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Although online data backup is more widely known now than ever before and has grown with the advent of broadband access, many don't really know what if any differences exist between the services on offer. As with all products and services they do differ widely in useful features and price.

This article aims to help those considering online backup make a more informed decision rather than opting for the cheapest service they can find and suffering later….

First a high level recap on how online backup works. Users download a “thin” client (a small computer program) onto their PCs, laptops and/or servers and configure it to select files they want backed up. These selected files are then backed up by clicking a “back up now” button or by setting a schedule to automatically backup the files at a given time.

Simple and straight forward. However, as a recent national PC magazine pointed out, the services available aren’t all the same and have very different features and levels of support – which is normally critical for most products and services. In the next few words I’ll point out some of the differences so you don’t get caught out with a “good deal” that doesn’t offer you the protection or hassle free service you expected to get.

Reliability and handling of the Thin Client
The thin client is a good place to start as it is the “control centre” for online backup operations. The client should be easy to use and intuitive. A single click “backup now” button should exist and it should be just as easy to restore files as required.

Fundamental options in the thin client should enable users to trade off the level of file compression against the speed of compression and include options for controlling the maximum size of files allowed to be backed up.

Not all services have clients that are easy to use and by the time you’re done trying to use them you are longing to return to more risky traditional backup methods. Make sure you choose a service with a no obligation/free trial to test out the client.

Also aim for a well supported thin client if you want the best protection for critical files. For real peace of mind you’ll need to know the client is always being updated, improved and debugged / tested with new operating systems.

File Selection
File selection should be simple and straight forward and is one of the most important aspects of the service. Users should be able to select a whole folder without having to select each individual file. This is very important as some of the cheaper services don’t offer this. When a folder is fully selected, all subsequent files placed in the folder should automatically be included in the backup set. Conversely it is extremely useful to be able to select a whole folder and then deselect certain files.

Imagine the hassle of having to select all new files individually before backing up? This would be far more hassle than using a CD or Tape backup. Due to human error users are more likely to miss files and potentially be miss informed about which files are backed up. Individual file only selection providers are not suitable for backing up servers (see below).

Finally it should be possible to select multiple groups of files (backup sets) and set a different schedule for each of them if need be. For example, group files that don’t change much into file set A and those that change each day into set B. Run an automatic daily schedule for group A and a weekly schedule for group B.

Exclude / Include Filters
Filters are really a sub topic of File Selection. Exclude filters enable users to specify which files they don’t want backed up even if they would have normally been selected automatically in a folder.

I have seen users save vast amounts of space using exclude filters by excluding all “.tmp” files. This feature is important in that it will save you money. Other common files excluded are .mp3 files and some of the spurious “~*.*” files produced by windows.

Include filters perform the opposite function. They can be used to specify, for example, all *.doc and *.xls files to include all word documents and Excel files respectively.

Log Reports and Notification
One of the key benefits of an online backup service can be the peace of mind one gains form knowing all files have been backed up. A service which provides log reports for each individual file is essential if you want such peace of mind. Many have backed up onto tape, CD, DVD, etc only to find some files weren’t copied properly – despite receiving a general “OK” message when files were copied.

Notification by email is the most common form of alert. Services which enable email notification on error only, or on failures give more flexibility than the low end services that don’t offer notification of any sort.

Some providers also proactively monitor all accounts and contact users if there hasn’t been a backup for a given period.

Support Servers or not?
Some of the top names in online data backup have a different pricing structure for server support. Some don’t publish prices for backing up from servers and others show tiered pricing. Server support is obviously higher for providers who offer separate server pricing. The best value is obtained from providers who offer a single client suitable for Desktops, PCs and servers. After all you never know when the use of a computer might change.

As some online backup services are not suitable for supporting servers it is important to understand your needs at the outset. The online backup providers who don’t offer automatic file selection will not be suitable for supporting servers so watch out!

Support, Support Support
Once up and running a good reliable service shouldn’t need much support if any. However, the service must be set up correctly in the first place and user needs/situations change so support is of tantamount importance – as with most if not all products and services.

Some providers only offer email

or “web” support. Others don’t offer phone support beyond a certain level of expenditure. The better providers offer web, phone and email support and remote dial in support. It is easy to see why remote dial in support is the best – an expert is at hand to ensure the best possible configuration / trouble shooting.

Make sure you find out whether support costs extra or is included. Some providers do charge extra which can be a way of showing an artificial storage price – support is recommended for all users otherwise your service may be compromised and peace of mind disturbed.

Finally as users are charged for the amount of data they are backing up, it is very useful to know how much space you have on the server. Providers will automatically move users to the next charging level so keeping in contact with the amount of data stored at will helps users manage their accounts. Does the provider you’re considering offer this facility?

Contract – how long are you tied in for?
As with all subscription based services, users will either be tied in for a minimum period or will be able to cancel with one months notice. Not much more to be said than make sure you have read the small print and understand the terms and conditions.

If you are not happy with the service or your situation changes do you really want to be tied in for 12 months?

Incremental backup
This feature is also essential and most providers offer it. However, not all providers offer the latest Fast Binary Incremental Technology (FastBIT) for incremental backup. Using FastBIT will ensure you receive a highly efficient service rather than a clunky inaccurate operation.

Being able to configure how the FastBIT incremental backup operates is also highly desirable. Flexibility is key for tailoring the service to your requirements.

Retrieving Several File Histories
This feature really separates professional from low end services – the ability to retrieve a file from a previous backup session which you no longer have on your PC/laptop/server.

For example, suppose you create a file called “joe.doc” and save it on day 1. You then make changes on day 2, day 3 and day 4 – each time saving the file under its original name. A professional service offering multiple file history retrieval will enable users to recovery copies of joe.doc as saved on day 1, day 2 up to and including day 4. As a large amount of data is deleted accidentally or corrupted by viruses etc this feature is extremely useful for ensuring maximum protection and minimum disruption.

Do be careful of providers who store file histories for long periods in order to charge more for storage. Each file history takes up a finite amount of storage – the more you store the more storage used, the more you pay. Fourteen days is a good compromise. A good provider will enable this figure to be tailored to individual needs.

Web Based Restore
This feature allows users to restore their data from any computer connected to the internet in the world. It has proved to be very popular for travellers and those who work from home or various different offices.

Web based restore works by downloading users data after correct entry of username and password. It’s that simple. A group of users or a department can share an account and hold common files in one place with common access.

Others have used web based restore to transfer data from one place to another without copying onto more risky media such as CD/DVD/etc.

Some providers don’t offer web based restore at all while other charge extra. Make sure you know what you are / aren’t getting at the outset and any additional costs for web based restore.

Encryption is performed on all your data before it leaves your PC/server/laptop.
Encryption is pretty standard although some services don’t offer the highest level of encryption at 448 bits.

Back Office Storage Centre
You won’t normally get to see the back office but you should ask where it is and be confident that physical security as well as multiple storage industry standard disks are being used. The chances are that the back office is an order of magnitude less likely to suffer loss than your own PC/laptop/server.

Also ensure that size of the data link into the server isn’t going to be a bottle neck. This shouldn't be an issue but it is always worth checking.

An acceptable back office will be equipped with uninterruptible power supplies and environmental control mechanisms such as temperature and humidity etc.

CD / DVD Archiving
Archiving is an additional service which enables CD / DVD copies of your data to be mailed to you. Many users who have web based restore don’t need to use CD / DVD archiving or they can produce the CD/DVD themselves. This service is normally always an additional cost – around £15 - £20 for the first CD. Subsequent CDs should be a few pounds less.

Hope this comprehensive article is of use. Whilst “good value” and “bad value” services always exist, in the end you’ll probably get what you pay for. The purpose of online data backup is to offer a higher level of security for your data than traditional CD/DVD/Tapes/etc – without which you, your business or your customers might suffer. This article aims to ensure you are a little more aware of what to look for if and when choosing such a service.

Feel free to contact me if you have any more questions.

Best wishes,

Olu Odeniyi

About the Author

Olu Odeniyi is a business leader and strategist who has gained acute technical and commercial experience working with blue chips and smaller companies. Having exceeded objectives working for companies such as British Aerospace and Nortel Networks, Olu has consistently demonstrated his tenacity for achieving results in applying technology to real world problems.


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