Is Your Data in the Cloud? Can You Get It Back?

Are you concerned about the safety of your data if it’s stored “in the cloud”? Cloud computing is a relatively new trend among businesses today, and with the right preparation and knowledge it can be an economical and effective solution to data management challenges. You just need to know the right questions to ask when selecting a provider.

A few weeks ago, Amazon suffered several days of outage in its EC2 and RDS service, bringing down dozens if not hundreds of services along with it—including such high-profile sites as Reddit, Heroku, Foursquare, Quora, and many others. Although the cause of that outage has been analyzed extensively in many forums, the discussion is interesting and relevant because it brings attention to the lesson that wherever or whomever you entrust your data to—be it in the “cloud” or to a big company like Amazon—it pays to be smart about how you manage your data, especially if it’s critical to your business.

Understand your options. When someone else is managing your data, it’s easy to leave the details to them. However, making sure that you at least have some understanding of what your options are in what different service providers can offer you will pay dividends later if something goes wrong, since you’ll be better equipped to make an informed decision on the spot. Things you should look at include:

  • Who is the service provider? What is their history? Who is behind them? What is their track record?
  • Where do they store your data? Do they own the servers where your data is stored or do they rely on someone else?
  • Is your data stored within the local area (i.e., a drive away) or is it distributed all over the map?
  • Do they provide a mirror of your data within your own server, or is everything in their data centers?
  • What measures do they employ to make sure your data is safe?
  • What methods do they employ to ensure you can get to your data when you need it?
  • Do they provide service level assurances or guarantees to back up their claims?

These are just some of the basic questions you should be asking of your service provider.

Do a test drive. Often you will not know exactly how a service works until the rubber hits the road, so to speak. Ask your service provider for a demo or a trial period. Test how fast it is to back up your data, but more importantly how fast you can bring it back when you need it. This is especially important if you’re talking about gigabytes of data. Understand that doing backups in the cloud can be hampered by your bandwidth and many other components of your system and theirs.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Some service providers give users the option of storing data in multiple sites, to ensure that your data is safe if one site goes down. But why rely on just one service provider when you can get the services of multiple providers instead? Or perhaps better yet, why not manage some of your data on your own? While it may be complex and costly to reproduce what many service providers can provide today, it is relatively easy to set up a simple system to keep at least some of your really, really important data locally by using an unused computer or a relatively cheap, network-attached storage device or secondary/removable drive that you can buy at your local store.

Create a plan and write it down. Unforeseen occurrences can and will happen—not only from your side but from your service provider’s as well. When they do happen, you will need to have a contingency plan ready, often referred to as a Business Continuity Plan. Make sure to document your plan in writing, and communicate it to everyone in your organization so they will know what to do in case disaster strikes.

With its promise of unprecedented efficiency, reliability, scalability, and cost savings, cloud computing and storing your data in the cloud is the topic du jour these days. However, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the basic due diligence that’s necessary regardless of how or where your data is stored. Ultimately, it is your business on the line—and being prudent and proactive about how your data is stored, managed, and (most importantly) recovered in times of need will save you much grief when you actually need it.

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