SaaS Spells Relief for Small Business

John Magee, VP of Symantec Corporation
As small businesses feel the pressure to survive in the current state of the economy, relief is emerging in the form of software-as-a-service, or SaaS. For small businesses in particular, the introduction of a growing range of SaaS solutions could not have arrived at a better time. SaaS is delivered through an online service that offers a low maintenance, cost-effective alternative to on-premises solutions. What’s more, SaaS solutions are now more secure and easier than ever to integrate into an existing infrastructure.
With an expanding range of viable SaaS solutions now available, small businesses need to evaluate the most appropriate service for their environment by considering the cost, complexity, flexibility, and integration issues associated with today’s online services.
Where to Begin?
Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of SaaS implementation is simply deciding which application is most appropriate to outsource. In the past, SaaS offerings were limited to applications such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, and the like. Now, however, companies are also looking at online infrastructure services—applications such as backup and storage that protect and store mission critical data.

Online backup is one such service. It can help small businesses deal with a challenge shared by their large enterprise counterparts: exponentially growing data volumes. Never before have businesses had so much electronic information to store, manage, and protect. In fact, a March 2007 report by IDC Research found that external disk storage capacity will increase by 50 percent annually on average through 2011 and will require a corresponding data protection capacity.
Regardless of their size, businesses must be able to store, protect, manage, and if necessary, recover their important business information. If not, they risk exposing their business to downtime, and damage to reputation. While large enterprises tend to have greater IT resources and personnel to address these issues in-house, small businesses often do not have these luxuries.
However, online backup presents a new opportunity for small businesses by giving them all the benefits of enterprise-class backup without the associated management complexity and cost. Better yet, as more mature backup vendors offer their software through an online delivery model, small businesses can be sure their data is safely in the hands of proven experts.

Getting Started

So, just how does online backup work? How much data can be stored? How often is it backed up? Is it secure? And can it be easily recovered?
Start by looking for a solution that makes it easy for you to get started, and allows you to customize your service to your business needs. Transitioning to an online backup service, for example, can be done via a browser and a simple online interface that enables the IT administrator to choose from a range of service plans. By pointing and clicking, the administrator identifies how much data (in gigabytes, typically) to be backed up and for how long (usually anywhere from one to seven years). Because such services use a pay-as-you-go model based on service and capacity, costs are predictable for as long as the company uses the service. Look for a service that lets you adjust usage up or down, ideally without penalty.
Once the service plan is selected, the administrator then downloads an agent to each of the computers that the company wants backed up; the agent typically requires only 50 MB or so of free disk space. It is important to note that the most sophisticated online backup services require that an administrator-defined encryption passphrase be used on each computer on which the agent is installed. They also offer a mechanism for safely storing and retrieving that passphrase.
Online backup services will back up a wide range of data—from documents and databases to email—and the administrator chooses which information types to be backed up. The administrator can also add users to the services and assign them roles depending on the privileges they should have as well as specific computers on which they can use the online backup service. With virtually every employee wearing more than one hat in a small business environment, this flexibility is critical.
Features and Functionality
While ease-of-setup and use can make transitioning to online backup fairly quick, the specific features and capabilities like multi-version save, recover and restoration of critical data make online backup the safety net on which small businesses can rely for data protection.
For example, online backup services can actually keep historical copies of data, as opposed to just the latest version. This is essential in meeting retention requirements established by industry or government regulations. Some online backup services will keep more than 100 revisions of a file.
In addition, these services will also save multiple versions of data, using a technique of fading granularity to ensure that copies of the most recent changes to a file are kept and progressively fewer copies are saved as the file ages. In other words, if a file is being changed regularly, the changes—not the entire file—are backed up every 10 minutes or so. Day old versions of that rapidly changing file are then rolled into hourly copies. The hourly copies are kept for two or three days, after which they are rolled up to create a daily copy—a full copy of the latest version for that day. A similar process continues so that daily versions are rolled up into weekly versions, which are eventually rolled up into monthly and then yearly versions.
By providing so many versions, these online backup services also ease recovery so that organizations can restore not just the latest version but the best version, even if it was accidentally overwritten locally.
Provider and Facility Matters
With trusted vendors now offering online backup services, small businesses no longer have to wonder if their data will be safe offsite or if their provider will still be in business years from now. Today’s leading vendors have state-of-the-art backup infrastructure in redundant, multi-tenant data centers staffed round-the-clock by IT experts. They also ensure that data is encrypted on the client side and that the data center does not have access to it.
Of course, many small businesses require credible proof that a SaaS vendor will provide a consistent, stable, and secure environment to safely manage their data. To that end, organizations can look for providers whose facilities have earned independent, third-party accreditation. Among the most highly regarded are those issued by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Statement on Auditing Standards (SAS) 70 Type II. SAS-70 requires an independent auditor or auditing firm to examine the implemented controls in a service organization and report on the effectiveness and objectives in place in the service organization.
With new, easy-to-use, feature-rich online backup services now available from proven leaders in information availability and protection, small businesses can enjoy the same data management capabilities as their enterprise counterparts, but without the associated cost and complexity.
For small businesses looking for ways to not only survive but thrive in a changing economic environment, these innovative online services for backing up, storing, retaining, and restoring information couldn’t have arrived at a better time.