Case Study: Easier Small-Business Backups

Simple disk-to-disk backup system yields reliable restores

You’ve heard the bleak numbers: 40 to 60 percent of backups aren’t usable when needed; the average cost of an hour of business downtime is $50,000 and up; over 90 percent of companies that lose their data for 10 days or more end up bankrupt in a year.

At Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan, Inc., a small but fast-growing branch of the international non-profit, the last straw was repeated virus attacks that brought down the Microsoft Exchange e-mail server repeatedly. Restores proved difficult and costly, when they worked at all. Clearly, according to the office’s single IT person, Special Projects Coordinator Brent M. School, he needed a better solution.

To pay for its worldwide job and career training programs, Goodwill collects and sells donated clothes, furniture, and other items at over 2,000 stores. Considered small on the Goodwill scale, the 150-employee office in Traverse City, Michigan, has surpassed $6 million yearly in gross revenue.

The all-Microsoft shop has been using Microsoft Exchange Server since 2003, running it on one of the office’s seven servers. When School was hired for the IT job several years ago, he inherited a Veritas backup solution that created tape backups. But Exchange restores were so difficult that School had to call in a service provider for help. In addition to that system, School was continually backing up the contents of Exchange per standard Microsoft instructions for small operations, using a process called “shadow copy.” The process made periodic “snapshot” backups of Exchange during daily use.

When yet another virus hit late in 2005, the shadow backup copy was affected as well. Recovery proved impossible, either from disk or backup tapes.

That same virus attacked several large, highly visible corporations that day, School says; the large companies “probably recovered that same day.” At the Goodwill office, however, he struggled for three days before finally restoring e-mail services to employees. A full month later, and only by paying an outside recovery firm, he finally restored previous e-mails to employees.

This was the third time School had completely rebuilt the Exchange server because of a virus attack. At some point during the three-day struggle to restore e-mail, School realized he needed a better set of backup and anti-virus solutions. After talking with his outside technical support consultant, he chose Sonasoft’s SonaSafe Integrated Backup/Recovery & Replication solution from a list of a dozen backup solutions the consultant provided. SonaSafe is a disk-to-disk backup and recovery solution that can back up Microsoft Exchange as well as SQL Server databases and other Windows files.

As School investigated the list of products, SonaSafe’s low price caught his attention. Also attractive was the ability to back up his entire file structure and SQL databases, as well as Exchange. “Being Goodwill, [price is] one of the first things we look at. … There are products that will do similar things, and probably just as well as Sonasoft,” School says, “but when you look at [competitors’] prices, you’re going to be gasping for air.” A SonaSafe license is $1,995, plus an additional $995 per Exchange, SQL, or File agent needed per server.

School has configured the system for a daily backup of the entire e-mail server, plus the storage group, all files, Active Directory, and a .PST file from every mailbox, all without interrupting users or slowing performance. His simple backup regimen uses SonaSafe to compress and write files to one of two 300G detachable USB-connected hard drive. He then takes the drive home with him each night. Up to two weeks of archived backup data fits on each drive.

The backup and restore software runs on a standalone server in the office; specific client agents are installed on each server to be backed up. The primary domain controller, for example, has two agents, one to back up SQL tables and one to back up file systems.

Plans for a future, more sophisticated disaster recovery setup include a wireless T1 line between the office and an off-site location—a more complex backup configuration that SonaSafe will handle as well, School says.

That’s another aspect of the product that appealed to School—he counts on it to scale as his branch office continues to grow. “If we double [in size], it’s still the product for us. … It covers everything we [might] want to do for the next 10 years.”

The simplicity of the product was appealing. As the sole IT person in the office, School prepared a half-page list of instructions for a non-technical employee to follow should a restore be necessary in his absence. So far, no one has needed it, but “anyone could step in” and perform a restore if needed, School says. “It’s point-and-click easy.”

Installation was straightforward; Sonasoft sends the product and instruction manuals via e-mail. “You order the product, you arrange for payment, and you have it the next day,” School says. “I’ve printed the manuals out, but I have never had to open them.” He keeps several backup copies of the system stored offsite, or Sonasoft will send a replacement copy.

After installing SonaSafe, School also purchased a Barracuda spam and anti-virus appliance from Tangent. That solution has cut virus attacks to zero, greatly reducing the need for running restores. In fact, the office has conducted just two minor restore processes since the Sonasoft installation, one to correct a payroll mistake that corrupted a SQL Server table, the other to replace a lost file. School says both restores proceeded “flawlessly.”

He’s so pleased with the product that he’s nominated it as a best practice suggestion to Goodwill International. To IT administrators who find SonaSafe’s low price and feature list to good to be true, School says this: “I hate to spend money to find out that something’s not what it should be. This stuff really works.”

About the Author

Linda Briggs is the founding editor of MCP Magazine and the former senior editorial director of 101communications. In between world travels, she's a freelance technology writer based in San Diego, Calif.