Exploring Air Gap Backups: Why They’re Essential for Data Protection

Air gapping is an authentication system that physically or logically separates at least one data backup copy. The goal of air gapping is to keep evil entities out of the final copy of an organization’s digital assets. A hostile entity in this context might be a virus, malware, an attacker, an unauthorized insider, ransomware, a human error, or an unforeseen power outage that mistakenly corrupts backed-up data.

Air gaps play a vital part in 3-2-1 backup scenarios. A 3-2-1 method requires three copies of each backup, at least one of which must be air-gapped and kept off-site.

Why They're Essential for Data Protection

What Is an Air Gap?

As the globe becomes more connected, air gap backups offer a final line of protection against data loss. Air gap backups may help businesses of all sizes safeguard their data from being deleted, accessed, or changed in the case of a network incursion or system failure.

Air gap backups, such as a secure server facility, are usually maintained at a safe place away from the company. Air gap backups may be used to recover data after a catastrophe, such as a fire or flood, or if data is lost or damaged due to a software flaw, hardware failure, or ransomware attack.

When deploying air gapped backups for businesses, there are various factors to consider:

  • Air gap backups should be kept in a secure, inaccessible area to unauthorized individuals.
  • Air gap backups should be updated regularly, often once a day or weekly.
  • Air gap backups should be verified regularly to confirm their ability to recover data in the case of a catastrophe.
  • Air gap backups should be encrypted to prevent unwanted access to sensitive data.

Implementing air gap backups may be difficult for enterprises since it demands high security and preparation. However, air gap backups offer an important layer of data security against all types of data loss and may assist organizations in recovering from various disaster recovery scenarios.

Types of Air Gaps

There are various variants of the air gap principle, but three major varieties are the most common:

  • The total physical air gap is the salt mine kind, in which digital assets are locked in a physically isolated environment that is not linked to any network. A digital object in a complete physical air gap lacks network connectivity. If someone wants to obtain data from it or put data on it, they must physically get to it, which normally requires passing through physical security hurdles.
  • Segregated in the same environment—An air gap may be created by simply unplugging a device from the network. For example, two servers on the same rack may be air-gapped apart because one is not connected to the network.
  • Logical air gap—A logical air gap separates and protects a network-connected digital asset using logical processes. For example, encryption, hashing, and role-based access restrictions may accomplish the same security consequences as a physical air gap. Even if someone can access the digital item, it cannot be understood, stolen, or modified.

Importance of Air Gap Backups

With the growing requirement for security and compliance, the benefits of air-gapped backups cannot be emphasized. Air gapped storage volumes are inaccessible to programs, databases, users, and workloads operating in production environments. Air gap backups perform two key functions. First, they ensure that at least one backup copy is neither modified nor deleted. Second, they contribute to faster restorations since the integrity of an isolated, air-gapped backup can be trusted.

The rationale behind air gapping backups is that if all of the data on a main system is compromised, a fail-safe resource can be utilized to recover data. Backups are essential to any organization’s data recovery strategy and should be safeguarded at all times.

Air gapped backups are one of the finest methods to keep sensitive information private while also ensuring that a solid copy of the previous backup is available when you need it the most. Because air-gapped backups do not have network access; even if someone hacks into a network, they will be unable to access or update the backup unless they are physically present at the backup’s location and have the necessary access credentials.

Furthermore, air-gapped backups reduce infection to some extent. In a data center with numerous servers being backed up, if one server gets infected with ransomware, the virus may spread to the other backups on the network. An air gap solution ensures that at least one backup copy is always separated from the network, allowing administrators to perform a secure and speedy recovery.

Challenges of Air Gaps

Air gaps are difficult to set up and maintain. In addition to being endangered by inadvertent connections or opportunistic hackers, air gaps face several human-centric hazards. The underlying problem is input/output. Users must normally upload, change, or download data from the system, regardless of whether an air gap is present. This is true for both backups and production systems. Thus, most typical air gaps use a “sneakernet,” a physical data transmission mode, such as a Wi-Fi dongle or a USB port.

At this moment, human nature takes over. Even well-intentioned users may mistakenly leave doors open or USB ports unprotected. They may need to catch up and follow security protocols. One concerning example of this issue happens aboard commercial ships and navy boats, where mechanical control and navigation systems are air-gapped since, well, they’re on a ship and normally not linked to the Internet (though this is changing). Once a spacecraft is moored, a hostile actor may access it and implant malware using a USB stick. When a ship is being maintained, and hundreds of semi- or unvetted workers are on board while the regular crew is gone, it is simple to understand how an air gap might collapse.

A supply chain assault may breach air-gapped systems via the software that controls them. This is how the unidentified attacker was able to inject malware into a nuclear facility even though it was underground, fully isolated from the outside world, and guarded by troops. The attacker breached the air gap by inserting the Stuxnet virus inside a command-and-control system update and destroyed uranium refining centrifuges.

Social engineering and insider assaults may also penetrate air gaps. Hackers needing physical access to a location to breach an air-gapped environment are generally savvy enough to trick their way in by impersonating legitimate personnel or using other ruses. Insiders pose a constant danger to air gaps, as unpleasant as it may be to consider.

For these reasons, data encryption at rest is an effective countermeasure when combined with air-gapping. If an attacker is determined to break into the air-gapped system, they will most likely acquire access to it. The ideal strategy is to guarantee that whatever data they steal is worthless to them.


The ideal approach nowadays is to be honest about air gaps. They can function and are successful when used as part of a backup and recovery plan. It is critical, however, not to adopt a naive attitude and conclude, “It is air-gapped, so therefore it is secure.” This is no longer true.

Instead, it makes sense to thoroughly consider the intended goals, risks, and vulnerabilities of a given air gap application. For example, if the purpose is to safeguard backups, encryption is essential for a functioning air gap. Also, a logical air gap may be the best option. A physical separation may not be necessary. When used effectively, an air gap offers a powerful layer of cyber security.