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Alternatives to tape-based backup and archival systems

Although many large companies and small- to medium sized businesses (SMBs) are still using tape for archiving, backup is increasingly moving away from tape. If you are having problems meeting your backup window, perhaps it is time to choose another

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backup method than tape. Here's a look at tape backup alternatives.

Data backup service providers and online backup

Recently a number of services, such as Amazon Inc.'s Simple Storage Service (S3) and Carbonite Inc., have emerged that are aimed at home and very small business users and which store data inexpensively in the cloud. As of this writing, Carbonite charges approximately $50 a year to store an "unlimited" amount of data; EMC's Mozy charges $5 a month, also for "unlimited" data; and Amazon charges less than $.20 per gigabyte per month to store data, plus a per-gigabyte fee to upload it in the first place.

These services are simple to use and provide various levels of support from being a place to dump files to a backup front end that lets users schedule which files and folders will be backed up.

While they are attractive for users with small amounts of data, they are not designed to support someone with even medium-sized amount of data -- more than a few gigabytes. Because they back up and restore over the web, their performance is limited and even a few gigabytes of data can take an entire weekend to restore. Generally these services are best with less than 4 GB of data.

For this reason, some backup service providers offer the option of transferring the data to a USB disk or similar medium and shipping it to you by overnight express. Since restores over the Internet can take several days, the time savings can be significant.

For remote back up of larger quantities of data, a number of vendors offer backup services over WANs rather than the Internet. Companies like Iron Mountain and IBM Corp. will back up your data to their secure sites and others, such as Asigra Inc., will let you back up over your WAN to your own servers. Typically these services are more expensive than services from companies such as Carbonite, but they are more flexible.

Disk for data backup

Online backup, especially cloud backup, is receiving a lot of attention, but the most common replacement for tape backup is still disk of various sorts. Broadly speaking, disk replacement for tape backup divides into virtual tape libraries (VTLs) and disk-to-disk (D2D) systems. (Technically a VTL is also D2D, but they're seen as different product categories.)

Virtual tape libraries (VTL) are disk arrays that are set up to mimic tape libraries to the attached computer system. The advantage to a VTL is is minimizes the disruption in replacing tape with disk. For example, a VTL usually doesn't require replacing or seriously changing the configuration of existing backup software since the software sees the VTL as a tape library.

The more straightforward solution is to simply add a disk array or a specialized appliance in place of a tape array. These appliances are typically built around a RAID array using low-cost SATA disks.

About the author: Rick Cook specializes in writing about issues related to storage and storage management.

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This was first published in March 2009

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