Saved by SaaS: Data backup via software-as-a-service

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

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 they were backing up data, he knew it was time for a different option.

The US-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 they have multiple pieces of software to back up and no internal IT staff, Sweigart decided to outsource that headache. He chose backup SaaS provider Verio. 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 for enterprises and especially SMBs, 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 software as a service (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 onsite.

"Companies are feeling more comfortable with the concept of buying services out of the cloud,'' notes Carl Howe, director, Enterprise Software Research, at Yankee Group. "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 US$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 offsite 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.

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