Saved by SaaS: Data backup via software as a service

Ta-ta to tapes -- if you've got the bandwidth

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The last thing a collision repair shop needs to worry about is a data storage crash. So when John Sweigart realized the software he'd been using to manage his business, The Body Shop, was no longer compatible with the way it was backing up data, he knew it was time for a different option.

The Garnet Valley, Pa.-based Body Shop, which has four locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, has hundreds of records, including images 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. "We have paper files, but we still have to go back and recreate the electronic files."

Since it has multiple pieces of software to back up and no internal IT staff, Sweigart decided to outsource that headache. He chose Verio Inc., a backup software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider. For $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 for enterprises and especially small and midsize businesses, because it requires a multifaceted infrastructure of backup software, networks, servers, disk arrays and tape systems. Many firms have trouble completing backups in the allotted time, and a significant number 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 and more frequently companies are turning to backup SaaS providers, which handle support and maintenance of a variety of applications over the Internet without companies having 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 an SaaS system is the low monthly cost, which can start at $4.95 per month. But Howe points out that one of the "hidden costs" of doing backup SaaS is that companies still have to have a broadband connection and the time to push the data out over that connection.

Using an off-site provider to archive data is not without its risks; for instance, the vendors themselves have been known to experience outages. Howe says companies need to do their due diligence and find out whatever they can about the provider, including how safe their information will be and how long will it take to recover data if they need it. They should also ask about service history with other customers to help determine the provider's stability and whether they are likely to remain in business over the long term.

Most providers offer backup services on a month-to-month basis. Howe advises that changing providers may not be as simple as it sounds, so companies should also be asking for clear terms: how long the data is kept, where it is stored, whether it crosses national boundaries and whether customers can get documented confirmation that the data won't be released.

A pricing guarantee is crucial, too -- if you can. "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, but there's no harm in asking about future pricing trends,'' Howe says.

Sweigart says this 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.

Electronic backup versus tape

Companies that must follow stringent regulatory requirements need the added security of knowing where and how their data is kept. Physicians Endoscopy in Doylestown, Pa., which builds and manages ambulatory surgery centers, has 13 facilities around the country in addition to the corporate office, and that makes manual backup a challenge, says Gene Goroschko, vice president of information systems.

"Our backup requirements, being a medical facility, are a regulatory requirement, not just a good idea,'' Goroschko says. "If there's a disaster, we want to be able to recover medical data regardless of what happened to the facility."

Previously, the firm's backup was a manual process, with Goroschko's group shipping tapes to each facility, and then each facility contracting with a storage provider in its area. But being geographically spread out, the main office didn't have a good indication of whether the tapes were being handled properly and that none were lost -- or even if a full system backup was being done every night.

"Online backup has obviously been around for quite a while, and we decided to try it out,'' starting with the corporate office, he says.

Goroschko says his firm was surprised by the lack of response from some companies when it asked how protected its data would be. After evaluating several vendors, it chose MozyPro from EMC Corp. about a year ago and pay a monthly charge of $6.95 for each server, plus $1.75 per gigabyte per month.

He says that since the corporate office alone backs up several hundred megabytes of data, he was concerned about the ability to remotely back up such a huge amount. Additionally, since the company has mobile employees, it is almost a 24/7 operation, so off-site backup had to share bandwidth with some 10 or 11 workers online at the same time.

"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 them to set the hours and amount of data sent at any time.

"That wasn't a feature we thought about ahead of time, but it turns out it was the feature we couldn't live without,'' he says.

Today, all of Physicians Endoscopy's facilities save one are doing remote backup through MozyPro. The IT department has a Web-based master account that gives the backup status of each location at any given time.

In some cases, backup SaaS comes as a feature of another type of Web-based application. Health care facility Health First discovered this when it began using a remote application to allow nurses to schedule their shifts electronically. Although the internal IT group takes care of backing up other data for the three hospitals Health First serves in east central Florida, the scheduling application is backed up by the provider, Concerro.

"Once we were aware that this is how this service is delivered, it was frankly a sense of relief,'' says Jan McCoy, chief nursing officer at Cape Canaveral Hospital in Cocoa Beach, Fla. "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."

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