The past year has seen rapid changes for IT professionals in charge of data backup. Instead of being in complete control of local storage resources, backup has become a remote operation, with its management consoles and target storage resources both residing in the cloud. That means a new degree of data protection has become critical to supporting day-to-day business. Even companies that still require local, on-premises backups have had to pivot their strategies, since most of the workforce–and their data–has largely left the building. Cloud backup was once mainly for small businesses that needed a fully managed service; it’s now an essential consideration for businesses of all sizes.
According to a Spiceworks’ Data Storage Trends in 2020 and Beyond(Opens in a new window) survey, which closely examines the state of data and storage in business, cloud storage adoption will rise sharply. Already 39% of companies use cloud-based storage infrastructure, and an additional 20% are projected to adopt it by 2022.
(Editors’ Note: PCMag’s parent company owns Spiceworks Ziff Davis.)
Much of that is probably due to new working norms mandating remote offices, distributed teams, and hybrid work options for many employees. Protecting data in that scenario requires effective and reliable cloud backup services. However, the Spiceworks survey showed that many managers still have trouble trusting their data to the cloud, as security was still a big blocker to cloud adoption. Fewer than one-third of companies (31%) are as comfortable storing data in the cloud as they are storing it on-premises, which is naturally a problem for remote work solutions. That means your initial cloud backup investment will likely rise when you consider additional security measures, such as third-party malware scanners, ransomware protection, and virtual private networks (VPNs).
Backup Mergers Can Muck Up the Works
There’s been a fair amount of consolidation in the cloud backup space. Mozy Pro was acquired by Carbonite in 2018 and discontinued. Carbonite itself merged with OpenText in 2019 and revamped its offerings into home and business subscriptions. CloudBerry Lab is now being sold as MSP360. Even Editors’ Choice winner Arcserve changed its capabilities earlier this year when it absorbed StorageCraft, an acquisition allowing the company to revamp many of its business-class offerings.
Some new vendors primarily focus on all-in-one solutions aimed at small to midsized businesses (SMBs) that want to cover as much data protection ground as possible with a single purchase. Our other Editors’ Choice winner, Acronis, has moved in that direction as it now combines its excellent backup features with endpoint security and device management abilities.
Additionally, remote work scenarios have ensured that competition in the cloud backup space remains fervent. Many such companies are aiming their marketing campaigns directly at specific competitors. For example, Backblaze’s Business Backup service compares its features and pricing against CrashPlan Small Business and Carbonite. That kind of extreme marketing means you can trust vendor information even less than with other types of services. Only a thorough evaluation of a platform will let you know if it’s right for you, and that’s best done over 30 days, not the 14 that many vendors are offering.
Security of cloud data and transfers is a critical consideration for remote work, but it’s not the only consideration. That’s confirmed through a survey(Opens in a new window) recently conducted by market research firm, Statista(Opens in a new window). This shows that aside from security, backup performance, file-level recovery, and technical support are vital considerations for most IT buyers.
Most Important Cloud Backup and Storage Features for Business
What Exactly Is Cloud Backup?
Cloud backup services provide customers with access to shared, software-defined storage infrastructure. That essentially means storage that’s managed as a virtual resource. Using a virtual, software-defined architecture lets providers create a large storage pool and then parcel that out among their customers. Not only can they then manage the whole resource down to the byte level, but they can also use multi-tenant architectures to make sure accounts are entirely separate, so one customer’s data doesn’t “bump into” another’s.
Suppose your backup provider allows you to choose a third-party storage target. In that case, you’ll find that most such storage providers also sell infrastructure as a service (IaaS), like Amazon Web Services (AWS). However, while you can create servers in these clouds and use them as backup targets, most have dedicated storage services that look like network drives to users and software. That’s great from a flexibility standpoint. Be sure to factor the cost of these services into your overall backup pricing expectations.
The management tools a cloud backup vendor provides are generally based on the customer’s size and demand, changing bandwidth conditions, security requirements, and, in some cases, even variable data retention requirements. That last one means that the cloud vendor will automatically drop versions of a file or folder that are older than a time set by your IT administrator: any version that’s older than six months, for example.
Cloud backup providers can also let customers store frequently used data in fast-access locations. This can be anything from a data center owned by the provider closer to the customer’s office to a local storage resource at the customer’s site that can act as a middleman for backups. Like a network-attached storage (NAS) device, such a resource can store the most popular files and serve them up across a much faster local network than across the internet.
Each such storage tier is priced differently, and the backup tools provided by the cloud storage vendor can automate how your data moves between these tiers based on policies your IT staff controls. This is similar to the hierarchical storage strategies of old, but it’s much easier and happens entirely as a managed service. All you need to do is go through an initial setup process, and you’ll be able to get at your organization’s data from any internet-capable device. There’s no need for dedicated physical or virtual servers, expensive tape drives with proprietary (and often arcane) backup software, or offsite warehouse space where you store crates of essential tapes.
Follow The 3-2-1 Rule
For small to midsize businesses (SMBs), the cloud allows IT administrators to perform multiple backups more effectively than with clunky tape drives. Keeping multiple copies of critical company data is a no-brainer, especially if it’s easier and costs less. However, you should still follow best practices and one of the most popular is the 3-2-1 rule.
The 3-2-1 rule states that you should have three copies of your data at all times, that you keep those backed up on at least two different types of storage, and that at least one copy of that data is stored offsite. In the past, those aforementioned cumbersome tapes and hard drives made this difficult or, at best, tedious. Business cloud backup services make it much easier since they provide a separate and offsite target at a much lower price than, for example, renting warehouse space to store numerous shelves worth of old tapes. The more advanced players even let you choose between different data center locations or multiple data centers, which means you can implement a 3-2-1 architecture using only one vendor.
However, not all offerings are created equal. There is a dizzying array of devices that need to be backed up. Desktops, servers, mobile devices, and NAS boxes must be protected. Support is varied, and no single costing model gets every business to the right price point. Remote work has made this even more complicated if your company allows workers to use personal devices or home NASes and external hard disks. Every backup strategy is unique.
Aside from different levels of transfer performance, some vendors, like Backblaze Backup for Business and IDrive Team, offer more physical capabilities, like mailing subscribers an external hard drive that contains all the data of their latest backup. You can then store that data somewhere safe or just use it to restore it from a much faster local drive.
Account For Your Operating Systems
As mentioned, a key consideration for any business these days is how many and what kinds of devices a backup provider supports. After all, an excellent cloud backup service doesn’t do much good if it can’t protect all your data no matter where it lives, and that means looking beyond just standard desktops and servers. A robust solution should cover macOS and Windows machines alike. It should also be able to handle both Linux and Windows Server to protect your back office assets.
Then there’s that ever-growing and ever-changing mobility morass. Protecting data stored on mobile devices is fast becoming a must-have for an effective backup plan, and that’ll likely continue even after workers start returning to the office. Your provider should be able to handle both iOS and Android devices, especially if you’re using these platforms for more than just general users. A prime example would be a business that uses phones or tablets as a point of sale (POS) solution.
Virtual infrastructure is another important target for backup and data safety. In many cases, this will fall into two categories, even at the SMB level, where companies have virtual servers located both on-premises and in a public cloud service. The complication here is that while it’s all virtual infrastructure, cloud versus on-premises virtualized layers often need middleware tools to talk to each other. That might mean different backup clients, too. You’ll need to ensure that your cloud backup provider can support these requirements. Citrix Hypervisor, Microsoft Hyper-V, and VMware VSphere tend to be the most commonly used platforms for on-premises virtualization. At the same time, Amazon Web Services, the Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Azure are the most common cloud resources. Testing your backup service across whatever services your company is using should be an essential part of your evaluation process.
One of the major complaints about backup apps of old is that they were cumbersome and difficult to use. While many of our business cloud backup service providers have worked hard to change that, many solutions still have difficulty. The key here is twofold: First, the service should shield users (meaning your population of general workers) from any form of complexity. Backup clients should be as easy to use as possible and deploying them to client devices is best if it’s an automated, IT-controlled process. Second, complexity should not only be reserved for your IT staff. There should also be robust training tools and technical support to train those staffers properly. It’s possible to have too many choices, so be sure to evaluate competing apps carefully and weigh their complexity against your organization’s needs.
Most solutions offer both offline and cloud volume targets. This can be important if your company employs cloud-hosted software tools from managed cloud services. For example, you can run a Microsoft Exchange email server on-site, so you’ll need to back that server up. But you can also use a hosted email service, like Intermedia Hosted Exchange, where the service provider should be performing internal backups of their own. But, even if that’s the case, your IT staff may still want to back up the email data being hosted in that provider’s cloud so that you have some direct control. That’s especially important if your business is subject to certain regulatory conditions, like those imposed by HIPAA or SOX.
You’re looking for a complete set of day-to-day management tools for your backup provider’s dashboard. Not only for email, but also for that long list of cloud productivity tools so many companies are now using. By that, we’re talking about suite solutions like Google Workspace, Microsoft 365, or Zoho Docs; but we’re also talking about specialized tools that have now also moved to a cloud service model. That can cover everything from email marketing to your customer service desk. If you’re using these or any other cloud resource storing important data, you need to test how your backup provider integrates with these services.
Backup and Recovery
Testing the backup and recovery process also needs to include a performance component. Backup vendors use different approaches and features to affect this process. A popular method is called an incremental backup process. It’s popular because after the first backup, which is a long process since it backs up your whole data load to the cloud for the first time, all subsequent backups only store changes to files and folders, not a complete copy. That lowers bandwidth requirements, which prevents your network from choking. This might not be critical for a home worker, but it’s practically essential in a central office, especially if you’re employing continuous or near-continuous backups.
Recommended by Our Editors
Other controls might include bandwidth throttling, where the backup software can decrease or set the amount of bandwidth it’ll use. That will keep bandwidth needs low, too, but it’ll directly affect performance. You might also consider running backups over their own virtual LAN (VLAN) or using some form of Quality of Service (QoS). This will manage the bandwidth a backup operation uses, so you know those backups are happening.
IT professionals often describe backing up to the cloud as filling a swimming pool with a paper cup regardless of the method. While available bandwidth is rapidly catching up with the huge demands created by enormous data sets, the initial backup is usually the worst, and subsequent incremental backups are much easier and faster. Some vendors make that initial seeding process easier by first backing it up to an external hard drive at the customer’s site, which will be much faster since it’s on a local network. Then the customer ships that initial snapshot to the backup vendor, who then deploys it on their local network. Backups then start happening over the internet and are immediately incremental.
Restore performance is also critical. In the event of a disaster, customers generally need their data back fast. That means testing restoration performance, not only during your initial evaluation but regularly. If it takes days to download missing data from the cloud, that can translate directly to lost time and money.
Some vendors let you hedge your bets in this regard. If you’re worried the internet might not be fast enough or perhaps not even available after a disaster. Those vendors will ship you an external hard drive with the most current backup on a scheduled basis, like once per quarter or more. IT staff can then keep this drive safe and then use it if a cloud backup isn’t possible.
Security and Reporting
Just because an app can get your data into the cloud doesn’t mean it’s doing it safely. Encryption is an industry-standard practice, and you shouldn’t even consider any product that doesn’t take it seriously. Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption is the typical choice for all data transfers, whether you’re sending or receiving data. It dramatically minimizes the risk that a hacker can intercept and steal the information. That by itself isn’t enough, however. Once at the destination and deemed “at rest,” the data should be encrypted using the most potent form available. This will be some form of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) in most cases.
Also, you’ll likely have to ensure compliance with corporate policy, which is becoming a challenging task for mainstream IT departments. It’s now more important than ever that a quick overview of compliant systems is available to a backup administrator. Ransomware is a growing security threat affecting everything from small businesses to city services. These threats along with remote workers and disgruntled employees could wipe data at a moment’s notice. It’s vital to ensure that you can establish accountability and make sure it’s enforced and regularly tested. A well-designed dashboard can help make that difference.
Reporting on the state of your backup process and stored data is another must. Sometimes out-of-the-box reports might not quite fit your expectations or needs, so a vendor that lets you design custom reports is a good choice. While it’s not an absolute necessity, this can be key to tying a backup app into a more giant data warehouse, and it’s also vital if your company has to track any compliance metrics. Again, testing the reporting functionality of your cloud backup provider should be part of your initial evaluation process.
Balancing Your Backup Choices
It takes a good deal of homework to pick your organization’s best cloud backup service. It requires you to balance the product’s reliability, how easily it’s configured, as well as its price, security, and usability. Smaller teams and startups have different requirements than enterprises, and we’re now seeing more choices than ever for both camps.
The move to remote and hybrid work certainly complicates things, even more so now that companies are beginning to realize that these measures will become permanent for many workers. Remote work makes backups more complex, not just for saving important documents and files, but for securing them in transit and at rest and across a more comprehensive array of target devices.
With storage vendors offering backup and a variety of file sharing features, incorporating your vendor resource into cross-site collaboration is another consideration that’ll need testing. It’s becoming a popular new feature that vendors use to differentiate themselves, but capabilities can vary widely. And you’ll also need to see how those features play with any other collaboration tools you might be using.
While our Editors’ Choice winners represent the best overall value for the broadest swath of business customers, when you’re shopping for your solution, it’s essential to consider your particular organization’s needs and risk profile. In the end, the best cloud backup service will be the one that most closely matches your needs, and the only way to ensure that is to test it directly against those requirements. And not just once, but on a regular schedule that should happen several times a year.
Have any questions about how to approach cloud backup? Join the [email protected](Opens in a new window) discussion group on LinkedIn and you can ask vendors, other professionals like yourself, and PCMag’s editors.