Back 'Er Up

Over the last decade many businesses, long established and newly formed alike, have made the Internet a key revenue-generating channel. Billions of dollars are transacted each year over the Web and billions more worth of purchasing decisions are made from information gathered online. For many consumers, going online to find information that will lead to a purchase — or actually making that purchase online — is now second nature.

A natural consequence of this situation is that enormous amounts of very valuable data are stored on computers. And as we all know, computers tend to die from time to time. For businesses that use the Web as a revenue-generating channel, their data is an important company asset. The loss of a customer-order database could be devastating to a business, leading to unfulfilled orders, dissatisfied customers and the inability to contact thousands of clients. Depending on one computer alone is a formula for disaster.

Since it is self-evident that preventing the loss of all of a business's orders and customer information is an important task, why is it that backup solutions are among the lowest priorities of most businesses shopping for Web hosting.

Backups could be compared to life insurance policies for your Web operation, but they are really something more. Quality backups are like a life insurance plan that, instead of paying cash, would resurrect you.

Like a Web hosting plan, a backup solution should be chosen to match what the company is doing on the Web. Businesses running small brochure Web sites will need the most modest sort of backups; however businesses collecting data from customers and prospects through the Web need very reliable backup solutions. The acid test for a backup plan is whether it provides the means to restore your site to a fully operational condition within one hour after a server crash.

A modest backup suitable for a brochure-style site can consist of simply keeping a spare copy of all of the files on a separate computer. If the site is such that visitors do not submit information to any databases or add any content, then this type of backup is perfect. Certainly, a basic brochure site could be restored very quickly with this type of backup.

Businesses with sites that include dynamic content cannot rely on simply keeping spare copies of their files. Those copied files are quickly outdated. Databases that are accepting information online need to be backed up frequently. How frequently depends on how important the data is to the company, and how unacceptable some data loss is in a disaster. For a relatively low-traffic site where the data being collected isn't all that critical, weekly backups may suffice. For sites collecting large numbers of orders and client information every day, daily backups are a minimum requirement. The very largest e-commerce sites have been known to take backups on an hourly basis, or even have their data constantly written to backup computers in a process known as replication.

SAVED BY SOFTWARE

Technologies used for backup solutions vary depending on the operating system platform and the type of data that is being backed up. In a Windows environment, Veritas Software's BackupExec (veritas.com) is a top-choice solution for those who cannot afford any data loss. Veritas produces special agents to work with many leading software applications to ensure data from those applications is backed up perfectly. In a Unix environment, open-source backup software such as Bacula (bacula.org) makes for a high-quality, low-cost solution.

In addition to the software products that actually run backups, businesses must consider what type of media they want their backup stored on. Choices include secondary hard drives in the same computer that is running the site, tape drives, separate network storage devices and CDs or DVDs. CDs and DVDs make for great portable backups, but are limited to relatively small file sizes (roughly 700MB and 4.8GB respectively). Network storage devices can be very expensive, but can backup enormous amounts of data. Tape drives offer perhaps the best balance of cost, storage capacity, portability, security and quality. Backups done to a second hard drive are the easiest on the budget and the fastest in terms of restore time, but are vulnerable to corruption in a situation where the disaster is caused by a hacker.

An experienced professional can help you choose the right backup plan for your business. The solution should allow you to quickly restore your site to full functionality. While often overlooked in the price-conscious shopping process, backups are critical to the longterm success of any Web operation. Computers being what they are, it is just a matter of time before your backup solution will be tested. It is best to be prepared for that day with the appropriate backup solution.

Be Extra Safe
  • Have written policy and procedures in place on how a restore from backup should be handled. In a time of crisis, this will cut down on confusion and allow the process to move along more smoothly.
  • Test restores from backup. This is very critical. Some complex applications might require special software agents or configurations to backup and restore properly. Make sure the test restore is successfully accomplished in a time frame that would be acceptable for a real restore. If the process takes too long, you may have to reconsider your backup strategy.
  • Physically protect backup data from hackers and thieves. Someone getting hold of an unencrypted backup is just as damaging as someone breaking in.
  • Keep copies of software that may need to be reinstalled along with your backups. This includes operating systems, software applications and security patches for either of those.

—C.K.

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