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What are immutable backups & why you should use them

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Humans have preserved information and data throughout history, inscribing it on stone tablets, papyrus, or paper.

And now that data has become digital, it’s more valuable than ever — presenting us with a new challenge: protecting our digital information from cyber threats. So what is the modern-day equivalent of inscribing information into stone?

Immutable backups.

With 94% of organizations either already relying on immutable data storage or planning to implement it within the next 12 months, it’s clear that this technology has become an essential data protection strategy. 

In this article, we’ll explore the world of immutable backup, its benefits, best practices, and how it can help your organization safeguard its data.

What are immutable backups?

An immutable backup is a data protection strategy that creates an unchangeable, unalterable copy of your data. Once the backup is created, it cannot be modified, overwritten, or deleted, ensuring that your data remains secure and intact. For instance, ransomware attacks often target backup files to prevent organizations from recovering their data without paying the ransom.

So how do immutable backups work?

Typically, they use specialized storage systems and technologies that enforce the immutability of the data. One common approach is Write Once, Read Many (WORM) storage, which allows data to be written once but read multiple times. This ensures that once the backup is created, it cannot be altered or deleted for a specified period, often determined by retention policies or regulatory requirements.

Another example of immutable backup technology is content-addressable storage (CAS). With CAS, data is stored using a unique identifier derived from the content itself, rather than its location. This makes it impossible to modify the data without changing its identifier, effectively creating an immutable record of the original data.

For example, a healthcare organization storing sensitive patient information could use immutable backups to protect against data breaches and ensure compliance with regulations like GDPR

Similarly, financial institutions can leverage immutable backups to safeguard financial records and transactions, preventing data tampering.

Why immutable backups are essential for data protection?

Data protection is of the utmost importance in industries like finance, healthcare, and legal services. 

Here are four reasons why your organization would want immutable backups:

Protecting against ransomware attacks

Ransomware attacks have increased by 24% in 2024, with cybercriminals targeting organizations of all sizes and industries. These attacks encrypt your data and demand a ransom payment in exchange for the decryption key.

Immutable backups provide a reliable defense against ransomware by ensuring that you always have a clean, unaltered copy of your data. Even if your primary data is compromised, you can quickly restore from the immutable backup without needing to pay the ransom. For example, NetApp’s Cyber Resilience secures your data 

Maintaining data integrity and compliance

Many industries, such as finance and healthcare, are subject to strict regulations governing data protection and retention. Immutable backups help organizations maintain data integrity and comply with these regulations by providing an auditable trail of your data’s history. With immutable backups, you can prove that your data has not been tampered with, which is crucial for meeting regulatory requirements like GDPR or PCI DSS.

Safeguarding against insider threats

While external cyber threats often dominate the headlines, insider threats pose a significant risk to organizations. If malicious insiders attempted to modify or delete your critical data, it would cause significant damage to your business. 

Immutable backups protect against insider threats by preventing unauthorized changes to your backup data. Even if an insider manages to alter or delete your primary data, you can still recover from the immutable backup, minimizing the impact of the incident.

Enabling quick disaster recovery

Disasters can strike at any time, whether it’s a natural disaster, hardware failure, or human error. In such situations, having a reliable and quickly recoverable backup is essential to minimize downtime. Immutable backups enable fast disaster recovery by providing a guaranteed clean copy of your data that can be restored rapidly. This quick restoration helps you get your systems back up and running with minimal disruption to your operations.

Types of Immutable Backup Solutions

While there are various backup solutions available, here are the types of immutable backups:

Write once, read many (WORM) storage

WORM storage is a common approach to immutable backups, where data can be written once and read multiple times, ensuring that the backup cannot be altered or deleted for a specified period. 

WORM storage is often used for long-term data retention and compliance purposes, making it ideal for industries with strict regulatory requirements, such as healthcare and finance. For example, a financial institution may use WORM storage to maintain immutable records of transactions, ensuring the integrity of the data for auditing and compliance purposes.

Content-addressable storage (CAS)

CAS is an immutable backup solution that stores data using a unique identifier derived from the content itself. By using an identifier, it’s easy to detect and prevent unauthorized modifications — a new one will appear. 

CAS systems are commonly used for archiving and compliance purposes, particularly in industries that deal with large amounts of unstructured data, such as media and entertainment. For instance, a media company may use CAS to store and protect its vast library of digital assets, ensuring that the original content remains unaltered over time.

Continuous data protection (CDP)

CDP is an immutable backup solution that continuously captures changes to your data in real time, creating an immutable record of every write operation. This allows you to recover data from any point in time, which is particularly useful in situations where you need to recover data from a specific moment, such as just before a ransomware attack or a critical system failure.

CDP is well-suited for organizations with critical data that require near-zero recovery point objectives (RPOs), such as financial trading firms or e-commerce businesses.

Time-based snapshots

Time-based snapshots are taken at specific intervals, capturing only the changes that occurred since the last backup. They’re ideal for storage systems shared by many virtual machines, as snapshots can be taken frequently to facilitate data restoration, with a recent snapshot always at your fingertips. Time-based snapshots are commonly used in virtualized environments, where multiple tenants share the same storage resources, such as data centers or cloud infrastructure.

Versioned backups

A versioned backup solution creates multiple versions of the same data, preserving each copy to ensure that previous versions are available and recoverable at any time. This approach provides an audit trail of changes to the data, enabling businesses to compare and restore previous versions when necessary. 

Versioned backup solutions are typically used for critical business data, such as financial records, source code, and software projects, where files are updated frequently. For example, a software development company may use versioned backups to protect its source code repository, allowing developers to easily roll back to previous versions if needed.

Cloud-based immutable backups

Cloud-based immutable backup solutions offer organizations a flexible and scalable way to protect their data. These solutions provide a cost-effective alternative to traditional on-premises implementations, with cloud providers handling the underlying infrastructure.

Cloud-based immutable backups offer built-in redundancy, geographically dispersed storage, and easy access from anywhere with an internet connection. Many cloud providers, such as, AWS and Microsoft Azure offer immutable backup capabilities through their object storage services, like AWS S3 Object Lock and Azure Blob Storage Immutable Blobs.

Air-gapped vs. immutable backups

While both air-gapped and immutable backups help secure your sensitive data, they serve different purposes. Air-gapped backups involve physically disconnecting the backup storage device from the network, creating an isolated environment that is not accessible from the internet or other connected systems. 

The physical separation makes it extremely difficult for cybercriminals to access or manipulate the backed-up data. However, air-gapped backups can be inconvenient to manage, as they require manual intervention to move data between the production environment and the isolated storage device. Each time you need to access the data, you’ll need to reisolate the new copy. Additionally, if a malicious employee attempted to corrupt the data, there wouldn’t be additional protection measures.

With immutable backups, the data is protected from modification or deletion, even if an attacker gains access to the storage device.

Traditional vs. immutable backups

Traditional backups store data that can be accessed and altered at any time, making them versatile for everyday use. However, this flexibility introduces vulnerabilities. These backups can be changed, deleted, or corrupted — either accidentally by users or intentionally by malicious actors.

In contrast, immutable backups provide a layer of security that traditional methods lack. Once data is backed up in an immutable format, it cannot be altered or deleted for a period defined by a retention policy. That means immutable backups are the choice if you want to protect yourself against ransomware and other cyber threats. You’ll ensure there’s always a pristine, unmodified copy of the data available for recovery.

Additionally, traditional backup processes might require regular management and monitoring to ensure data integrity, whereas immutable backups reduce this need by preventing alterations from the outset.

Are there disadvantages to immutable backups?

While immutable backups provide a robust defense against data loss and tampering, they are not a silver bullet for all your data protection needs. As with any technology, there are some potential drawbacks to consider:

  • Immutable backups require more storage space compared to traditional backups
  • Limited flexibility in managing your backup data, particularly if your retention policies change over time
  • Some legacy systems and applications may not be compatible with immutable backup solutions
  • Implementing an immutable backup strategy can be more complex than traditional backup approaches

However, these disadvantages can be mitigated by understanding their implications and taking appropriate measures. After all, immutable backups are just one part of a robust cybersecurity strategy. For instance, you could outsource all of your cybersecurity needs to a company that provides a wide range of services — ensuring you get compatibility and a cost-effective solution.

How to implement an immutable backup strategy

To successfully implement an immutable backup strategy, consider the following key steps and best practices:

1. Assess your data protection needs

Assessing your protection needs involves identifying the critical data assets that require protection. Determine the required recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs), and understand any compliance or regulatory requirements that apply to your industry — that way, you can apply tactics and strategy with your understanding. 

For example, a healthcare organization may need to prioritize the protection of electronic medical records and ensure compliance with regulations such as GDPR, while a financial institution may focus on safeguarding transaction data and meeting specific data retention requirements. Each protection mechanism will require a different approach.

2. Choose the right immutable backup solution

Once you have assessed your data protection needs, the next step is to choose the right immutable backup solution that aligns with your requirements. 

Consider these factors:

  • The scalability of the solution
  • Compatibility with your existing infrastructure
  • The level of security it provides compared to what you need

For instance, if you have a large amount of unstructured data, a content-addressable storage (CAS) system may be the most suitable choice. On the other hand, if you require continuous data protection for critical applications, a CDP solution may be the best fit.

3. Implement a 3-2-1-1 backup strategy

To ensure the resilience of your immutable backups, implement a 3-2-1-1 backup strategy. This strategy involves maintaining three copies of your data, storing them on two different media types, keeping one copy off-site, and ensuring one copy is immutable. 

By following this approach, you can protect your data against various threats, including hardware failures, natural disasters, and ransomware attacks. For example, you can store one copy of your data on-premises, another copy on a cloud storage platform with immutability features, and a third copy on an off-site immutable storage device, such as a tape drive with WORM capabilities.

4. Encryption

Without encryption, your data is left vulnerable to prying eyes and potential breaches. Encryption ensures that even if an unauthorized individual gains access to your backup data, they won’t be able to decipher its contents without the appropriate encryption key.

When selecting an immutable backup solution, look for one that offers built-in encryption capabilities. This will streamline the encryption process and ensure that your data is protected from the moment it’s backed up. Some solutions, like Proact’s Backup and Recovery service, even offer client-side encryption, which means that your data is encrypted before it ever leaves your premises, providing an extra layer of security.

5. Implement strict access controls

Access control is all about restricting access to the backup infrastructure and data to only authorized personnel. Try using strong authentication mechanisms such as multi-factor authentication (MFA), and regularly reviewing and updating access permissions. Additionally, consider implementing role-based access control (RBAC) to ensure that users only have access to the specific data and functions required for their roles. 

For instance, a backup administrator may have full access to manage the backup infrastructure, while a compliance officer may only have read-only access to verify the immutability of the backups.

6. Regularly test and validate your backups

To ensure that your immutable backups are functioning as expected and can be reliably used for data recovery, you should regularly test and validate them. Simply perform periodic restoration tests to verify the integrity and recoverability of your backup data. You can also conduct disaster recovery drills to assess your organization’s readiness to respond to a data loss event.

7. Monitor your security

As the adage goes, offense is the best defense. Monitoring your security will ensure its ongoing effectiveness and help identify potential issues before they escalate. You can implement monitoring and alerting mechanisms to keep track of backup statuses, storage capacities, and any unusual activity within the backup environment.

Additionally, regularly review audit logs to detect any unauthorized access attempts or changes to the backup configuration. By proactively monitoring your immutable backup solution, you can quickly respond to security incidents and maintain the integrity of your backup data.

8. Evaluate and plan recovery strategies

When disaster strikes, having a well-defined recovery plan will help you reduce downtime and get your business thriving again. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • What are your recovery time objectives (RTO) and recovery point objectives (RPO)? Define the maximum acceptable downtime and data loss for your business to tailor your backup strategy accordingly.
  • Which systems and data are critical to your business operations? Prioritize these elements in your recovery strategy to ensure rapid restoration.
  • How often do you test your recovery procedures? Regular testing can help confirm the effectiveness of your plans and identify potential improvements.
  • Is your documentation of recovery plans clear and current? Ensure that your recovery documentation includes detailed procedures, contact information, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities. This ensures everyone knows their tasks during an emergency.

The number one goal is to minimize impact in case of an emergency. By evaluating and planning recovery strategies, you can rest assured you won’t lose revenue due to a data mishap.

9. Partner with an experienced immutable backup provider

Implementing an immutable backup strategy can be complex, particularly for organizations with limited in-house expertise. To streamline the implementation process and ensure the effectiveness of your immutable backup solution, consider partnering with an experienced provider like Proact. 

With our expertise in backup and disaster recovery solutions, Proact can help you design, implement, and manage an immutable backup strategy tailored to your unique needs. That way, you can protect your data without the added pressure of managing an in-house team.

Implementing your immutable backup strategy today

Immutable backups are a crucial component of any comprehensive data protection strategy, providing an unalterable copy of your data that can be quickly restored in the event of a cyber attack, hardware failure, or other disaster. However, implementing an effective immutable backup solution requires careful planning and the right expertise.

Proact offers cutting-edge cybersecurity solutions tailored to your organization’s unique needs. Whether you’re looking to outsource your full operation or just need assistance with your recovery and backups, we’re here to help. After one call, we’ll help you know your data protection requirements, design a customized strategy, and implement the most appropriate technologies for your environment.

With Proact as your partner, you’ll benefit from:

  • Advanced immutable backup technologies, such as WORM storage and continuous data protection
  • Comprehensive support and guidance throughout the implementation process
  • Regular testing and validation of your backups to ensure their effectiveness
  • Ongoing monitoring and management to keep your data protection strategy up-to-date

Don’t leave your critical data vulnerable to cyber threats or other disasters. 

Contact Proact today to learn more about our immutable backup solutions and start building a more resilient, secure future for your organization. 

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