TECH GUIDE - Online Backup: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know

TECH GUIDE - Online Backup: Everything you’ve ever wanted to know

Backup isn’t sexy. It’s associated with large VHS sized data cartridges, dark and dusty store rooms, and boring, monotonous process. When that time of the week arrives, if you listen close, you may be able to hear the echoing, resigned sigh of many an IT manager across the nation. It’s not fun, it’s not productive – it’s a necessary evil.

But there is now a technology that is fast gaining a reputation in the business IT world as the saviour of backup. It’s a method that is firmly putting companies back in control of their data protection policy and freeing IT managers from the laborious and stifling nature of tape. It’s more secure, reliable and easier to use. It’s called online backup and it could well be tape backup’s grim reaper.

What is online backup?

Online backup is a procedure of data backup that involves the transfer of files and folders over the internet for storage in secure data centres. These data centres are managed by a third-party company in a separate location, offering companies a highly resilient form of off-site backup for their data. Online backup is often also referred to as Internet backup, Remote backup or Web-based backup.

Where did online backup come from?

Backup has been a key part of business operations ever since companies realised the value of their data. Over the years, backup has appeared in various forms from punch cards (possibly the earliest form of backup), floppy disks, magnetic tape, CD/DVDs and external hard drives. Online backup, while only now becoming commercially available, has actually been around since the late 1970s when the first Local Area Network (LAN) devices where developed. It is only recently, with the development of broadband technology, that the market potential is being realised.

IBM became the first major vendor to develop a storage software product in the early 1990s with its Tivoli Storage Manager. Since then, there have been many companies that have developed the technology from simple software to managed services. With internet technology now more advanced, many companies have noticed the value of online backup to their business and the industry has grown.

What are the advantages of online backup?

Just as the 8-track was replaced by cassette tape, which was replaced by CD, which has been replaced by Mp3 - online backup is becoming more popular simply because it is more advantageous than its predecessor. The Ipod replaced the Discman which replaced the Walkman. VHS lost out to DVD because of fuzzy picture quality, slower fast forward and rewinding and bulky storage requirements. And LCD and Plasma screen televisions are fast phasing out cathode ray TVs because of superior picture quality, more mobility and an ability to scale to large screen sizes. It is the same natural progression with all new innovations.

Online backup is automated

Tape backup, to varying degrees, is a manual process. It involves human intervention where the IT manager, or nearest responsible person, has the task of carrying out backups on a day-to-day basis. Some people might not view this as being a problem, as they pay their IT manager already, but the problem is whether that process is being carried out reliably, whether that person could be doing something more productive and not to mention what happens when that person is sick or goes on holiday.

As an alternative, online backup requires little human intervention. It can be set to carry out backups automatically where the user defines the scheduling, parameters and backup sets through a simple software interface. No other action is required, with the software alerting the user when successful backups have taken place and when there might be potential issues. The result is one less task for the IT manager and more confidence that backups are being done.

Online backup is more secure than tape

Tape backup can represent a security risk. Data contained on tapes is normally unencrypted, and the tapes themselves are often left unattended on the back seat of a car or in somebody’s handbag. Should anybody get hold of a backup tape that they weren’t supposed to have, they could conceivably access all the lovely, juicy information contained upon them. If that data contains company financial or customer information then the consequences can be very serious. As well as that, backup tapes are also susceptible to fire and water damage.

Online backup makes data backup more secure because information is encrypted in transfer and storage. Encryption scrambles the components of a file making the contents unreadable without the assigned encryption key. With online backup, data is also stored offsite in secure disaster-proof data centres. The result is complete peace-of-mind for the user knowing that nobody unauthorized can access their data and that it will always be available to them no matter what happens to their equipment or buildings.

Online backup allows users to backup wherever, whenever!

In the past, much of a company’s data was created from a single office with all computers operating from one place. Today there is no such thing as a single site office for data creation. People generate data constantly, whether they are on a train, plane or working from home. The proliferation of laptop and wireless broadband technology has spawned the new mobile workforce.

Making sure that the mobile worker backs up on a regular basis is fast becoming a nightmare for IT managers all over. It doesn’t matter how much you ‘remind’ a user to carry out a backup, chances are that they will regularly forget. Tape backup is not longer feasible for safeguarding against data loss in the modern mobile environment.

In contrast, some online backup services can help IT managers enforce backups on demand without requiring any user compliance using a centrally administered control portal. An IT manager can control all backup processes in a population, setting machines to backup automatically. For a single user it also offers the opportunity to carry out a backup anytime, anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection.

Online backup is now cheaper and not just for the super paranoid!

Not so long ago tape backup purists will have scoffed,. ‘Online backup is far too expensive, how can you justify paying those sort of prices?’. It is true that in the past online backup might have been out of reach for the average company. It was typically used by those who had very sensitive data to protect and didn’t mind paying the premium. However, technology has developed and the price has come down significantly. Now, more companies are starting to realise that online backup can actually be more cost viable than tape.

Part of this is due to the avoidance of capital expenditure. Before you can even start making backups, with tape backup you have to purchase a tape drive machine, the backup tapes and assign somebody to do them. Then there is the additional operational cost of maintenance on the machine, continuously buying new tapes, finding somewhere fire proof to store them, paying for somebody’s time to do them, replacing the machine a couple of years down the line etc.

There are of course ways to cut costs. For example, you could buy a cheap knock-down tape drive or instead of paying an expensive IT consultant simply ask Doris to do a backup when she has a spare minute. But what’s the point of a contingency plan like backup if your not even sure that it’s going to work?

In comparison, online backup avoids upfront capital expenditure because there is no hardware to purchase or maintain. All that’s involved is clear, transparent operational expenditure costs. You work out how much data you’re going to protect and you budget for it. With no start-up costs it is proving very popular with small businesses because it allows them to hit the ground running paying only for what they use.

Online backup is faster

Many detractors argue that online backup isn’t as efficient as tape backup because transferring files over the internet is a slow process. Local backups performed via tape can be carried out relatively quickly while online data backup is heavily reliant on bandwidth resources and amount of data being backed up.

However, while it’s true that an initial backup of an entire data set may take some time, normal operations can continue undisrupted whilst the backup is taking place. Then, after the initial backup is complete most backup software only takes incremental backups of the changes made to specific files. This means that only small data bytes are sent resulting in vastly improved backup times.

Again some point to the fact that restoring data after a complete server failure will take days. This is entirely possible but online backup allows users to select the most vital data for recovery immediately. For example, if you lose a complete server and can’t live without email, you could perform a complete Exchange restore in a matter of hours (depending on data size). Then you can simply stream the other, less critical, data back onto the machine in the meantime. Indeed, decent online backup providers will also offer an onsite cache of backed up data for bulk restores directly from disk. Either that or they will have all your data shipped securely back to you on a media device direct from the data centre. However, as broadband technology evolves this is sure to become even less of an issue.

Online backup is 'future proof'

Online backup is a guarantee that data will be retrievable for many years to come. When companies have to buy a new tape drive or another server, there is no guarantee that their previous backup tapes will be compatible with the new equipment. Most don’t believe that it would be an issue, but it happens regularly.

Because online backup operates on a disk-to-disk function, there is no risk of incompatibility. Businesses can have the confidence that it is going to work, regardless of the brand or operating system on any new equipment they plan to buy in the future. In contrast, if you don’t anticipate these changes well in advance you might well be left with a batch of unusable tapes.


So is online backup the death of tape? Most industry insiders would suggest so. Bill Gates recently even went so far as to claim that online storage will eventually replace tape altogether because its use is ‘without tradeoffs’. With the number of online backup providers on the market skyrocketing and the number of tape providers dwindling it seems that Gates has a point - online backup could well be tape backup’s disruptive innovation.

The more relevant concern for businesses now is in choosing a reputable online backup provider. There are certain questions that you’ll need to ask each company like, how long have they been in business and who are their current satisfied customers. This is an indicator of how financially stable they are and how their customer service rates. The last thing you want is for your backup provider to go into liquidation just before you have to perform a restore.

You might also want to ask how they are able to offer such competitive prices. We’re all familiar with the adage, ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. If prices are considerably lower it is likely that some pretty vital components of the service are missing, whether it is cheap, knock-down technology or a complete disregard for customer service. 

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