In today’s small-to-medium business infrastructure the most commonly talked about backup destinations I hear from my customers are USB drives or a local NAS with tape backups coming in a relatively distant third.  While there are pros and cons for all three, the immediate follow-up concern is offsite backup and what I would use.  While both USB and NAS backup solutions can be used effectively to handle internal backups, offsite backups can become a hassle (or even a danger).  Tape however is very effective for offsite backup but is often a much more manual process than the USB or NAS configurations.  Depending on the requirements, I might recommend any of the three (or even a combination of them).  What follows below are some pros and cons of each type of backup medium:

USB Drives

Using a USB drive (or multiple drives) for backup purposes makes immediate sense.  They are small in size, fairly energy efficient, and offer high portability.  These devices can be picked up for some relatively incredible prices and are as difficult to configure as it is to get the USB plugged in on the right side on your first try.  They utilize the same (or similar) file structure and style that your operating system already does and they often come with some limited software to help make sure they’re configured.

For offsite backups, just carry the USB drive out with you.  However, USB drives have a relatively high failure rate due to the lack of stable housing (being tossed in your IT guy’s backpack for offsite storage).  USB drives are also generally only available to the single machine you have them connected to.  Additionally, not very many USB-only backup drives are configured to handle any kind of RAID configuration, which means there is little-to-no data protection on that drive itself.

Pros:

  • Fairly cheap
  • Highly available
  • Easy-to-Configure / Understand
  • Extremely portable

Cons:

  • Prone to accidental damage
  • Generally no built-in data redundancy
  • Single-machine backup at a time

NAS Drives

NAS drives offer a higher level of drive-level protection from USB hard drives by implementing tools like RAID controllers and multiple redundant disks.  They also add the ability to be more than a single peer-to-peer data transfer by utilizing CIFS / NFS network file shares.  These extra features do come with a cost, however:  generally a NAS unit is more expensive than a USB drive of equivalent storage sizes, network transfers will often take longer than a direct USB connection, and their physical size deters users from carrying them around like their smaller USB brothers.

In regards to offsite backups, a NAS is slightly more complex to configure and requires hardware / vendor support from the NAS you’re using to enable replication between an onsite and offsite NAS.  This also requires the purchase of two nearly identical NAS drives and increases the cost.  This also has its downfalls due to network connectivity speeds between the two devices in the initial transfer, but subsequent replications generally go fairly quickly.  However, the best part about these NAS drives is their relative, “Set it and forget it” configuration once the initial configuration is done.

Pros:

  • Helps prevent data loss from malfunctioning drives (RAID-5, etc)
  • Can be the destination for multiple machines
  • Once configured, highly automated
  • Replication is very simple to maintain

Cons:

  • Replication can be very difficult to configure / initialize
  • Without replication feature, offsite backups become difficult
  • More expensive than USB (especially with two devices for replication)
  • Stable network required to work reliably

Tape Backup

Tape backup is about as legacy as you can get in the backup world.  Started in 1951, tape backup has been around forever and for good reasons.  They can be fast, they have a very low cost per gigabyte of data backed up, and the tapes themselves are relatively resistant to physical destruction.  One of the drawbacks of tape backup is the relatively high price of entry.  In my pricing it was approximately 50% more expensive than a single NAS drive.  Another is the manual process required of inserting a tape, backing up the data (and switching tapes if necessary) and then removing the tape to take it home.  Finally, these devices are generally a peer-to-peer connection like USB drives due to the way data is written to them.

For offsite backups, tape backup is hard to beat.  The tapes are sturdy, drop-proof, and maintaining an offsite copy is as easy as making sure you have the latest tape backup sitting at home.  My favorite answer to, “Why tape and not just a bunch of USB drives?” is:  “Drop a box of tape backups down the stairs and drop a box of USB drives down the stairs, how much data do you have left?”  With tape, that answer is significantly higher than USB will ever be.

Pros:

  • Highly proven technology
  • Offsite backup is incredibly easy
  • Physical damage significantly reduced
  • Can be extremely fast
  • Replacement media is very cheap comparatively

Cons:

  • Single-machine backup at a time
  • Manual backup process
  • Price can be initially very large
  • Tape drives require cleaning / maintenance

Conclusion: Which Backup Storage is the Best Solution?

As for which one I prefer?  While tape makes the most sense from a business standpoint if there is a dedicated IT admin, I generally find that the NAS configuration will end up being more automated and less user-intensive.  Removing complexity from a user’s day-to-day activities in regards to their backup helps ensure that they continue to be successfully performed.  At the end of the day, what matters most to you:  reliably consistent (but difficult to configure) backups or a simple backup that requires a relatively high level of user interaction.  In my history, I’ll take a complex configuration instead of user interaction.

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