If your business has any hope of surviving a routine systems failure or even a once-in-a-century catastrophe, it’s time to start thinking seriously about backing up your data.

Myriad backup options are available for prices ranging from a one-time expenditure of a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars, plus monthly maintenance fees. The complexity and cost of a backup system varies widely, depending on the amount of data to be stored, the frequency with which backups are made, the relative ease with which lost data can be restored and whether old data must be kept separate from new.

Small business backup considerations

According to data back-up specialist Iron Mountain Digital, small- to medium-sized businesses need to keep several key factors in mind.

  • Which data is absolutely critical to continuing as a viable business?
  • Which data is critical to communicating within the business?
  • And which is operationally important, but perhaps not absolutely critical to the company’s survival?
  • How effectively do the various options mitigate those increasingly critical risks?
  • How fast can data be recovered in the event of a disaster?
  • How much down-time would the business face during the restoration process, and would there be non-compliance fines or litigation costs associated with a failure?
  • What other costs might be involved even in a temporary data loss?

While there are a variety of backup options these days for small and mid-size businesses, a company also needs to put in place a regular process to ensure success of its backup strategy. “At the core, everyone focuses on the technology, but that’s the least important aspect of a back-up,” says Steve Lewis, CEO of Teneros, which makes an application continuity device for Microsoft Exchange servers. “Instead, you have to map certain things out: Have I hired the right person with the right skills to do this? Do I have a workable process in place? Am I doing regular test restores? Am I sure we’re backing up the data we need most? Does everyone in the loop know where the backups are stored and what to do with them?”

Costs of backup

Costs of backup options vary widely. Online backup costs between $2 and $7 per gigabyte per month but hard drive backups can cost anywhere from 50 cents to $2 per gigabyte depending on the size of the drives used and the type of software used to synchronize the backups. But the basic backup costs can be assessed using three key measures: RTO, or recovery time objective, measures the length of time that data would be unavailable following a failure. RPO, or recovery point objective, measures the acceptable amount of data loss between the last good backup and the point of failure. And DLE, or data loss event, looks at the type and scope of various failure scenarios.

With the radical drops in hard drive costs over the last few years, small- and medium-sized businesses have been able to implement back-up strategies similar to those used by large enterprises over the last few decades. In fact, so-called ATA disk drives this year became the number one storage technology across all enterprises, according to IDC. In addition, small businesses now routinely have broadband access that they can leverage for online backup options.

Types of backup options to consider

  • Magnetic tape: This has long been the most commonly used medium for bulk data storage and backup, as well as archiving. Tape traditionally has offered the cheapest price-to-capacity ratio, particularly when compared with hard discs, but as hard drive density has increased that advantage has begun to disappear. Because tape stores data sequentially, it can take awhile to access specific portions of stored data. But most backup and restore systems simply require continuous reading and writing of data; as a result, newer tape drives can perform such processes even faster than many hard drives.
  • Hard drives: Areal density, the measure of how much data can be squeezed into a given unit of hard disc space, has climbed steadily over the last few decades. It peaked in September 2006 at 421 gigabits per square inch in the laboratory, according to Seagate Technology, and 178 gigabits per square inch in production models, according to Toshiba. Industry consultant TrendFocus expects to see 500 gigabits per square inch in production units within the next three to five years, meaning we could see terabyte drives around that time. This means that businesses, particularly those built around less data-intensive systems, can squeeze more backup data onto fewer drives, although tape remains cheaper per gigabyte stored.
  • Online backup: Still relatively new, online backup services take advantage of the ubiquitous broadband Internet connections found in nearly all modern computers. A key advantage to online backup is that the data is stored off-site, protecting it from any local hazards. It also can synchronize new data with old, reducing the amount of information that needs to flow through the online connection. But even high-speed connections back up data more slowly than local storage devices can, causing problems for data-intensive businesses.
  • Optical storage:  CD and DVD burners can be used to backup data quite cheaply. But there are a number of disadvantages: The process cannot be easily automated, it is labor-intensive, all data is copied regardless of whether it has changed since it was last backed up and the process of burning backup data to new discs can be very slow.
  • Flash memory: Also called solid-state storage, flash memory devices include portable devices known as “thumb drives” or “USB drives,” as well as memory cards such as the CompactFlash and SD cards found in digital cameras. Expensive on a per-gigabyte basis, flash memory devices do have the advantage of moving easily between computers.
  • Floppy discs: Remember these? For personal computing’s first couple of decades, floppies were the only practical means for backing up data. Now few modern PCs even have a floppy drive capable of handling these limited storage capacity discs.