5 Things MSPs Need to Know About Backups
Backup and Disaster Recovery (BDR) is an entirely different skill set which builds on standard IT knowledge. You have to have a certain level of basic IT understanding to implement a BDR solution for a client, but you also have to know about how the BDR process works to make it efficient. A little bit of understanding can go a long way for putting all of the parts together.
This article covers some of the basics that any MSP needs to know about Backup and Disaster Recovery in order to understand the process. There’s more to it than just grabbing a solution and slapping it onsite. There are a plethora of options, and very few of them compete in the exact same space. There are also technical considerations which are required to make the solution work as intended.
How Should You Migrate Backups?
Migrating data is one of the most painful parts of the backup and restoration process. Data migration happens when you’re either moving solutions, restoring from backup, or backing up a backup. The source is as important as the process.
Backing up a backup tends to be the least time constrained of the three. A cold backup or similar is typically for security rather than necessity. This is where you backup the backup to the cloud or similar for redundancy. If you don’t use a cloud solution, this can be done via a simple external drive (not ideal), or a separate NAS appliance on the network. It’s best to try and convert the backup to the ideal form for separate storage at this stage. If the secondary solution doesn’t work with SQL servers, run a manual database backup and back that up. The easier it is to work with the backup of a backup, the better. You’ll need it when you least expect it.
Restoring from backup is going to be constrained by time. You want to focus on speed at this point since every second the client is down hurts their business, and potentially your relationship with them. If they use a cloud solution and have a slow connection, can you take a drive and physically restore it off-site with a faster connection? This is the step to pull out the stops for.
Moving solutions is the more nuanced migration path. You need to get the backups out of one format, and into another which is usually time intensive. Time constraints hinge on the reason for the migration. If the previous solution failed, then it might be a bit more urgent than something with a nice handover. What do you do when one of these situations happen?
What Makes Legacy Data Hard to Work With?
We know there are still people using floppies out in the wild. Older technologies don’t die until the last media or device does. Even tape is still alive and kicking (more often than it should).
You’re going to run into clients who don’t know about media degradation, or just won’t spend the money to change how things are done. The drives have been there for 10 years, they should be fine, right? Moving a client like that requires more momentum than usual.
Tape, while dated, is also extremely efficient when done right, but it’s also extremely expensive. You need to fight the momentum to “get their money’s worth” and a format which has lasted decades as an IT mainstay. The problem is when they refuse to upgrade a decades old machine and parts are scarce.
There are still places which use burned CDs and DVDs to store software versions, and places with old floppies in their drawers. What does their business still potentially rely on in a rare scenario? The data on old floppies may win a lawsuit, but only if they’re readable. I’ve been in a spot where the data on an old floppy made the difference between a deal being a good idea or a bad one, but I had to have the tools and the know-how to get the data off.
A USB floppy reader isn’t much, but a tape machine is. Some formats require special knowledge to troubleshoot. You have a cost for hardware, but one for knowledge too. The skills don’t really transfer either.
On top of all of this, backing up data is good, but you have to be able to use the data later. What do you do if nothing can read the data? Are these elements factored into your BDR plan?
What’s the Difference: Cloud, On-Premise, or Hybrid?
Each solution has its own mix of advantages and weaknesses. Comparing a cloud and an on-premise solution can feel like comparing apples and oranges, so the hybrid approach just buys both. This is fine if you have the money, but breaks down if you don’t. It also breaks down if there aren’t compatible solutions.
Cloud solutions are best in locations with low requisite data to function, and/or high bandwidth. The lower the bandwidth and the higher the amount of necessary data, the less realistic the cloud gets. Though, it’s still ideal as an alternative or off-site backup even on slower connections. These solutions tend to be most costly on a month by month scenario, but what is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO)?
On-premise solutions are solid choices traditionally, but they suffer from several concerns. You have a higher initial cost for a lower maintenance cost. You also take ownership of the risk when a drive pops or a surge happens. When the site’s down (power, internet, etc.), your backup solution is too. Some cloud solutions can be rigged to get a VM or at least file-share running elsewhere to limp along.
Hybrid solutions combine the benefits of an on-premise solution with a cloud solution. The cost is primarily financial. You have to maintain an on-premise device, the service for it, and a cloud solution. The major benefit is that you provide a substantially better backup solution with more flexibility and redundancy.
Which Is Better: Cloud, On-Premise, or Hybrid?
Each of these solutions is different, but none of them are objectively better. The cloud solution trades local networking access for a more resilient medium. This solution also relies on an app or similar to sync, so the average ransomware attack is typically useless against the backups. A backup is a backup.
On-premise solutions are typically faster, more robust failovers, but also suffer from being physical devices onsite. If a drive pops, it’s on you to fix. If it’s vulnerable to certain attacks, ransomware may take both your client and their backup in one swoop.
Hybrid approaches get the best of both worlds, but at the cost of maintaining multiple solutions. Some vendors like Unitrends offer hardware programs to offload some of this cost, but no matter who you use, a hybrid approach is going to be more than any single approach. Not every vendor offers both either.
The best solution is the one which works the best for you and, more importantly, your client. While this seems commonsense, it requires you to know what works best for your client rather than just what works for you. Some solutions are more flexible than others, but some are definitely one-trick ponies.
What does their internet connection look like? Do they have usable hardware or is an on-premise solution an additional expense? How much data do they typically use, how much do they need, and how much is it worth to ensure access? There’s a continuous cost-benefit analysis which needs to be done to decide the best solution. To top it all off, how much is it worth to them, and you, to learn to deal with this solution?
What Are the Big Pitfalls Between On-Premise and Cloud Solutions?
Hybrid solutions round off the problems of either by buying their way out, but what is the real difference between the individual pieces? What gotchas are there for on-premise versus the cloud? Each solution is different, but there are inherent differences between the cloud and on-premise solutions.
What bandwidth is available? The more bandwidth the site has, the more practical a cloud solution is. One thing many backup specialists forget about is the cost in terms of time and money to restore a backup. Slow uploads with slow changes can mask the cost of a slow download.
How much data is required to function? The more data is necessary the more an on-premise solution makes sense. You can physically pull a hard drive but you can’t really pull a drive out of the cloud. Some businesses build off of terabytes for their day-to-day operations, others only need a little bit. Where is your client?
Money is another concern. A business can’t function without IT, but they’ll cut corners unless it hurts enough. IT is viewed as an expense to most businesses. Can you move them if the cloud is the wrong answer for backups but it’s cheaper?
While each of these factors has an effect, what do you do when a client is a mismatch of bad for both solutions? A combination of a site with slow bandwidth, bad infrastructure, security issues, low budget, and a high amount of data is not going to fit either an on-premise or cloud solution. While this sounds like a nightmare, they still want to eat their cake and have it too. How you plan for this can be the difference between signing a client and losing them.
How Do You Sell Backups?
Very few people realize the value of a backup until they need one. Techs tend to experience this earlier than many career paths, but there are lucky people who’ve never truly felt this lesson. You don’t realize the value of an eraser until you make a mistake.
A client which has lucked out on every disaster will be harder to sell to. The desire for a backup comes from the understanding of what happens without data or an encounter with the solution itself. You don’t need a client to experience disaster to know they need backups (but it helps).
Ransomware runs rampant waiting for the next vulnerability and bit of luck to stick. Hard drives, tapes, etc. die with age. Even the wrong user can break everything if they hit the wrong thing. You need to do is make your client aware of this risk and how it impacts them.
Very few businesses say no to a backup after their first disaster. The problem is that very few stay in business after their first major disaster. We aren’t dealing with fear mongering; we’re looking to prevent catastrophic risk.
It’s one thing to not have insurance for a car you own, it’s a different thing to drive without it. When your client tries to operate without backups, they’re driving their employees and clients around without insurance. You’ll be fine until you aren’t. The more data you need, the worse off you are in a crash.
Backups aren’t just a good idea; they’re insurance against the technical unknown in many respects. Sell your clients on the benefits of backups by understanding what makes their business work. IT isn’t a service, it’s a utility. How do you keep your client from destroying themselves without breaking the bank?