I recently heard the story of a CIO who arrived at a remote branch office one morning and asked somebody to show him the office’s backup process. “No problem,” came the reply, “we have a tape drive here in the building, we keep four daily backup tapes in a safe onsite and every day a courier collects four duplicate tapes to store offsite…”

But the CIO said that he didn’t want to be told about the process, he wanted to be physically walked through every stage. So the staff member took the CIO to the safe, opened it up and, with a red face, tried to explain why there were only three tapes inside instead of four.

This is a very small scale example of the kind of backup related hiccups like this happen every day in thousands of companies across the UK, often much larger and with even more serious consequences. And while we all know backup is important, the simple truth is that it often gets neglected as other more pressing issues take priority.

One missing backup tape probably doesn’t seem like such a big problem, until you start asking questions like “What data was stored on that tape, and who has it now?” Perhaps the tape contains commercially sensitive information, or the credit card numbers and personal details of your customers. Suddenly, the situation seems a lot more urgent.

It’s not uncommon for businesses to be using backup systems that are under-specified or otherwise inappropriate for the task that’s required of them.

Because the IT department is under pressure to complete regular backups within limited time-frames to avoid disrupting business activities, these systems can frequently fail to perform a complete backup within that window. Equally, if you asked a lot of IT managers how often they test their backup restore processes, or whether they are confident of achieving their recovery time objectives, you can expect some uncomfortable answers.

According to the analyst firm, Forrester, backup data is one of the biggest culprits behind the data-explosion that businesses have been grappling with over recent years, and there are no signs of that growth slowing any time soon. It’s no surprise that many businesses struggle to stay on top of their backup problem.

Most of us are perfectly aware of the potential consequences of under-performing backup solutions. There’s the simple problem of being unable to retrieve lost data when we need it, and the much more serious issues of regulatory compliance, data protection and audit trails, all of which can have significant legal ramifications. In the rare event of a major crisis, such as a fire, flood or other situation which requires a full disaster recovery process to be enacted, the consequences of a flaky backup system could be dire.

What Goes Wrong With Backup?

So often in IT we see small flaws being allowed to creep into this essential fail-safe that all businesses need to have absolute confidence in. But why does this happen? It can frequently be a symptom of the disconnect between authority and accountability. If the senior decision makers do not have a clear view of their business’s backup requirements, this can lead to them placing unrealistic expectations and insufficient resources on those who are tasked with making it happen at a nuts and bolts level.

In other cases problems can be caused when businesses are sold a backup solution which is simply unsuitable for their requirements or unable to scale, and this means that it becomes obsolete much sooner than expected. Whatever the root cause, the key problem is that backup tends to be overlooked and nobody realises (or cares) that their system isn’t working properly, until the day that they really need it to work.

Solving Dysfunctional Backup Systems

The first and most important step is to acknowledge that backup is a critical business system and needs to be treated with due diligence. In the first instance, many short term backup problems can be solved by ensuring the existing systems are fully patched and upgraded to the latest versions, and are configured correctly. It’s surprising how often this simple step is overlooked.

At a more strategic, long term level, businesses should look to the right kind of people help them implement backup solutions that will work seamlessly and reliably.

How do you pick the right people? It’s important that they are certified to the highest and most up-to-date levels with the hardware/software vendors they work with, so that they can demonstrate a thorough understanding of the technology.

Less is more, and that’s especially true of backup. You don’t need to backup every last piece of data in your business, so taking an intelligent approach by working out what needs to be backed up (and what kind of storage is more appropriate for the stuff that doesn’t need to be backed up) can make the process more efficient and cost effective.

Putting this efficiency into practice means, for example, recognising that not all data has the same backup priorities and requirements. Adopting a tiered approach will support the creation of a Service Catalogue that optimises the backup and restore of more critical data, whilst reducing overall costs.

However, it’s also essential that any backup solution should not place priority on technology over process. This is why it’s just as important to work with somebody with a deep understanding of best-practice in backup who can really get under the skin of your business to understand what your requirements are today, and how they might grow in the future.

Far too often, backup is treated as an afterthought and is not given the consideration it demands. In order to deploy a solution that provides the robust, efficient backup and restore service all businesses should have, product and technical skills need to be coupled with business insight.