Online backup or cloud recovery?

Backing up files and data online has been around for quite a while, but it has never really taken off in a big way for business customers. There is also a new solution coming onto the market which uses “the cloud” for backup and recovery of company data. While these two approaches to disaster recovery appear to be similar, there are some significant differences as well. Which one would be right for you?

“Cloud recovery” can be a nebulous term, so I would define it based on the solution having the following features:

1. The ability to recover workloads in the cloud.
2. Effectively unlimited scalability with little or no up-front provisioning.
3. Pay-per-use billing model.
4. An infrastructure that is more secure and more reliable than the one you would build yourself.
5. Complete protection – i.e. non-expert users should be able to recover everything they need, by default.
If a solution does not meet up to these five criteria, then it should be called an online backup product. This may be right for your business, but typically they require more IT knowledge and are based on specific resources.

There is an old saying in the data protection business that the whole point of backing up is preparing to restore. Having a backup copy of your data is important, but it takes more than a pile of tapes (or an on-line account) to restore. You might need a replacement server, new storage, and maybe even a new data centre, depending on what went wrong.

Traditionally, you would either keep spare servers in a disaster recovery data centre, or suffer a period of downtime while you order and configure new equipment. With a cloud recovery solution, you don’t want just your data in the cloud, you want the ability to actually start up applications and use them, no matter what went wrong in your own environment.

The next area where cloud recovery can provide a better level of protection is around provisioning. Even using online backup systems, organizations would have to use replacement servers in the event of an outage. The whole point of recovering to the cloud is that they already have plenty of servers and additional capacity on tap. If you need more space to cope with a recovery incident, then you can add this to your account. Under this model, your costs are much lower than building the DR solution yourself, because you get the benefit of duplicating your environment without the upfront capital cost.

Removing the up-front price and long-term commitment shifts the risk away from the customer, and onto the vendor. The vendor just has to keep the quality up to keep customers loyal, which requires great service and efficient handling of customer accounts. The cloud recovery provider takes on all the management effort and constant improvement of infrastructure that is required. A business without in-house staff that are familiar with business continuity planning may ultimately be much better off paying a monthly fee to someone who specialists in this area.

One area where cloud providers may be held to account is around security and reliability, but I think they hold the providers to the wrong standard. In the end, you have to compare the results that a cloud services provider can achieve, the service levels that they work to, and the cost comparison to doing it yourself. The point is that security and reliability are hard, but they are easier at scale. Companies like Amazon and Rackspace do infrastructure for a living, and do it at huge scale. Amazon’s outages get reported in news, but how does this compare to what an individual business can achieve?

The last area where cloud recovery can deliver better results is through usability and protecting everything that a business needs. While some businesses know exactly what files should be protected, most either don’t have this degree of control, or have got users into the habit of following standard formats or saving documents into specific places. The issues that people normally get bitten by are with databases, configuration changes and weird applications that only a couple of people within the organization use. Complete protection means that all of these things can be protected without requiring an expert in either your own systems, or with the cloud recovery solution.

Cloud means so many different things to so many people, that it sometimes seems not to mean anything at all. If you are going to depend on it to protect your data, it had better mean something specific. These five points may not cover every possible protection goal, but they set a good minimum standard.

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