Archival cloud storage can be an affordable backup layer

Tech for the 99%: cloud backups are actually useful for SMBs

Welcome to the first blog in our new column. This column is dedicated to hardware, software and services for the Small and Medium Business (SMB) and commercial midmarket spaces. In most countries companies too small to be generally called enterprises make up over 99% of employer businesses, yet are often the poorest served by technology vendors and technology journalism. This is Tech for the 99%.

Backups are the bane of many an IT department. Big or small, nobody escapes the need for backups, and backups can get quite expensive. Smaller organizations trying too backup more than a terabyte of data usually have the hardest time finding appropriate solutions. This is slowly changing.

For many years I have avoided advocating backing up data to the public cloud. Even the cheapest backup service – Amazon’s Glacier – was too expensive to be realistically useful, and the backup software that talked to it was pretty borderline.

Times changed. Software got better. Cloud storage got cheaper. A new competitor on the scene emerged in the form of Backblaze with their B2 product. B2 offers archival cloud storage for $0.005 (half a cent) per gigabyte USD. That’s notably less expensive than Glacier’s $0.007 per gigabyte.

That makes Backblaze B2 $51.20 USD/month to store 10TB. That’s an inflection point in affordability.

B2 and Glacier both cost to retrieve data, and they’re slow. They aren’t the sort of thing any organization should be using as a primary backup layer. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to use them to regularly restore files that staff accidentally delete, or to cover other day-to-day backup needs.

Similarly, B2 and Glacier aren’t immediate-use disaster recovery solutions. You can’t back up your VMs to either solution and then push a button and turn them on if things go sideways. These solutions are only good for archives; backups only accessed in case of emergency.

It’s reasonable to ask what use such a service might be. Isn’t it better to have one backup solution that covers all use cases? Different companies have different needs, and different companies approach backups differently. Failure to appropriately tailor backup needs to the organization is why so many backup projects fail.

Backups for the 99%

Many companies don’t have multiple locations. Many more house their IT and other back office operations at a central facility that also serves as the central manufacturing facility. The long and short of this being that if the place where all the servers are burns down, the company isn’t going to be opening for businesses as usual the next day, and that has nothing at all to do with IT.

In a lot of cases, if head office burns down, the company is done for. The owners will sell whatever assets are left, take the insurance money and fold. The company existed because it was milking sunk assets that were paid off long ago. The only use for backed up data at this point is to settle affairs with the insurance company and the tax office.

Still more companies can actually afford IT downtime. For all that we hear from vendors that every company, everywhere needs to be able to recover from any outage instantly, this just isn’t true for a lot of businesses. For many, if the computers go on the blink for a week it’s certainly irritating, but it isn’t corporately fatal.

Companies that fit into these categories are small. Some of them can back things up using a sync-and-share application like Sync or Dropbox. These cease being practical pretty quickly, and that next step up is needed.

This is where solutions like Amazon Glacier and Backblaze B2 come in. Veeam’s 3-2-1 backup rule comes into play here.

Have at least three copies of your data. Store the copies on two different media. Keep one backup copy offsite.

One very simple way for small organizations to achieve this is with an cloud-aware storage solution. Synology NASes can back up to Glacier or to B2, and are quite popular. I personally prefer the Synology’s nearly indestructible, fireproof, waterproof cousin, the ioSafe.

ioSafe NASes run the Synology DSM. All the built-in software goodness that makes it so simple to connect your Synology up to cloud storage for archival backups is in the ioSafe. With an ioSafe, however, if the building burns down while the thing this still unspooling its backups to the cloud – something which takes considerable time using the crappy internet connections available to most businesses – your data is still safe.

Having the ioSafe on site also means a copy of the data on site, which means the overwhelming majority of backup accesses (such as restoring an individual file that has been deleted) can come from the ioSafe instead of the cloud. This means restores are quick and there are no download fees.

3-2-1 in practice

Using an ioSafe as an indestructible cloud storage gateway means your data is in three places: a production copy, a copy on the ioSafe and a copy in the cloud. It is on at least two different types of media, and one of those is off site. It also has at least two separate administration planes (local and cloud) so that if you get a really bad ransomware infection, nothing can torch all your data.

Best of all, it’s affordable. It practical to use with the sorts of commercial broadband most of us have access to, allows the use of commodity hard drives, and doesn’t rely on any special software. The ioSafe has everything you need to get data to the cloud, you just need to worry about getting a copy of your data out of your production environment and onto the ioSafe.

There are dozens of variations on this theme possible if you change up the names of the vendors. I personally use the ioSafe + Backblaze B2 combination, but there are many, many others. These are simple solutions. They are affordable. Backups and disaster recovery don’t have to break the bank and they don’t have to use expensive, vertically integrated vendor “platforms”.

Find the right solution for your business, and base it on your actual business needs. Above all remember this: if your data doesn’t exist in at least two places, then it does not exist.

About Trevor Pott

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley start-ups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.

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