Considerations for cloud data backup in health care

Cloud storage is becoming increasingly popular. But there are several points to consider when looking at cloud data backup for health care information.

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Perhaps the most important consideration when thinking about cloud options is deciding what type of data you want to back up. Ideally, it would be nice to be able to include all of your data in a cloud backup. Realistically, the types of data that you can back up to the cloud tend to be dictated by your budget.

There are various classes of cloud backup services. Lower-end solutions can cost less than $100 a year, but they can also severely restrict what you can back up. Such services are typically suitable only for file backups. In other words, you can use a low-end cloud back up provider to back up things such as documents and images, but these services are not suitable for backing up database-based applications or for performing system state backups.

Furthermore, some of the low-end cloud backup services restrict the types of files that you can back up. For instance, one well known provider blocks system files and video files from being backed up.

High-end cloud backup providers typically allow non-file data to be backed up. For instance, such providers might provide backup agents that allow you to backup things like Microsoft Exchange Servers, SharePoint Servers or SQL Servers. Some providers also offer the ability to perform system state backups and backups that support bare metal restoration.

As you would expect, these types of backups typically come with a higher price tag than the bargain basement cloud backup providers. Every provider has its own pricing structure, but most charge a monthly fee, plus another fee based either on the amount of data that you transfer each month or on the amount of disk space that you are consuming. Either way, it is easy to spend several hundred dollars a month backing up data.

While it might initially appear that the high-end cloud backup providers are able to handle all of a health care organization's backup needs, you may have data that even a high-end provider cannot reliably back up. Database applications require data to be backed up in a way that ensures database consistency. While many high-end cloud backup providers support backing up SQL Server databases, they often lack support for other databases.

Remember, retention periods matter

Another consideration that you must take into account prior to backing up your data to the cloud is the data retention period. Some cloud providers enforce a 30-day retention period. In other words, if a file is deleted, then it can only be recovered for the next 30 days. After that, the file is gone for good.

When choosing a cloud backup provider it is important to ask whether the provider allows customers to set their own retention periods. Otherwise, you may lose the ability to recover some of your data.

Similarly, you should consider whether a cloud provider supports versioning. When a user modifies a file, the previous version of the file (and several versions before that one) should be retained in case it becomes necessary to recover an older file version.

Try initial synchronization before you buy

One often overlooked consideration is the amount of time that the initial synchronization process will take to complete.

One often overlooked consideration is the amount of time that the initial synchronization process will take to complete. Depending on how much data needs to be backed up to the cloud and on the speed of your Internet connection, the initial synchronization process can take several months to complete. During this time you are vulnerable to data loss -- unless you are still performing on-premise backups.

If you are about to begin backing up your data to the cloud, then it is a good idea to ask the provider for a free trial, even if they do not explicitly offer one. That way, you can find out whether the provider can adequately address your organization’s backup needs before you spend any money.

I'm not just talking about whether or not you can backup and restore your data, but also about any unforeseen surprises.

•           I recently heard of a particular organization that made the decision to begin backing data up to the cloud, only to discover that it was accumulating new data faster than its Internet connection would allow the data to be backed up. In that situation, cloud backups proved not to be a good solution for the organization.

•           In another recent situation, an organization decided to use cloud data backups to supplement on-premise backups. However, the two backup applications constantly fought with one another. It became difficult to tell what had and had not been backed up.

Set strong SLAs, too

Finally, make sure your chosen cloud data backup provider offers an acceptable service level agreement. Remember: If the cloud backup service goes down, you are left unprotected during the outage. You really don't want to have to explain to auditors that health care data was lost due to a backup provider outage.

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 editor@searchhealthit.com.

This was first published in December 2011

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