Backing up the Online Way

June 18 2007

In the wake of hurricane Katrina, online back-up services are seeing an explosion of interest as business owners around the country imagine themselves in New Orleans' shoes.

How do online back-ups work? Typically, you'll enroll for the service and download software from the provider to designate the files you want to copy and when (usually in the middle of the night when use is low). After that, your files go out automatically over your Internet connection at the selected time.

Most online services store data on heavy-duty, large-capacity servers in secured "vaults" with close monitoring and emergency power capabilities (of course, these locations too are subject to Mother Nature's whims -- several big vaults are located in Southern California!).

Events like Katrina demonstrate some strong points of on-line back-ups. First, geographical separation: your back-ups are in a different state from your office. Aside from that, online services claim ease of use (processes are "set and forget"), lack of fiddling (no tapes to change), and freedom from equipment purchase costs.

Given these benefits, why even mess around with hardware (tape) back-ups?

From the tech's point of view , comparing online back-ups to hardware is a lot like comparing a two-stroke scooter to a Lexus. So long as you are careful about storing a copy of your tapes off-site, the protection provided by a hardware back-up system beats online back-ups hands-down. How?

First, hardware back-ups offer more flexibility. You can run a back-up of anything, anytime you want. Hardware back-ups are faster. Getting back 7.5 GB of data from on-line storage (over your Internet connection) will take about 24 hours; from tape, you can be up and running in two.

Hardware back-ups also offer greater protection against corruption. Online services don't recopy all your data each night -- they just grab what's been updated. If the updates contain a virus, the damage will get written into the stored copies. On tapes, you get the entire file copied over each time you back up. And you can save them for as long as you like, compared with 30 days for most online services

Add to that the fact that tape back-ups capture your entire system: not just data, but user profiles and settings, so that the restored system is just like what you were using before the disaster. With online back-ups, you'll have just your data and will need to have everything else reconfigured, which costs time and money.

Even the money you save up front with an online system may disappear over time. For example, backing up a 50GB hard drive to one of the major providers would run you $2000/year -- enough to finance a quality hardware back-up system.