Today's businesses generate more data than ever before. Not coincidentally, IT has never been more critical to the success of a small business. Luckily, the per-gigabyte cost of hard disk drives and associated storage technologies has never been lower, while the advent of technology such as cloud storage offers even greater opportunities to do more with less.
For many small businesses, though, their backup and storage strategy hasn't caught up with their more pervasive use of computers. This could be due to confusion about the various storage options, or a failure to understand that the old paradigm of the occasional batch backup is no longer adequate.
A storage vendor representative will have you believe that it offers the perfect backup hardware for your business. However, backup is more than hardware, since storage needs for individual organizations invariably differ. This means a one-size-fits-all mentality is doomed to offer a mediocre fit in terms of either budget or functionality.
Rather than outline a fixed strategy, this article highlights the most common storage capabilities and shows how they can be combined to craft the right storage strategy for your small business.
6 Common Data Storage Solutions
Rather than go into every single storage technology that's available today, it's better to evaluate the various categories of storage options.
1. Direct attached storage: DAS denotes storage devices that are connected directly to a PC or server, typically using a USB 2.0 or USB 3.0 peripheral port. One weakness of DAS is that you need to do ad-hoc or batch backups to copy data, which means they could contain out-of-date versions of files.
2. Network attached storage: A NAS appliance is a storage device that connects directly to the network. It features the attendant capabilities of a file server and accepts multiple storage drives. Redundancy is offered in the form of RAID capabilities, as NAS supports various file protocols to work directly desktops and laptops. Some NAS models offer the capability to synchronize selected folders or volumes with a second, remote NAS that supports the capability.
3. Disaster protected storage: As its name suggests, disaster protected storage - which can come in the form of DAS or NAS - is hardened against the type of disasters that would have easily destroyed unprotected data. For example, ioSafe says its disaster protected storage appliances can withstand fire for up to 30 minutes and total immersion in water for days.
4. Online storage: While it may seem intuitive to lump all online storage into the same category, there are actually two distinct types of offerings. Some, such as Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), serve as the cloud version of storage devices for the Amazon Elastic Cloud Compute platform. Then there's the online storage designed to help consumers and businesses store or back up data in the cloud. For the purposes of this article, that's what we mean by online storage.
Cloud storage can work very well if backing up data incrementally, and requires no up-front capital investments. The downside, though, is that data retrieval may take an unacceptably long time should you require full data recovery.
5. Private Cloud: Not comfortable with placing their data in the hands of third-party public cloud vendors, some enterprises have taken to building privates version of cloud services to gain some of the inherent benefits of electricity and flexibility. Though this was once out of the reach of small business, innovations mean that small businesses may yet be able to tap into private cloud storage.
[ Commentary: What the CIA Private Cloud Really Says About Amazon Web Services ]
The Transporter, for example, is a network appliance that connects to a storage drive to share and synchronize its content. This can be done with client desktops or laptops, and with other Transporter devices. Meanwhile, BitTorrent Sync, currently in beta, lets computers with the correct secret key synchronize directly with one another over the Internet.
6. Offline media: This is commonly understood to be tape drives, but optical media such as DVD and Blu-Ray discs are occasionally used for the purpose of offline data backup. This "technology" may seem outdated, but don't dismiss it yet: Tape backups have saved Google in at least one Gmail outage, and Facebook is experimenting with Blu-Ray discs for data backup (albeit with a robotic picker handling 10,000 discs in a storage system the size of an entire server rack).
2 + 1 = Data Backup Best Practice
For critical data, businesses should make two full copies, maintained on separate physical devices. In addition, a third copy should be kept offline, preferably stashed at another location.
Having two complete copies offers some measure of business continuity, allowing organizations to continue with their business as usual even with the complete loss of one set of data. After all, even RAID volumes may be degraded for a substantial amount of time until the array is completely rebuilt. These two copies of data can be kept synchronized by a variety of means: The cloud, a third-party sync application or the sync capabilities of an increasing number of NAS.
The offline copy, meanwhile, serves as an important hedge against inadvertent mistakes and outright malice. Real-time or near-real-time data synchronization can eliminate data sprawl, which may see multiple copies of the same data. However, it can also rapidly replicate errors or overwrite good files in a way that stymies file recovery software. As noted, even Google and its multiple data centers' worth of data storage still uses tape storage technology.
While no business likes to think it would hire someone with destructive tendencies, former employees have been known to turn vindictive. This can be especially deadly for smaller businesses, where a small team often means everyone have access to almost every facet of the IT systems. That's why it's best to keep that "plus one" copy offline, at a separate geographical region and out of their reach. Having the copy in a separate physical location also protects a business from fires, floods and other localized natural disasters.
Data Storage Strategy Depends on Budget, Data Volume
Ultimately, the combination of storage you need will depend on your volume of data and available budget. Startups with modest data needs and a low budget, for example, could benefit from the Transporter and its minimal equipment costs. Data could be backed up onto a DAS that's taken offline on a periodic basis.
A business with more substantial storage needs, though, may want to deploy two NAS appliances in separate offices. These could be set to sync with each other over the Internet or VPN. The same arrangement could be made for businesses with only one office, though the second NAS could be a disaster protected one. Data in both cases could be incrementally backed up from one NAS to a cloud storage provider.
Whatever they deploy, businesses generating large volumes of data may find that backing up to the cloud may not be tenable. Such businesses will likely need to invest in a tape drive, with data backed up on tape cartridges kept at an off-site location.
Paul Mah is a freelance writer and blogger who lives in Singapore. He has worked in various capacities within the IT industry and enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones and networking devices. You can reach Paul at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @paulmah.
Read more about small business in CIO's Small Business Drilldown.