3-2-1 Backup: The Rule For Recovery

Backing up your data is fairly straightforward if you follow an effective strategy, so it's surprising how often companies fail to do so.

Doug Hazelman

October 19, 2015

3 Min Read
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3-2-1 isn't just an area code on Florida's Space Coast. It's actually the single, most important rule to keep in mind when it comes to a company's data. It's also very simple to follow: Organizations should make three copies of their data available on two different media, with one stored offsite. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this effective strategy for backing up data, and there have been some surprisingly high-profile cases that illustrate the risks ventured and price to be paid when failing to do so.

I recently came across this video from 2012 explaining how Pixar almost lost Toy Story 2 because of a rogue command and failed backups. This was a film with a $90 million budget, one that would eventually gross more than $485 million at the box office. Pixar was saved only because someone had saved a third copy of the movie (data) offsite -- on her home computer!

An important lesson from this less-than-amusing scenario, besides showing the value of the 3-2-1 rule, is to verify recoverability of your backups. Pixar thought it was fine because it had a backup. Unfortunately, it had never been tested, and that's the type of "fail" that can turn even the most promising, light-hearted movie into a nightmare.

Sometimes companies have an offsite plan that involves someone taking the backup tapes home. While this method will work, and covers the offsite part of 3-2-1, the State of Ohio learned a lesson about data safety back in 2007. As the Associated Press noted in this story: "The tape, stolen last week from a state intern's car, was previously revealed to hold the names and Social Security numbers of all 64,000 state employees, as well as personal data for tens of thousands of others, including Ohio's 84,000 welfare recipients."

While having a backup tape stolen might seem like an extreme example, it happens -- and the potential damage that can result is enormous. It's important to remember your data is only as safe as the media it's stored on. Tapes can be a very important part of a company's backup and archive strategy, but they need to be secured in transit just like anything else. 

Increasingly, companies are turning to the cloud for their offsite backup location. This makes sense because it cover the offsite part of the 3-2-1 rule. Of course, many factors affect how you'll get your backups to the cloud, as well as how easy and quick it will be to recover those backups should they be needed.

Backup files are typically very large, and when it comes to your retention policy, they could consume two to three times the amount of space as your primary data. You may be attracted by the "cheap" cost of cloud storage, but getting your data there -- and back -- must factor into your decision.

Cloud storage gateways have become a popular option for getting data to the cloud. You have storage on premises (for backups), which gets synchronized to the cloud. Still, you want to make sure that only incremental or block-level changes are synchronized to the cloud. After all, you don't want to be transferring terabytes of information every day.

Some solutions include "compute" in the cloud. This can help with backup files by creating synthetic full backups and managing retention policies like "grandfather-father-son." Compute in the cloud can also significantly facilitate restores. Instead of pulling down a huge backup file to recover a single file, compute should allow you to request one specific file, simplifying your restore.

The 3-2-1 rule sounds easy when you first think about it, but the devil is in the details. As the producers of Toy Story 2 no doubt learned, it can be all fun and games until a backup is missing -- then things can get awfully serious. 

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