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The difference between backups and digital archives

Using the right storage solution is key to safeguarding your data
man watching laptop

Backing up and archiving data are not the same thing. Although they may seem similar, these two technologies have distinct functions, and understanding the difference is essential to using them correctly.

So, how do they differ, and which technology should you be using?


What is a backup?

In short, a backup is a copy that can be restored in case of hardware failure and data corruption or loss. The original data is not usually deleted, but previous backups might be overwritten by more recent versions.

The primary goal of backing up data is to always have a second copy of any information you don’t want to lose. Some PCs and laptops create automatic backups on a reserved area of the hard drive, so that previous versions of your operating system can be restored if a new update causes errors, for example. You might also have noticed that your mobile phone likes to make backups whenever it finds a stable Wi-Fi connection, so that your apps, files, and user settings can be restored on a new device if your current one gets lost, broken, or stolen.

In the business world, backups are useful for when an employee accidentally or maliciously deletes important files. Without this technology, your business could grind to a halt. A second copy allows you to restore any data that was lost and prevent downtime. It also provides an extra layer of defence against ransomware attacks, which are on the increase. If your files aren’t backed up and a cybercriminal manages to encrypt them, you have two choices: pay the ransom or wave goodbye to your data. Even if you pay up, there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your data back. With a solid backup system, however, you could identify the source of the attack, stop it in its tracks, then restore all of your data.


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What is an archive?

While the purpose of a backup is to restore files to a past state, an archive serves multiple purposes. Digital archiving can be used to free up space on primary storage and to retain copies of files for long-term reference.

In contrast to backups, data that is moved to archives is usually inactive, which means it isn’t changing anymore and only one version should exist. Digital archives are used to store data for long periods of time, maybe even decades, guaranteeing data integrity in case it needs to be checked in future, for example a contract signed by a customer years ago. The indexing features of this technology improve searchability, so that employees can quickly track down every sales order, invoice, and contract that your company has ever sent or received.

Long-term data retention is also extremely useful for compliance and legal purposes. If a dispute arises regarding your business practices, contracts, or employees, all the relevant data can be located instantly. Take for example an employee that believes they are being bullied in the workplace. If you archive every email that is sent or received, you can easily search through them using keywords to check whether these claims are true and take the necessary steps. Or if a client accuses you of breaching contract, you can locate the document in a flash, refute the claims, and minimise damage to your reputation.


Why the difference matters?

Although many people confuse the two technologies, they actually serve very different purposes. Backup systems are designed to restore lost or damaged data, whereas digital archives are used to store inactive data for long-term safekeeping and retrieval.

The restore function enables you to rollback changes and recover data that has been lost, encrypted, or deleted. This is definitely a useful feature, but one limitation is that it can only restore data to a single point in time, such as restoring a spreadsheet to the version you had yesterday. In contrast, digital archives store data from a wider range of time, for example every single invoice that your company has received in the last five years.

Digital archiving is more advanced technology and provides greater benefits, as it enables you to save space on primary storage, to keep track of every existing version of your data, and to retrieve it whenever necessary. Some people keep their backups for many years and try to use them as an archiving system, but backups aren’t designed for data retrieval in this way, and the process can be extremely difficult and time-consuming. With digital archives, all you need are a few keywords to retrieve the exact file you’re looking for.


Which one is right for you?

The short answer is both. Backups and archives serve similar but ultimately different purposes, so combining the two technologies is the best way to ensure maximum protection for your data.

By now, most people understand the importance of backing up valuable information. Almost all of us have lost a phone or had to restore an operating system to a previous version after dodgy updates, and it’s reassuring to know that this data is recoverable. However, you shouldn’t think that you can use your backups as archives.

If you need to store data securely in the long term, your best bet is digital archiving. This not only frees up storage space on your primary drives, it also ensures that your most important business data will always be available for reference. If for legal reasons you need to track down copies of contracts or invoices from five years ago, the smart indexing features of digital archiving enable you to search using keywords and locate them instantly. This saves valuable time and minimises the risk of legal problems.

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