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What is the difference between cloud backup and off-site backup?

With confusion as to how to best approach the cloud and other off-site backups, it's easy to choose the wrong approach. What option provides the best data protection?

Off-site backup has always been a key piece of the 3-2-1 Rule of Backup: three copies of data, on two different media, with one of the copies off-site. However, with cyberattacks and other threats so prevalent, off-site backup is as important as ever.

Cloud service providers, big and small, provide organizations with cost-effective, feature-rich options when it comes to data backup. But, if you're like me, you see the cloud as just another off-site location, with every vendor telling you that its way of doing backups is the right way.

So what's the difference between cloud backup and off-site backup? And, more importantly, which approach is right for your organization?

Cloud backup vs. off-site backup

The term off-site backup can have a range of specific executions, but the general definition involves placing copies of your backup data in an alternate location, on media such as tapes, as part of your disaster recovery plan. The sole focus is to establish an ability to recover data should there be a loss of location. I see off-site backups as being purely storage-oriented.

On the other hand, cloud backups generally imply the addition of services to the basic "put your data somewhere else" model. These services are designed to simplify the purchase, selection, storage, security and retrieval of data, as well as the actual backup and recovery itself, if desired. So, cloud backups should be seen as being service-oriented.

Depending on which cloud backup and off-site backup providers you're considering, there can be a lot of potential similarities between the two. At their core, they both seek to facilitate the storing of critical data and systems. They may also have the same levels of security -- both in transit and at rest -- to meet specific compliance requirements and even use the same level of data center.

But it's the addition of services that is the big differentiator for the cloud. Think about it: Anytime you hear about a service that is cloud-based, the concepts of a simple monthly cost, easy-to-use web interface and always-on support usually come to mind. Depending on the service provider, cloud backup can be as simple as just storage -- like what happens with a traditional off-site backup -- but it also can include backup software, support staff to help with backup and restore, white-glove service and infrastructure recovery.

Four considerations to help you select your strategy

In the cloud backup vs. off-site backup debate, which approach is the right one for your organization? It comes down to the following considerations:

What are your specific requirements? Your organization may have some exact needs -- for example, 448-bit Blowfish encryption at rest. In this case, cloud may be out, as most providers have an established offering with a few options but may not have exactly what you need. The use of off-site backup storage may give you more control to ensure all your needs are met.

While traditional off-site backup will still be necessary for some readers, I'm guessing cloud backup will be a viable option for most.

How much help do you need? Off-site providers could be considered IaaS in that they provide the storage needed for off-site backups. If you require expertise to help you establish and configure your data backups or help you with your recovery, the cloud may be more to your liking.

Do the pricing models align with your organization? This is a Capex/Opex discussion. The cloud is very much in the per-month line of thinking to keep you hooked on a low monthly price (Opex) forever. Off-site backup could reside on purchased hardware (Capex) hosted within a rented space (Opex). Your CFO will need to answer this one.

Which one will give you the best data protection? This is sort of a "build it or buy it" question. Can you build the best data protection environment on your own, or are you better off using the one built by a cloud service provider? Going back to the first question, if your requirements are simple enough, the bells and whistles the cloud provides may do a better job than the basics you can do yourself.

There isn't a right or wrong answer. You need to look at the services each approach provides and the associated costs and then determine how each one aligns with your organization's backup needs. While traditional off-site backup will still be necessary for some readers, I'm guessing cloud backup will be a viable option for most.

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