When’s the Last Time You Tested your Business Back-Ups?

Exploring business continuity best practices for testing data and application back-ups

Business Data Backups

Data protection is a central element of the data management strategy for all modern business owners. A proactive and well-thought-out business continuity plan is something that all system and data administrators must embrace. A layered and proactive data protection strategy really can mean the difference between disaster and recovery.

When it comes to creating a strategic business continuity plan, data and application backups are one of the most important elements. The reasons for implementing reliable backup solutions are endless – software bugs, failed hardware, and user mistakes are just some of the ways business data can be unintentionally altered or deleted. Furthermore, there’s also the persistent risk of malicious activity and attempts to destroy, steal, or encrypt business data by cybercriminals or disgruntled former employees.

Data Protection Insurance: Don’t Just Backup, Test!

Here’s the thing when it comes to backups for business: if you don’t test them regularly to ensure they’re working in all the ways they’re supposed to, you’re only doing half the job. The last thing any business owner wants is to implement backups and wait until there’s an actual data disaster to see if they work. That’s why regular testing of backups for software, hardware, and everything in between is absolutely critical.

When a data disaster hits, it can be overwhelming and stressful for business owners. Worrying about whether or not backups are going to work should be the last thing that professionals have to deal with in a crisis situation. Backups are designed to offer peace of mind, and – if implemented correctly and tested regularly – they can make all the difference in a data crisis.

Server vs. Virtualization: The Evolution of Backup Testing

The key to testing backups is to run a sort of drill and see if the backups successfully restore data. For a long time, this process was limited, tedious, and time-consuming. When there was a physical server for each application a business used, data restoration had to occur on additional hardware. Furthermore, the environment could only be restored in a very limited way, meaning a full restore of an entire business network rarely happened.

However, as virtualization continues to dominate the business technology market, backup testing and restore processes have become much easier to deploy. Virtualization allows company data and applications to be centralized and organized in a more streamlined manner. For the many businesses who operate using this kind of centralized virtual machine (VM), recovery from backup is easier to execute.

Why Test Your Back-Ups?

Here are the top three reasons for testing your backups:

  • You’ll validate that the restore processes you’ve put in place work – peace of mind is priceless.
  • You’ll create a benchmark to ensure that the recovery process can be completed as intended – this will help you develop recovery time objectives (RTO) for future reference.
  • Regular testing process and results can be shared with business teams to show that application recovery targets can be met, or perhaps reviewed if the process uncovered imperfections.

Testing Backups: What Programs and Hardware Should I be Testing?

Now that we understand the importance of testing business backups, let’s dive into the specifics. When it comes to testing backups, there are a variety of different levels of recovery to consider. Let’s explore the key areas where your business should be implementing and testing backup and recovery processes:

  • File Recovery

This is likely the most common concern for business owners – will I be able to recover individual files from my backup? The reality is, file backup processes are easy to deploy on both physical and virtual servers in addition to backups of file servers. It really just comes down to recovering data by file type. There are plenty of tools to automate this process, which we’ll explore in more detail later on.

  • VM Recovery

For businesses who rely on virtual machines, implementing and testing backups is critical. This aspect is obviously specific to virtual environments as opposed to physical ones. Recovering a virtual machine is relatively easy because everything is centralized. However, consideration must be made for where the VM to be powered back on will be recovered.

Attempting to recover the VM in the same production environment creates technical issues like network IP conflicts and SID conflicts in Windows systems. The best strategy is to restart the VM in an isolated environment using the subnet on the hypervisor. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that recovering VMs with new IDs can have impacts on applications and licensing – be proactive and consult with your software providers for terms and conditions.

  • Physical Recovery 

As noted, physical server recovery is more complex and testing will vary based on the how different platforms are configured. Furthermore, recovering applications to the running hardware requires an outage – meaning businesses carry out these tests less frequently. Though daunting, if you’re on a physical set up, it’s critical to schedule the time for testing to ensure hardware can be recovered effectively in the case of a disaster.

  • Data Recovery

Depending on the backup tools that business owner deploy, specific data recovery can be an option and should be tested for efficiency as well. For example, if a user has data backed up at the application level (rather than the entire VM), that data can be restored and accessed in an isolated environment as well.

  • Application Recovery

Software applications are the core of a company’s digital operations. However, testing application backups can be challenging – especially for larger business teams. Application backup testing requires an understanding of the relationships between individual VMs and physical servers. However, it can be done, and as with some of the previous recovery types, it’s best done in an isolated environment and on a separate network.

It’s no secret that the more extensive the testing, the higher level of risk – however, testing data backups can be an amazing tool for providing reassuring, measurable results. Determining the right test scenario depends on the backup and restore tools that have been put in place. Having a strong understanding of what you want your backups to do in the case of an emergency will make the testing process more efficient.

Setting a Schedule: How Often Should You Test Your Business Backups?

We get this question from our clients all the time – “Now that we have backup solutions in place, how often should we be testing them?” If we’re being honest, in an ideal world, testing should occur after every backup to ensure that the latest data has been successfully secured.

However, we know for busy professionals like our clients, this isn’t the most time-effective or reasonable option. So, business owners must strike a balance between the potential impacts of losing data and the effort required to feel consistently confident in their backups.

At the very least, here are some very critical times to test backups:

  • As part of a regular routine – say monthly or bimonthly. Choose a frequency, set a schedule, and deploy backup tests for all hardware and applications on a regular interval.
  • Whenever there are a major application or hardware changes. This includes any kind of software update or patch as well as new or different devices. These tests should be more complex to account for a major application or device changes. Use updates and patches as reminders for strategic backup testing.
  • Whenever there is a significant change to application data. If any business application has a regularly scheduled import of data from an external source, schedule a test restore to occur after the data has been transmitted.
  • Whenever you’ve restored data. It may seem excessive or redundant to run a backup test on a VM, device, or application that you’ve just recovered, but it will ensure that the newly restored program is properly backed up moving forward.

How to Test: Utilizing Automation to Improve Backup Testing

Restore testing can be made much easier using automation tools. At a base level, this can include scripting the restore for individual files. However, there are software tools available that aid in more complex and comprehensive testing procedures. Many of these tools are built directly into backup & disaster recovery software.

Many of these tools completely automate the testing process and allow restores to occur without affecting the production environment. There are countless ways for business owners to take advantage of backup and data recovery tools – the key is researching the best tools to suit the individual backup needs of each business. Taking the time to understand the backup needs of the entire business network is the first step – then, businesses can invest in applications or support to optimize backup testing procedures.

The Ongoing Evolution of Data Backup & Recovery Testing

In an increasingly Cloud-based business environment, with more and more companies making use of containers, backup testing will continue to evolve. Using the public Cloud to backup, test, and recover applications is a huge plus when it comes to cutting on-premise costs. This represents an entirely new domain for backup testing that will no doubt reveal new challenges and opportunities.

However, no matter what the future brings, the premise remains the same: Setting up backups and testing them regularly should be understood as a responsibility, not an option. Ensuring that recovery processes are implemented correctly and run according to a schedule will always be your secret weapon against unexpected data disasters.