October 07, 2008, 11:16 AM — A data storage crash is the last thing a collision-repair shop needs to worry about. So when John Sweigart realized that the software he was using to manage his business was no longer compatible with the way he was backing up data, he knew it was time for a different option.
The Body Shop, a Garnet Valley, Pa.-based company that has four locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has hundreds of records, including images that are kept on file for appraisers and insurers for at least a year. "It's tons of information, and we've had occasions where the server's crashed and we lost data,'' says Sweigart, principal of The Body Shop. "We have paper files, but we still have to go back and re-create the electronic files."
Since his business has multiple pieces of software to back up and no internal IT staff, Sweigart decided to outsource what had become a headache. He chose Verio Inc., a software-as-a-service (SaaS) backup provider. For US$29 per location per month, The Body Shop has automatic backup of all its disk drives and servers every night.
Before switching to SaaS backup, each Body Shop location kept tapes on hand that an employee had to back up and take home at night. "It turned into such a comprehensive process, and you had to make sure it was done right every night and that someone was actually taking [the tape],'' says Sweigart. "We had an incredible sense of paranoia doing all this extra work, and we needed a better option."
Data backup continues to be a challenge -- at small and midsize businesses in particular -- because it requires a multifaceted infrastructure of backup software, networks, servers, disk arrays and tape systems. Many companies have trouble completing backups in the allotted time, and a significant number of backups fail or complete with errors. Often, companies don't protect machines at remote locations because of the hassle, so there are gaps in backup coverage.
Because of issues like these, more companies are turning to SaaS backup providers, which support and maintain a variety of applications over the Internet without requiring their clients to invest in any servers or install any software on-site.
"Companies are feeling more comfortable with the concept of buying services out of the cloud,'' notes Carl Howe, an analyst at Yankee Group Research Inc. in Boston. "I think there's a perception that if it's good enough for Google, it's good enough for me."
Another reason to offload data backup to a SaaS system is the low cost, which can start at $4.95 per month. But Howe points out that one of the hidden costs of SaaS backup is that companies still have to have a broadband connection and the time to push the data to the service provider.
Using an off-site provider to archive data is not without risks; for instance, the vendors themselves have been known to experience outages. Howe says that prospective customers need to do their due diligence and find out whatever they can about the provider, including how secure their information will be and how long it will take to recover data when needed. They should also ask about service history with other customers to help determine the stability of the provider and whether it's likely to remain in business over the long term.
Most providers offer backup services on a month-to-month basis. But Howe notes that changing providers may not be as simple as it sounds, so companies should also ask for clear terms: How long is the data kept? Where is it stored? Does it cross national boundaries? Can customers get documented confirmation that the data won't be released?
A pricing guarantee is crucial, too -- if you can get one. "You're a tenant at will, and they can change the terms and you as a business have to accept that those terms will change over time,'' Howe says. "But there's no harm in asking about future pricing trends."
Sweigart says backup is the only IT function he has outsourced, and he has no idea where his data is stored. What's more important to him is the sense of relief he feels coming to the shop in the morning and seeing a message that the backup was successful. "There's incredible peace of mind that the [data] is going out every night,'' he says.
Companies that must comply with stringent regulatory requirements, however, need to know where and how their data is stored.
For example, Gene Goroschko, vice president of information systems at Physicians Endoscopy LLC in Doylestown, Pa., says, "Being a medical facility, [backups] are a regulatory requirement, not just a good idea. If there's a disaster, we want to be able to recover medical data regardless of what happened to the facility."
Physicians Endoscopy, which builds and manages ambulatory surgery centers, has 13 facilities around the country, plus a corporate office. Before the company turned to an online service, backup was a manual process. Goroschko's group shipped tapes to each facility, and then each facility contracted with a storage provider in its area. But since the facilities are geographically dispersed, the main office didn't have a good indication of whether the tapes were being handled properly, whether any were lost, or even whether a full system backup was being performed every night.
"Online backup has obviously been around for quite a while, and we decided to try it out,'' starting with the corporate office, Goroschko says.
He notes that he was surprised by the lack of response from some companies when Physicians Endoscopy asked how well protected its data would be. It evaluated several vendors and chose MozyPro from EMC Corp. about a year ago. Physicians Endoscopy pays a monthly charge of $6.95 for each server, plus $1.75 per gigabyte per month.
Goroschko was concerned about the feasibility of remotely backing up several hundred megabytes of data daily; the corporate office alone would be handling that much. In addition, since the company has mobile employees, it operates almost around the clock, so off-site backup had to share bandwidth with 10 or 11 workers.
"One of the things we liked about the Mozy system is that it can throttle back or control how much bandwidth is used,'' Goroschko says.
The software allows Physicians Endoscopy to set the hours and amount of data sent. "That wasn't a feature we thought about ahead of time, but it turns out it was the feature we couldn't live without," Goroschko adds.
Today, all of Physicians Endoscopy's facilities except one are doing remote backup through MozyPro. The IT department has a Web-based master account that continuously provides the backup status of each location.
In some cases, backup SaaS comes as a feature of another type of Web-based application. Health First Inc. discovered this when it began using a remote application so nurses could schedule their shifts electronically. Although the health care system's internal IT group takes care of backing up other data for the three hospitals it serves in east central Florida, the scheduling application is backed up by Concerro Inc.
"Once we were aware that this is how this service is delivered, it was frankly a relief," says Jan McCoy, chief nursing officer at Cape Canaveral Hospital, part of the Health First system. "With the hurricane situation we have here, it's good to know the data is protected and we have it when we need it."
But old habits die hard, and even with someone else handling backup concerns, some companies still rely on the manual approach. Physicians Endoscopy hasn't completely given up on the tape-based method, although it has scaled it back to once a week. Says Goroschko, "We're of the strong opinion you can never have too many backups."