Choosing among data backup options for health care organizations

Health care IT departments have several data backup options. This tip covers the pros and cons of tape, optical media, external hard drive, disk-to-disk and cloud backup.

Every IT pro knows that backups are an essential part of network management. In a health care environment, however, government regulations weigh heavily on the backup process. Even so, it is ultimately up to each individual organization to determine the data backup options that best suit their needs, so long as the overall solution adheres to regulatory requirements.

Administrators have a number of different options when it comes to their choice of data backup and recovery system. However, it is important to understand the pros and cons of each type of medium prior to settling on a backup or archival solution.

The sections that follow explain the advantages and disadvantages of some of the more popular data backup options -- tape, optical media, external hard drive, disk-to-disk and cloud backup.

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Of the main data backup options, tape has probably been around the longest. As such, tape backups are a mature, stable technology. However, because tape backups have been around for so long, they have had trouble keeping pace with some of today's demands.

The biggest drawback to tape backups is that they usually only run once each night. Many hours' worth of data can accumulate between the time that the backup completes and the time that the next backup is run. If a crash occurs in the middle of the day, then a substantial amount of data can be lost.

Another problem is that backup tapes are usually shipped offsite for safe keeping in case the facility is physically destroyed. While this does help protect backups, it also means that the backup may not be immediately accessible if you need to perform a restoration. This issue can be overcome by using redundant tape drives. That way you can create two copies of each backup tape -- one to store offsite and one to keep locally.

Generally speaking, tapes are a great choice for long-term data archiving, but there are better data backup options for daily backups.

Optical media, such as CD-R, DVD-R, and BR-R, represents another data backup option. Optical media storage tends to be more reliable than tape -- a BluRay disk cannot become demagnetized or eaten by a hungry tape drive.

The biggest disadvantage to using optical media is its limited capacity. For instance, last January I created a year-end archive and wrote the data to DVD. The process took several days to complete and required well over 200 DVDs. Another disadvantage is that not all data backup software supports backing data up to optical media.

Data backup software also matters

Although the majority of this article focuses on the pros and cons of various data backup options, I wanted to mention that your choice of data backup software is almost as important as your choice of backup medium. This is especially true if you are backing up virtual server environments.

Some backup products will let you restore virtual servers as a whole but will not allow for the restoration of individual items within a virtual server. Other products will allow for granular backup and restoration but lack the ability to perform bare-metal restorations of virtual machines.

Another common problem is that some backup products will back up virtual machines as a whole without taking into account which applications are running on the virtual machines. This can result in corrupt backups, especially for database servers.

As such, it is critical to choose data backup software that meets your organization's unique recovery requirements.

-- B.P.

Over the last year or two, the external hard drive has become a popular backup choice. Their huge capacity, high speed and relatively low price makes external hard drives a good data backup option.

One major disadvantage, though, is that the drives are somewhat fragile. If someone drops a hard drive, then there goes your backup.

Another downside to using an external hard drive is that it is a read/write device. Depending on how the data is backed up, it may be possible for someone to alter the data, which is of major concern in health care environments. If you are thinking about backing your data up to an external hard drive, then it is essential that you encrypt the drive's contents. (Of course, any backup media should likewise be encrypted).

Disk to disk is another popular backup solution. The basic idea behind disk-to-disk backup systems is that data is periodically replicated from servers to a volume on a dedicated backup server. The nice thing about disk-to-disk backups is that data is synchronized throughout the day, which mitigates the risk of losing hours of data to a crash. Disk-to-disk backups are also nice in that you no longer have to worry about scheduling a nightly backup.

The biggest drawback is that the backups are generally kept online and reside in the same facility as the servers that are being protected. This means that if the facility is destroyed, or if the backup server fails, then the backups could be lost.

There are a few different ways to get around this problem. One option is to use a chain of backup servers -- one for production systems and another for the first backup server. A more common solution is to use disk-to-disk-to-tape. This is essentially the same as a disk-to-disk backup, but each night the backup server's contents are dumped to a tape that is then shipped offsite.

Without a doubt, cloud backup is the trendiest of the data backup options at the moment. Here data is backed up to a Web server. The main advantages are that your data is kept securely offsite and you don't have to invest in an expensive backup infrastructure.

There are, however, some major disadvantages. One is that many cloud backup services do not yet support application level backups. Without an application-aware cloud backup application, it would be impossible to perform online backups of applications such as Exchange Server and SQL Server.

Another problem with cloud backups is that they depend on the speed of your Internet connection. The initial backup can take months to complete. Full restorations can take almost as long. Never mind that, if your Internet connection goes down, then the backup will stop working until connectivity is restored.

Without a doubt, cloud backup is the trendiest of the data backup options at the moment

Finally, most cloud backup providers do not offer a mechanism for performing bare metal restorations or system state restores. Cloud backups will eventually mature, but for right now they are best suited for use as a secondary backup for file data.

As you can see, there are pros and cons to each of the data backup options. It is important to choose a media type that meets your organization's requirements. However, before settling on a media type, it is equally important to verify that your backup application supports backing up to your chosen type of data backup media.

About the author
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. Write to him at

This was last published in September 2011

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