Find the right backup methods

Black USB drive plugged into a laptop backing up data

Data backups are essential to your business and an important part of disaster planning. But what methods should you use to back up your critical data?

Online backups in the cloud

As internet connection speeds have increased, cloud backup services have grown in popularity. A number of companies offer convenient, cloud backups, including BackupVault, Carbonite, LiveDrive and BackBlaze.

To use cloud backup, you generally have to install a small piece of software on to your computer or server. This tracks files that change, then automatically backs them up by sending the data to a server in another location. Once the initial backup has performed, the software needs to only send new files and changed parts of existing files, resulting in very efficient backups.

In recent years, cloud backups have become far more cost-effective, and they're a great way to reduce the hassle of running an in-house backup system every day.

If you do use cloud backup, look for the flexibility to recover files quickly onto another computer, from any internet connection. Reputable providers also allow you to ask for a USB disk with your encrypted data to be posted to you if you have a slow connection and/or a large amount of data.

Check your data is encrypted before it leaves your computer, so it can't be read by hackers. Also check that the data remains encrypted when on the providers’ servers and only you know the encryption key.

You may need to investigate where the backup provider holds your data. Make sure you understand the security and data protection issues around cloud computing before you commit to a particular service. Choosing a UK based backup provider with UK datacenters can also help in this area.

With the proliferation of ransomware over the past few years, cloud backup solutions have the edge over onsite disk-based backups, as the cloud backups cannot become infected.

Incremental data backups

The most efficient way to back up your data is to run an incremental backup system (Microsoft software refers to this as a ‘differential' backup). Thankfully, services such as BackBlaze and Apple's own Time Machine perform this task automatically, but we'd like to provide an insight into how it works.

Incremental data backups start with a full backup, by creating a safe copy of all your files. After that, they simply back up the files that have changed each day. When this incremental backup starts taking too long, gets too big, or a pre-determined period of time passes (a week is typical) the service takes another full backup and the cycle starts again.

Incremental backups usually require lots of cloud storage space or physical media to store the data.

With the rise of cloud backups, manual incremental backups on physical media are fast becoming a thing of the past, but if you decide to head down that route, a good option is to store incremental backups on a set of portable hard drives. These can be bought fairly cheaply online from companies such as Amazon and eBuyer.

Buying nine portable hard drives allows you to perform a backup every day during the week, while holding backups from the last four weeks in reserve. Here's how:

  • You label the first four drives Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
  • You use these to perform your incremental backups on the relevant day every week.
  • The other five drives are for your Friday backups.
  • You rotate the Friday drive each week

This ensures you always have copies of data from every day of the current week, as well as data from the previous four Fridays.

Modern backup software can perform incremental backups very efficiently, by only copying the bits of data that have actually changed between each backup. This means backups are fast and take up less space.

Traditional backup media

The backup media is where your backed-up files are stored. There are several options:

  • External hard drives. These connect to your computer or network, have a large capacity and are faster than DVDs. They cost from £50 each, but you'll need a number of these to keep your incremental backups safe. Having said that, they're fast, reliable and a good option for most firms.
  • DVD. These have a small capacity so you'll go through them quickly and costs will mount up. They are easily broken and there is evidence to suggest that their lifetime may be shorter than originally anticipated. Writing data to them is not fast.

Take multiple backups

Whatever backup methods you choose, you should always plan to keep more than one copy of your data somewhere safe. For instance, if you use a cloud backup system for daily backups, it's still a good idea to take a weekly copy of your data in-house.

Quite simply, you can't be too careful when it comes to taking care of your more important business data. Finally, make sure you regularly test your restores to ensure they work. Remember, a backup solution is not a backup unless you can fully restore 100% of the time.

Updated with thanks to Rob Stevenson of Backup Vault.

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