Archive Data Protection

    Data Backup vs. Archive: What’s the Difference?

    Data backup and archiving are often assumed to be the same, but this can be a costly mistake. Here’s the difference.

    by Mercedes Cardona

    Key Points

    • Businesses need both backup and archiving for email and other data.
    • Backup systems help protect against data loss and ensure business continuity.
    • Archiving provides a searchable, permanent record for compliance, e-discovery and business intelligence.


    We’ve all heard the mind-boggling numbers of how much data gets stored worldwide each year: By 2024, we’ll have 8.9 zettabytes of data stored, according to market researchers at International Data Corp.[1] That’s 89 followed by 21 zeros. That’s a lot of data to back up.

    With data volume growing at more than 20% every year, data backup is an increasingly important function. It is part of any disaster recovery plan and helps maintain business continuity in various scenarios — from users accidentally deleting files to bad guys holding data for ransom.

    But backing up data is only part of the story. Data also needs to be stored in a way that makes it accessible. So, organizations need to archive digital records, as well, to handle requests for information around issues of regulation, litigation and corporate governance. There’s also growing interest in extracting business intelligence by running data analytics on archives of email and other data.

    “It's not a binary either/or situation. Organizations really need both backup and archiving,” said Garth Landers, Mimecast’s director of product marketing, archiving. “This data is not only going to be utilized for backup and recovery or archiving/governance, but to really make businesses perform.”

    The Difference Between Backup and Archiving 

    Data backup should not be confused with data archiving, and a useful metaphor is the difference between a photocopier and a vault.

    A backup makes a copy of your organization’s data and stores it safely, so it can be restored in case files are lost or corrupted, such as in a ransomware attack or a natural disaster. Backup merely saves the data temporarily as a passive data store — a static copy of data at a specific point in time. When used, it will restore your records back to that moment.

    An archive, by comparison, is an active storage system with multiple uses. It can organize, search and retrieve information that an organization needs to keep, but doesn’t have to use regularly.

    At a basic level, data can be stored in an archive and deleted from the main network for security purposes (to keep intellectual property safe) or to save on storage (because video files take up a lot of space).

    But archiving is much more than that. “Archiving is typically the authoritative, unchangeable, immutable copy of data that represents the final version of the truth, and it's going to be used for a different set of business purposes,” said Landers. “Archiving is going to have a much richer, deeper and fuller set of indexing capabilities that allows you to get very granular and very precise so you can find that proverbial needle in the haystack when you're responding to an audit or legal request.”

    The ability to create that single version of the truth and save it for future use makes archiving a powerful tool. Once that business record is created, the company can then enforce document retention and deletion policies using automation tools.

    “To have a human carry that out every day and look at their checklist would be impossible, when you're talking about terabytes of data,” said Landers. “Automation is absolutely essential to be able to do this at scale.”

    Email Archiving and e-Discovery

    When a lawsuit is filed, discovery these days often involves lawyers requesting copies of emails. The fact that individuals are expected to send and receive 319.6 billion emails this year alone,[2] and that most of us are not great at cleaning up our inboxes, only underscores the need for email archiving to address legal challenges. 

    An archive can search for all emails for one subject (for example, one product in a liability case) or communications between two particular employees (in a discrimination case). An archiving system can make that discovery much simpler and cost-effective, automating what would otherwise take days or weeks of hunting by a law associate charging hundreds of dollars per billable hour.

    Email Archiving and Regulation

    Regulations such as the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) have also raised the bar on archiving data. GDPR established rules for saving and deleting personal data — the “right to be forgotten” online — and CCPA established the toughest data retention and deletion requirements in the U.S. Both sets of regulations back up enforcement with significant fines against organizations that fail to respond to data retrieval and deletion requests within their deadlines.

    Archiving, combined with indexing, classification and retention management capabilities, helps fend off steep fines and reputational damage from failing to comply with privacy regulations. As with e-discovery and litigation support, an indexed archive makes short work of the volume of data, which in the case of regulation is potentially much larger.

    “Privacy acts like CCPA, like the very famous GDPR before it, put a premium emphasis on making it clear: Why are you storing this data about this individual? What is the business reason and rationale?” said Landers. “You have to have the ability to delete it systematically, according to policy. Archiving really brings that capability to bear along with powerful indexing and search.”

    Reducing Costs by Archiving Data

    Beyond seeking to avoid fines under proliferating regulatory requirements or to minimize settlements in lawsuits, organizations are always aiming to contain the growing expense of compliance and e-discovery. Companies are also running up costs and spending a lot of time chasing down activities that disregard their own corporate governance.

    Overall, budget costs vary widely, and personnel and third-party services can add up. An organization can reduce those variable costs and pay a lower fixed cost by investing in backup and archiving systems. In a survey of Mimecast’s customers, 61% said their archiving solutions paid for themselves within 18 months, and 81% found their workforce productivity improved by up to 50%.

    “Organizations should invest in backup and archiving systems that really allow them to focus on their day job and be productive,” said Landers. Backup and archiving solutions will need to be easy to manage and readily available on mobile devices to encourage use. “Is this something that's going to be intuitive, doesn't require a lot of training and allows me to be productive in my everyday life? That’s something that is really key.”

    The Bottom Line

    The difference between data backup and archiving is becoming ever more evident and important. Businesses need both: Backup to protect data assets, and archiving to streamline compliance, cut e-discovery costs and move into conducting advanced analytics on their archived emails and other data.

    [1] “IDC's Global StorageSphere Forecast Shows Continued Strong Growth in the World's Installed Base of Storage Capacity,” International Data Corp.

    [2] “Number of e-mails per day worldwide 2017-2025,” Statista


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