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Best Practices for Testing Data and Application Backups.    

Testing Data Backups

Data protection is essential for all businesses today. The most important reason is to prevent monetary loss. If you lose your information it can lead to reduced productivity, lost sales, a harmed reputation, fines, or even financial judgments.

Another reason is the increase in regulations. Governments throughout the world are imposing new regulations on electronic communications and stored data. You can face dire consequences for noncompliance. Loss of critical data can be construed as a violation of these regulations and may result in fines and legal action.

Data Protection Requires Business Continuity and Reliable Backups.

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 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 error are just some of the ways your data can be unintentionally altered or deleted.

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!

If you don’t test your backups regularly to ensure their working, you’re only doing half the job. Don’t wait until there’s an actual disaster.  If you do, you may find that your backups weren’t reliable and your essential data is lost. That’s why regular testing of backups for your software, hardware and everything in between is absolutely critical.

When a data disaster hits, it can be overwhelming and stressful. Worrying about whether or not backups are going to work should be the last thing to worry about 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 drills to determine if your data was successfully restored. For a long time, this process was limited, tedious and time-consuming. When using physical servers for different applications, data restoration had to include a lot of additional hardware. Plus, the environment could only be restored in a very limited way, meaning a full restore of an entire business network rarely occurred.

However, with today’s virtualization, the testing and restore process is now much easier to deploy. Virtualization allows for company data and applications to be organized in a more streamlined way. When using a centralized, virtual machine (VM), recovery from a backup is easier and more reliable.

Why Test Your Backups?

  • To validate that the restore processes you put in place actually work – Peace of mind is priceless.
  • To create a benchmark to ensure the recovery process can be completed as intended – This also allows you to develop recovery time objectives (RTO) for future reference.
  • Regular testing processes and results can be shared with business teams to confirm application recovery targets can be met, or resolved if there are imperfections.

Testing Backups: What Programs and Hardware Should You Test?

Now that you 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 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 that rely on virtual machines (VM), implementing and testing backups is critical. This is obviously specific to virtual environments as opposed to physical ones. Recovering a virtual machine is relatively easy because everything is centralized. However, you must consider where the VM will be used for recovery.

Attempting to recover the VM in the same production environment creates technical issues like network IP and SID conflicts in Windows systems. The best strategy is to restart the VM in an isolated environment using the subnet on the hypervisor. It’s also important to keep in mind that recovering VMs with new IDs can impact applications and licensing – It’s always best to 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. In addition, recovering applications to the running hardware requires an outage – Because of this, businesses carry out these tests less frequently. If you’re on a physical setup, 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 you deploy, specific data recovery should be tested for efficiency as well. For example, if you have data backed up at the application level (rather than the entire VM), that data should be restored and accessed in an isolated environment.

  • Application Recovery

Software applications are the core of a company’s digital operations. However, testing application backups can be challenging – especially for larger businesses. 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 we’ve mentioned, it’s best conducted 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, backup testing can be an amazing tool for providing reassuring, measurable results. Determining the right test scenario depends on the backup and restore tools you’ve put in place. Having a strong understanding of what you want your backups to if an emergency occurs 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 test them?” In an ideal situation, testing should occur after every backup to ensure the latest data is successfully secured.

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

Here are some important times to test backups:

  • As part of a regular routine – monthly or bimonthly. Choose a frequency, set a schedule and deploy backup tests for all hardware and applications at regular intervals.
  • Whenever there are major application or hardware changes. This includes any kind of software update or patch, and also when using 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’s a significant change to application data. If a business application has a regularly scheduled import of data from an external source, always schedule a test restore 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 the newly restored program is properly backed up moving forward.

How to Test: Using Automation to Improve Backup Testing

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

These tools completely automate the testing process and allow restores to occur without affecting production or productivity. There are countless ways for you to take advantage of backup and data recovery tools – The key is researching the best tools to suit your unique backup needs. Take the time to understand your backup needs. Then you can invest in applications or support to optimize backup testing procedures.

The Ongoing Evolution of Data Backup and Recovery Testing

In an increasingly cloud-based business environment, with 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.

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