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In the third of a series of articles regarding backing up your organisation’s data, we discuss the benefits, issues and caveats when backing up your data to Cloud based service providers. While Cloud backups provide a convenient and cost-effective way to back up your data securely, some limitations and not so obvious gotchas also apply.

Just what is the cloud, anyway?

There’s no escaping the hyperbole surrounding the cloud and vendors constant assurances you need to be involved, and yesterday. However, the marketing jargon usually serves to obscure, rather than clear up, exactly what the cloud is and what benefits it offers.

In a nutshell, when using a cloud-based service (like a backup system, or Office 365 for example) instead of the servers being located in your office you are accessing systems running software, and storing your data, via the internet as if the internet itself was an extension of your local network. These systems are located in your service providers premises and could be based anywhere in the world – or several places if they are sensible enough not to have all of the digital eggs in one basket.

What does this mean for me?

This means the service provider takes care of managing the physical systems and also the software that you use, and looks after your data as well. This is the main advantage of cloud-based systems – you no longer have to purchase, house and manage equipment and software as this is taken care of remotely for you by the service provider - eliminating the up-front costs and allowing you to scale up effortlessly as your requirements grow.

As long as you have a good and reliable enough internet connection for the services you are consuming, then your in-house technical requirements diminish and your capital costs become operational ones, and tend to scale linearly with your usage. Generally, cloud services are a good thing - if you know what you are doing, and what goes bump in the night...

So how does “the cloud” help with backups?

One of the most important aspects of backups is that they are kept off-site and that they run reliably all of the time. Pushing your backed-up data into the cloud, on the surface at least, makes perfect sense. Your cloud backup provider is responsible for ensuring the backup services are always available and by its very nature the data you are backing up is being stored elsewhere immediately as it is successfully backed up, usually in a different country.

It also significantly helps to reduce costs. A good tape backup system can cost thousands, or tens of thousands, and whilst they are very reliable and have a huge capacity, tape backup regimes still need to be managed in-house and you are still left with the issue of transporting and storing the backed-up data securely off-site.

It would seem the Cloud offers a solid alternative to traditional backup methods (tape, direct to disk, replication etc), as long as you take into account a long list of issues that most of the Cloud providers don’t want you to think too much about.

Advantages of cloud backups

  • Cost. Usually low cost, with flat linear cost increments as your demands increase
  • Simplicity. Most backup systems are deliberately easy to set up and manage
  • Offsite storage. Backups are stored offsite by default
  • Access to your backups from anywhere. You don’t need to access and restore the data from your current location, essential in the event of a disaster
  • Low to no technical administration
  • No costly onsite hardware to purchase or maintain.

However, these are the things you need to bear in mind. And it’s not a short list.

  • You lose control over backup hardware and software quality, and the backup process itself. In some cases, this may create data privacy, compliance or security risks. For example, data that is stored in the cloud is generally easier for attackers to access than data that is stored locally and not connected to the Internet. You are reliant on several service providers in a chain to all make sure they are doing what they are supposed to, consistently, and using high quality hardware and secure, maintained software.
  • Speed. Cloud backups and data restores are usually slower because uploading and downloading data over the internet takes a lot longer – the internet connection may be 10 or 100 times slower than your network speeds, and your service provider may further throttle connection speeds to ensure all its clients can access their data. Restoring large volumes of data can take days or even weeks.
  • Passing risk. Unless you back up to multiple clouds or cloud regions (which is costlier and more complicated) all of your cloud-based backup data exists in a single site. To avoid this, don’t opt for the cheapest unknown backup storage provider you can find. Amazon, Microsoft and Google replicate your data inside their storage facilities across multiple sites so if one copy is lost, you would be still able to recover your data.
  • Its messy moving. If you accidentally delete data from you network, it’s very unlikely that any cloud service provider will store your data securely for the length of time required by your compliance obligations - further exacerbated by the possibility of changing suppliers at some point leaving you with data trails in different places. You will need to ensure a complete and smooth transfer of all of your historical and live data. Having a plan in place to manage the process of leaving your cloud backup provider is as important as having one to start using them.
  • Small number of reliable suppliers. If you use a less well-known supplier, should they go bust and disappear your backups could disappear too.
  • Check the small print. Many service providers don’t actually manage the service, and absolve themselves of any responsibility should one of many different things go wrong and no one notices. They can limit their liability and responsibility to the extent that any Service Level Agreements are practically worthless, and leave you to ensure that your backups are running ok.
  • Cost. You need to check the volume of data moving, in, out and being stored in your backups to get a clear picture of the total cost as the very low (pence) per Gigabyte costs for actually storing the data can be misleading if you don’t have a full understanding of the complete cost picture.
  • Compliance obligations – location. You need to ensure that the data you place into the cloud, whether in a backup or as part of a service you use online, doesn’t contravene any compliance obligations you have as to allowing data to leave the UK or EU. Many cloud service companies use low-cost datacentres all over the world to save money, however many companies are required to keep their data within certain geographic boundaries.
  • Compliance obligations – historical data retention. Nearly all organisations have a duty to retain their historical records for a defined period, usually around seven years. If you change cloud backup providers make sure this continuity is maintained and ensure all of your historical data, including data deleted from your network but deep frozen in your online backups, is also carried across. A simple live copy of your data in the cloud is not a backup.

What if my data is already in the cloud in a service I subscribe to?

Don't be caught out by assuming other cloud services are taken care of - still back them up. Many make the assumption that because their data, whether emails, files, or other data, is “in the cloud” that it is completely safe. Surely the cloud service provider has all your backup needs covered? It’s true that the service provider will have some level of backup in place, however, you really shouldn't take this for granted. There are a couple of things to bear in mind:

  • The service provider may only perform backups in case of disaster recovery, to reinstate your and all their other clients’ data should hardware fail or other disaster befall them. They may not be amenable to restoring individual items of individual client’s data deleted by a user in error, for example.
  • The basic backup maxim is that you can’t rely on anyone else to ensure your data is properly backed up
  • Test and ensure access to your data. If you subscribe to cloud services, whether they be one of the household names such as Google, Salesforce or Microsoft, or a lesser known provider of some niche services, all too often people rely on the service provider to look after their data and they assume that regular, and high quality, backups are kept. This is usually the case, but there are many reasons why having your own independent backup is also a very good idea. Unfortunately, it’s not always straightforward to get access to your data in a manner that will allow you to conveniently make backups that you can take out of the service and store wherever you want to.
  • It’s better to have total control over your backed-up data and create and store your backups yourself. That way you know they were carried out properly, are available when needs be, are stored securely for the requisite amount of time and it will facilitate easier migration between suppliers, helping you avoid being locked-in if you know you can get your data back out again.

This is one of the main criticisms levelled at cloud services, that your data can be ‘locked in’ to the service provider in question. Should you want to move to a different service provider, or for offline use or analysis, or in case the service provider goes bust and takes your data with them, you need to be sure how you can get your data out at any time and in a format that allows you to use it elsewhere. If not readily, then at least with some practical manipulation.

Conclusion

Consider cloud backup systems as a very valuable additional resource, however, be sure to weigh up considerations such as where your data is physically stored by the cloud backup provider, how reputable the company involved is, how easy is it to restore your data elsewhere and any hidden costs involved in using the system. Often there can be a complicated and granular charging structure which makes moving data in and out again very expensive, making casual use of the system prohibitively costly.

Some systems have a slower ‘deep storage’ model whereby access to data out of the system can take some time, not appropriate if you have users expecting fast access to deleted files. Also, you need to consider the speed and capacity of your internet connectivity, and whether you can practically back up your quantity of data.

Backing up to the cloud is a convenient, low cost way to protect your data however you need to consider  all the factors involved, and determine whether it is a complimentary rather that an alternate way of safeguarding your enterprise.

Alongside its best of breed London IT support service, EC2 IT also specialises in secure, reliable and scalable backup solutions incorporating the best of on-premise tape and disk-based solutions and cloud-based storage, working with the industry leading cloud vendors for storage, data transport and systems – get in touch if you would like us to design and implement the optimum solution for your business.