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Trusting the Cloud for your data backup

Written by Mark Andrews

An anonymous skeptic is credited with saying, “Confidence is the feeling you have before you understand the situation.” Experience has taught many IT professionals that they had misplaced their confidence in a data backup strategy. In spite of following recommended best practices for tape-style backup or Network Attached Storage of data, unforeseen circumstances frequently conspire to make data restoration a nightmare at best. Many a sleepless night has been spent in server rooms when attempts to restore data led to the discovery of corrupt tapes or missing files that are critical to the backup effort and effectively restoring data to a useable state. Can your agency afford the downtime, much less the expense, incurred with such a catastrophe?

Backing up your agency’s data to the “cloud” is becoming an increasingly attractive alternative to cumbersome on-site backup solutions. Essentially, this means using the Internet as a transport mechanism to move your mission-critical data to an off-site location. The remote location should offer a number of advantages when compared to local alternatives. Naturally, this raises a myriad of questions concerning security, data integrity, speed and administrative requirements. This technology has now come of age and is worthy of serious consideration, specifically because it does address all of these questions in a positive manner. Mission-critical public safety applications, such as CAD and records management, benefit from the many high-availability and fault-tolerant hardware solutions in the market, but the value of having a reliable backup cannot be overstressed.

There are many studies related to data loss, and the statistics generated by these scholarly works suggest that whether you will be prepared for data loss is not a question of if it happens, but when it happens. The most often cited causes of data loss can be described by five basic categories, listed here in order of the most commonly seen problems: 1) hardware malfunction, 2) human error, 3) software corruption, 4) computer virus and 5) natural disasters.

Chris Stanley, the Systems Administrator for the Surry County E-911 in Dobson, N.C., had an experience that reinforced his belief in cloud-based data backup. The department’s public safety software vendor VisionAIR® offers a cloud-based backup service. Stanley had put his department’s Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) server on this Internet transport service that backed up data on a regularly scheduled basis. He was always pleased to see a daily e-mail confirming the backup and offering statistics on file sizes and times. Before he could put his Records Management server on this service, the RMS server suffered a hardware failure. The backplane needed to be replaced; the machine was inoperable. Stanley had been backing up the records data to a Network Attached Storage device (NAS). Now that he needed the data, he was confronted with the reality that the SQL job for these backups had failed and the files were not current. “Luckily, I managed to recover the data, but it wasn’t without a lot of headaches,” Stanley recounted.

“The ease and reliability of the Internet-based backup would have saved me a lot of time. The fact that the data is off-site is also comforting, because a local disaster could threaten our backups no matter where they are in town,” Stanley added. He has since placed all of the Sheriff Department’s data and the county’s fire records on the same automated service that he uses for CAD, known as VisionDATA VAULT.

This service uses an easily configured administrator console to schedule all backups. There is a wide variety of security related options as well. Data may be encrypted in 128-, 168- or 256-bit encryption formats. The encrypted data is then compressed and uploaded to a remote storage location using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) transport. This is the same technology used by banks and financial institutions to communicate sensitive data. Additional peace of mind is offered with the knowledge that the hosting facility is hurricane-wind rated, operates on a dual power grid, has 24/7 security, is Zone-4 earthquake rated, and is operated by CJIS certified personnel.

An added security feature is the ability to restrict access to data by IP addresses. Access will be denied if someone tries to access your data from an IP address that is not on your defined list. According to Stanley, “This is a great feature. Even if someone manages to get your log-in and password, they can’t get at your data unless they are requesting it from an approved IP address.

“When you consider the cost of tape drives and software and the requirements to physically manage media for off-site storage, there are significant savings with the cloud-based backup model,” Stanley went on to say. “I believe we are using a more reliable and secure backup method when you take all this into consideration.”

Cloud-based backup services offer the ability to save any critical data your agency might wish to protect. Exchange servers, file servers—any data sources you may have—are essentially fair game for cloud-based backup. The fact that the foundation technology is Internet-based offers another advantage; while the robust administration console meets the needs of sophisticated network administrators, novice users will appreciate the intuitive user experience most of these services offer. As Stanley mentioned, the option for e-mail notification is especially useful. Apart from the comfort factor that comes with an e-mail notifying backup success, failure e-mails contain a wealth of information that makes troubleshooting easier.

There are obviously many variables to take into account when considering an Internet-based backup service. Public safety agencies have a few unique requirements that should also be met. Following is a short checklist that might assist agencies when evaluating services.

Internet-Based Backup Service Checklist

CJIS certified facility/personnel

Robust encryption formats

Approved IP address list definable

Hardened physical hosting facility

Fully featured and intuitive admin console

Wide variety of cost-effective data size plans

Ability to back up all your required file types

Full and incremental backup capability

Multiple backup schedules available

E-mail success/failure notification Human support available

These items cover just some of the features that should be considered important to public safety agencies. Services that offer these items are likely to understand the unique needs and compliance requirements of law enforcement and keep their offerings in line with the ever changing needs of your agency. When you calculate the lowered cost requirements, advantages of secure off-site storage, and ease of restoring data if you are confronted with the nightmare of data loss, cloud-based backup can make an appealing alternative to your other options.

Mark Andrews is the Director of Operations for VisionAIR, provider of the integrated Public Safety Suite® of software. He can be reached at mkandrews@visionair.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2010

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