Remote backups are becoming more manageable with cloud-based backup

Remote backups -- or ROBO backups -- have long been a challenge because of tape. Now, cloud-based backups are making remote office backup projects more manageable.

Somewhere out there, far beyond the office tower or the headquarters building, important corporate data is sitting on a desktop, laptop, or server waiting to be backed up. It can be a long wait. "Remote backup" is almost always a byword for low-priority, second-string technology and trouble waiting to happen.

However, the good news is that there are more options than ever for keeping data at remote office and branch offices (ROBOs) safe -- perhaps even just as safe as the data at headquarters. While tape seems to falling from favor for remote data backup, or ROBO backup, a wide range of new solutions are emerging -- including cloud-based backup and other disk-based approaches.

Things like tape-based backup can be automated to some extent, but eventually someone has to change a tape and if you have a drive error, you really need to have someone look at it.

Lauren Whitehouse, analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group

Take the example of Medical Management Innovations Inc. (MMI), a company that has tried both approaches for remote office backup. Specializing in providing medical field case management services, MMI's "bread-and-butter" is handling confidential and HIPAA-protected medical information, which a large force of remote workers handle on their laptops.

Getting the best of both world with remote backups

Rich Pflederer, company president, had been subscribing to Mozy, a remote cloud-based backup service. However, he noted, as the company continued to expand, the backup costs kept going up in direct proportion to the number of devices in use, with no end in sight. With more than half the staff working from home on laptops, his priorities included ease of use and controlling or reducing monthly fees. "I wanted something that would provide the best of both worlds, where we could own it," he said. After doing some shopping, Pflederer purchased a Remote Backup Appliance from 3X that offers cloud and local capabilities. Data is backed up to a remote location and locally on the appliance. "Now, when we need it, we can physically do a restore right in our office," he said.

Dave Cowlin, president, H.L. Hamilton Insurance, in Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, has faced similar challenges. His company has eight employees divided between two locations. One site did tape backup, once a day and the other did backup to an external hard drive. In both cases, the "system" relied on employees swapping media and taking media home "for safe keeping."

Although the system worked, Cowlin said it "wasn't the smartest way to handle important information." About two years ago, Cowlin said he started searching out alternate data backup solutions that didn't depend so much on the reliability of employees. After looking at the available options proposed by a third-party solutions provider, he settled on ROBObak network-based data protection software -- a private cloud approach to backup coupled with deduplication that also provides the option of local backup when needed. "It was relatively hands-off, pretty simple to use and it was competitive cost wise," he said. "Now, ROBObak is scheduled so it initiates backups automatically and sends a report via email when it is done. That way I have a verification that it was completed," added Cowlin. He said he is also considering having remote backup data automatically copied to "opposite" offices to provide increased data protection.

Cloud-based backup and other cost-effective approaches

Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said the problem with remote offices is that companies frequently don't have any local IT capability to manage the kind of remote office backup solution that might be ideal. "Things like tape-based backup can be automated to some extent, but eventually someone has to change a tape and if you have a drive error, you really need to have someone look at it," she noted. That presents a resource issue for a lot of organizations, which explains why many companies are shunning the tradition of local tape backup in favor of alternatives like data deduplication coupled with disk backup as well as various forms of cloud-based backup.

Whitehouse said many organizations have moved away from tape at their remote offices and have implemented disk-based deduplication so they can keep data for longer period and have the added benefit of consolidating backups from different locations to a central point. This scenario -- like the ROBObak example -- can still allow for local recovery.

Whitehouse said all the major backup products can be stretched to manage remote backups, with the advantage of "having one policy engine" for the whole organizations. However, Whitehouse said many organizations end up running multiple backup apps to meet the specific needs of their remote and central facilities. Among the fastest growing remote backup solutions are appliances such as those offered by Unitrend and  SonicWALL, which offer on-site backup as well as the option of transferring remote backup data back to a central location, "So you don't have to deal with having backup software and finding the right disk target." But they are not without problems. In other words, they simplify things in one sense but often introduce a new layer of management because "now you might be managing one solution for a central corporate location and other solutions out at the edge," she noted. "If you have multiple locations, each with a different solution, that can become very complex.

Different ROBO backup options for different company sizes

Are some [remote backup] solutions better for large and small companies? Whitehouse said, "It depends on your bandwidth." Trying to "drag" large quantities of data across a WAN can consume resources. However, she noted, "even if you look at some of the solutions that deduplicate at the source, like Avamar, PureDisk, and Commvault, you can still have similar issues. Some organizations will simply load up a portable device with the data and ship it; then they can just trickle additional changes over subsequently, she noted. The same challenges can apply with cloud vendors -- doubly so because recovery activities run into bandwidth challenges, too.

Certainly, said Whitehouse, cloud-based backup is a viable option, either by means of a private cloud -- which still really means backing up to headquarters -- or through a service offering. "There are also some hybrid applications that allow for a local copy, too," she added. Examples of "hybrid" backup SaaS solutions include: Axcient Inc., i365 (a Seagate company), IBM Corp., Iron Mountain, SunGard, VaultLogix, Venyu Corp., as well as Asigra- and Nine Technologies-based products (both of these vendors license to managed service providers who typically re-brand the service).

Whitehouse said these products offer both local disk and cloud storage. The more sophisticated offerings allow subscribers to specify the capacity of backup data that resides in each location. "This is important to manage backup retention on- and off-premises. Without that level of flexibility, the solution may get expensive or not meet retention objectives," she said. For example, users may want to only hold two to four weeks of backup data locally and keep the rest in cloud-based storage for longer-term retention (months to years). "With a one-to-one alignment of on- and off-site data, an organization would have to either hold months to years on on-site disk or be limited to weeks to months of off-site cloud storage," she said.

The most common solution I am seeing emerge is backing up to a small deduplication appliance and replicating back to the main data center.

Rachel Dines, analyst, Forrester Research

Rachel Dines, an analyst at Forrester Research, said regardless of the specific solution, companies are doing more to consolidate remote backups and simplify operations. "The most common solution I am seeing emerge is backing up to a small deduplication appliance and replicating back to the main data center, she added. There are many examples of such systems, EMC Data Domain, being one of the best known. "The major vendors often have similar products for large data centers and have developed devices suitable for local use," said Dines.

Dines said if you backup that way, the replication cost is low because you are replicating deduped data and if you need to do a restore, you can retain a copy of the backup. The downside, of course, is that you need to invest in the appliances. "They aren't cheap, and if you have a lot of small offices, it might simply be too expensive," she added.

Other options are source-based deduplication products, which can make backups for smaller offices more feasible at a lower price. Products that fit this description include CommVault Simpana, EMC Avamar, IBM's TSM and Symantec Corp. NetBackup. However, she noted, this solution style "won't really work well for anything more than a few hundred gigs."

Going straight to the cloud can also work. But many organizations prefer an intermediate step. "I am seeing a fair number of companies with on premises backup in the data center but in remote backup they are doing disk-to-disk-to-cloud or disk-to-cloud. So they don't have to worry about pulling data back to the site. And there are many vendors providing cloud-based backup as a service. "The ones doing a lot of branch office support are Iron Mountain, i365 and various smaller services providers using OEM solutions from Asigra and Geminare," she said.

"None of these paths are mutually exclusive -- you could supply any combination of those technologies to achieve your backup goals," she said. But clearly local tape backup is dying. "Having a tape appliance at every branch is costly and time consuming." However, she added, the exception may be smallest companies, where tape still has a relatively secure niche because it is well established and inexpensive.

About this author:
Alan Earls is a frequent contributor to SearchDataBackup.

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