Cloud sync vs backup: Which disaster recovery works better for business continuity?

David Gewirtz shares a real-world example of how a cloud-based disaster recovery strategy can help sustain business continuity, even for small businesses and families.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

We weren't in Kansas anymore. Wait. Actually we were in Kansas. We weren't in Florida anymore when my Apple Watch clanged with an urgent message.

Because I was driving, I didn't look at the watch. However, as soon as I could, I pulled off the road. The text message was simple, but troubling: "The lawyer is being a pain. He needs your Dad's death certificate and will within the hour."

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To understand why I was in Kansas, and why I was getting messages like this, I need to give you a bit of an insight into my life. Many of you know by now that my wife, my pup, and I evacuated Florida during Hurricane Irma. But just because we were on the road avoiding the eventual roof damage that was due to hit my house, that didn't mean the rest of the world was going to remain quiescent.

I've talked before about this trip, and how each night we stopped at hotels and I worked until the broadband came to a halt. My editors and producers were generally understanding. I kept in contact over Hangouts during our daytime driving. Each night I'd write, working to make sure I got my projects done on deadline.

But the urgent document request thing was part of a different story. About four or five years ago, both of my parents got very, very sick. My wife and I took on the responsibility of managing their care. Untangling all the details of their lives, in order to make sure things were done properly, took a lot of work -- even after they both passed away.

That text message related to one of those tangled tendrils. You don't need to know the details, but you do need to know this: I had to produce two documents I hadn't looked at in a long time. To complicate matters, I had to produce them while traveling.

We pulled off at the next exit, found a nice Sonic (because of the dog, we did most of our eating outside during the cross-country trip). At an outdoor picnic table, I proceeded to search for the documents in question.

From my iPhone, I looked in my Dropbox. No joy. I looked in my Google Drive. No joy. I searched Evernote, and boom -- there they were! I clicked the note in Evernote, tapped the PDF icon (which opened the documents), then hit the share icon. I tapped Share to eFax, and was able to immediately fax the document.

Because of the cloud sync infrastructure I'd set up well before my trip, I was able to head off a minor emergency. As it turns out, I was without my local storage infrastructure for three full months. With one exception I'll discuss in a moment, I was able to function successfully.

The difference between cloud sync and backup

Backup is the traditional way most businesses protect their digital assets from disaster. At regular intervals, changes in local storage are transferred to either a local backup device or a cloud backup service. Usually, these changes are incremental and go into backup archives. A good backup service will store ongoing snapshots, so it's always possible to go back in time and recover an old document.

The gotcha with backup systems is that recovery is often cumbersome. You usually have to launch a backup program on your PC, dig through the various backup instances, and initiate a restore. In most cases, you can't really use or read the files in the backups until they're restored to your computer.

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Cloud sync, by contrast, takes files that exist on your local computer and moves them into a cloud infrastructure. Most cloud infrastructures encourage you to work on the files in the cloud. In fact, cloud vendors would prefer you to live in their cloud applications rather than treating them as mere repositories.

My cloud sync environment

I've been using Evernote for years. Evernote stands out because it scans and can search images, which means that PDF scans and even photos become searchable. Because of this feature, I've long been saving important documents to Evernote. At one point during my parents' illness, I actually set up a script to copy everything from the LAN server folder I'd assigned to their affairs into encrypted Evernote notes.

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To do that, I used a program called Hazel. Hazel keeps an eye on a specified folder. Whenever something new is added, it runs a script to move the files into Evernote.

There were many times during my parents' end of life when I was in a hospital or a critical care facility, and had to instantly put my hands on a document. The scan/Hazel/Evernote process made it possible.

This approach also made it possible, two years later, to handle the document crisis on that Kansas roadside. One of the reasons I shared with you a bit of personal information about family documents is because I wanted to make the point that you may need to retrieve any document at any time, not just those you expect to be working on. The system I set up a couple of years ago helped me pull up something I never expected I'd need to dig up near a Kansas highway.

When we finally arrived in Oregon, I had to be able to do my job even though my NAS servers were still in Florida. It would take almost three months for the moving process to get those servers to me.

For this part of the job, Dropbox and Google Docs were there for the win. A few years ago, I talked about how I use Dropbox to sync my main desktop and document folders across all my machines.

I use the selective sync feature to avoid overwhelming those machines (like my laptop) with a smaller storage footprint. When I arrived in Oregon and set up my temporary workspace, I used this capability a lot.

But what about all the other documents I have on the NAS? With my Dropbox hack, I was only syncing the documents I work with most regularly.

Until about a year ago, I didn't have a good answer for cloud sync on my NAS. The Drobo is severely limited in terms of the apps it runs, and had nothing that would nicely talk to Dropbox or Google Drive.

But then I brought in the first of two Synology NAS boxes. As I've discussed in my reviews, Synology's DiskStation Manager (DSM) is exceptional. Having tested a DSM feature called Cloud Sync, I was so impressed that I actually incorporated it into my regular storage strategy.

Cloud Sync makes copies of files between selected NAS folders and the various cloud services. I have some files syncing to Dropbox, and some files syncing to Google Drive. Which files go where is pretty much dependent on which service best fits for the types of folders and files.

In particular, I use Google Drive for files I might need to do a full-text search on. I use Dropbox for files I would need to reference by name only (like installers, for example). That's because you only get full-text search in Dropbox if you're a business customer, and sadly that service requires a minimum number of accounts to be purchased to be allowed to use it.

Where cloud sync breaks down

I mentioned earlier that there was one exception to being able to work comfortably only with files in the cloud. That was video.

Because my storage on Dropbox and Google Drive is limited, I didn't sync my video production assets to the cloud. I started to send them to Amazon Drive, but shortly after I began that process, Amazon yanked its unlimited storage policy.

My video backups were only local. That meant I couldn't access them while on the road or when I arrived in Oregon. I just had to make do until the moving truck arrived, and I was able to plug in my NAS here in Salem.

Some cautions for business continuity

Once it became clear that Hurricane Irma was definitely headed directly towards our house, we made a quick decision to be among the first to bug out. We only had about six hours to pack our stuff and get in the car.

If I hadn't had all these systems in place, and been running the sync process for many months, I would not have been able to access my files. It would have been impossible to upload all important files to the cloud in the few hours before we left.

When planning your business continuity process, make sure to allow for the time it takes to actually sync files to the cloud. Do this way before you expect an emergency to strike.

One thing became clear to me on this trip: business continuity isn't just for business. I build my backup strategy to keep up with work, but keeping up with demands for family management, even for a small family, also required a business continuity strategy.

I'd also recommend you don't give up on backups just because you are using Cloud Sync. Both the Drobo and the Synology each suffered a failed drive due to the move. I'll go into the recovery in detail in another article, but it's important to realize that if each box suffered two drive failures instead of one, recovery might not have been possible, and the only fallback would have been offsite backups.

As I've discussed before, it's getting harder and harder for small businesses to do offsite backups using cloud storage, so it's necessary to look into alternative solutions. This, too, I'll be discussing in future articles.

The bottom line

I won't tell you that it was easy to maintain work and family management operations while on the road, running from a hurricane. Between the bad hotel Wi-Fi and the exhaustion that came from driving all day and then working way into the evening, it was rough.

But having access to a good mobile infrastructure, with solid apps like Evernote, Dropbox, Google, Hangouts, eFax, and a good VPN, helped make it work. But the biggest thing that tied everything together was the cloud. No matter where I was in the country, I was able to access critical files.

For me, the cloud was essential to business continuity and it worked.

P.S. Just in case you're wondering why I'm writing this in February when the hurricane was in September, the answer is simple. Just getting back up to speed after an evacuation and a move took a lot of time. I have a lot of interesting stories and lessons learned from that time, and I'll be sharing them with you more frequently now that I've got all my stuff back and my workspace finally properly set up.

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