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Any Answers Answered: Online backup options 2008

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10th Sep 2008
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In August, Steve asked about the merits of online data backups in Any Answers. Questions about how to back up data from your firm's computers have been asked many times before in Any Answers, and addressed by many contributors to AccountingWEB.

But it's a topic that is always worth returning to, not just because it's so important but also because storage technology is changing so rapidly that new solutions are always coming to light. John Stokdyk delved into the AccountingWEB data farm to compile all the relevant evidence.

The decline of traditional data back-up and recovery techniques

The basic strategy for protecting electronic data is to make back-up copies on a regular basis and to store a copy off site. When Nigel Harris investigated the subject two years ago, he felt compelled to compare the advantages of online backing up with magnetic tape, the traditional backup medium since the 1960s.

Writeable CD and DVD discs made a brief cameo appearance as backup media, but have been overtaken by high capacity, solid state USB memory drives in many DIY backup strategies. But the advent of universal broadband access has spawned a huge surge in online services - including backup and disaster recovery. Often these will be available from internet service providers as part of a bundle of added-value services.

Once it has been set up (which can take time to capture a firm's entire pool of live data), online back-up can take place imperceptibly in the background and ceases to be the sort of drudge work that gets neglected by stressed and overworked accountants.

As Harris explained, online backup systems use "delta blocking" technology that identifies and transfers only file elements that have changed to their servers. Online backups are often more secure than your own processes, as the storage host will be a specialist, professional organisation with sophisticated backup systems of its own.

Mike from MPA points out that a handy by product of his online backup service with Eclipse is the ability to access client data when off site.

"All you need to take with you then is something like an Asus PC (less than a kilo in weight) and a broadband enabled phone (in case your client doesn't have WiFi) and then you can get at everything when out and about. Clients are always impressed by this too," he wrote. "Even more so when you tell them why as they can see that you take data security seriously."

But there are some drawbacks to the online route. Internet access speeds are generally slower than local drives (apart from tape), which could pose problems if you need to restore an entire server. And while most backup services are good at what they do, you are entrusting sensitive data to a third party. It's always worth checking the hosting company's own security and backup facilities - and service level agreements - in some detail.

What's the fuss all about?

Just in case you need reminding, being able to retain access to your company data is a legal requirement. You need to maintain records for the current year and the previous six to satisfy HMRC. In addition, failing to adequately control and protect personal information on your systems could render you liable to a criminal charge under the Data Protection Act (DPA).

On a related topic, Euan MacLennan warns that the terms of the DPA only cover the transmission of personal data within the EU. If your online back up service is located elsewhere, you could be in breach of the act. But MacLennan's ICAEW Practice Assurance inspector told him that you can ask the Information Commissioner to add the specific country to your data protection registration for free. "But how do you know in which country your online backup is being stored?" wonders MacLennan.

Maintaining a responsible and methodical approach to information security has practical advantages. Taking regular back-ups - and testing that you can restore them - is a good indicator that your business systems are running smoothly and will be able to able to cope with any unforeseen disruptions.

Good backups are a key element of your business continuity strategy. How long could your organisation survive without access to its data? The answer to this question should determine the quality and speed of your backup facilities and the amount you invest in them.

You've taken a backup - great. But can you restore it?

Responding to Steve's question last month, Alex Barrett, Roger Neale and JC all raised concerns about being able to restore the data. "The only way to be sure a backup works is to restore it," wrote Neale, who also advised Steve to investigate how long it would take to download an on-line backup.

Richard Nicholas pointed out that most ADSL broadband lines have much slower upstream transfer speeds than download speeds, so you can expect to see an eightfold increase in restoring the data than when transferred upstream to the backup service. If you're considering this route, work how much data you are likely to need to have on tap and ask providers to simulate an online restore to see how long it takes to repopulate a hard drive or server.

For maximum efficiency and security, Nigel Harris advised running a second backup server onsite, to which live data is backed up across your local network. This server is the one that is connected to the remote backup site, so data transfers don't interfere with your main server. In the event of a major system failure, you would be able to continue working while the restore took place - but you would still be exposed to a longer wait in the event of a flood or office fire.

Accounting data backup

Another important consideration for accounting software users was raised by an anonymous question this month. Both practitioners and business accountants need a facility to go back into their old accounts data. But bookkeeping software changes from year to year. Sage 50, for example, will not restore to an older version. So how can the user ensure that they can still load and interrogate old data? A useful trick suggested by "Old Greying Accountant" is to output a Sage backup as a CSV (comma separated values) file. You can examine and adjust journal entries in Excel and then upload them back to an older version of Sage.

Archiving issues for the paperless office

In a briefing on PDFs and document archiving, Simon Hurst explained that similar issues surround files and documents from applications such as Microsoft Office, which also go through generational changes. As a starting point for his report, Hurst delved into the international standard on the subject, Document management: Electronic document file format for long-term preservation (ISO 19005-1:2005). The standard sets two key requirements: first, for the preservation of "visual appearance over time" and second, independence from "the tools and systems used for creating, storing or rending the files".

ISO 19005-1 Part 1 recommends the use of the PDF/A format, a variant of Adobe's Portable Document Format designed for long-term archiving. Unlike proprietary file formats, PDFs are not dependent on any particular software application or program version to be reproduced. The other key advantage of PDFs is that they can store both images and data, so they can be indexed and searched without having to run them through a separate an optical character recognition (OCR) reader.

PDF/A files are completely self-contained, so external components such as a particular fonts are not needed to reproduce the content exactly. Hurst's article and ISO 19005 itself are useful reading if, like Steve, you are considering a paperless office strategy.

Cloud backups - a lifestyle choice?

For some, the online approach is tantamount to a lifestyle choice. On-demand evangelist Dennis Howlett pondered, "Why bother spending the time, effort and money doing all this when you could run most of your business online? That's what I do and it is what an increasing number of people I come across do as well. The real difference comes in the case of a disaster. Using online apps, I just get onto the internet and it's as though nothing happened. No reimplementation, no restore of anything.

"That's a big saving, especially when you see that in addition, you could avoid the hassle associated with current recommendations to reformat your Windows PC hard drive at least once a year."

3D Recovery - independent reseller
Back2Go - "Excellent service" (Dean Shepherd)
BackupsAnywhere
Box.net - US company offering 1GB free, and up to 15GB for $99.99 a year
Carbonite - "Highly recommended and excellent value for money." (Tony Kelly)
Computer Network Services Managed service provider
DataLifeline - prices starting from £99.95 for 3GB a year.
DataSafe Services Encrypted, daily managed backup and restore service. Estimated annual cost of £1,000 for 70GB
DepositIt 2GB account (equivalent to 4GB of uncompressed data) starts from £120 per year.
InTechnology - corporate-level service provider
IRIS Backup - from £4.90 a month for 500MB (compressed) storage; also Microsoft Exchange servers for £15/month
i-Tr@der - Application and storage host
Mamut - storage available along with hosted ERP & CRM applications
Mozy - US based service, with free 2GB home account
SafeStore247
Securidata - corporate provider, with live Microsoft Exchange Server and database backups
Symantec Protection Network - online backup, data recovery
and security services
ThinkingSAFE.com
Techgate - recommended by security correspondent Stewart Twynham
WinWeb OnlineOffice and hosted accounting application includes 1GB free storage. Extra space costs £25/GB a year.
ZuuBackup - intuitive interface, according to Dean Shepherd

Back to Index

Equip Your Practice: Networking and back-up options
Focus on disaster recovery and business continuity planning
Information security - Good housekeeping
Focus on data protection
IT Zone guide to data storage
Online backup services (2006)
Back-ups - The secret to surviving IT system failures
Stewart Twynham's Security Diary: A spot of data recovery

Back to Index

Do I need to register for data protection?
PC off-site for Disaster Recovery
Disaster plan anyone?
Online backup
Server hosting

Back to Index

MessageLabs Web Security Services
Microsoft Synctoy - Free data backup program (beta test version)
Second Copy - Free backup manager

Back to Index

Sage whitepaper on data protection (Jan 2008)
Why tape back-up might not be best practice - Data Lifeline

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Replies (6)

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avatar
By gbdata
18th Dec 2008 13:44

Online Backup
Hi
We (GBData) offer combined local and online backup services.
One of the criticisms of online backup has been the total reliance on the internet for, and the speed of restores if a large amount of data is required. GBData offer two options for this; we can send your data by portable hard drive to you by next day courier, or restore from a local hard drive, that works in tandem with the online service.
How this works is that the software first encrypts all of the data using military strength technology, and then makes a copy of the data to a local hard drive, which we supply free of charge with most schemes, before transmitting the data to our secure offsite servers using a secure connection. This complies with all current data protection requirements including the data protection act, as the data is completely unreadable to anyone but you with the encryption key.
This system allows you to not rely solely on the internet for your backups & restores, has fast restore speeds for large amounts of data when required, but still retains the absolute security of offsite storage of your data.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By User deleted
23rd Sep 2008 09:54

Worth a look
Dependant on the size of the company, there are another couple of companies offering data storage solutions. For companies with one to a few hundred employees, try Kingston Communications -
http://www.kingstoncommunications.com/in-business-solutions/securityandstorage/

Or for larger companies, another option is Affiniti -
http://www.affiniti.com/solutions/sublevel-of-data-management/storage-solutions.html

Thanks (0)
avatar
By BryanS1958
11th Sep 2008 14:30

Depositit
I've been using DepositIt for the last few years and it's proved very reliable, plus it's the only one (for the price) that I could find which allowed me to back up drives on my LAN network.

If there are any others which offer the ability to back up drives on LAN networks for a similar or better price I'd be interested to know.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By dawnjolley
12th Sep 2008 09:02

Recommended
I use Mozy Pro for my personal computer, but it won't load on a shared NT4 drive as the OS is too ancient (but very reliable!). Mozy is extremely good value and easy to use. The one time I needed to call their help line in the USA it was no problem and they were very helpful.

I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows of an online backup programme that runs on NT4.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By philrob
11th Sep 2008 13:55

www.databarracks.com have very pro-active support
We have used databarraks for a couple of years - they have proven to be quite pro-active. On a couple of occasions when we have done something to our servers which has delayed or halted backups they have rung us up to find out what is happening.
Never had to do a restore for real, but can't stress highly enough the need to have the encryption key stored somewhere where you can get it in the event of a problem - Keep it in two places, one of which should be off site.

Thanks (0)
avatar
By User deleted
11th Sep 2008 12:47

Try Safe Data Storage Ltd
Tried Mamut but had firewall problems and 'support' was poor.

We have used Safe Data Storage for several years now. The system really works well and can be switched on when the office closes and, when the backup is finished it automatically closes down the computer. This saves chargeable time and saves worrying about backing up shadow copies during the day. Their support is really reliable. When occasionally I have needed to restore a file it's been plain sailing and simple. Have a look at their website www.safedatastorage.co.uk, its a really helpful guide. They offer a one month free trial with full support and advice.

Currently paying £5 per month and it takes all our 'Iris' server data for last 10 years for 500 clients, with plenty of room to spare.

By the way, they are not 'related' I just think its right to recomend good solid suppliers.

Thanks (0)