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Backups: Act like your business depends on them

CNET@Work: Even the smallest business needs to maintain multiple backups, using a variety of methods. And while the cloud is key, it's only one part of a complete backup strategy.

David Gewirtz
6 min read
Getty Images/iStockphoto

With technology increasingly intertwined with all aspects of business, CNET@Work can help you -- from prosumers to small businesses with fewer than five employees -- get started.

Kate Sullivan, content director at TCK Publishing, tells a story of death and redemption.

"I was just finishing up a book edit that had taken me the better part of two weeks when my Mac died. I was a day away from my deadline -- and would have panicked, if it weren't for the fact that I'm paranoid and keep three backups of my work." Sullivan used the Mac's Time Machine service to create a local backup, a cloud service for a remote backup and a regular, weekly backup.

She restored from the cloud backup to another machine (a tablet) and only lost an hour's work. She kept working and met her deadline.

Other users who were not as diligent were not so lucky.

Dylan Gallagher, who runs tour company Orange Sky Adventures, was hit by a virus last year. He recalled that it "wiped out 40 percent of our website. It took hundreds of hours for us to repair." He didn't do regular backups. Now he does.

Mark Tuchscherer of Geeks Chicago describes the woes of a client: "We had a client lose two years of leads and client data they were storing in an Excel sheet on a local PC that crashed." He recommended setting up a backup regime and said, "I'm pretty sure they learned after this."

No matter the size of your company, protecting your data is more than just an exercise. "Whether you're a CPA, a freelance photographer or a rising YouTube star, suffering from accidental data loss can be a career-ending event," says Patrick Deschere, marketing manager at storage vendor Synology. "Having a good backup strategy isn't about just protecting your files -- it's about protecting your livelihood."

Here's the TL;DR:

  • Backing up is critically important to the survival of your business.
  • You need to make multiple backups, using a variety of methods.

Types of backups

There are several backup strategies that will yield duplicate copies of your data in various places. Let's look at some of the tools and devices you might use.

Thumb drive: A USB stick can be carried around on your keychain. It's useful for making a quick backup of your work when you're out with your laptop. It's not ideal for long-term backup, but to make sure you have a second copy of the report you just wrote that's due tomorrow, it's a win.


The Drobo 5N is a RAID storage system for the connected home, home office or small office.


Second drive on your computer: Because drives (whether SSDs or spinning platters) fail, it's good to keep more copies. Making a second copy on your computer is convenient, but not without risk. If you have a failure in your system, power supply or motherboard, that event could damage your second drive, too.

External hard drive: Hard drives can sit in the closet for years and still boot. They're relatively inexpensive, portable and can easily be stored in a closet or bank vault.

Network RAID: RAIDs are boxes on your network that hold two or more drives, and constantly mirror your data. If one drive fails, you can rebuild the array to recover your data. These are also called NAS (for network-attached storage). Popular NAS devices are made by Drobo, Synology, QNAP and Western Digital.

Backup software: You can manually drag and drop copies of files to secondary drives, but a better approach is to use backup software that does it for you. Both Windows and Mac come with backup software. There are also add-on offerings like SyncBack Pro and GoodSync that allow you to use a lot of different storage media, including the cloud. Alternatively, you can back up full images of your hard drive with tools like Acronis True Image for the PC and SuperDuper! for the Mac.

Cloud backup: A great way of storing data offsite is in the so-called cloud, in big data centers run by some of the most respected companies in the tech industry. This option deserves a deeper dive.

Understanding the value of cloud backup

There are two ways to go with cloud backup: using cloud storage services such as Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Amazon Drive or iCloud. These services provide automatic file syncing to the cloud, usually from a specially designated folder on your desktop.

Cloud backup services such as those from Carbonite, BackBlaze and CrashPlan are more traditional backup providers. They provide automatic backup software that will back up your entire hard drive (or drives) to the cloud, often keeping multiple versions. Some of these services will even send you an external drive for recovery if you experience a failure.

All these cloud providers offer on-demand services with robust storage infrastructures, dedicated security professionals and the ability to scale to almost any level. They're often very cost-effective and easy to use.

I don't recommend relying solely on cloud services for your primary backup strategy, however. There are several reasons for this.

It can take a long time for files to transfer to and from cloud-based data centers. If you're creating large files (like 4K video), transferring those to the cloud is often impractical and can get costly.

You may not always be able to get to your cloud data. Robert Russo, CEO of coupon service PromotionCode, explained that when Hurricane Hermine struck in August 2016, it "knocked out our internet for a week. We learned the hard way about not having local backups on site. It's not enough to back up data to the cloud. You need to have a physical copy of anything crucial to day-to-day business available on a device you can access without a functioning internet connection."

Cloud vendors are businesses too, remember, and their interests may not always be perfectly aligned with yours. They may need to raise prices when you're not ready. They may change their policies in a way that's not compatible with your business. They may get bought or go out of business, rendering your backups inaccessible. Or they may be hacked or otherwise attacked.

3-2-1 and 'Off and Away' backup strategy

Most IT professionals recommend a "3-2-1 backup strategy". The idea is to have at least three copies of every file, two of which are on different physical devices, and one of which is located off-site.

Hardware fails, so it's clear why you'd want a copy of your data on different hardware. As for why you'd want a backup offsite, Rauel LaBreche, information services director at McFarlanes' Manufacturing, explains:

"One of our saving graces prior to a business fire in 2013 was that we had backups offsite, so the only data information we lost was from the day of the fire. I would caution every business to seriously consider implementing a business disaster plan that includes regularly replacing and storing backups offsite -- it's a small task that in return could save your business."

While the 3-2-1 approach is good, it can be improved upon. In a world where cyberattacks and natural disasters are prevalent, I recommend considering two more components in your overall strategy: off, and away.

The "off" strategy: Keep one backup in storage, powered off and not connected to anything. This protects you from situations like ransomware, where a virus propagates throughout a network and encrypts files, even your backups. If you have an unplugged, powered off, unconnected backup, it's safe.

The "away" strategy: I live in Florida, where we have hurricanes. While it's good to have an offsite backup, it's even better to have an offsite backup that's outside of your region. That way, if your entire state gets knocked back to the Stone Age, your data is still alive and available.

Cloud backup services are ideal for the away strategy. They often keep multiple copies of your data, and keep them in multiple data centers.

Be safe and be prepared

So, what's the best strategy? Every company has a different set of needs. Even if your business is small or new, you need as much protection as the bigger players, because you have just as much to lose: your business and your livelihood.