In today’s threat-laden environment, having a solid data backup strategy is an absolute necessity. With cyberattacks increasing in frequency and complexity, and remote work becoming the new norm, the need is crystal clear.

This comprehensive guide to data backup strategy will walk you through the essential elements of a foolproof backup strategy, why you need one and how to create an effective backup strategy.

What is a backup strategy?

Data backup is the process of making a digital copy of your computer data and storing it at another off-site location. This comes in handy during a data loss or cybersecurity incident, enabling you to retrieve and restore the data from your backup(s).

A backup strategy is a comprehensive plan of action that many businesses follow to protect against data loss incidents and quickly recover with minimal or no damage to workflows or reputation. In the event of hardware or software failures, cyberattacks or any other disaster, having a robust backup strategy ensures your organization does not grind to a standstill and is able to quickly resume business operations following a disaster.

Why is it important to have a backup strategy?

In this data-driven world, companies rely heavily on data for their day-to-day operations. With such overdependence comes the danger of being paralyzed in the aftermath of a data loss. The average cost of a data breach stands at a staggering $4.35 million in 2022. While data loss due to cyberattacks, natural disasters or human error is unavoidable — it can be managed tactfully to minimize the repercussions.

A comprehensive backup strategy, and more importantly a disaster recovery plan, is critical to supporting and improving your incidence response protocols.

Backup strategy: The essentials

Let’s face it: many organizations do not have a proper data backup plan. If you’re unsure where to start, conducting a risk assessment and business impact analysis should form the basis of creating such a plan. A risk assessment can identify issues that can negatively impact an organization’s business while a business impact analysis evaluates the potential disruption to business operations should a disaster, accident or emergency occur.

Like a fingerprint, your organization’s backup strategy is unique and should be catered to your specific environment and your specific objectives. While your backup strategy may differ from other organizations’ strategies, every data backup plan consists of certain pillars that form the basis of the strategy.

Backup method

One of the key components of a backup strategy is the method used to back up your data. Defining your backup method(s) helps in planning, executing and authenticating your backup strategy. For the best storage utilization and ideal data recovery speed, you need to choose which backup method suits your organization, based on your backup schedule.

Here are the three main backup methods used:

  • Full backup: As the name suggests, it is a copy of the complete system, which is ideal when you back up a system for the first time. Being a comprehensive process, it takes longer to complete and needs more space than other types of backup methods.
  • Incremental backup: In this method, all changes to the data since the last successful backup are captured. The last backup could be either a full or an incremental backup.
  • Differential backup: Differential backups may be used as an alternative to full backups for systems that do not support incremental backups. Differential backups back up any changes to data and files that occurred since the last full backup.

Backup location

There are multiple places backup data can be saved to. Selecting the right location ensures that you are creating the best backup option for your organization. This includes removable media, external hard drives, hardware appliances, software solutions and cloud services, to name a few.

Backup schedule and recovery objectives

Having a clear idea of which files and systems are important enough to be backed up, and how frequently data should be backed up, is key. The frequency of your backups is case-specific and will depend on a number of factors such as the volume of data protected, its importance, the rates of change of the data and your recovery objectives. Recovery Point Objective (RPO) and Recovery Time Objective (RTO) are two crucial aspects of a data protection strategy. RPO is the maximum amount of data your organization is willing to lose if a disaster occurs. Backup frequency determines the degree of RPO. RTO is the timeframe that denotes how fast applications and systems can be recovered from the moment of a disaster to the time normal operations are restored.  

How do you plan a backup strategy?

A sound data backup strategy is essential to the survival of your organization. Chalking out a concrete plan and including all the prerequisites of the strategy are critical since it can make or break your organization’s data security ecosystem. It is important to ensure your backup plan addresses four basic questions:

1. What data should be backed up?

The first thing that comes to mind when deciding what to backup is usually “everything.” While this might be the ideal case, this “one-size-fits-all” approach can:

  • Be a significant drain on resources and budget
  • Result in deficiencies or protection gaps

What we must keep in mind is that backup and disaster recovery (DR) is a significant investment. For many organizations, aggressive RTO and RPO is the goal, which entails higher costs. However, a high level of investment may not be practical or feasible for your organization.

Not all workloads (or data) are equal. Hence, the level of data protection applied to the protected assets should be assessed based on the criticality of that particular asset.

To solve this conundrum, a risk assessment and business impact analysis (BIA) should be performed. These assessments will help build your disaster recovery strategy and give an overview of what needs to be backed up, in what way and how often.

With the data received from the assessments, the ideal RTOs and RPOs for your organization will be identified. This provides you with the goal to focus on while forming your backup strategy.

After this, a proper assessment of all datasets and assets (server, endpoints and SaaS applications) is to be carried out, followed by categorizing them under three tiers.

Tier 1: Existentially critical for the business to survive

Tier 2: Mission-critical for the organization to operate

Tier 3: Optimal-for-performance for the organization to thrive

Once the identification of data and its subsequent classification by tiers are done, the datasets are layered as per the levels of protection. It is at this stage you will be clear on what sort of data needs to be backed up.

2. What backup frequency is needed?

After sorting out which data you need to back up, it is critical to understand how often the data needs backing up. The rate at which data is backed up should align with your organization’s RPO.

With a longer RPO, there always remains a risk of losing more data. If the RPO is shorter, it means less data is lost. However, it requires more backups, more storage capacity and more network resources to run the process. Implement short RPOs, which can be as short as a few minutes, with the help of modern backup solutions. You can even go for tiered RPOs — shorter RPOs for critical systems and longer ones for secondary systems.

The various kinds of backups (full, incremental and differential) that can be employed to protect the digital assets of your organization are dependent on multiple factors, including RPO, network bandwidth, available resources and desired RTO. Accounting for these factors helps determine the type of backup needed to achieve the best results against your goals.

The rule of thumb: Backups of at least the incremental changes should be performed at least once every 24 hours.

3. How will backups be accomplished?

A suitable backup solution, which fits well with your organization’s backup and disaster recovery strategy, must be identified and implemented.

Here are a few aspects that need to be considered:

Backup approach: The method of protection of digital assets (and more importantly recovery) varies depending on what we are protecting: physical servers, virtual servers, hosted applications, SaaS data or endpoints.

Backup type: Your organization’s RTO, RPO and the capabilities of the backup solution will signify whether you need to run full, differential or incremental backup.

Backup location: A comprehensive understanding of where the data is getting stored is a key factor to consider. One must know if the backups are stored on-premises in order to be immediately available for recovery, or whether they are stored on external hard drives or USB to keep a secure copy off-network. Storing data in a cloud platform may benefit your organization as well.

Backup features: The following multiple aspects should be taken into account while deciding what makes a backup solution comprehensive and a fit for your organization.

  • Ease of backup: Automated and/or on-demand backup options, policy-based scheduling, automatic replication of backup copies to secondary site/location.
  • Restore flexibility for on-premises workloads: Instant recovery, replicas, bare metal recovery, physical-to-virtual (P2V) recovery.
  • Restore flexibility for SaaS data: Cross-user restore, non-destructive restore, search-based, point-in-time recovery.
  • Scalability: License and user management.
  • Security: Hardened Linux backup appliance, two-factor authentication (2FA), single sign-on (SSO), encryption of data in-flight and at-rest, role-based access control, immutable cloud storage.
  • Ease-of-use: Intuitive user interface, automation (e.g., recovery testing), end-user self-service (with role-based access control).
  • Post-purchase experience: 24/7/365 support, predictable billing and forecasting (i.e., with cloud storage).

4. Is our backup strategy effective?

When everything is in place, your backup system must be tested to make sure backups are successful. Monitoring the system is critical to ensure the restoration process happens seamlessly and accurately. In order to meet your RTO and RPO goals, you may run restores of files, spin up virtual machines (VMs) from backups into an isolated sandbox or even leverage automated DR testing.

Always remember: Constant fine-tuning and adjusting of your backup strategy based on the situation is an ideal practice.

This must be followed by proper verification of the backup with regards to various levels or types of artifacts. For example, if the data has been stored on-premise, you should verify if file recovery, VM recovery, database and/or application recovery are in place and functioning as expected. While restoring data, it should be kept in mind to verify accounts, email, documents, sites and so on, as applicable.

If your backup solution is compatible with end-user self-service, your users must be informed and educated about it. This will help in better restoration of data afterwards.

Your data backup strategy must be subjected to regular monitoring to check for performance. Leverage logs and reports to see if there are any lapses or inconsistencies.

Solidify your backup strategy with Unitrends

When looking to chart out the blueprint for an effective backup strategy, don’t make the mistake of relying on a trivial backup and disaster recovery method that is fragmented, manual and expensive.

Opt for Unitrends Unified BCDR, which is automated and comes with years of backup and recovery expertise, coupled with next-gen backup appliances and cloud solutions. Unitrends Unified BCDR ensures your data is securely backed up and readily available for recovery if the need arises.

Try Unitrends for FREE!

About Adam Marget

Adam is a Technical Specialist on the Unitrends marketing team supporting digital and in-market events. Over the last 4 years with Unitrends, he has been delighted at the opportunity to work with customers, prospects, and partners alike to help solve challenges around data protection and business continuity. Adam joined Unitrends in 2016, bringing with him experience working with variety of manufacturers’ technology from edge to core as a coworker from national IT solutions provider CDW.