The real deal on storage

Rob Stirling knows what can happen to a small business when all its data goes missing. He recently lived through it, after an upgrade to the financial application that runs his four-person marketing communications firm, Markom Marketing, corrupted all the business data on the company’s server.

Since all data is stored on the server rather than on individual machines, the failure of a remote backup drive sent Stirling’s team scrambling to rebuild business records. “All our data was gone forever, although we did have hard copies,” he recalls. “It taught us that backing up onto disk was not enough.”

The great irony of Stirling’s experience is that his list of high-tech clients includes two providers of high-end storage and backup solutions – Compellent and CommVault. Both have built massive businesses supplying solutions to ensure business data is backed up and always available.

However, those solutions are high-end, expensive, and well beyond the technical and financial means of a small business to implement. Therein lies the crux of the problem. How to back up data to ensure continuity, when a small business owner may not be able to afford the more complex solutions that have been designed for larger businesses with dedicated IT teams and multi-million-dollar technology budgets.

Raising the storage bar

If you haven’t thought about your company’s data storage in a while, you’re not alone. In fact, the 2011 Global Disaster Recovery Index, by backup software provider Acronis, found that the 259 Australian businesses surveyed were among the least confident that they have adequate protection in the event of a disaster, compared to the rest of the world. With just 27% of companies believing they could avoid downtime in the event of a disaster, Acronis registered a confidence rating of 0.25 for Australian businesses, compared with 0.56 in the US, 0.63 in the UK, and 2.08 in Germany. Only 45% of companies believe their backup procedures are well documented, and a similar proportion believes they are getting enough resources to protect their data.

As has become so painfully and dramatically clear from the stream of natural disasters this year – floods in Queensland, NSW, and Victoria, the Christchurch earthquake, and Cyclone Yasi – ambivalence towards disaster recovery (DR) is simply not good enough anymore.

Australian companies on the whole were spending around 11% of their technology budget on backup and DR initiatives last year. Yet the figure is inevitably lower in small businesses, which rely on functioning systems and data to be available. The smaller end of town can’t afford big-business solutions with six and seven-figure price tags like storage area networks (SANs) – separate networks that are optimized for high-capacity storage and utilize a raft of specialized equipment to provide bulletproof storage.

“A lot of customers are struggling with backup and disaster recovery, and they’re focused on growing new customers,” says Karl Sice, general manager for the Pacific and ANZ region with backup software vendor Acronis.

“They don’t have time to worry about what some would regard as a back-office function, so most   small businesses don’t have a disaster recovery strategy to start with.”

Small-business backup has traditionally been far less romantic: you simply backed up your data using a tool like Symantec Backup Exec, CA ARCserve Backup, or Microsoft’s Data Protection Manager, then stored your backups in different places. Yet, whether they end up in the boot of your car or in your home office, hot cars melting discs, curious children, inadvertent misplacement, and other accidents have all done their share of damage at one time or another.

One way to improve your storage is to use network-attached storage (NAS) boxes, into which you install two, four, or eight (depending on the unit) hard drives. The NAS is a miniature server of its own and handles the care and feeding of your data using RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) – a technology that spreads more than one copy of your data across many disks, so if you lose one you can replace it without your data going missing.

A good RAID-capable NAS – popular models include NETGEAR ReadyNAS, Seagate BlackArmor, LaCie’s 5BIG, Buffalo’s TeraStation, HP’s Mediasmart Server, and others – minimizes the risk that your data will be lost due to a hard drive failure. With good models available for under $1,000 and hard drives sitting around the $100 mark, a good NAS setup is a bare minimum investment to ensure your data doesn’t suffer a disaster. Just plug it into your network, turn it on, and you’re ready to go. Some companies will even go to the extreme of purchasing two NAS boxes, set them up in different locations, and have them replicate data continuously – just in case.

“Small businesses want storage on-site and they want to benefit from all the fancy features the bigger guys have, but they want to know absolutely nothing about it,” says Clive Gold, Australia-New Zealand chief technical officer with EMC.

Yet even a well-placed NAS can have its share of problems in the event of physical disaster – and you can’t afford hiccups in your storage and backup strategy. If things go bad, your business hinges on the reliability of your backup, and your DR plans, which include finding replacement equipment, and an office from which to run it as soon as humanly possible.

Contemporary storage and backup devices are increasingly adding features to improve DR – which, as any storage professional will tell you, is perhaps the most important part of any storage and backup strategy. Even the most diligent backups, after all, mean nothing if you don’t have a plan for restoring data quickly once disaster strikes.

In the cloud

Fortunately, good DR has recently become far easier than it used to be.

“Disaster recovery has become a major topic, and what people can achieve today at an affordable rate is quite incredible,” Gold says. “A lot of organizations that looked at this a few years ago now come back with a zero missing off the cost.”

The big change has been the introduction of cloud storage or storage-as-a-service, in which your data is shunted across the internet to be hosted and backed up by a company that employs a fleet of data management experts to keep your data alive and well. They use economies of scale to offer access to technologies that small businesses could probably never contemplate buying, then lease storage space to customers that pay a monthly fee based on how much data they store. Your data is always backed up, encrypted, and available from anywhere – even if a physical disaster forces you to move to a secondary office.

Although it was originally pitched as a competitor to conventional backup, cloud storage is now seen as complementary to it, with many backup providers releasing their own offerings. Adopting a cloud-storage service was a major part of the solution for Markom, which has built a new storage and backup strategy that combines local and cloud-based backup since the disaster. In this new environment, data from applications like Maximiser, Quicken, and Microsoft Outlook is stored locally and backed up using Microsoft tools.

Data is also synchronized to the cloud, meaning there’s an offsite backup of key files available online from anywhere, at any time. Mark also creates full images of its four computers from time to time and stores them with a cloud provider. This means the company could potentially restore all of its applications and data, and keep on operating with minimal interruption.

“This service is fantastic,” Stirling says, “It adds files to the cloud as you create them. We are now comfortable that even if we lost all our gear, all our data is accessible anywhere we go via the cloud service.”

The risks and the collaboration

Cloud storage isn’t just about massive dumps of backup data. A growing number of companies are using it as an everyday part of their normal data management practices. Dropbox and its many imitators set the bar with its automatic-syncing data storage application, which copies everything in a specified directory to a secure cloud storage box. Importantly, files and folders in these spaces can be shared with others – allowing the creation of collaborative workspaces where team members can share any type of file.

This kind of collaboration is a major improvement in small-business storage strategies since poor data concurrency – conflicting versions of common documents – has always been a big problem. Sharing documents through a cloud-storage service not only creates essential backup copies of critical information but also allows teams with members in far-flung places to work on files together.

Cloud storage has become particularly important in helping small businesses keep up with the explosion in mobile devices and tablets, which are becoming increasingly popular business tools and generally lack adequate storage. Keeping documents in progress on a cloud service means you can not only get to the documents from your desktop computers, but that your key staff can access the data from the train, at home, at the airport, or anywhere else they happen to be.

There are risks, of course. Storing your data in the cloud means your fate is inextricably linked to the cloud provider’s ability to keep your data online. Fortunately, they’re pretty good at their jobs. Their businesses live or die by their ability to keep your data available, so you can believe they’ll do their utmost to make it so and will have access to security measures that most small businesses could never afford.

There are also practical limitations. Companies with limited monthly bandwidth plans need to watch their usage since backups can consume massive volumes of data. Some online storage services let you send them a full backup on the hard drive, which they will copy to your account.

Yet, even now, positioning cloud storage as a major part of a company’s data strategy can help smooth out the access issues that have compromised data integrity and hindered effective collaboration at times in the past. Better still, it’s an easy and inexpensive option for businesses that may have never been able to implement reliable and effective enough storage in the past – the big end of town aren’t the only ones with options anymore.

Find out how Netregistry’s cloud hosting options can help you.

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