THE MAGAZINE

A Secure Backup Plan

By Peter Piazza

Many houses and buildings owe the structural integrity of their foundations to the architectural and engineering firm Strahan Associates. The company’s own structural integrity depends heavily on staff and clients being able to access the CAD drawings and design documents that undergird every project.

The company had a system for backing up those files. But the process was inefficient and, because it was not daily, it created the possibility that data could be lost in a system crash or disaster. The company wanted to change that, explains Chuck Ladd, principal engineer of the Raleigh, North Carolina, firm and the person in charge of the backups. The company has fewer than a dozen employees, and Ladd juggles his engineering design tasks with his responsibilities as the company’s IT director.

Until February, he backed up a week’s worth of critical data onto a disk, and once a week he brought the backup to a safe deposit box and swapped out the previous week’s disk. The process was time consuming, Ladd says, and was costing the company money. “That is labor for me that I could be using for design work that we get paid for,” he says. It also meant that in case of a catastrophe, the restored data could be as much as a week out of date.

Through the company’s Internet service provider, Ladd learned about Arsenal Digital Solutions, a North Carolina company offering a number of storage and disaster-recovery solutions. Ladd looked at one solution, ViaRemote, and did a cost-benefit analysis that showed that Strahan would save enough on Ladd’s labor alone to pay for it. He decided a day later to give ViaRemote a try.

Getting ViaRemote to work was quick and easy, Ladd says. He simply had to install a piece of software on the server where the company holds its data and decide when and how often a backup would be done. He decided it should happen at 1 a.m. every morning to avoid disrupting work in progress. The same time would apply on weekends, in case someone came in to work outside regular business hours.

Behind the scenes, Arsenal’s automated systems connect to the server and directories that Ladd specified during the initial setup, and the data is transferred to servers in Arsenal’s facility. Steve Siegel, vice president of marketing at Arsenal, explains that the company focuses on keeping customer data secure.

The data to be backed up is encrypted while still on Strahan’s machines using 128-bit AES encryption. In addition, says Siegel, “before data leaves a customer’s machine, data is broken up into bits of information, so that at no point is a complete file ever crossing the wire.” If it were possible somehow to intercept the data in transit and then decrypt it, it would still be useless to the thief.

Arsenal’s network operations center is housed in a secure building that Siegel says is hurricaneproof and bombproof. Access to the building, which is staffed with round-the-clock security, requires the use of biometrics at several stages, and even if someone could make it all the way through to the cages where Arsenal’s equipment is housed, the data, encrypted and broken up, will still be impossible to use. Even Arsenal’s staff has no access to it.

So far, Strahan Associates has not had an incident that required a full-day’s data to be restored, Ladd says, though on several occasions he’s had to restore a corrupt file, which he can do via a Web interface for files that are under 10 GB. (For larger files, he needs to contact Arsenal for assistance).

Ladd has not encountered any glitches or problems with the service. Because it’s linked to his broadband service, Internet outages mean that a backup can be delayed, but Ladd notes that when a faulty router caused connectivity problems, the cable company had it fixed within a day.

Like many IT professionals, he’s happiest when he has every piece of documentation on hand. That goes for the documentation on the backup system as well. Originally Arsenal sent him only brief directions about using the backup system in an e-mail. He contacted them for more in-depth documentation, which they quickly sent to him.

Ladd hopes that future releases give him more control over how data is restored. “One thing they could do is remove the 10 GB limit so that I could do a backup without having to call them,” he says.

Siegel says that while Arsenal will consider Strahan’s specific needs, in almost all cases customers conduct file-based restores, and file sizes are typically well under the 10 GB limit. For larger files and for full-system restores, Arsenal prefers to have its network operating team involved to ensure that everything goes smoothly. 

It costs Strahan less than $1,000 per month for the backup; pricing is done through the cable company, and can range up into the tens of thousands of dollars each month depending on the amount of data to be backed up.

For companies that prize their data, conducting a regular, secure backup is the cornerstone of a good security-management policy. With that process made easy, Chuck Ladd can spend his time creating building plans rather than planning for catastrophes. 

(For more information Steve Siegel, vice president, Marketing, Arsenal Digital Solutions; phone: 919/466-6700; email: ssiegel@arsenaldigital.com)

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