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Database backup: Methods and benefits

Database backup: Methods and benefits

May 16, 2023
May 16, 2023
Database backup: Methods and benefits
In this article, we’ll walk through the various types of database backups and some benefits and methods you can use to recover from any situation. 

Your data is valuable — no matter how you use it. But are you prepared to lose it? Unfortunately, data loss is an ever-present problem in today’s increasingly data-driven environments. To make matters worse, many IT and database administrators aren’t fully equipped to protect and recover their data in an emergency.

Unlike physical assets, security isn’t enough to fully protect your data and guarantee its availability. Instead, most administrators maintain some type of database backup they can revert to in the event of a data loss, breach or outage.

However, there’s more to creating a database backup than just making one big copy. In this article, we’ll walk through the various types of database backups and some benefits and methods you can use to recover from any situation. 

What is a database backup?

A database backup is an exact copy of your database kept in a separate location. Most administrators use database backups to restore lost data in an emergency, such as data loss due to an outage or system failure.

That may sound straightforward — and, frankly, it is. However, there’s a lot more variation than meets the eye. While every type of database backup accomplishes the same thing (“backing up data”), it’s how they do it that makes all the difference.

For example, time-sensitive applications may require frequent backups in near-real time. At the same time, databases with massive amounts of data may only need to backup small amounts at a time (usually the most recent updates) to avoid consuming too many resources.

Data backup is often confused with data replication. Data backup refers to the actual process of copying and storing data, often at multiple locations. Its primary purpose is to restore the data to a specific point in time and is useful for compliance and long-term archival of business data. On the other hand, data replication is intended for business continuity and minimizing recovery time in the event of a disaster.

In any case, there’s a backup methodology and supporting tools for nearly every circumstance. However, choosing the right methodology depends on a handful of factors.

Here are four factors of database backups to consider:

  • Frequency: How frequently does your database receive new data? If new data is loaded only once a day or so, then backups probably don’t need to be too frequent either. On the other hand, many real-time applications may also need real-time backups — something we’ll cover later on.
  • Urgency: How urgently do you need the latest data? In an outage, how far could you roll back before you lose critical information (i.e., your recovery point objectives or RPOs)?

While frequency can inform this factor, there isn’t always a direct relationship. Instead, applications with a high urgency may need a new backup for every change — even if there isn’t a high frequency of incoming data. Similarly, databases with a high frequency of incoming data may not have a high urgency if the incoming data isn’t important in the long term (such as a constant feed of raw social media data).

  • Amount: How much data do you need to backup at a given time? Since every backup requires moving a certain amount of data from one place to another, administrators may need to get creative to avoid consuming excessive network bandwidth. For example, backing up a massive database may need to happen in increments that only reflect the latest changes.
  • Type: What type of data are you backing up? You may need to leverage certain technologies, pipelines and tools depending on the type of data and sources you use. Data types can also impact security considerations, especially when regulatory compliance dictates certain backup methodologies for sensitive data such as healthcare or financial information.

As you’ve probably already noticed, each of these considerations ultimately informs the backup type and strategy you’ll deploy. While we’ll explore each of these types later, let’s first discuss some major ways database backups can benefit your organization.

Benefits of database backup

While database backups are an essential cautionary measure, they offer several other benefits.

By regularly backing up your data using the right tools, you’ll enjoy faster data recovery, easier data replication, stronger security and even improved performance across your data estate and IT infrastructure. Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.

Faster data recovery and replication

A solid backup strategy involves seamless replication of new data between live and backup databases. Ideally, when a live system experiences an outage or data loss, reverting (read: replicating from) the backup should be just as seamless.

This capability is invaluable for almost every application — especially those with high traffic. For example, where only minutes of downtime on an ecommerce site can lead to hundreds or thousands of dollars of lost revenue, every second is important in the recovery process.

Stronger data security

Reliable backups and quick recovery are two major cornerstones of data security and it’s not hard to see why. By fully investing in your backup solutions, you’ll help bolster your security and protect against cyber attacks such as data breaches and data sprawls.

You’ll also be back on your feet in less time after an event, all the while safeguarding sensitive assets that might include customer, financial and healthcare data. As we’ll see later, these security benefits can help you maintain regulatory compliance with federal and international security mandates.

Easier data management

Moving, managing and storing data can be difficult and resource-intensive, especially if you have a lot of it. Making regular backups is certainly no exception. The right tool should not only make this process easy, but it should also make your entire data management much smoother.

For example, Fivetran offers seamless high-volume data replication to move data between storage solutions as real-time changes occur. Replication tools alone are extremely invaluable in the backup process as they eliminate the need to manually move data all at once, helping to free up network bandwidth and resources in the process.

Even if all you need is a faster data replication solution, Fivetran’s other services can help augment (and improve) other areas of your data stack. Such services include complete ETL or ELT, flexible data transformations and front-to-back security, allowing you to move and manage all aspects of your data from a single platform. 

Improved performance

While making backups consumes resources (especially if you do it often), maintaining backups can improve overall system performance in the long run.

Most of this improvement comes from avoiding manual backups in favor of automating the process with data management and replication tools. No matter how you do them, manual backups are often extremely time- and resource-intensive, sometimes consuming large amounts of network bandwidth to replicate an entire database for a single backup manually.

By contrast, new tools leverage technologies like change data capture (CDC) to create backups in real-time as changes occur. This not only frees up resources and bandwidth but also reduces data loss between rollbacks.

Controlled costs

Where quick data recoveries are key to avoiding lost revenue, they’re also key to controlling costs by avoiding and mitigating potential mishaps. Many companies make the mistake of failing to see the long-term return of database backup upfront. While some platforms and replication tools can carry a heavy price tag, it’s a small cost compared to lost revenue and time due to data loss. Some backup tools can easily pay for themselves in mission-critical applications.

Better compliance

Security mandates such as the GDPR and HIPAA place particular importance on data storage and management, with regular backups being a major requirement in most cases.

By implementing a database backup strategy and reaping the other benefits we’ve discussed, your organization will be better equipped to meet a wide range of compliance requirements. Depending on your industry, doing so may be essential for staying in business and operating under the law.

Types of database backup

As we’ve mentioned a few times, you can backup your data in multiple ways.

While the exact strategy varies widely between infrastructure, requirements and data types, most database backup types fall into three major categories — full, differential and incremental. Though some organizations leverage more advanced variations of these backups, knowing these three is good to get started.

Full database backups

As the name suggests, a full database backup takes a “full” or “complete” copy of your entire database.

While almost every backup strategy aims to create a full database backup, in this case, a “full database backup” refers to a single process. In other words, if your backup strategy uses a full database backup, you make a complete backup every time you backup your database.

  • Pros: Making a complete copy of your database every time ensures all data is accounted for and shortens recovery times. 
  • Cons: Full database backups can be extremely resource-intensive, especially for frequent backups or on infrastructure with limited bandwidth.

Incremental database backup

If a database only receives a few select updates between backups, it rarely makes sense to copy the entire database every time you create one.

Incremental database backups solve this problem by creating backups in small parts or increments rather than all at once. These increments are simply the changes since the last backup, with most organizations utilizing the “modified” timestamp on files to check which data was changed. 

Incremental backups are usually the more efficient solution. Leading tools like Fivetran utilize CDC replication to move large datasets in near-real time.

  • Pros: Incremental backups require very few resources, allowing for more frequent updates, real-time replication and less disk space.
  • Cons: May present a small room for error if some changed data isn’t captured. However, this is very rare.

Differential database backup

Most organizations still make occasional full backups to ensure data integrity and accuracy. Differential backups make several incremental backups between each full backup to leverage the best of both worlds.

Here, each incremental backup is saved until the next full backup, allowing for a complete record of changes over a certain period. This provides similar accuracy as full data backups without consuming the same number of resources. 

  • Pros: Differential backups provide more detailed information about data changes without sacrificing as many resources as full backups.
  • Cons: More backup copies still require more storage than incremental backups.

How to create a database backup plan

Now that you know the major database backup types and why they’re useful, it’s time to create a backup plan for your organization. 

Even if you already have a backup plan, it may help to review these steps and consider new tools and methods.

Step 1: Identify your most important data

First and foremost: what are you backing up? As data volumes outpace the capacity of some databases and warehouses, you may need to assign priority to certain data types or backup devices.

For example, an ecommerce company may afford to lose some page analytics data but not sensitive customer information or payment card data. Plus, depending on your industry and regulatory requirements, what you’re backing up will influence the strategy you choose (or are required to choose).

Step 2: Consider your recovery objectives

What are your recovery objectives in the event of a disaster? You may need to adopt a specific backup strategy or tool depending on your recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs).

Here, your RTO is the maximum amount of time it should take to recover, while your RPO is the maximum amount of data loss you can afford to tolerate. For example, full database backups might make it hard to achieve your RPOs if a large amount of time and data passes between consecutive backups.

Step 3: Choose between online or offline backups

While your data types and requirements will largely impact this decision, you may still have to choose between online or offline backups. Though high-security applications often call for offline backups using physical backup devices and servers, they come with overhead and ongoing device maintenance. As a result, online backups are usually preferred, especially as more companies leverage flexible and affordable cloud infrastructure for data storage.

Step 4: Assign a backup strategy based on system capabilities

Your choice from Step 3 will greatly impact the backup strategy you use. For example, offline backups may not be able to support full database backups promptly, which might otherwise be more practical in the cloud. In any case, however, incremental or differential backups are usually appropriate for most applications.

Step 5: Use data replication and backup tools

No matter the backup process, the right tools can make all the difference — especially regarding data replication. With the right data replication tools, you’ll be able to quickly copy and move data in real time and save valuable resources in the process.

Conclusion

Database backups are an essential tool for maintaining data availability and integrity. A solid backup strategy can help you recover faster, maintain compliance and improve performance across the board.

Of course, backups are only as good as the tools that run them. 

With Fivetran’s data integration suite, you can make backups in real-time with CDC replication, pulling data from hundreds of sources and getting insights faster with a massive collection of pre-built transformations.

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