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Integrating the data protection process in the data center

There are four approaches to an integrated data protection plan. Choosing among these and the many individual integrated data products available is a challenge for IT pros.

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Data protection at times can look like it was built from an Erector Set with mismatched components. At most organizations, the problem is that the data protection software and even the data protection hardware have been in place for a while. As new technologies like virtualization and the cloud are added to the IT tool belt, integrating them into the existing data protection process takes work. Some vendors are suggesting a new strategy: Wipe the slate clean and start over with a new, integrated technology, designed for today's data center.

Integrated data protection's many faces

One of the first challenges IT professionals face when they consider an integrated data protection process is choosing among the many types of integrated data products. First, there's the integrated backup appliance where the backup software is integrated with a physical server. "Integration," in this case, means the software is preinstalled, and there might be some rudimentary integration with the specific hardware.

Another type of integration is when the vendor of data protection hardware -- also known as a disk backup appliance -- optimizes its hardware with another vendor's software. For instance, if the software has a boot-from-backup feature, the backup hardware vendor keeps the latest version of the data on a higher-performance storage tier, even flash, so that when a volume is booted from backup, performance is acceptable.

A third type of integration, and one of the newer ones, comes from hardware vendors that have created secondary storage systems designed to be cost-effective and scalable. Instead of interfacing with data protection products, these vendors are working with the environments those products exist in, backing up hypervisors like VMware and Hyper-V or applications like Microsoft SQL Server and Oracle. In some cases, they're partnering with primary storage hardware vendors, letting them copy snapshot data directly to their secondary storage systems.

A fourth type of integration is integration to the cloud. In some cases, this approach is more of a connector, where the cloud becomes another storage target for the backup software or hardware vendor, and older backup sets are archived there.

A different form of cloud integration is where the backup software keeps primary and possibly all copies of data in the cloud, but caches a copy of the latest backup on premises. This approach requires a limited amount of storage in the data center, and most of these vendors are able to start virtual machines in the cloud, providing an excellent disaster recovery capability.

The sacrifice of flexibility

With all of this integration, flexibility is sacrificed. The one constant in the data center is change, and today's data center will have little in common with the data center of the future. The data protection process, though, is something that will always be there, no matter how modernized the data center becomes. The protected data set may need to be accessible for years, if not decades, after the application that created it is retired.

Integrated systems tend to be use-case specific, protecting a specific environment or offering one compelling feature, like recovery in the cloud. Integration methods have varying degrees of inflexibility. Potentially the most limiting is the first method, the integrated appliance. In this case, both the hardware and software serve a single purpose. Adding new hardware is difficult, and switching software is almost impossible.

If the data center is relatively static and stable, then a turnkey approach may be ideal. If it changes rapidly, then more flexibility makes sense.

The other two on-premises use cases provide more flexibility. The organization is choosing to standardize on a software approach that can support a variety of data protection hardware or on data protection hardware that can receive data from a variety of data protection process software.

Cloud data protection also limits flexibility to varying degrees. There are cloud providers that offer a complete turnkey approach. They provide the software, and that software backs up data to their on-premises cache and replicates it to their cloud. The customer is 100% dependent on the turnkey cloud data protection vendor in this approach.

Other options present greater flexibility. The most common is software that allows data to be protected in the cloud of the customer's choice, including their own private cloud.

Is it worth it?

An integrated data protection process promises ease of use. Ease of use can be broken down into two areas: initial implementation and long-term operations. Integrated offerings -- either a turnkey on-premises appliance or turnkey cloud -- make implementation a breeze. The other approaches may be more difficult to implement but do provide greater flexibility as the organization grows and the data center evolves.

A key factor is rate of change. If the data center is relatively static and, other than growth in capacity requirements, tends to be stable with no new applications or initiatives, then a turnkey approach may be ideal. But if the data center is changing rapidly to keep up with the demands of the organization, then a combination with more flexibility makes sense. 

Next Steps

Integrated data protection appliances: What you need to know

Disk-based backup systems play key role in data protection strategy

Cloud applications to help with enterprise data protection

This was last published in October 2017

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