Is the 3-2-1 Data Backup Rule Still Relevant Today?

321 Data Backup

Cyberattacks like phishing, hacking, and ransomware continue to grow, crippling organizations and exposing innocent people’s data to fraud and misuse.

Since the earliest days of data protection, the 3-2-1 rule (three copies of data– one production and two back-ups, stored on at least two different media types, with one copy kept offsite of your organization) has been touted as one of the most effective strategies for keeping data safe. But is this tried and true principle still relevant in our modern threat environment?

3-2-1 Data Backup Rule History

The modern computing world looks very different than when the 3-2-1 rule was first conceived. Networking was much less advanced, and the internet was more of a toy for computer geeks than a tool for business. At that time, the biggest threats to data often originated inside the organization, from equipment glitches, employee actions, or data corruption.

Today, organizations process exponentially more data. There are also options available for backup, including cloud-based storage. How does this affect the 3-2-1 data backup principles?

Things to Consider with the 3-2-1 Data Backup Rule

The 3-2-1 backup principles are still promoted as an effective strategy for individuals and businesses by organizations like the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). While the basic principles behind 3-2-1 still stand, you must consider both the intent and execution you seek.

Suppose you are dealing with static data kept for archival purposes (like records from previous years, completed projects, etc.). In that case, it is relatively simple to protect your data using a practical solution like traditional 3-2-1 data backup procedures.

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It gets a bit more challenging when you think about production data or information you use more regularly, like current billing accounts or records containing protected health information (PHI). This data is the lifeblood of your operations.

Losing access through a ransomware attack could shut down your operations for days or even months. Depending upon your data volume and its critical nature, backups may need to happen daily or more frequently. How do you integrate this process into daily operations, and where do you store those backups offsite?

Another thing to consider is that malware and ransomware have become more complex and insidious. These programs can seemingly lie dormant for long periods, meaning multiple backups may be infected. 

Also, some ransomware has features that attempt to infect clean data during the backup process. Imagine the horror of thinking you’ve restored your data, only to discover it is now corrupted.

Vital Parts of the 3-2-1 Data Backup Rule

Other versions of the 3-2-1 data backup principle have evolved. Many include storing offsite data backup in cloud-based storage in multiple geographically-separated locations. Companies that provide backup services and products have various options, all claiming to be better than their competitors. 

Whether you choose a process based on the 3-2-1 rule or another version, remember these critical data backup considerations: 

  1. How often – The more frequently you need to back up data, the more complex and costly it will likely be. 
  2. How much – Data backup and storage prices are often based on the total volume of data in play. A few years ago, consumer storage was measured in megabytes (1 megabyte = one 400-page book). Today, terabytes (1 terabyte = .58 miles of books) are the standard, with petabytes (1024 terabytes) poised to become the new standard. More data means more cost. 
  3. How vital – The more important your data is for your business, the more you need to consider the number of copies required and where to keep them. For instance, if a natural disaster interrupted electric and internet service to your location for an extended period, you’d need the ability to keep things running at a site that wasn’t affected.

Whichever method you choose, data backup must be a part of any effective data recovery strategy.

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