Incremental Backup Vs. Differential Backup

As a managed services provider (MSP), backing up and restoring data is one of your most important responsibilities. Cyberattacks, human error, and system malfunctions all stand to put vital business data in jeopardy. According to recent reports, 61 data breaches compromised 1.5 million data records in the first month of 2020 alone.

Companies with lost, damaged, or stolen data suffer more than a headache—they take a direct hit to their bottom line. According to IBM, the average cost per lost or stolen record in a data breach is $150, while the average total cost of a data breach is a devastating $3.86 million. Yet despite such startling numbers, a study from Hiscox insurance company found that seven out of ten companies are not prepared for a cyberattack.

When it comes to protecting data from threats of every nature, data backup is a must. Exactly which backup method an MSP implements should be based on their unique needs and goals—what matters most is that some form of backup system is in place.

Data backup—understanding all the options

While there are many ways to back up data, MSPs typically rely on the following three methods: full, incremental, and differential. Each method has its own advantages and disadvantages, and they’re typically used together to design a comprehensive server backup and recovery strategy.

If accomplished effectively, these customized backup plans can minimize downtime and protect customers from millions of lost dollars and a tarnished reputation.

Full backups 

While incremental and differential backups are the most popular, you can only implement them after a full backup. With full backups, a complete copy of a dataset is produced. That means all system files, application files, user data, and more are copied and stored at a preselected location. Traditionally, that location was a backup tape or secondary drive. But these traditional storage destinations are continuing to become less popular as the sheer volume of data companies rely on grows to new heights. Instead, more MSPs are turning to the cloud—where the sky’s the limit—to store their customers’ data.

The downside of a full backup is they can take a long time to run—sometimes more time than a company has to spare. For this reason, the best backup software only requires a full backup once, never again. Full backups are also more storage-intensive. Drives that hold a lot of data may not be capable of a full backup, even if they run overnight.

Today’s backup products are designed to perform incremental and differential backups after the original one-time full backup, using various methods to synthetically create a recoverable full backup without having to actually run full backups regularly.

Incremental backups

Incremental backups begin with a full backup. But once that initial full backup is taken, incremental backups only copy the parts of files that have changed since the previous backup. Once the incremental backup has run, it won’t back up that file again until the next full backup, unless the file changes. This saves valuable time and storage space, making incremental backups the least resource-intensive of the three backup methods.

There are three common forms of incremental backup:

  • Byte-level incremental backups monitor and back up individual bytes that change within a file system
  • Block-level incremental backups only back up changed blocks within the system
  • Incremental forever backups focus on only backing up what is absolutely necessary

Differential backups

Like incremental backups, differential backups begin with a full backup. But unlike incremental backups, differential backups don’t clear the archive bit. A file that’s updated after a full backup will be archived every time a differential backup is run until the next full backup runs and clears the archive bit. For this reason, differential backups demand more resources than incremental backups.

In the event of a complete drive failure, one would need to restore the last full backup and only the latest differential backup. This is less time consuming than an incremental backup restore. However, each night a differential backup runs, backup files get larger and the time it takes to run the backup lengthens.

Putting a comprehensive backup plan in place

Data loss and service outages can be catastrophic. But MSPs can help their customers drastically reduce their risk through comprehensive backup and quick restoration.

The blend of full, differential, and incremental backups will vary for every organization depending on the organization’s needs and network resources. In conversations with organizational leaders, MSPs should communicate the costs and benefits of these backup strategies, and implement a disaster recovery plan that’s tailored to each of their customers.

A truly comprehensive backup recovery plan will also leverage secure cloud backup software like SolarWinds Backup. These systems allow MSPs to maintain optional local backups in-house while still relying on the security of the cloud. Features include:

  • Perfect syncing. Never worry about mismatches between local storage and the cloud. MSP Backup and Recovery keeps these two backup systems perfectly synced, saving you hours of work.
  • Backup storage across multiple devices. Your local storage tier can include USB drives, network-attached storage, network share, or a user’s machine. You don’t have to purchase an expensive proprietary backup appliance.
  • Automated recoveries. When disaster strikes, you don’t have to panic. SolarWinds® Backup automatically selects the fastest recovery source for your users, whether it’s local or in the cloud.

With the right backup systems in place, MSPs can streamline the data protection process and keep their customers out of harm’s way.