Small Business Backup Solutions

This is one of those questions that should be asked about more often, "How do I protect my data". Many small businesses take unnecessary risks with their livelihood by ignoring the most basic concept of computing: the value of your data. Since most small businesses are based on Windows platforms, the information here is tinged with Windows terminology, but the ideas are generic enough to use in most environments.

Business owners understand the value of their data, otherwise there would be little need for a computer system. (Even if you only do word processing and a few spreadsheets, think of the difficulty of recreating that information. If you don't like that idea, then you need to create backups.) What is often not understood is the risk the data is placed in every day simply by using their computer system. Let us look at some common small business data environments to understand the risks and some ways to mitigate those risks.

Small company backups

In a very small business there may be only a single machine (this is frequently the case in small retail establishments) that does everything. This machine is responsible for point of sale, accounting, word processing and perhaps even web browsing and recreational use. Thus a failure of this computer means a total loss of electronic data, and a lack of backups could be a disaster (reconstructing finances from paper receipts is time consuming and error prone).

Now consider the fact that most small companies don't have IT technical assistance and so probably have an insecure environment that can be infected with malware, viruses and simply damaged by accidents such as deleting critical system folders or the data itself. Calls of the nature "I just lost my hard drive: could you get my data for me?" are a sadly all too common. The cost of such data recovery can be thousands of dollars if there are physical problems with the drive as the drive will need to be sent to a clean-room for recovery.

On the other hand, most companies of this nature have very small total quantities of data (perhaps around 100MB). This means that most modern computers come with a handy backup solution built into them: the CD-R or DVD-R drive. Recordable CDs can hold 650-750 MB of data or more and DVDs hold 4300 MB of data. Both types of media are available in bulk, CD-R costs around 12 cents each and DVD-R around 25 cents, at the time of this writing. Many of the drives come with backup utilities or "packet mode" writers (which allow you to treat the drive as a standard drive), both of which can be used effectively to back up your data. (If a machine doesn't come with a recordable drive, they are easily added for little cost).

With backup software the process can be automated so all that is necessary is place a fresh disk in the drive at the end of the day and allow the scheduled backup to copy your data to the disk. If you are using the packet mode writing feature, dragging and dropping your files on the disk will suffice. But which files should be backed up?

To make your backups as quick and easy as possible, it is best if you can organize your files into a single folder. Folders under this main location can be used to organize data for easy navigation. For a single computer user, this can be as simple as ensuring all documents reside under "My Documents" and backing that up. Some software may by default save files to other locations (such as the program directory itself) in which case it is best to check to see if the defaults can be changed.

One thing to keep in mind is that the files should not be open at the time the backup is made as most backup software will skip open files, which defeats the purpose of backing them up in the first place. When backing up databases this can be complex, as some database software runs as a "service" and the files are open as long as the service is running. Consult the product documentation for recommended methods of backing up any software that uses databases storage. Often a workable solution is to use the product's own backup tool to create a backup file in your main folders, which will in turn be backed up when you execute your normal backup procedures.

Rewritable and off site

It is important to take your backup media off-site to avoid loss of your information due to loss of the building itself. For small companies this can simply mean taking the recorded backups home with the owner, or better yet to a safe deposit box. Note that any backup media is temperature sensitive. Leaving it in extreme temperatures may destroy the usefulness of the backup, so take care during transport and storage that such extreme temperatures are not a potential problem. Also note that it is a good idea to test the recovery procedures from time to time. Bring an off-site stored disk back on site and verify that you can actually recover data successfully. Failure to test backup restoration is another all too common source of heartache, and if the first time you test the restoration is when you need it, a failure is no longer just a nuisance.

An added advantage to using CD-R and DVD-R media is that in the case of an audit you will have frequent, reliable snapshots of the state of the business. Data written to -R products is not alterable: the packet mode drivers that allow overwriting of data simply write new data and refer to it by default, but the old data remains on the disk.

However, it is wise to also consider the rewritable versions of the media you use: a couple of packages of rewritable disks makes it an option to run a daily backup Monday - Thursday (for example) on rewritable disks and on Friday on a write once media which is stored off site and acts as your archival media. Write once media has a longer shelf life and because of this rewritable media should not be your only optical backups. Over time the reuse of the rewritables will keep storage and costs down. Make sure to note the number of rewrites the media is rated for and use only a portion of those rewrites before replacing the media with fresh disks.

Network backups

A slightly more complex backup situation is the small network. Two or more computers may be in use and backing up all the data is just as important as it was with a single machine. For very small networks the easiest solution can be to use a single machine as the "server" for the other machines. This means you still store all of your data in a single folder structure, which is now shared among the users. It used to be that such arrangements were hazardous because of the stability problems with Windows 98 and earlier, but from Windows 2000 forward, the professional editions have been excellent choices for a small business to operate a peer to peer network with a central storage machine. In even larger companies (more than five machines) or for those who want the extra assurance of stability, purchasing a low end server machine that acts as a central storage machine is an excellent investment.

In either of these cases you may still be able to perform backups exactly as outline above, albeit the amount of data will increase. With DVD-R it is quite reasonable for a small company to still be able to backup to a single disk.

Another option (and one that can be quite effective) is to allow each of the users to store data locally, but to copy it to a central location (peer server or full server) periodically. This can be done as simply as a scheduled batch file running the "xcopy" command, via software designed for this purpose (such as Second Copy 2000) or by backup software that can target a file share for storage. This central location can then be backed up to recordable media, and can act as "first stop" for any data recovery. Specialized programs like Second Copy 2000 can be configured to maintain multiple versions of files, such as the last five revisions of a file in an archive, protecting against accidental changes being saved and overwriting legitimate data.

Larger requirements
Of course, eventually your data may exceed the capacity of even DVD-R, in which case a more traditional backup solution may be required. Another article will be posted covering medium weight backup solutions in the near future. Some may be wondering why tape backup has not been mentioned: that is because for the light weight needs of very small business, tape can be more expensive and complex than the simple solution outlined here. The article on medium weight backup solutions will consider tape's pros and cons more fully.