control of their data; employees can continue using existing software, while at the same time be able to remotely access, share, backup and collaborate online. For more info, please visit: http://www.drivehq.com/. DriveHQ basic service is free.

Leema1234
Leema1234

Whitlst the 10 points are valid regarding backup, not one point talks about the restore. What happens if your online backup supplier has an issue and cannot restore data, this happened to me and as a result channged to http://www.perfectbackup.co.uk as they offer a ?1,000,000 data restore guarantee.

jeffcook
jeffcook

Great Article!! This is perfect for anyone looking to implement online data backup. It highlights almost every feature I investigated when researching providers. I ended up using these guys: www.vaultwise.com. They have really good support and were quick to resolve issues.

info
info

One absoolutely critical component of online backup which you overlooked is "data retention period". Some providers run with a 30 day retention period which means only one months versions of files are kept. This may sound like a lot but if you get a virus you may not know till after the month (orseveral months) and end up out of options. We run a 365 day default retention period which may be configured to any number of days upwards. http://www.backupanytime.com/whitepaper.htm

leema
leema

Great article! The only things not mentioned is a restore guarantee and speed of restore. What happens if your online backup provider has lost the data and you cannot restore. I used one of your mentioned providers for my business and home computers. I lost data from my home PC and could not recover it as it had also been lost by the provider in question. How unlucky. After venting my anger I was pointed in the direction of their SLA which stated they could not be held responsible if data could not be restored for any reason. Because this happened on my home PC the situation was not critical, however if this happened to by business pc I would have been in a whole world of trouble. As a result I moved by backups to a company called perfectbackup. Firstly they offer a $1,000,000 data restore guarantee, which is more than enough for me, secondly their software allows me to create a local backup to a USB drive and finally if I lose my data they will send it to me within 24 hours so I don't have to restore via my internet connection. Have a look at them, http://www.perfectbackup.co.uk/online-backup

catherine.hodge
catherine.hodge

Spare Backup does offer 24 -7 support and a 50 gigabyte free trial - no credit card required. So, if you're on the fence about online backup it's worth a try: http://www.sparebackup.com

perkins
perkins

One of the biggest problems with online backup is the "fast restore" problem. You might spend days or weeks sending your information to the backup service provider. However, restoring a 200GB server over a DSL connection will not go quickly. While all service providers can ship you your data on alternate media, you should look for service providers that have a solution that allows you to keep a "local copy" as well as an offsite copy. If you have a "local copy", then a local restore can proceed at your native LAN speed. Further, while logging is useful, you still must ask the question "How do I really know the service provider has a good copy of my data". Quality service providers have a means of validation. When started, the provider's data center servers reconstruct the stored files and run mathematical checksums over the reconstructed copies. These checksums are compared to checksums that were run over the original files as part of the backup process. If the checksums match, then you have proven that the provider can reconstruct a perfect copy of the original file. This is all done without sending any files over the network. - Steve

JohnCameron3
JohnCameron3

Another thing to keep in mind is the time it takes to get all of your data back. It could take many hours to restore all of your files. Are you willing to be without your data for that long, especially in a business environment?

erieger
erieger

It would have been a better article if the author would have actually tested some of the services and rated them. We have used Data Deposit Box (email alerts are random) and Mozy Pro (they have a bug with email alerts and it has been in beta forever plus support is horrible). Anyone out there have an affordable service that meets all these criteria in the article?

alan
alan

As part of our support services for our clients, we provide them use of Remote Backup Systems software http://remote-backup.com/. We chose it, as it's a one-off purchase for us to buy the software & client licenses and then we use our Server for clients to upload to. We don't charge any extra for this service. It's definitely been good for clients recovering lost files not backed up elsewhere and so we know it works. What concerns me is whether this or any other online service can realistically provide full Disaster Recovery quickly and easily ? Are our expectations of these services too high ?

perkins
perkins

Agreed! Quality online backup services give the customer full control over these parameters via Data Retention Policies. A Data Retention Policy dictates the number of revisions that are kept offsite as well as the length of time that the provider keeps files that were "deleted" (on purpose or by accident) from the customers end. There are usually some advanced options that allow you to mimic the grandfather-farther-son tape rotation schemes as well. Data Retention Policies are like schedules. You can create as many as you want. If you attach a schedule to a backup set, it runs on that schedule. If you attach a data retention policy to a backup set, it uses that policy to retain the data. When shopping for online backup providers, make sure to choose a provider that gives you full control of the data retention policies.

aaron
aaron

Spare works great for desktop PCs, but does not support servers (2000, 2003, or 2008)

jasonemmg
jasonemmg

I use a company called AmeriVault. I run multiple off-site backups daily throughout the night. I receive a daily e-mail of each backup (3 total) informing me of files,directories, overall size of backup,etc.. We have a monthly 15GB backup for about $200./month.. Price should not be an option when your talking about the life of your business!!! I backup a RISC AIX 5.x server, user folders from the SBS 2003 and important folders from an Xp computer. HIPAA is important to the company so I did research before deciding to use them. Jason

jfrickson
jfrickson

I just went through this and searched a LONG time for a good solution. I needed to back up a Windows Server 2003 box and a couple of SUSE Linux boxes. A multi-platform service is difficult to find. And most of them tend to be very pricey. I finally settled on BackupRight (http://www.backupright.com). Files are compressed and encrypted before being sent. For larger files, only in-file differences are sent. Their version retention options are modeled after tape rotations, i.e. 7 days, 4 weeks, 12 months, x years, with very flexible options. Meets all 10 criteria from the article, with one possible exception. You can't currently get a printable/searchable list of all your backed up files, except through the application or website explorer-like interface. But they're going to be providing that. Works on Win, Mac OS X, Linux, Solaris. And you can back up to a local drive in addition to their remote site so you can have access to lan speed restores. Their pricing is pretty much $2/Gig. But that's compressed data, so it's relatively inexpensive. I've only been with them for a few weeks, but so far am very pleased.

joemessman
joemessman

I have tried several off site backup services for SOHOs and the best for us has been Idrive. Go to idrive.com for the details. you can make it as granular or simple as your needs dictate. I especially like it because it can backup mapped drives. My typical scenario is to back up the My documents folder from a number of PCs to one computer on site and then back up that one folder via idrive. Unlimited storage and $50 per year.

josep.vela
josep.vela

We are providing the Remote Backup Services on a wide range of customers, in some cases as part of a Disaster Recovery Plan including external vaulting, server availabilty, managed services ..., in other cases as a stand alone facility for exernal storage in mobility platforms or in SOHO's. For us, the answer to the first question is "Depend on customer expectations and size". For the second question we believe on this kind of services because allows to solve some customer problems with a very cost effective service, so the service covers our expectatives in a very high percentage, but of course different people, different expectatives... B-) Yours, josep.vela@digitalparks.com

aaron
aaron

I was using Spare Backup for a few years until they stopped supporting server platforms. iDrive does everything I had hoped Spare could do.