Purpose With the irresistible growth in digitization, data backup policies become essential more than ever for organizations seeking to improve reliability and availability of organizations' information systems. However, since backup operations do not come free, there is a need for a data-informed policy to decide how often and which type of backups should be taken. In this paper, the authors present a comprehensive mathematical framework to explore the design space for backup policies and to optimize backup type and interval in a given system. In the authors' framework, three separate cost factors related to the backup process are identified: backup cost, recovery cost and data loss cost. The objective function has a multi-criteria structure leading to a backup policy minimizing a weighed function of these factors. To formalize the cost and objective functions, the authors get help from renewal theory in reliability modeling. The authors' optimization framework also formulates mixed policies involving both full and incremental backups. Through numerical examples, the authors show how the authors' optimization framework could facilitate cost-saving backup policies. Design/methodology/approach The methodology starts with designing different backup policies based on system parameters. Each constructed policy is optimized in terms of backup period using renewal theory. After selecting the best back-up policy, the results are demonstrated through numerical studies. Findings Data backup polices that are tailored to system parameters can result in significant gains for IT (Information Technology) systems. Collecting the necessary parameters to design intelligent backup policies can also help managers understand managers' systems better. Designed policies not only provides the frequency of back up operations, but also the type of backups. Originality/value The original contribution of this study is the explicit construction and determination of the best backup policies for IT systems that are prone to failure. By applying renewal theory in reliability, the authors present a mathematical framework for the joint optimization of backup cost factors, i.e. backup cost, recovery time cost and data loss cost.