American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Data Protection

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Options for small to midsize businesses

The need to protect data is universal — small to midsize businesses, the largest enterprise data centers and individuals recognize the value of information and the impact of data loss. There are several data protection options for small and midsize businesses, but their specific considerations must be defined to help find the best available solution.

Where data protection is concerned, a business is defined by how it deals with storage. The amount of storage capacity is not as significant a factor, nor is the quantity of data stored. Demand for increased data capacity impacts businesses in the same industry regardless of their size; where businesses differ is in their means to deal with the demand.

Typically, a small to midsize business will have an IT staff that does not include a storage specialist. A systems administrator will handle storage in addition to providing systems support. With this diffusion of responsibility, data protection often is dismissed because there is no time available to invest in implementing a storage strategy.

Data protection options must be viewed in light of small to midsize business requirements: simplicity in deployment and administration, cost of the system to be installed, and longevity of the technology to protect the investment and minimize additional effort over the long term. The different options all warrant some consideration, but many can be discounted based on their ability to meet the needs of small to midsize businesses.

Small vs. midsize business
Designation Employees Revenue
Small business 10 to 100 $1M to $25M
Midsize business 100 to 1,000 $26M to $100M

Choosing a system

Each option involves applying some technology in the data storage area to protect data. There is not a single definition of what data protection means; in general, the protection in the context of this article means protection against loss of data access.

Replication of data with a networked storage system

One option is to make copies of data to additional disk storage available via the network. This provides for relatively fast backup and recovery, but there is a risk: The data might become unavailable due to being colocated and not physically protected (as with removable media). In addition, procedures must make multiple copies of the data to ensure corruption in the primary copy is not propagated to the backup copy. The extra physical capacity required represents a significant additional cost for storage as well as increased operational expenses. This is true regardless of the disk system type or connection.

A remote replication solution where the backup system is at a physically remote site would provide physical protection, but it is cost prohibitive for any small to midsize business.

Copies of data to external USB disks

Replicating data to external USB disks provides some measure of protection, because data is replicated to another disk system that is external to the normal operating environment. A problem with this approach is that cyclical or periodic backups, retaining prior versions, are difficult with a limited number of external USB disks. In addition, external USB drives are not ruggedized to be handled as removable media, so offsite storage is impractical.

Copies of data to flash memory drives

Copying data to flash memory devices is a rapid transfer method used in the way floppy disks were used in the past. Using flash drives for backup is problematic for business systems with ever-growing capacities, because of the number of devices required based on capacity and their relative cost. Data protection using flash memory devices usually is limited to specific files and normally is used for interchange.

Remote service providers

Using a remote service provider involves sending data over a network to another system where the data is stored by the provider. The price is based on the amount of data stored and the frequency of data transfers. Recovery involves retrieving the data from the remote site via a network. Small to midsize businesses typically find the expense of network connections that provide enough bandwidth to retrieve data when it is needed most to be prohibitive. In addition, the restoration process still resides with the customer, and some degree of functioning system will be required to retrieve the data.

Optical storage systems

Using optical storage for data protection provides the removability that is needed by small to midsize businesses for disaster protection. Optical devices include UDO, MO, and the ubiquitous DVD and CD drives. The problems presented with optical devices for many business applications has been the capacity of the individual devices has not kept up with the growing capacity of disk technology, the performance is below other competing technologies, and the durability of the media in handling with removability has been an issue.

Tape storage systems

Long the media of choice for protecting data, tape devices that are in the price range of small to midsize businesses have not matched the capacity increases seen in disk devices. In addition, the reliability — measured by successful restores — has not improved enough to meet customer expectations. Consequently, the use of tape for data protection is not a focus area for most IT professionals. Tape does provide the removability expected in the market and allows for media to be used cyclically for generational data.

Removable disk systems

Using a removable disk system gives greater performance in restoring data when it is needed most. With a design that can withstand the handling expected for removable media and a repeated use model that far exceeds tape cartridges, removable disks provide both reliability and long-term economic advantage. The key to the removable disk capability is the design of the drive and the cartridge — the characteristics of those will be reflected in the ruggedness, cost, performance and ability to utilize newer disks of greater capacity.

Establishing best practices

Small and midsize businesses employ many different strategies for data protection. Some are very specific to the circumstances of an individual company. There is not necessarily a “best practices” template, because each company has different circumstances, but there are a few general guidelines to ensure a company's data is being protected.

Part of data protection includes archiving: Data that is unlikely to be needed in day-to-day activity is moved to another type of device where it is protected and can be recalled when needed. Archiving the data removes it from normal backups, and the primary storage space that it would have occupied is available for use.

The primary data protection practice for small to midsize businesses is to back data up to a removable media device. Backups typically are done on a periodic basis to establish a known point — called the recovery point objective — if a restore is required. According to business practices, the backups usually are cyclic where, on average, four copies of the removable media are rotated through the backup. For physical protection from disaster, usually a complete set of backup media is taken offsite weekly. Backups might be done as complete backups or incrementally, such as when only changed data is backed up. Incremental backups are a concession to the amount of time a backup requires — the complexity of recovery is traded off for the availability of the data. This “backup window” is as much a product of device speed as anything — the use of faster backup devices might change the tradeoff decision.

Backup testing often is overlooked or left undone. On a regular basis, a backup needs to be restored to provide some measure of assurance that the data protection being done will work when it is most needed. Without some backup testing, a latent problem might only be discovered at the worst possible time.

Data generally is backed up with the assumption that the recovery operation will be successful when needed. If some percentage of recoveries has failed, usually the data protection practice is enhanced to create more than one copy at periodic times. This extra backup is an additional insurance policy that has come about due to some problems that occurred with unreadable tapes. With the use of removable disk technology, this extra backup should be greatly reduced.

The big picture

The need to protect valuable business information is well established. There are several options available for small to midsize businesses to consider. To choose the right one, consider its ability to protect information, understand the probability of successful recovery, and look at the ongoing costs both in capital expenses over time and operational expenses. Just doing that evaluation can lead to a greater confidence in continuing business operations after a data-impacting event. Ask questions, look at common practices and compare new options vs. current operations. Understanding the dynamics of data storage and protection is the first step in determining the value of available options. And, not choosing the right backup technology ultimately can put data at risk and be very costly.

A small to midsize business has the same requirements as a large enterprise, when it comes to data storage. The capacity growth demands are proportional and the information is of no less value. Attention must be paid to data protection.

Randy Kerns is chief technology officer for ProStor Systems (Boulder, CO). Contact him via

Pros & cons
Option Features Issues
Online storage Copies of data to another disk. Fast backup and restores. No removable media. Expensive solution.
External USB drives Copies to disk attached to USB port. Does not allow cyclical backups. Not a rugged, portable media.
Flash memory device Fast memory transfers. Not suited to cyclical backups. Expensive at large capacities.
Remote service provider Data replicated offsite to a provider storage system. Restoration might require faster bandwidth than is affordable.
Optical storage Backup to removable media. Capacity and performance not in step with disk. Media durability issue.
Tape storage Traditional backup to removable media. Reliability and technology pace vs. disk. Drive costs, number of usage cycles of media are expensive.
Removable disk Fast and reliable backup to removable media. Rugged cartridges that follow disk technology (no issues).