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Remote backup watchwords: pare and compare

Remote backup is attractive to small and medium-sized businesses -- if they can afford it. The key to affordable remote backup is to shop around and pare down what's being backed up.

For small and medium-sized businesses, the problem with remote backup in many cases is affordability, not need. While the idea of backing up data automatically to a remote site has obvious business advantages, it is out of the reach of many businesses since it can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars monthly.

However, there are ways to reduce the cost of backing up remotely. They require some thought and effort, but they aren't difficult.

Shop around. Remote backup services are not a commodity like hard disks. There are many variations in service and cost, even between seemingly identical products. For example, many remote backup services are aimed at larger businesses and priced accordingly. They are designed to handle larger volumes of data and more frequent backups.

Some services offer discounts to customers who are willing to do their backups within specified periods when their systems are less heavily loaded. Others offer plans designed specifically for smaller customers.

As with all services, it's important to know just what each vendor is offering. "X gig at Y dollars a month" is only the beginning of the information you need to make a fair comparison. Be sure you obtain copies of proposals and the agreements -- and study them.

Work out your backup strategy in advance. Before you approach vendors, you should know exactly what you need -- right now and in the immediate future. Obviously, this includes knowing how much data you need to back up, but it also includes having a well-thought-out backup strategy and philosophy.

Know the answers to questions such as:

  1. Is the remote backup going to be your primary backup, or will you rely on on-site backup for daily backup and use the remote backup for second-line or archival backup?
  2. How quickly will you need to recover data from the remote backup?
  3. What will your window be for backups and restores?

If you don't understand exactly what you want from a backup service and why, you're probably going to end up paying more than you need to.

Minimize your data. Since remote backup services charge by the amount of data backed up, make sure that what you send to backup is properly pruned and edited to eliminate any extraneous material.

Some "junk data" is obvious. You probably don't want to back up temp files, for example. Other items may or may not need to be backed up, depending on your strategy. You might not want to back up applications because they can be reinstalled easily enough, or you may want to back them up less frequently than your data.

Remember that you need to plan carefully to prune down the data you're backing up remotely. Many remote services can help you in this regard if they only back up data that has changed since the last backup. This further reduces the size of your backup.

Rick Cook has been writing about mass storage since the days when the term meant an 80 K floppy disk. The computers he learned on used ferrite cores and magnetic drums. For the last 20 years he has been a freelance writer specializing in storage and other computer issues.
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