Can you standardize enterprise backup?

Eric Slack looks at whether it is possible to standardize on one enterprise backup application for an entire organization or even larger data centers.

Over time, organizations can accumulate numerous backup applications or processes to meet data protection and recovery

expectations. It's not a conscious decision to keep adding data protection products; it just happens, for a number of reasons.

The question is, can an enterprise ever hope to standardize on one backup application for their entire organization, or even for each of their larger data centers?

Why we have the problem

Most of these organizations have an enterprise backup solution, typically one that supports individual servers (running all major platforms), major databases and common applications like email and multiple storage devices.

These products are extremely complicated to develop, test and maintain compatibility with all the platforms and applications they support. For this reason, enterprise backup applications can get eclipsed in specific use cases by point solutions from smaller companies that are focused on a single environment or backup platform.

It's very difficult to be the best at everything, so these enterprise backup applications have to focus on a more general solution. As the cliche goes, they're forced to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Server virtualization is a great example. Several companies have emerged over the past several years, selling software specially designed for backing up virtual machines. Until these products came out, most enterprise backup applications would treat each VM as a separate client, meaning each VM would require a separate client license, and its data set would be backed up like a physical server.

These environment-specific solutions leverage technology like changed-block tracking to greatly reduce the amount of data they send to the backup storage target. They also don't require licensing on a per-VM basis, which saves money.

On the restore side they shine, allowing individual VMs to be restarted directly from the backup data store without having to run a restore of the backed-up data. Alternatively, they can do "changed-block recoveries" to bring failed VMs back into service on a production quality host with minimal data transfer. Products like this have ushered in a new era of expectation on the part of admins who in the past had to back up individual virtual servers.

Mobile devices are another area that's prompting many companies to look beyond their enterprise backup applications. The security of data on employee-owned phones and tablets can require special solutions, such as data loss prevention, mobile device management and the ability to remotely wipe data from lost or stolen devices. The cloud is another technology area that backup solutions are incorporating.

Another reason companies have multiple backup processes has as much to do with people as it does with technology. Databases in many organizations represent the "crown jewels" of the company, assets that database admins (DBAs) are often personally charged with maintaining and protecting. While most enterprise backup applications do offer database agents, many DBAs still take additional measures to safeguard their data. Some use application-specific utilities, others implement dedicated backup products; it's often a matter of personal preference or familiarity.

Turnover in the IT department is another factor, as new admins who are unfamiliar with legacy backup applications may decide that implementing a point solution they're familiar with is easier than figuring out how to make the legacy application do the same task. Over time, an organization can collect a number of backup products, each bought to solve an immediate problem, often by a different person.

So, can organizations ever really hope to consolidate or standardize on one enterprise backup application? The answer is probably no, for several reasons.

Too many platforms and targets

Most enterprise backup applications don't support additional backup products, so real consolidation would probably mean turning off all but the primary backup application. But there are just too many functions that such a system would have to include to make it possible to combine them into a single product. And, with the advent of disk backup and deduplicating backup appliances, the number of potential storage targets that a consolidated backup application would have to support is also extensive, including tape. And they're getting larger all the time.

What would be ideal is if these point solutions could be integrated into the enterprise backup applications, via a published management framework or an API set. This would allow users to get the advanced functionality they seek while consolidating the operation of what would otherwise be multiple products. While we are beginning to see some hints of this type of framework capability from companies like Symantec, Dell and EMC, there is nothing currently available. There may not be a single solution for all current backup requirements, but for companies looking to minimize the number of backup processes running, there are some options.

What you need

The first step is to take a hard look at your existing enterprise backup solution and see where it needs help.

It probably handles physical servers, most standard clients and many databases, but what about mobile devices? Does the enterprise solution provide adequate security and protection for employee-owned smartphones, tablets and laptops? How about virtualized servers or cloud-based file sharing? Or you may decide you want the archiving functionality of a dedicated email or SharePoint solution.

It's also important to look at requirements from a recovery of services perspective, not just from a backup perspective. This may include service-level agreements for individual clients or applications as well as the number of copies of specific data sets.

What you don't need

Look at the point solutions you have and see how much overlap exists between them and the primary backup application. You may find that multiple backups are occurring for the same data. By eliminating superfluous backups you can also reduce complexity and cost, since this exercise may eliminate some unneeded licenses as well.

Backup appliances

Another way to consolidate the backup process is through a backup appliance, many of which are designed to support multiple backup applications simultaneously. In fact, many appliances can be integrated with those applications, by allowing them to control how deduplication is applied and how to implement data replication. This can improve backup bandwidth efficiency and simplify management as well.

Most larger companies run a number of backup applications, due to the diversity of their IT infrastructures. This isn't intentional, just the result of evolving platforms and backup requirements and the inability of any one application to support all these requirements.

Enterprise backup applications don't currently provide an all-encompassing solution for these companies and probably won't in the future; the job is just too big. This means organizations need to accept the fact they have to run multiple applications and take steps to manage that reality.

About the author:
Eric Slack is an analyst at Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm based in Fort Worth, Texas, which focuses on the storage and virtualization segments. Eric has more than 20 years of experience in high-technology industries.

This was first published in October 2013

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