Like their larger counterparts, small businesses need to create copies of vital digital business data on a set schedule. The backup copies can be used to restore original data should computers crash or a natural disaster strike.

But rather than buy or build on site storage, backup, and recovery systems, many small businesses increasingly opt to outsource these offerings to managed storage service vendors who provide businesses with the backup software and the automatic off site storage, taking away the backup hassle factor in the process. But is outsourcing backup right for you?

One big benefit plan

Under some plans, the service provider takes responsibility for storage and backup. Small businesses that don’t employ a large number of IT people often make one employee responsible for transferring pertinent files to tape, disk, thumb drive, or the like at regular intervals. To ensure data isn’t lost in, say, an office fire, the employee must then take the saved files off site, usually home, says Mike Garland, director of marketing at DataPreserve, a backup service provider in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Sounds great in theory. But it doesn’t always work in execution.

“I entrusted my data backup to a great staff person, but she was so busy,” says chiropractor Sky Moore, who heads Moore Chiropractic Center in Avondale, Ariz., a small practice comprised of several practitioners.

That busy office manager recently forgot to backup data to tapes for three weeks running. Then, as is always seems to be the case in such situations, the computer crashed. Moore had now way to recover the three weeks of patient data and transactions.

After sorting out that sticky situation, he began using DataPreserve. The software searches daily for newly created digital data, encrypts the information, and moves it via the Internet to the vendor’s data center.

Moore runs routine checks to ensure proper data has been backed up and can be quickly restored.

Backing up remote locations

Some backup and storage providers, like Robobak of Atlanta, provide supplemental software for remote offices and off site business locations, allowing even the branch offices made up of one person to save data. These locations don’t have to install software on every machine at every location, says Bobby Kuzma, vice president at ElectroNerdz, an IT service provider in Lakeland, Fla.

ElectroNerdz uses Robobak’s services for nearly all its clients. The backup solution also allows customers to archive data at the vendor site for long-term regulatory retention, Kuzma says.

“The entire thing requires far less care and feeding of the IT guys,” he says.

SIDEBAR: Questions to Ask Before Outsourcing Backup

Here are some questions small business owners should ask when contemplating off site backup and storage. They come from Jim Walker, DataPreserve president.

How much time will it take? For small business owners, data backup should be automated as often as needed. Most will choose daily some -- an accountant working during tax season, for example -- will want to back up every 15 minutes.

Will the data be encrypted? Typical copying of files can increase the risk of data compromise if the data isn’t encrypted. Any transmission across the Internet is vulnerable if not encrypted.

How much will it cost? Depending on the solution and the amount of data stored, an automated, encrypted remote data backup service starts around $15 per month depending on the amount of data stored. Expect to pay $2.50 per gigabyte or more.

What is the vendor’s process for quickly recovering the data? Be sure to understand and test the system for ease of recovery before disaster strikes. Keep a copy of passwords and an outline of the recovery process in a secure location. Also be sure to periodically test the data to ensure it can be readily restored.