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The pros and cons of integrated backup appliances

Find out whether integrated backup appliances with backup software, server and storage offer any benefits beyond ease of installation.

Do integrated backup appliances with backup software, server and storage (such as the Symantec 5220) offer any benefits beyond ease of installation? Vendors say these types of products offer better integration of the software and hardware, but what does that really mean?

Integrated backup appliances can be rapidly deployed into a backup environment and offer tighter integration between the backup software and hardware.

However, like anything else, it also has some drawbacks.

Vendor lock-in is a big downside because using integrated backup appliances makes the assumption that you want to control all backup processes directly from their backup software. But this is not reality.

For example, a database administrator may want to protect the database environment using Oracle Recovery Manager (RMAN) rather than using the appliance's backup software. In an integrated backup appliance, this would not be possible. To perform Oracle backup with RMAN, you would need a more open appliance.

Purpose-built deduplication systems, such as the Symantec 5220, contain fully integrated storage resources, networking connectivity and a pre-installed license of the NetBackup Media server software. In addition to providing near turnkey installation capabilities, integrated backup appliances are specifically tuned to work with the underlying vendor's backup application. As a result, little to no optimization is required when the system is deployed. Another example is STORServer's backup appliance, except their offering is custom-built for use with IBM Tivoli Storage Manager.

The 5220, for example, is a self-contained deduplication system that incorporates the NetBackup Media server agent and the OpenStorage Technology software to intelligently address the deduplicated storage resources configured on the appliance.

From an end user's perspective, beyond ease of integration, an additional benefit is simpler administration, as there are no moving parts. Again, it is a self-contained system.

As a natural consequence of that, when problems occur, it is easier to troubleshoot for both the end user and the vendor because the environment, except for the underlying Ethernet or Fibre Channel network, is one system. Additionally, the Symantec 5220 provides support for exporting backup data to tape directly off the backplane of the appliance, while STORServer enables users to write backup copies to disk and tape simultaneously. Some other deduplication systems require data to flow back up from the appliance and over the network before it can land safely onto tape.

Some other pitfalls of adopting a fully integrated backup appliance include fewer choices for choosing your deduplication storage pool. Software-agnostic deuplication platforms such as Data Domain, Quantum and Sepaton can scale well beyond the storage pools pre-configured in an integrated backup appliance. For large environments, this is no small consideration, because the larger the effective deduplication storage pool, the more efficient data reduction becomes. It can also be argued that fewer, larger storage pools are easier to manage than multiple smaller pools, despite the upfront advantages of a quick deployment afforded by a fully integrated software and hardware appliance.

Another downside to choosing a fully integrated backup appliance is that if, at some point in the future, you wish to migrate to a different backup software application, your backup appliance essentially becomes a boat anchor. In other words, since the appliance is designed to work only with a single vendor's backup application, you're locked into a proprietary solution.

This was first published in May 2013

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