Having a solid backup policy is crucial for any organization to protect its data assets. A backup policy outlines the rules, schedule, storage methods, and responsibilities for performing backups. This ensures data can be restored quickly in the event of system failure, data corruption, accidental deletion, ransomware attack, natural disaster, or other scenarios. Creating an effective backup policy requires thought and planning, but following some best practices can set your organization up for backup success.
Why is a backup policy important?
A backup policy is important for several key reasons:
- Ensures critical data is backed up regularly and stored securely
- Minimizes data loss and downtime in the event of a failure or disaster
- Provides systematic rules and schedules for backups to automate the process
- Assigns backup responsibilities across IT teams for accountability
- Allows for quick restoration of data when needed
- Helps meet regulatory compliance requirements for data protection
- Reduces organizational risk overall by protecting data assets
Without a clear policy, backups can happen inconsistently, critical systems or data may be missed, responsibilities can be unclear, and restoration can become difficult. A thoughtful policy creates order around backups as a business process.
What should a backup policy include?
A comprehensive backup policy will address several elements:
Systems/Applications to Back Up
The policy should outline which IT systems, servers, databases, and other applications will be backed up. This may include:
- File servers
- Email servers
- Database servers
- ERP systems
- CRM platforms
- Network shares and folders
- Application servers
- Cloud SaaS applications via APIs
The list should be specific based on business-critical systems and data. This ensures these assets are properly protected.
The policy should define the types of backups to perform, such as:
- Full backups – Complete backups of all data
- Incremental backups – Backups of data changed since the last backup
- Differential backups – Backups of data changed since the last full backup
- Synthetic full backups – Full backups created from incremental backups without data duplication
Using a combination of full and incremental/differential backups is a best practice to balance comprehensive protection and storage efficiency.
The policy should define the frequency and schedule for backups, such as:
- Daily incremental backups
- Weekly full backups
- Monthly full backups with longer data retention
The schedule may vary based on the criticality of applications. More frequent backups provide tighter Recovery Point Objectives.
The policy should specify retention periods for backup data, including:
- Daily incremental backups retained for 2 weeks
- Weekly full backups retained for 1 month
- Monthly full backups retained for 1 year
Meeting data retention regulations while optimizing storage is key for retention definitions.
The backup destinations – on-prem and/or cloud storage – should be defined. This may include:
- Disk-based storage at primary site
- Offsite tape rotation
- Cloud storage like Amazon S3
- Hybrid targets balancing cost, recovery speed, and geographic resiliency
Backup Administrator Responsibilities
Backup policy compliance depends on clearly defining who is responsible for backups. Teams or roles may include:
- Data protection team executes and monitors backups
- Storage team provides and maintains backup targets
- Network team ensures adequate bandwidth for backups
- Server teams support backup agents on systems
- Application owners test backups and restores
- Management provides strategic direction and budget approval
To ensure policy enforcement, backup reporting should be mandated, like:
- Daily backup job success/failure email reports
- Monthly backup SLA and performance reports
- Quarterly presentations on backup trends
The policy should require periodic testing of backup recoverability via test restores of files, folders, databases, etc. This verifies backups are working correctly.
Policy Update Process
A policy review and change process ensures the policy evolves with the organization. Annual or bi-annual reviews are common.
How do I get started creating a backup policy?
Follow these tips to begin drafting an effective backup policy for your organization:
- Document your backup environment – Your backup software, types, schedules, targets, etc.
- Analyze gaps – Compare your current state with best practices to identify gaps.
- Classify data – Categorize systems and data by sensitivity and criticality for tiered protection.
- Define RTOs/RPOs – Determine your Recovery Time and Point Objectives for different application tiers.
- Calculate retention periods – Factor in compliance and storage costs to define retention.
- Assign responsibilities – Document what teams manage what processes.
- Start with a draft – Bring together research, analysis, and stakeholder input into a draft policy.
- Review with stakeholders – Refine the draft with feedback from IT teams, execs, auditors, legal, etc.
- Publish v1 internally – Release the initial version on your knowledge base/intranet when ready.
- Train impacted teams – Explain the new policy thoroughly across IT teams and application owners.
- Enforce and report – Put checks in place to ensure adherence and share reports demonstrating compliance.
Adjust and expand the policy over time as backup environments and business needs evolve.
How often should you test restores?
Regular testing of restores from backups is vital to ensure your backup policy is working. Typical best practices for restore testing include:
- Full end-to-end recovery tests quarterly
- Site failover/DR tests annually
- Sample file restores monthly
- SQL database restores monthly
- Email item restores monthly
The exact frequency may vary based on criticality. For example, daily restore tests of the most business critical systems may be warranted. Document scheduled restore tests in the policy.
How long should you retain backup data?
Retaining backup data is a balance between recovery needs and storage costs. Some guiding principles for retention include:
- Follow any regulatory compliance mandates for your industry
- For critical data, retain for its full data lifetime
- For less critical data, 2-3 retention points often suffices (ex: monthly/quarterly/annually)
- Factor in the likelihood of delayed detection of incidents
- Consider the probability of litigation and e-discovery requests
- Align to your RTO – Faster RTOs need shorter retention periods
Also tier retention based on backup type – keep incrementals/differentials for less time than full backups. Audit and adjust as storage costs and applications change.
Where should backup data be stored?
Some leading practices for backup storage targets include:
- Local disk – for fast RTOs
- Offsite tape – for air-gapped security
- Cloud storage – for geographic diversity
- Remote colocation sites – for physical isolation
- Replicable snapshots – for frequent recovery points
- Immutable backups – for ransomware protection
Evaluate cost, capacity, security, and recovery implications when choosing backup targets. A tiered model balancing disk, tape, and cloud allows optimizing for performance, retention, and budget.
How can you ensure backup policy compliance?
Compliance with defined backup policy requires:
- Automated backup workflows resistant to human error
- System-generated reports on backup job success and trends
- Monitoring of backup storage capacity and growth
- Alerts for backup failures or anomalies
- Recurring restore tests to validate recoverability
- Random spot checks of backup contents
- Periodic audit by a third party
- Tieing backup SLAs to personnel performance metrics
Build compliance checkpoints into the policy. Present dashboard-style reports to executives on policy adherence.
How often should you review your backup policy?
Review the backup policy at least annually to keep it current. Some triggers that may prompt more frequent reviews include:
- New data protection technologies on the market
- Shift in corporate backup strategy
- New compliance regulations
- Significantly increased or decreased data volumes
- New application implementations or decommissions
- Mergers, acquisitions, divestitures
- Changes in executive leadership
Build a revision process into the policy. Review with stakeholders annually or when macro changes occur impacting backup infrastructure, storage, applications, or security.
What key metrics help measure backup policy effectiveness?
Metrics to gauge the effectiveness of your backup policy may include:
- Percentage of successful daily/weekly/monthly backup jobs
- Backup job duration vs. defined RPO
- Time to restore from local disk vs. tape vs. cloud
- Backup storage capacity over time
- Rate of growth for backup data
- Size of backup data vs. primary data
- Recovery Point Objectives met (e.g. hours of potential lost data)
- Recovery Time Objectives met (e.g. system restore time)
Track metrics centrally over time to measure policy success. Present to executives quarterly with recommendations for policy improvements.
What are some common backup policy mistakes to avoid?
Some pitfalls to avoid when shaping your organization’s backup policy include:
- Incomplete scope – Not including all business critical systems
- Unrealistic RPOs/RTOs – Recovery goals that cannot be met cost-effectively
- Too little oversight – Lacking checks to ensure adherence
- Too much retention – Keeping backup data forever is inefficient
- No validation – Not testing restores regularly to verify recoverability
- Blurry responsibilities – With no clear owner, backups become an afterthought
- Stale policies – Not keeping policies aligned to evolving infrastructure
- One size fits all – All data is not created equal – tailor policy
Avoid common pitfalls through careful policy planning, review processes, monitoring, testing, and skiiled execution. Backup policies require care and feeding to be effective.
A strong backup policy underpins data protection efforts for modern organizations. Documenting supported systems, frequencies, retention, storage, roles, restore tests, and metrics sets clear guidelines for backup administrators. Keep policies fresh through regular reviews while monitoring key metrics to ensure effectiveness. With comprehensive policies in place, organizations can rest assured critical data is secure and recoverable when disaster strikes.