What Is a Business Cloud Backup Service?
If it’s one thing the cloud has made easier for IT professionals, it’s the all-up business backup process. Using cloud-based backup services has made a highly onerous, complex, and tedious task much faster and simpler, even if it is still pretty tedious. It’s also dropped the cost quite a bit from the days of expensive tape drives and external storage that had to be rented special just to house your old tapes off-site. It’s also made life simpler from a day-to-day management angle, since tape drives, the de facto solution for most business and enterprise backup plans back in the day, could be fickle and required a lot of management with no guarantees that backups would go smoothly.
The reason that scenario was so common a decade or ago was because tape backups were hard. They were complicated and involved, so it was much more fun to go drink beer on a Friday night than to manage a backup run—especially if you promised yourself you’d do it next week, for sure. This complexity revolved around several issues. A multitude of standards meant there was compatibility confusion, and unreliable tape drives might or might not decide to work when told to by backup software or beer-thirsty IT admins. Plus, tapes had to be stored locally as well as off-site if you really wanted to keep your data safe.
That history is important since companies are generating more data than ever, with market pundits throwing around frightening market statistics. For example, IDC projects that by 2025, the “global datasphere” will expand to 163 zettabytes (ZB) or 1 trillion gigabytes. And that figure will be 10 times the 16.1 ZB created in 2016. That’s a lot of bytes, especially when you have to mirror a significant percentage of them just to keep your business protected. With numbers such as those flying around, it’s fortunate that the cloud has made data backup easier than ever.
Cloud backup services have revolutionized the backup process for several reasons. For one, they combine smart software with cloud-scalable storage so the problems of tape standards and tape drive reliability are no longer blockers. Second, they’re cheap for the same reason, namely, that easy scalability means you only pay for what use when you use it. Third, the cloud has spawned a slew of cloud storage and file sharing services for businesses. In fact, according to a study conducted by market researcher Statista and based on IDC survey data, backup was among the most popular applications being migrated to the cloud in 2018.
Most of these services offer sophisticated backup functionality or even separate services that let you quickly and easily automate your company’s backup processes, right down to individual PCs and mobile devices. This lets the savvy IT manager build a sophisticated hierarchical storage plan from endpoint through several layers of tiered backup, all through a web dashboard and using only a few subscription accounts.
How Do Cloud Backup Services Work?
Cloud backup services for businesses work by providing customers with access to shared, software-defined storage infrastructure, which essentially means storage that’s managed as a virtual resource. This lets providers create a large pool of data storage, parcel it out among its customers, and manage or apportion the whole thing down to the byte level. When building your own cloud storage solution, you’ll find this kind of storage available through infrastructure as a service (IaaS) providers, like Amazon Web Services. However, when buying a cloud backup service, you should be able to purchase that storage as part of the backup solution, though some vendors will ask you to purchase it separately.
Management is based on customers’ size and demand, changing bandwidth conditions, security requirements and, in some cases, even variable data retention requirements. This means that the cloud backup provider can let customers store frequently used data in fast-access locations, such as primary virtual infrastructure or even an on-site storage add-on component such as a network-attached storage (NAS) device. They can then place data that’s used occasionally on cloud-side hardware that’s a little slower to respond but still quick. They can also drop rarely used data onto tape that’s stored securely in off-site facilities and can only be accessed with significant notice.
Each such storage tier is priced differently, and the backup tools provided by the cloud storage vendor can automate how your data moves between these tiers based on policies you or your IT staff control. This is similar to the hierarchical storage strategies of old, but it’s much easier and happens entirely as a managed service. All you need to do is go through an initial setup process, and you’ll be able to get at your organization’s data from any internet-capable device. There’s no need for dedicated physical or even virtual servers, expensive tape drives with proprietary (and often arcane) dedicated backup software, or off-site warehouse space in which to store crates of important tapes.
Manage Your Backups: 3-2-1 Rule
For small to midsize businesses (SMBs), the cloud allows IT administrators to perform multiple backups more effectively than with clunky tape drives. Keeping multiple copies of critical company data is a no-brainer, specially if it is easier and costs less. This is the innovation and convenience that cloud backups offer SMBs. Best practices, like the 3-2-1 rule, still need to be in play to ensure data and backup continuity.
The 3-2-1 rule states that you should have three (3) copies of your data at all times, that you keep it backed up on at least two (2) different types of storage, and that you have at least one (1) copy of the data offsite. In the past, those aforementioned cumbersome tapes and hard drives made this difficult or, at best, tedious. Business cloud backup services can give you an edge by providing a separate and off-site target for your company’s important data simultaneously and at a reasonable price. The more advanced players even let you choose to keep your data on multiple servers in different data centers, which means you can implement a 3-2-1 architecture using only one vendor.
However, not all offerings are created equal. There is a dizzying array of devices that need to be backed up. Desktops, servers, mobile devices, and NAS devices are all part of the diverse digital landscape that needs to be protected. Support is varied, and there is no single costing model that gets every business to the right price point. Every backup strategy is unique.
A great cloud backup service doesn’t do much good if it doesn’t protect the data on all of your business devices, not just on servers or desktop PCs. In a typical environment, Mac and Windows systems comprise the bulk of laptops and workstations. Linux and Microsoft Windows Server are the most popular platforms for servers. Then there’s that ever-growing and ever-changing morass of mobility. Getting access to data from a mobile device is becoming not just popular but increasingly critical as mobile devices become more sophisticated and not only store more data but create it, too. At a bare minimum, Android and iOS devices should be considered as backup targets, with a potential need for Windows 10 Mobile as well.
In many cases, even SMBs will be hosting virtualized infrastructure on-site as well as in the cloud and, since this is really just software, it should be backed up along with everything else. However, because virtual machines (VMs) and other kinds of virtual infrastructure have different needs when it comes to restoration, you’ll need to ensure that your cloud backup provider can support these requirements. Citrix, Microsoft Hyper-V, and VMWare VSphere tend to be the most commonly used commercial products for creating and running VMs.
But even using a service that touts support for backing up virtual infrastructure, you need to be careful. First, there are multiple standards in the virtualization space, even today, so make sure your IT department signs off on the backup service being able to provide support for what’s needed. And second, the same way you want to test a backup solution to make sure it not only backs up but can also restore your data, that’s a test you want to run for every bit of virtual infrastructure you’re entrusting to this solution. Restoring a virtual server means first restoring the server, then reconfiguring all connection settings, re-initializing all applications that server was providing, and then re-loading all data housed on that machine. Different vendors will offer differing levels of automation for these steps, so if your IT staff is required to make some or all of them happen you want to know about that before disaster strikes. You need to test more than just getting the files and data back; you need to make absolutely sure those virtual files will come back to life like they’re supposed to.
Open-Source and App-Specific Options
But the open-source community has been making strong inroads in this area over the past few years as well. Companies such as Google have introduced open-source tools to check if any corruption has occurred while backing up data. There are new and popular virtualization platforms you might need to consider, including KVM, OVA, and OVF, among others. It’s becoming more important than ever to support backing up and restoring these kinds of systems. As with our Editor’s Choice Arcserve UDP Cloud Direct, some products will offer business continuity features by letting you spin up virtual copies of your machines in the cloud during a failure, until they can be restored to their original location.
It’s also important to consider app-specific options. Some back-end business apps might need special capabilities when it comes to backup and restoration, especially complex, database-drive platforms such as big customer relationship management (CRM) apps, large databases and business intelligence (BI) apps, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions. Popular examples of such business apps include Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SQL Server, NetApp, and Oracle, which all require special handling. The best options will have native support for backing up and restoring them. Otherwise, you will be left with trying to cobble together a backup solution that only works under the best circumstances, at best. At worst, it might not work at all and will manifest when there is a true failure.
Be Careful With Configurability
One of the major complaints about backup apps of old is that they were cumbersome and difficult to use. While many of our business cloud backup service providers have worked hard to change this trait, it still crops up in many solutions. It doesn’t matter how configurable an app is if a user cannot easily navigate to the most important options. In general, the best apps will have a user interface (UI) that doesn’t include an overabundance of menus. Advanced configuration should be made available when needed, but shouldn’t get in the way of quickly and efficiently building a basic backup job. It’s definitely possible to have too many choices. If the app requires training to use, then it’s probably a complicated solution, and that will need to be weighed against the needs and patience of the business.
Most solutions offer both offline and cloud volume targets. This can be important if your company is employing software tools that are cloud-hosted or being provided as managed cloud services. For example, you can run a Microsoft Exchange email server on-site and that server will definitely need to be backed up. But you can also use a hosted Microsoft Exchange service, where the service provider should definitely be performing internal backups of their own. But, even if that’s the case, your IT staff may still want to back up the email data being hosted in that provider’s cloud just so you have direct control over it. This will require your cloud backup provider to deliver a backup tool that can handle cloud-based volumes.
While this can be a typical configuration, it tends to tie up every device while data is being backed up to the cloud. Many traditional backup apps have used this model. In some cases, it’s not practical to let data slowly sync to the cloud, as with a laptop. After all, if your device is in standby or powered off, then it’s not doing much to ship your data off-site. In these scenarios, a physical or virtual appliance, such as a NAS box or a full, dedicated server, can live on the network and act as a local target for backups. That appliance will then back that data up incrementally to the cloud during off-peak hours. That means a lag time to off-site restoration but, in the case of a local system failure that needs a quick restore, this can often be a good option.
Backup and Recovery
Regardless of the method, backing up to the cloud has often been described by industry professionals as filling a swimming pool with a paper cup. While available bandwidth is rapidly catching up with the huge demands created by enormous data sets, the initial backup is usually by far the worst and subsequent incremental backups are much easier. Many vendors have taken note of this and provide an initial seeding method by way of a shipped hard drive.
Similarly, in the event of a disaster, it can be critical to get systems running again as soon as possible. If it takes days to download missing data from the cloud, then that can translate to lost time and money. In much the same way that seeding services are provided, recovery services that provide an overnighted or hand-delivered hard drive with critical system data are also available from some vendors. This can be a good option if a local backup isn’t available.
Security and Reporting
Just because an app can get your data into the cloud doesn’t mean that it’s doing it in a safe way. Encryption is an industry standard practice, and you shouldn’t even consider any product that doesn’t take it seriously. Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption is the typical choice for sending and receiving data. It greatly minimizes the risk that a hacker can intercept and steal the information being transmitted. It is not enough to stop here, however. Once at the destination, the data should be encrypted by using the strongest form of encryption available. In most cases, this will be the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES).
Also, ensuring device compliance with corporate policy is becoming a challenging task for mainstream IT departments. It’s now more important than ever that a quick overview of compliant systems is available to a backup administrator. Ransomware is becoming a growing security threat affecting city services. These threats along with road warriors and disgruntled employees could wipe data at a moment’s notice. It’s important to ensure that accountability is established and enforced. A well-designed dashboard can help make that difference.
Sometimes out-of-the-box reports don’t quite fit the expectations of management. Being able to design custom reports is a nice touch. While it’s not an absolute necessity, this can be key to tying a backup app into a larger data warehouse that can be used to track company compliance metrics.
It takes a bit of homework to select an appropriate cloud backup service for your business. It needs a balance of availability, configurability, price, security, and usability. While our Editors’ Choice winner represents the best overall value for the widest swath of business customers in our opinion, when you’re shopping for your own solution, it’s important to consider the needs and risk profile of your particular organization. In the end, the best cloud backup service will be the one that most closely meets your company’s needs because that’s the best way to ensure it’ll be easily adopted by your users.
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