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.