A practical guide to cloud backup providers

Cloud backup providers have grown up from their consumer product roots and now offer services that can meet the needs of enterprises. Here's what you need to know.

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Cloud backup providers have grown up from their consumer product roots and now offer services that can meet the needs of enterprises. Here's what you need to know.

Cloud backup services can truly change the way your IT department protects company data, but there's more to do than just sign up with cloud backup providers in the market. You may have discovered that your end users have grown frustrated because the company lacks an effective, easy-to-use backup system for their mobile devices or desktops, and have taken the issue into their own hands by installing cloud backup or file synchronization software themselves. You may have also run into problems backing up remote sites or branch offices -- the process has become too difficult to manage or you're unable to meet what you consider to be a reasonable recovery time objective. Finally, you might be interested in cloud backup because you're considering outsourcing all your company's backups to a cloud provider. For all these cases, cloud backup might be an appropriate alternative, but you'll have to determine if it's a feasible and affordable option for your particular environment.

Cloud backup has matured

Cloud backup isn't all that new; such services were around long before the term "cloud" was even considered. A few changes in technology, however, have brought cloud backup to the forefront.

The first change is in the backup software itself, including technologies such as continuous data protection (CDP) and source data deduplication. They reduce by one or two orders of magnitude the amount of data that must be sent from the backup client to the backup server to enable the backup process. (Both CDP and source dedupe technologies are block-level incremental forever and never need to do a full backup.)

The next change falls into the area of the consumerization of IT, because technology advances in the consumer space are once again driving technology in the enterprise arena. Consumer products have helped make broadband Internet access ubiquitous; many people have better bandwidth at home than they do at their office. Widely available broadband communications make cloud backup far more accessible compared to when previous iterations of cloud backup services were available.

Another consumerization-induced change is the impact of the way cloud backup providers have aggressively marketed their services to consumers, luring them with pricing that's almost impossible to turn down. Many consumers spend less for a year of secure, off-site backups than they do for a single month of basic cable.

Combine the low bandwidth requirements of today's cloud backup software and huge amounts of available bandwidth with aggressive pricing, and you begin to understand why the leading consumer backup services boast of tens of millions of subscribers. These customers then go to their workplace and say, "If this works for my home data, why can't it work for my work data?" The answer is that it probably can, so let's take a look at what's available.

Available services from cloud backup providers

All cloud backup options offer the ability to get data off-site in a secure fashion. The only questions are what you use to get the data off-site, and what off-site storage you're going to use.

Are file sync-and-share services good enough for backup?

Smaller companies sometimes use file-synchronization services in lieu of traditional backup or cloud backup. It's possible to do this responsibly, but it can also create a disaster.

The difference between the two is the existence, or lack thereof, of file history. If you don't have file history, you are one CTRL-ALT-DEL away from disaster. That command would select and then delete all your company's data. The file-synchronization service will then replicate that deletion to every device you've set up to replicate to as well as the cloud copy.

With three keystrokes, all your company data is gone. However, if you went with the optional history feature, a few more keystrokes could regain all your data. Word to the wise: Don't use file-synch services that lack a history option or some other backup mechanism.

Their software, their storage. The most common option is a full-service cloud backup service provider that provides both the software you install on the computers you wish to back up, as well as the storage that will be used to store your backups. Most people choose this option because it's the simplest. You simply download and install some software, set up automated billing and start your first backup. Backups couldn't be any easier.

Their software, cloud storage. This option is functionally very similar to the previous option, except that your backups aren't stored on the cloud backup provider's storage but on another cloud provider's storage. For example, the cloud backup service may use its software to store your backup data on Amazon S3 or Glacier. Depending on the cloud backup provider, all services including storage may be included in a single bill, or you may be billed for their software and required to set up your own account with a compatible cloud storage provider.

Cloud gateway appliances. Cloud gateway appliances are available as physical or virtual devices and act as a go-between between your data center and a cloud storage provider. They're not backup systems any more than file-synchronization services are, but they're marketed as a storage and backup offering because they offer synchronization and history. Think of this as a cloud version of the model that NetApp made so popular: snapshots and replication as both a storage and backup solution. Some of these vendors describe what they do by calling themselves "the NetApp of the cloud."

Any data you store on an appliance is cached locally and replicated to the cloud, along with snapshots for history purposes. If you delete all your data or lose the appliance itself, a copy of your data is in the cloud. If you delete or corrupt one or more files, previous versions of those files are stored in snapshots, which may be in the cache or in the cloud.

What you need to consider

Like any other area of IT, there are options to consider when you're thinking about adopting cloud backups in one form or another. Consider the following:

Viability. There's an old adage that says "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog." Similarly, anyone with an Internet connection and a little bit of know-how can become a cloud backup provider. On the Internet no one knows the "service" might just be one person in a garage with a computer and some USB storage hanging off it. So the very first thing you need to examine when considering cloud backup services is the financial and technical viability of the company.

If a cloud backup provider has a significant list of current customers and is financially viable, you should be able to find a lot of published material about the service. The articles you find can offer some insight into the size of the company and the direction it's taking. In particular, look for any news stories that describe past incidents where the service might have lost any customer data. Your organization's legal department should be able to help investigate the financial viability of candidate cloud backup providers.

You should learn as much as you can about how the service will protect your data. Most services offer encryption, but you'll want to know if data is encrypted before it's sent, and if the encryption key is known only to you. You'll also need to ascertain whether backup data is stored in one or multiple locations, especially if regulatory compliance is an issue for your company.

Cloud backup of cloud-based data

With all this talk of backing up to the cloud, you may be wondering about backups of the cloud. That is, backups of data already stored in a cloud service.

For example, your company may use Salesforce.com, Google apps or similar Web-based services where the only copy of your company's intellectual property is stored on someone else's servers. You can trust that the online app provider is protecting your data adequately or you can take action to protect it yourself. Having data restored by one of these services can be expensive; for example, the cost of having Salesforce.com restore data due to your company's error starts at $10,000 per account.

The good news is that companies like Backupify can back that data up for you, ensuring you have an additional copy that's not stored with the original.

Tape or disk seeding. The most difficult hurdle your company will have to overcome is the first backup. It could take months if you have a lot of data and are using a typical Internet connection. To get started in a reasonable fashion, find out if the cloud backup provider offers a seeding option. This allows you to make your first backup on your premises to a set of tapes or disks that you then ship to the cloud vendor for them to load onto their storage system.

Large restores. Another situation you must consider is what will happen when you need to restore a large amount of data in a timely manner. It's one thing to restore a few gigabytes; it's an entirely different matter to restore a few terabytes. There are two ways of handling this particular challenge. The first is to have an on-site cache of your backups. You back up to a local appliance, and that appliance replicates your backups to the cloud. Large restores come directly from the local appliance, while the cloud copy ensures your data will survive a major disaster. The other option is for the cloud backup service to perform a "reverse seed" by restoring your high-volume data to disks or tapes that they then ship to you. Make sure you're aware of what options cloud backup providers under consideration have for large restores and how quickly they can respond when a restore is required.

Insourcing. Larger companies may be interested in the possibility of insourcing their backups after they've outsourced them. Cloud backups can be a wonderful thing, but the bill can sometimes get quite large. Companies that find themselves in this position may be able to insource their backups by reverse seeding the entire backup set back to their infrastructure and licensing the software for internal use. If "repatriating" your backup operations to in-house systems might be a possibility for your organization, make sure to address your alternatives during sales negotiations with any cloud backup service providers.

Fully managed or self-managed. Just because you're using a cloud backup provider doesn't mean they're managing your backups for you. If you're looking for a fully managed provider, make sure your expectations are clear when you're in discussions with providers. Some of them merely provide the infrastructure for you to perform and manage your own backups -- they don't even tell you if backups worked properly or not. They might provide email notification, but it's up to you to read those emails and act accordingly. No one is going to do anything if you don't. Fully managed cloud backup providers, on the other hand, manage the entire process from start to finish. They may, of course, ask you to do the initial installation of their backup software, but they take it from there.

Tread lightly

Outsourcing your company's backups to a cloud backup provider may indeed bring you the peace of mind that comes with knowing your company's data is adequately protected and that the costs for those backups are predictable and reasonable. Choosing the wrong provider can also get you fired. Do your research.

About the author
W. Curtis Preston (aka "Mr. Backup") has been singularly focused on data backup and recovery for more than 15 years. He is the webmaster of BackupCentral.com, and the author of hundreds of articles and the books Backup and Recovery and Using SANs and NAS.

This was first published in April 2013

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