The 3-2-1 of cloud backup

By Lawrence Garvin*
Thursday, 21 November, 2013

The 3-2-1 of cloud backup

It goes without saying that it’s important to store or back up your data off-site and an increasingly popular option today is to store data in the cloud. However, while this may be more cost-effective, businesses can become overwhelmed by the sheer number of solutions available in the market. By not having a good understanding of the types of available options and its functionalities, IT managers often end up developing and implementing an ill-informed backup strategy.

Getting the basics right

For those IT managers that choose to back up to the cloud, there are three important considerations when devising the appropriate data backup plan:

1. Are you storing the data for archival or backup purposes?

It’s important to understand this distinction: data archival is a methodology for permanently storing data that you are required to keep, or wish to keep. Generally, cloud-based data archival storage is cheaper than on-premise storage. On the other hand, data backup is a methodology for storing data that is needed for business operations. It’s the data that you cannot function without, so it’s important for this data to be easily accessible.

2. What are the data recovery capabilities of the cloud storage provider?

One of the main reasons for using cloud-based backup services is the ability to access data anytime, anywhere. However, it’s also important to consider how long it will take to recover (restore) the data. How long does the service provider take to make your data available? How long does it physically take to transfer the data after the data becomes available? Choosing which data to back up and how often to back it up, as well as the available bandwidth, will impact the amount of time it takes to transfer the data. It’s necessary to be aware of both the data availability time and the physical transfer time, because this will directly impact how long it takes to resume business operations after a data loss occurs.

3. Have you thought about data encryption?

If the service provider encrypts your data, then the service provider can decrypt your data! If the data is encrypted before it is transferred, then only you can decrypt the data. Be sure that your data is encrypted before transferring to the cloud, or even to off-site storage.

Two clouds are better than one

Businesses need to understand that while cloud-based backup strategies are a good approach, there isn’t any less risk than on-premise solutions. It still involves servers, disk drives, software and people - all of which can malfunction or fail at almost any time. You should never put all your eggs in one basket; business continuity requires a ‘Plan B’ for accessing all data storage.

Take data loss incidents, for example. When we talk about data loss in this context, we’re not talking about data theft (there’s a lot of that) or data leakage (copies of data that get lost), but rather here we’re concerned with the literal disappearance of the original data, making it totally non-existent. The more recent and well-known of them include: a complete data loss at social bookmarking site Ma.gnolia in 2009 (they went out of business within two years) and a data loss for 20,000 customers at Linkup in 2008 (they went out of business immediately).

Also relevant today are concerns about losing access to the data. Losing access has the ability to significantly impact daily business operations, even though the data is still in existence. Four times in the past two years, Gmail has been inaccessible for significant periods of time. In December 2012, Netflix was offline due to a failure at Amazon Web Services and, prior to that, another Amazon EC2 issue in April, 2011 occurred. Imagine the potential impact if your online CRM or ERP system was unavailable for several hours.

Your data storage strategy should not stop with just one cloud: backing up cloud-based data is an incredibly vital, yet often overlooked, strategy when it comes to mitigating data loss incidents or data access issues. But while there are countless options for backing up on-premise data to the cloud, it is the opposite story when it comes to the backup of data that is already living in the cloud. If you search “backing up cloud-based data” you’ll find virtually nothing about how to do it.

There’s a very astute backup principle, known as the ‘3-2-1 Principle’ - 3 copies, 2 physical locations, 1 off-site. We can apply that to cloud backup strategies:

  • Local data is backed up to the cloud, as well as backed up locally.
  • Cloud data is backed up to another cloud provider, and locally.
  • Local backups are stored off-site.

Backing up cloud-based data to another cloud provider, plus an on-premise copy stored off-site, including the live data, fulfils the requirements of the 3-2-1 Principle and will leave your organisation in good stead to combat any data storage or access issues.

*Lawrence Garvin is Head Geek, SolarWinds.

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