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How often should you back up your data? Answers vary

Backup strategy and frequency is unique for just about every organization. You must balance backup management abilities with the amount of loss your business can tolerate.

Arguably one of the most important questions in the data protection arena is: How often should you conduct data backups?

Anyone looking for a cut-and-dried approach won't like how murky trying to answer that question can be. The short version is that it depends how much data you or your company can afford to lose.

That might sound vague, but the truth is that backup frequency is different for just about every individual or organization. Depending on legal, financial and regulatory requirements, ideal backup frequency can be days or even hours.

An individual working alone could likely get by with a daily off-premises backup, since the most work that could be lost due to a failure would be one day's worth. Not ideal, but not a disaster. At the other end of the scale is a business that cannot afford to lose more than four hours' worth of data. Organizations that deal with financial transactions, customer details and other sensitive data must conduct far more frequent backups.

Most organizations use a recovery point objective (RPO) to decide backup frequency. RPO dictates how close to the current point in time the company's restored data should be after data restoration.

A company using a single weekly backup could result in a worst-case scenario of losing a full working week of data. The repercussions would be disastrous, and according to a study conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, about one-quarter of companies that experience a significant disaster go out of business.

There might be no single answer to the question of how often to back up data, but there is no doubt that it must be done regularly. Automation and other data backup methods can help.

Methods to increase backup frequency

To be sure that data backups don't slip through the cracks, there are numerous techniques that can help ensure backups are frequent and thorough.

Automation is a common go-to when increasing the number of backups, because it means that the process is no longer reliant on someone being available -- or remembering -- to start a backup. Automation removes these variables from the equation, but it's critical to actually check the backup logs manually every day to ensure the correct items are being backed up and no failure or errors have occurred.

Sometimes, however, there is not enough time to get a full backup every day. This is where differential and incremental backups come in.

Differential backups start by copying all changes since the previous full backup. After the first differential backup operation, these types of backups continue to copy all data changed since the last full backup.

Incremental backups copy the files that have changed since the last backup of any type, not just full. For example, to restore on Thursday from a full backup from the previous weekend, the administrator would have to restore from the weekend and the Wednesday evening using a differential backup. Doing the same with an incremental backup scheme would mean restoring the weekend backup and then the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday backups to get the same result.

Using differential backup in combination with a full backup at the weekend would mean that backups are fast and efficient during the week with the heavy lifting done at the weekend. This is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, but a good starting point if you are concerned about how often you should back up your data.

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