What is a data backup policy?

A data backup policy is a set of rules and procedures that determine how an organization backs up and restores its data. The goal of a backup policy is to ensure that critical business data can be recovered in the event of corruption, deletion, hardware failure, natural disaster, cyberattack, or other data loss scenarios. An effective data backup policy is a key part of any organization’s data protection and disaster recovery strategy.

Why are data backup policies important?

Data backup policies are important for several reasons:

  • Protect against data loss – Backups provide protection against permanent data loss caused by hardware failure, accidental deletion, malware/ransomware, and other threats. Without backups, data loss can be catastrophic.
  • Enable disaster recovery – Backups make it possible to restore data and systems after outages or disasters like fires, floods, earthquakes, and cyberattacks. A solid backup policy is key to an organization’s disaster recovery plan.
  • Meet compliance requirements – Many regulations like HIPAA and SOX require the ability to produce copies of critical data for a certain time period. Backup policies help ensure compliance.
  • Minimize business disruption – Quick recovery from data loss minimizes downtime and productivity loss. Documented backup procedures allow for systematic recovery.
  • Reduce costs – Backups avoid major costs associated with data loss and recovery. Restoring from backups is far cheaper than recreating data.

In summary, backups help organizations avoid catastrophic data loss, quickly resume operations after outages, prove compliance, and save time and money.

What should a backup policy include?

A comprehensive data backup policy will include details on:

  • Scope – Which data will be backed up (databases, files, email, etc.), schedules and frequencies, retention periods, and restoration procedures.
  • Technologies – The hardware, software, media types, and infrastructure used for backup and recovery.
  • Roles and responsibilities – Who oversees backups, who performs and tests restorations, who gets notified of failures.
  • Security – Encryption, access controls, media handling processes, and physical security.
  • Testing – Validation processes to verify recoverability and identify problems or gaps.
  • Standards – Naming conventions, change control processes, documentation standards.
  • Monitoring and reports – Metrics tracked (size, growth rate, success rate), monitoring procedures, reporting processes.

The level of detail in the policy will depend on the size and complexity of the IT environment. But all policies should thoroughly define the what, when, where, why, who and how of backup and recovery.

Key elements of a backup policy

Some of the key elements to define in a backup policy include:

Data scope

The policy should clearly identify the specific data that is in scope for backup. This typically includes:

  • Application data – Databases, transaction logs, application settings
  • Files and folders – User documents, folders, system files
  • Server images – Operating system, configurations, system state
  • Email data – Mailboxes, public folders, email archives

The policy may need to define different backup scopes for different systems, locations, departments, etc.

Backup schedules

The frequency for conducting backups should align with the recovery point objective (RPO). Some examples:

  • Database transaction logs – Every 15 minutes
  • Database full backups – Daily
  • File servers – Daily incremental, weekly full
  • Email servers – Daily
  • Remote office servers – Daily incremental, weekly full

More critical systems may require more frequent backup schedules. Scheduling should also aim to minimize impact on operations.

Retention periods

Retention periods dictate how long backup data is retained before expiration. Typical retention periods:

  • Daily backups – 1 week
  • Weekly backups – 1 month
  • Monthly backups – 6 months
  • Yearly backups – 3-7 years

Requirements for long-term retention may be dictated by compliance regulations.

Media handling

Policies should define proper media rotation, transport, storage, and destruction procedures, such as:

  • Tape rotation intervals
  • Off-site tape storage locations
  • Media transport security protocols
  • Destruction procedures for expired media

Strict media handling protects against data loss, theft, and unauthorized access.

Restoration procedures

Documented guidelines for restoration ensure rapid and successful recovery when needed. Define:

  • Request and approval processes
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Location of media, software, documentation
  • Step-by-step instructions for various scenarios
  • Recovery verification testing


Backup security considerations include:

  • Access controls on media, backups, infrastructure
  • Encryption of backups (in transit and at rest)
  • Securing backup systems from unauthorized network access
  • Physical security controls

Testing and validation

Scheduled tests validate that:

  • Backups complete successfully
  • Backups contain all required data
  • Data can be restored properly from backups
  • Failures or gaps are identified

Testing may include restores of production data to test environments.

Monitoring and reporting

Monitoring backup operations and infrastructure allows problems to be identified quickly. Define metrics to track and reporting processes, such as:

  • Backup job failure notifications
  • Review of backup logs and reports
  • Backup success rates
  • Growth trends of backup data
  • Reporting of issues and risks

Roles and responsibilities

The policy should define RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) matrices covering key aspects such as:

  • Backup administration
  • Backup monitoring and reporting
  • Restoration approvals
  • Restoration execution
  • Testing coordination
  • Policy change control

How to create a backup policy

Steps to create an effective data backup policy include:

  1. Identify business requirements – Engage stakeholders to define backup and recovery requirements, RPOs, retention periods.
  2. Assess data sources – Catalog servers, data sets, and applications that require backup.
  3. Review capabilities – Assess current backup infrastructure, technologies, schedules and processes.
  4. Determine gaps – Identify any gaps between requirements, data sources, and capabilities.
  5. Define policy standards – Document standards for backup types, frequencies, retention, security, media handling, testing, etc.
  6. Assign responsibilities – Define clear roles and responsibilities for all stakeholders.
  7. Review and approve – Seek feedback from leadership and revise before final approval.
  8. Communicate and implement – Publish the policy and implement updated data protection procedures.
  9. Audit and update – Periodically audit compliance and effectiveness, updating the policy as needed.

The policy should be a living document, updated to reflect changes in data, storage, infrastructure, regulations, and business continuity needs.

Data backup policy examples

Here are some examples of data backup policies for different use cases:

Small business file server backup policy

  • Daily incremental backups of file server
  • Weekly full backups to external HDD, rotated offsite
  • Backups retained for 4 weeks
  • Monthly test restores
  • IT manager responsible for backups and restores

Enterprise database backup policy

  • Transaction log backups every 15 minutes
  • Nightly differential database backups
  • Weekly full database backups
  • Monthly backups to tape, tapes stored offsite for 7 years
  • Recovery tests quarterly
  • DBA team responsible for backup administration
  • IT DR team responsible for restores

Cloud-based SaaS application policy

  • Nightly exports of SaaS data
  • Exports stored in cloud storage
  • Previous 90 days exports retained
  • Annual exports retained for 7 years
  • Quarterly restoration tests
  • Cloud provider manages backup process
  • IT oversees validation testing

Key factors for effective backup policies

Some key factors to keep in mind for effective data backup policies include:

  • Comprehensiveness – The policy should cover all critical aspects of backup and recovery.
  • Precision – Avoid ambiguity – processes, schedules, etc. should be clearly defined.
  • Alignment – Should map to business needs, compliance requirements, and resources.
  • Adaptability – Built to accommodate changes in technology, regulations, risk.
  • Testability – Processes for validation testing should be incorporated.
  • Clarity – Easy to understand with defined technical terminology.
  • Actionability – Defined standards enable consistent execution.
  • Accountability – Clear ownership established for all aspects.

Adhering to these factors will help ensure your data backup policy is robust, actionable, and continues meeting business needs over time.

Key takeaways on data backup policies

  • A backup policy is a documented plan for backing up and recovering critical business data.
  • Policies help prevent data loss, enable quick recovery, and ensure compliance.
  • Policies define what data is protected, backup schedules, retention rules, processes, and responsibilities.
  • Creation involves assessing requirements and infrastructure, determining gaps, defining standards, assigning roles, and testing.
  • Backup policies should be comprehensive, precise, aligned to needs, adaptable, testable, clear, and ensure accountability.

An organization’s data backup policy is a foundational component of business continuity planning. Investing time to create, test, and maintain strong policies can pay major dividends when disaster strikes.