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Recover From Data Mishaps in Minutes
By Jeff Elliott

Many businesses that rely heavily on network data to conduct business operations, interact with customers, process payments, or provide remote access for offsite employees believe they are protected from data loss or network failure because they have a backup-and-recovery system in place.

Unfortunately, this false sense of security can leave a company vulnerable to a lengthy and potentially crippling business interruption. So much so that many businesses each year experience significant loss of revenue and diminished customer confidence, and even go out of business—despite having some type of backup system in place.

Vulnerabilities of Network Backup and Recovery
The "I have a backup system, so I'm covered" mentality ignores several critical factors.

First, recovering data from backups can take many hours and even days if associated with hardware failures. In IT, it is a well-known fact that backups can also become corrupted and may not be reliable when called upon. Second, in addition to the critical nature of the data, a failure of the application, database, or e-mail server can leave the business unable to, for example, access those data, place orders, or bill customers.

For this reason, any solution that does not restore the network to full functionality within minutes—no matter the cause or point of failure—is simply a nonstarter for companies that rely heavily on electronic records or transactions, such as health care providers and medical practices.

"In health care, the ability to access data is extremely important," says Justin Huckaby, IT manager at CMA Healthcare, an independent multispecialty medical practice in South Carolina. "Physicians now rely on electronic medical records to make good health care decisions for their patients.

"In extreme cases, it can actually be a life-or-death situation because a physician makes decisions based on the information they can access," he adds.

Business Continuity in Layman's Terms
The odds of a significant network event are much higher than most business owners realize. The IT industry now shies away from the term "disaster" recovery because it implies rare events such as a fire or other natural disaster.

However, data can be corrupted or lost for various reasons, including the following: hardware failures of servers and hard drives, user error, malware, file sharing, and poor connection issues during remote access.

As a result, data backup and recovery has evolved into what the IT industry now calls "business continuity." The term intentionally emphasizes the fact that many businesses rely heavily on data and cannot afford to be interrupted or have limited access to data for more than the shortest period of time—no matter the cause.

At its core, there are two fundamental aspects to business continuity.

The first: Backups involve copying network data to tapes, network-attached storage, local hardware appliances, or the cloud. There are many inexpensive solutions on the market, and most companies today have some form of backup system in place.

The other aspect is recovering that information quickly in the event of data loss, corruption, or server failure. For many businesses, it is this aspect that is the blind spot in the system that leaves them vulnerable to periods of extended downtime.

The reality is there are many difficulties that can arise when its time to retrieve stored information.

Retrieving terabytes of data from tape, or the cloud, for example, can take many hours, or even days, depending on download speeds. If the cause of the data loss is hardware-related, the restoration cannot even begin until the system is repaired or replaced. Depending on the severity of the issue, this can extend the amount of downtime to several days for a business that cannot afford to be offline for even a few minutes.

According to IT experts, the other issue is that just because a backup exists does not mean the data are pristine. In fact, backup data can be corrupted as easily as network data.

Comprehensive Business Continuity Solutions
What does a complete business continuity solution look like? The following are five factors that, combined, will be found in a comprehensive business continuity solution:

1. Image-based backup of key systems. Some basic backup systems copy select files to tape or other network storage devices. This allows for limited retrieval of data, with some of them potentially excluded, and the process of both backing up and recovering the data (when needed) is typically very slow.

When Huckaby was first hired, the business relied on tape backups that were time-consuming, difficult to manage, and easily corrupted. Although he lobbied for a better solution, it was only after a major hardware failure to the server that stored EMRs in 2010 that he was able to convince ownership to make a change. The event took the system offline for three to four days.

Since that time, Huckaby says, CMA Healthcare has entrusted its data backup and recovery to Unified Network Group, Inc (UNG), which offers a business continuity solution designed to restore key systems and data within minutes, no matter what the cause or point of failure.

UNG offers more advanced, image-based backups that create a copy of the operating system and all the data associated with it, including the system state and application configurations. The backup is saved as a single file called an image.

The advantages of this approach are that select files can be restored within minutes or, if necessary, the entire server can be restored even if it's brand new.

2. Backups occur frequently to a local hardware appliance. Ideally, backups would be completed hourly, and possibly even more frequently for critical real-time data. The limiter to more frequent backups goes back again to the type of system. Tape backups are often set to perform this work during the night and, depending on the amount of data, may not even be finished by morning.

Image-based backup, on the other hand, can be completed much faster.

"The system that UNG uses can be configured to take 'snapshots' of our servers as frequently as every five minutes," Huckaby explains. "So, we identified the servers that handle all of our health care information and we back them up multiple times per hour. Less critical servers are backed up once an hour, so we know that if there is ever an issue we have a backup that is no more than an hour old that we can restore quickly."

3. For redundancy, locally stored data would also be backed up in the cloud. When anticipating every possible scenario where the system could break down, it makes sense to back up any local hardware appliances to the cloud.

Even less-technical business owners are now at least somewhat familiar with the concept of the cloud, which essentially means that the entire network is also backed up to remote servers located elsewhere in the United States. Cloud servers are extremely secure with their own redundant protections and backups.

In this way, if the local hardware appliance fails or is destroyed in a fire, flood, earthquake, or other natural disaster, the entire network can be accessed directly from the cloud. While rare, these events happen with more regularity than many realize.

4. Back-ups are tested daily to ensure data are not corrupted. Although there are some rudimentary tools for checking that a backup was completed successfully, and in some cases that the data are not corrupted, these are limited and often infrequent. For smaller companies, this monitoring is often assigned not to IT but to business owners, office managers, or other staff.

To protect against potential data corruption of the backups, some companies are now going a step further and conducting daily testing and verification of image-based backups. The daily reports are then sent to the client once a week to show their clients that the backup was tested and in good working order.

5. Backups, whether local or in the cloud, can act as virtual servers in a pinch. In addition to the data themselves, the backups are configured so that they can be booted up and act as a virtual server in the event of server or other hardware failure. Whether the local hardware appliance or in the cloud, backups can be configured to act as full servers if needed.

For the users—whether employees or customers—the "virtual" network functions and acts exactly like the original server—so much so, they will not recognize the difference.

Once the hardware is repaired or replaced, tested, and back online, all the data (including everything changed or added during the downtime) are copied to it and the switch made back to the actual server.

Cost of Network Recovery in Minutes
As with any expense, business owners are rightfully concerned with the cost of a more comprehensive backup-and-recovery system.

Some providers are moving toward a fixed monthly fee model for business continuity solutions based on the amount of data involved. The flat rate includes all software, hardware appliances, cloud storage, monitoring, and even support and assistance when an event occurs.

This stands in contrast to IT support billed by the hour along with additional fees to purchase or lease hardware appliances for cloud storage and more. These fees add up and can even spike in the event of significant data loss or a network crash.

According to Huckaby, business owners should view a comprehensive business continuity solution like insurance. "Nobody likes paying for insurance but they are sure glad they pay for it when they need to use it," he says.

With an appropriate solution in place, data-centric businesses and those charged with maintaining the network can rest assured that if anything happens their system can be restored quickly.

— Jeff Elliott is a Torrance, California-based technical writer.