A crazy data backup scheme that works

Symform's groundbreaking online data backup offering is turning heads, but can it win over skeptics?

I can think of a lot of words to describe small-business data protection -- "painful" and "expensive," to name two. But "cool" and "sexy?" Generally not.

Those last terms apply, however, to Symform's distributed peer-to-peer online backup architecture. This wildly innnovative approach has the potential to reduce the pain of small-business backup, provided it can win enough hearts and minds to stand the test of time.

Online backup in general beats the usual DIY slog, which is why more and more small businesses are taking the online route. With no dedicated IT staff, the simple act of ensuring that backup tapes have been changed is an error-prone hassle. Unfortunately, the online option has a big downside: If you're pushing more than a few gigabytes, it can get very expensive very quickly.

Online data backup and its discontents

Most online backup schemes ship your data off to the backup provider's data center, where it is stored and hopefully mirrored to a secondary data center. Given that the backup provider has to store and mirror all of your data (as well as all data from other customers), the biggest cost in managing your backups is in providing rock-solid back-end storage. And that's reflected in the dreaded per-gigabyte fee.

Data Explosion iGuide

These recurring costs range anywhere from 50 cents per gigabyte per month and up. If you're trying to protect just a few small mission-critical data sets, that's not so bad. But if you intend to use online backup as a means to protect your entire infrastructure, even a relatively modest Microsoft Small Business Server environment could cost upward of $300 a month to protect. Compared to the long-term bill of maintaining your own local backup, this is not exactly a cost-saving option.

Symform's answer to storage backup

Here's where Symform's backup architecture changes the game. Instead of storing your data, Symform uses storage capacity provided by you and other customers like you. You pay a flat fee per month for each data source you want to back up -- and you can back up as much data as your Internet pipe can handle -- provided you offer an equal amount of storage to other Symform users. Removing the per-gigabyte fee from the mix suddenly makes online backup seem like a deal.

If you're like most people, you just said to yourself, "Wait, I'm supposed to ship my data off to a bunch of people I don't know and feel good about it? Get real." In fact, just about everyone I've talked to about Symform's backup methodology has had that sort of reaction. How can using a bunch of random companies spread across the world possibly result in a highly available and secure home for my backups?

So here's the cool and sexy part: Symform protects your data through a redundancy mechanism it calls RAID-96. First, your backup data is hacked into 64MB blocks. These blocks are then encrypted using the industry standard AES-256 encryption algorithm. They are further chopped into 64 blocks of 1MB each. From those 64 blocks, 32 more parity blocks are computed, allowing you to reconstitute the original 64 1MB blocks from any 64 of the 96 resulting blocks. From there, the 96 1MB blocks are shipped out to 96 other nodes in Symform's Cooperative Storage Cloud.

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