When is the data backed up?
One of the first considerations that should be taken into account is when the data is backed up. In the case of an in-house solution, there are a variety of answers. Some backup vendors still rely on scheduled backups, but laptops may not always be powered on when the backup is scheduled to run. The scheduled backup may not run the next time the laptop is brought online.
Some of the newer backup applications address this problem by using a form of continuous data protection (CDP). The backup software uses changed block tracking and then uploads the changed blocks whenever the laptop establishes connectivity to the backup target.
Another option is to perform backups on demand using external media (such as an external hard disk). This tends to be a poor solution because it requires the end user to be actively involved in the backup process. Furthermore, users sometimes have a bad habit of keeping the backup medium with the laptop, which defeats the whole purpose of the backup if the laptop should ever be stolen.
A third option that has started to gain popularity involves using Windows 8's DirectAccess feature. This feature automatically establishes a connection to the corporate network any time that the laptop is powered on. By doing so, administrators are able to launch scripted backups when connectivity is established. While it is true that some backup applications provide similar functionality by attempting to automatically connect to the backup target whenever the laptop is connected to the Internet, DirectAccess has the distinct advantage of being an operating system-level component. As such, it allows laptops to have access to resources on the corporate network without the administrator having to open firewall ports or make configuration changes that could weaken security.
Cloud backups for laptops are sometimes scheduled, but some cloud backup applications instead act as CDP solutions. These services use backup clients that periodically scan the laptop for newly created or modified storage blocks and then upload those blocks to cloud storage.
Like any cloud-based solution, this type of backup requires Internet connectivity. The difference between backing up to the cloud and backing up to an on-premises backup server is that cloud backups merely require Internet access, whereas backing up to an on-premises backup server typically requires a VPN connection (with DirectAccess connections being a notable exception).
The end-user experience
A few years ago, the end user almost always had to be involved in the process of backing up their laptop. Today, however, both cloud and on-premises backup solutions can run in the background without end-user involvement.
Of course, this isn't to say that all backups are transparent. Scheduled backups tend to be disruptive to the end user. If the user's laptop is powered on at the time that the backup is scheduled to run, then the user is most likely using the laptop. Running a backup at that time can cause the laptop and the Internet connection to slow down to the point that the user has difficulty working. Mobile backup applications and cloud backup applications tend to help with this problem in two ways. First, almost all of the available solutions support bandwidth throttling, which can help to prevent the backup from being overly intrusive. Second, these types of backups tend to back data up on a continuous basis whenever connectivity is available, rather than attempting to upload large volumes of data all at once. Features such as source deduplication and auto resume (for when a backup is interrupted in the middle of backing up a large file) help limit the bandwidth consumption.
The setup process
Both cloud backups and in-house backups require backup software to be installed on the laptop. In the case of an in-house backup, this software can be a full backup application, but more often, the software consists of a backup agent that is used to back up the laptop over the Internet.
Cloud backup solutions typically require a client component to be placed on the laptop. This client component acts as a backup agent, but also allows the user to configure things such as network bandwidth throttling and file and folder exclusions.
Regardless of whether backups are being made to the cloud or to an in-house backup server, administrators must deploy the backup software to the laptops. For cloud backups, this usually means downloading the backup software and then either emailing it to the user or using a software distribution server to deploy it. Backup agents for in-house backups are often deployed through a software distribution server, but in some cases, it may be possible to deploy the agent through the backup management console.
Deduplication has become a standard feature for laptop backups. Both cloud and in-house applications perform source deduplication of the data that needs to be backed up. This reduces the amount of data that must be transmitted to the backup server.
In the case of in-house backups for laptops, some products also perform target deduplication. This helps eliminate any duplicate data that might exist across multiple laptops. Presumably, most cloud backup providers perform target deduplication as well, but the process is invisible to subscribers and does not impact their experience. Target deduplication in the cloud serves only to reduce the cloud provider's storage costs.
The recovery process
When it comes to cloud backups, the actual recovery capabilities vary widely. Some cloud backup services support things like bare metal recovery and application-level recovery, but many focus solely on files and folders.
Most of the cloud backup solutions available today offer a self-service portal that allows users to recover data without having to involve the helpdesk. In the case of a bare metal recovery, however, using the self-service portal is not an option.
Like cloud backups, some in-house backup solutions also offer a self-service interface that will allow users to retrieve files and folders without involving the helpdesk.
Although cloud backup applications were once vastly different from in-house backup applications, the two are becoming more similar. Cloud backup technology is improving and is beginning to rival on-premises backup capabilities. At the same time, organizations are finding that in-house backups often involve backing up remote resources, which means using backup techniques similar to those used for cloud backups.
About the Author:
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's MVP award for Exchange Server, Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and has been responsible for the department of information management at Fort Knox. You can visit Brien's personal website at www.brienposey.com.
This was first published in March 2013