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The efficacy of backup-as-a-service solutions

Online backup services can lower costs and help eliminate the administrator's worst nightmare – the lost backup. But is BaaS right for your organization?

For IT administrators, it's always important to have protections in place that ensure data is always available....

At the same time, admins are often apt to hold on tightly to the services they are asked to manage.

Those of us in IT often look at internal services, such as email, end-point protection and even backups, as solutions that we ourselves should design, manage and maintain. It's easy to forget that in some case, "as-a-service" solutions exist that can ensure a much higher level of service than our limited resources can manage.

Years ago, IT professionals began offloading end-point protection to antivirus-as-a-service vendors. Recently, we've seen more offloading to email-as-a-service purveyors. Now, we're discovering yet another solution that eliminates the headache of monitoring daily backups. I call that solution "backup as a service" (BaaS).

Backup-as-a-service solutions are designed to take data backups out of the hands of the local administrator and into the hands of a professional service.

Backup-as-a-service solutions are designed to take data backups out of the hands of the local administrator and into the hands of a professional service. The result is a higher level of assurance that data is being correctly backed up.

With backup-as-a-service solutions, administrators no longer need to worry about managing and rotating tapes or drives offsite. Eliminating the need for offsite storage reduces the management burden, drastically minimizes the possibility of critical backup failure and, in some cases, enables self-service mechanisms for users to restore their own files after an accidental deletion.

One caveat shows that it's not quite ready for enterprise-level implementations: We don't yet know the monetary savings gained through such a service. The cost is per backed-up gigabyte, which grows considerably as data sizes grow. Further complicating enterprise-level services are the bandwidth requirements for transferring backups over the Internet.

Small and medium-sized businesses, with their lower levels of data, are low-hanging fruit for BaaS solutions, and there are a number of features that companies should look at when considering investing in such a service.

What to expect from BaaS solutions

Online backup solutions have come a long way since their initial market rollout, but there are still substantial differences in the features and capabilities available in vendor products. Designed primarily for SMB and consumer audiences, HP Upline, SOS Online Backup, Carbonite, Mozy and IDrive can have wildly different feature sets. Some enable Web-based access to backups for individual file or folder restores. Others enable the backup of locked files and online backup of special databases, like those from Microsoft Outlook and Intuit QuickBooks, which are critical to small and medium-sized business owners.

The difficult thing with many of these solutions involves weeding through the hype to determine which features make sense for your business. Consider the following feature sets critical when looking for a BaaS solution:

  • Guaranteed backups -- The Windows file system is notorious for locking files, which often results in the inability to back up those files to offsite storage. Find backup products that have custom solutions or interfaces with Microsoft's on-board Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) to ensure that every file gets backed up.
  • Client and Web-based restore -- Essentially, all backup-as-a-service solutions require a client to be installed on any system that will be backed up. That client typically includes the management consoles as well as the code necessary to submit the backup over the Internet. A Web-based recovery feature that allows users to restore their own files over the Internet is a useful add-on.
  • File sharing -- For solutions that support Web-based restorations of files, another useful capability is online file sharing both within and outside of your organization. Many email services limit attachments to a devilishly small number of megabytes, so the ability to share files with others is an easy way to distribute data that might otherwise require physical media or difficult-to-secure FTP-based solutions.
  • Multi-server dashboards and reporting -- Since your business likely has more than one server, consider solutions that have a dashboard for the management of multiple systems in one location. Dashboards provide a place to configure the files and folders for back up, as well as heads-up displays for identifying when backups fail. And emailed reports notify administrators of the status of backups each day.
  • Security -- Because you'll be transferring sensitive data over the Internet, look for a strong end-to-end encryption feature that can handle data in motion and at rest within the BaaS facility. Ask questions and research potential vendors to ensure that your data will be safe.
  • Continuous data protection -- Some BaaS solutions back up files on a schedule, which means that restored files are always at least one day old. Other solutions instead offer continuous data protection (CDP) capabilities for changed files. CDP backs up changed files in real time to reduce your recovery point to almost nothing.
  • Low resource use -- Keep an eye on features like CDP and the backup client itself. Some features can involve high levels of resource use on the client system, taking performance away from your needed applications. Look for clients that guarantee good performance with a minimum impact on your server's processing.
  • Automatic versioning -- Look for a BaaS feature that maintains each backed-up version of every file. That way, when you need to, you can go back in time to revert to a document's previous version. This is a key component of backup-as-a-service that is hard to find in traditional onsite backup solutions.
  • Integrated local backup and device transfer -- Ask vendors if their tool allows your backup client to back up your servers locally as well as to the Internet-based BaaS facility.
  • Special database backup -- If your business uses special databases like Outlook, Quicken and QuickBooks, find a solution that supports backing them up. Those applications are the lifeblood of SMBs, and their loss can be devastating.

Depending on your needs, some or all of these features will be useful for your business. While individual components tend to be product-specific, the major differentiator between solutions tends to be price per gigabyte of storage. Most BaaS providers offer monthly and annual payment options with prices ranging from a few dollars per month for a handful of gigabytes to several hundreds of dollars per month for hundreds of gigabytes.

Ultimately, price and features will determine your selection. One website you may consider visiting that runs regular in-depth reviews of online backup solutions is Backup Review.

Greg Shields, MVP, is a co-founder and IT guru with Concentrated Technology with nearly 15 years of IT architecture and enterprise administration experience. He is an IT trainer and speaker on such IT topics as Microsoft administration, systems management and monitoring, and virtualization. His recent book Windows Server 2008: What's New/What's Changed is available from SAPIEN Press.

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