Business Continuity

Backup goes online and offsite

Remote backup services can offer the speed of disk, the security of tape, and the simplicity of a consumer service. But how do you ensure that remote backup services comply with your clients’ data policies and integrate with their existing IT set-ups?

Backup is big business and the online backup market is growing by a third every year according to analysts IDC. That’s because businesses like the ones you deal with are struggling to back up ever-greater volumes of important data. They need faster, more flexible ways to recover lost information or deleted files than conventional, tape-based backup.

Lower costs for disk-based storage – used in almost all online backup systems – has enabled companies to offer online backup for relatively low monthly or annual fees: entry-level, consumer services can cost as little as ?15 a year. And cheaper, faster Internet connections are making it much easier to move relatively large amounts of information off site, without the need to resort to expensive, dedicated leased line technologies. At the same time, small and mid-sized businesses are coming under pressure to improve their abilities to recover, if their computer systems fail. Consumers are becoming less tolerant of “downtime”, whilst larger businesses increasingly want their smaller suppliers to have business continuity or disaster recovery plans in place.

A 2005 report by the Financial Service Authority, the Bank of England and the Treasury into business continuity plans among London’s financial firms, for example, found that although large businesses were generally well prepared for a disaster, many of their smaller suppliers were not.

Disk-based backup systems offer the prospect of much faster recovery times. The physical medium is much quicker than tape and, depending on the choice of technology and software, you or your customers can recover individual files and folders without going through the process of restoring a whole system from tape.

But disk-based backup does lack some of tape’s advantages. Disks are rarely as portable as tapes, making it harder to take data off site for storage. Blank tapes, especially for lower storage capacities, are relatively inexpensive, making them suitable as a long-term archive medium. And there are also question marks about the reliability of disks for long-term, offline storage.

Taking it off site

You certainly can design a system of disk-based backup to overcome some of the main limitations of hard drive storage, for example using multiple external USB, Firewire, eSATA or even iSCSI drives, or drive subsystems with removable disks. You and your customer can plan a timetable for taking storage media off site, rotating storage devices, and you can set up their backup software to store files to the correct volumes.

However, this setup would be as prone to human error as tape backup, and could well prove to be more expensive. As a result, it usually comes down to connecting external drives to servers for daily or weekly backup, or using network attached storage (NAS) systems as an initial backup device, often with tapes as the “backup of last resort”. To be effective, though, this means developing good operating practices and ensuring clients stick to them – something easier said than done.

With the right combination of software, connectivity and services it is possible to design a highly-automated backup system that allows for a “bare metal” restore as well as quick file based recovery, a degree of archiving and information lifecycle management (ILM) and that all-important step of making sure critical data is stored off site. However, you have to look closely at a client’s needs, in order to design the best system for an acceptable price.

Storage in tiers

In practice, this is likely to mean building a tiered system of storage and backup; it is also likely to require a thorough understanding of the client’s approach to data backup, their recovery time objectives, their approaches to archiving and data security and their business continuity plan. This takes time, but it also gives you a better basis for further work with that customer.

An online backup system isn’t going to be much help to a business that loses access to its main building if backups can only be retrieved through a dedicated software agent, server or backup appliance that is only in that building. On the other hand, companies that handle sensitive data, such as customer details or financial information, might need strict controls on who can access offsite data archives.

As a result, you need to integrate online backup systems into clients’ existing information management and data security policies. You’ll also have to assess the volume of data that will be placed in the offsite store, and for how long. This will directly affect operating costs for the offsite backup service, but also the bandwidth and backup windows that will be needed for the system to work effectively.

More sophisticated clients might need additional, on-site backup technologies such as server-based snapshotting, local backup copies stored on servers or network attached storage, or even de-duplication technologies in order to reduce the amount of data being stored – even before the data is transferred to the online backup store. Moving data to an intermediate storage device, such as a NAS drive, might be a necessity if it is inconvenient to run backups to a remote vault during the business day.

According to Mitesh Patel, director of London-based IT consultants Fifosys, one client, a law firm, backed up its data once every evening to a RAID storage system. After a system failure, the firm lost half a day’s records. As a result, the company now takes backup snapshots four times a day. Backups are then transferred to an online data vault, in this case from Fifosys’ storage partner, SecureStore. Mixing the two storage platforms gives the company the right level of disaster recovery and instant, business-as-usual backup.

The wizard for setting up a new backup set using SecureStore.

-- click image to enlarge --

 

 An administrator can restore specific emails to a user’s mailbox using SecureStore.

-- click image to enlarge --

However, another client, specialist healthcare practice London Medical Centre, has moved from tape-based storage directly to online backup, providing protection for around 300GB of data. “London Medical Centre had a safe on site to keep the backups, but had never taken it off site. They would also have had to invest ?6,000 to ?8,000, plus the cost of tapes, for a larger tape system,” explains Patel.

 

Both companies, Patel says, are happy with improved service from their online backups, and in particular, with the way online backup allows much faster recovery of individual files, especially those accidentally deleted by an end user.

Consumer-grade backup

Accidental file deletion, virus infection and PC failure are still the main reasons why you’ll need to restore an individual user’s system. In the case of mobile workers, the loss or theft of a laptop can also lead to significant data losses, as recent high-profile cases have shown. Yet according to Stephanie Balaouras at Forrester Research, some 35% of companies do not back up their PCs at all. “They either don’t think it’s a problem, or put the onus on employees to back up to a network share. But more companies are thinking about either deploying something internally, or subscribing [to an online service],” she says.

Online backup offers a quick and relatively inexpensive way for companies to back up their on-site desktop and laptop PCs, computers used by remote or mobile workers, and data in smaller branch offices. In the case of remote workers and branches, online backup can also offer a more secure, more automated process that can be managed by you (or any in-house IT staff), without the need to rely on non-IT staff to manage backups locally on disk or tape.

For laptop users, connecting directly to an online backup service can often be less intrusive, and quicker, than relying on a conventional, PC-based backup agent connecting over a VPN to the main company servers or data centre.

As a result, vendors of consumer-grade backup services are seeing growing interest in their services, and not just from very small businesses and home-based workers.

“Corporate end users are very similar to consumers in the way they behave, and IT solutions need to either be very transparent or very easy to use. If it is overly complex or degrades the performance of the machine, it won’t be used,” cautions Patrick Kennedy, director of online security and backup company Webroot. He suggests that businesses are turning to consumer-grade services either because they are cheap and easy to use – or that individual end users are adopting them in the absence of a viable, company-backed alternative.

Businesses might find, though, that such services can complement existing corporate backup systems, as long as they are used with care. High-grade encryption, including 256-bit AES, is now a common feature on consumer and business-focused services. Such services could well be more secure than sending unencrypted files to

a company backup server, even if the connection itself is over a VPN.

The main disadvantages of consumer backup services are that they might not integrate with existing, in-house backup systems, might not allow IT departments to set backup policies and might not have facilities for a rapid, bare metal restore of a destroyed system, for example from optical media or a portable hard drive – features that business-grade backup providers do offer.

One concern about consumer services – how long they’ll be around – is being addressed: Mozy is now owned by storage vendor EMC, and EVault is now owned by Seagate Services, while Symantec offers an online backup service in the US, thought not yet in the UK. A growing number of services are also being offered by mainstream telcos such as BT.

Your main challenge will be justifying the higher cost of a business-grade service, and the charges for integrating whichever service a customer chooses into their existing IT infrastructure.


 
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