Pros and cons of the integrated data backup appliance

Data center backup solutions are complicated; hence, the integrated data backup appliance. George Crump examines whether it is the right approach.

Designing a backup solution for the data center is roughly the equivalent of building a custom watch. Software has to be selected, hardware needs to be configured, networking optimized and client software installed. The likelihood for failure is high. To address this high level of complexity and potential for customer dissatisfaction, backup vendors are taking a more integrated approach by creating data backup appliances. Is this approach...

right for you?

The problem with backup

The backup process, unlike any other, puts a great deal of stress on the entire environment. Data is sent from multiple clients simultaneously across the network to a dedicated backup server. That server needs to be configured to receive high volumes of data, process that data and then quickly send it to some sort of backup device (disk or tape). In retrospect, it is a wonder that backup jobs ever complete successfully.

The "some assembly required" approach to data protection is no longer practical in the ever-changing, stretched-thin data center environment. There simply isn't the time or the expertise available to successfully backup the variety of operating systems and applications present in the typical data center.

An integrated approach

Following the example set by NetApp when it made the file server into an appliance, backup vendors like Symantec, Unitrends, Asigra, StorServer and others are delivering pre-integrated, turnkey backup solutions. The primary goal of these solutions is to simplify the initial implementation and ongoing support of backup software and hardware.

Depending on the solution, there are certainly advantages to the data backup appliance approach. In many cases, the provider of the appliance is the developer of the software. In other cases, it's a third party that is combining hardware and software into their own integrated solution, and then there are companies that have developed a software solution from day one to run on an appliance.

Easier implementation

The main advantage of the appliance approach is in reduced implementation time. As a result of this integration, the implementation of the backup server and its required hardware is as simple as plugging it into electrical power and connecting to the network. In fact, most of the appliances also include disk capacity and even tape or tape libraries so even the backup target is correctly configured.

Pre-tuned

A second advantage to the appliance approach is that the data backup appliance can be pre-tuned to the task at hand. The network cards can be optimized for large block transfers, and the underlying operating system can be tuned for this single task, in some cases, discarding parts of the operating system that are not relevant to the backup use case. Similarly, the backup software may have some of it components discarded since the number of "options" is now more finite. For example, the backup destination (disk and/or tape) is known in advance, so there is no need to present the administrator with countless options.

Better support

An appliance approach with a finite number of options should also lead to better support for the customer. The support staff is now dealing with server and backup hardware that they know and more than likely have access to. Since there are fewer variables to resolve, more time can be spent on solving the customer problem rather than wasting it on collecting data.

Some assembly still required

While the backup server, its networking and its backup targets are often pre-configured, software for the server clients typically needs to be installed. With the exception of an agent-less solution, this means each physical server, hypervisor and, in some cases, virtual machine, must have software installed. Some systems support "push" installation of their client software, which eliminates the need for logging into every protected system. However, push installation is not 100% reliable, and in many cases, a manual installation is still necessary for some of the clients in the environment.

Care and feeding the same

Once the installation phase is complete, most of these turnkey appliances need to be operated in similar fashion to non-integrated solutions. This means client backups still need to be scheduled, monitored and adjusted as the environment being protected changes. Some vendors have designed custom products for the backup appliance use case or have an overlay interface that is easier to interact with than the original software. In those cases, day-to-day operation may be easier.

Limited choices

One of the advantages of the ease of initial implementation is also one of the downsides of ongoing operation. If it's necessary to add a new disk appliance or tape device to the backup process, the appliance may no longer be able to support the new configuration, which may force a switch to the non-applianced version of the product to get the needed flexibility. An appliance approach also means changing hardware and software if the decision is made to change backup applications.

Are backup appliances right for you?

The key advantage to a backup appliance is it can be implemented very rapidly. They provide a turnkey method for deploying the back end of the backup infrastructure. The front side of the installation (client software) is the same whether you pick a backup appliance approach or an assemble-your-own approach. Agent-less and push installation options, which would make the front side part of installation easier, are available from both applianced and non-applianced backup products.

Once the initial implementation is complete and the appliance is in more of a day-to-day operations mode, the interaction with it is very similar to a traditional backup implementation; clients still need to be scheduled for backup and monitored for success.

Despite this, the back-side part of the installation is one of the most costly and time-consuming parts of designing the entire backup infrastructure. It's also an area that is prone to error because of poor configuration of the backup server itself or improper tuning of the backup software to the server and backup target hardware. In many cases, the choice of the turnkey solution can pay for itself when you factor in the implementation time savings and the potential savings that more rapid support will provide.

About the expert:
George Crump is a longtime contributor to TechTarget, as well as president and founder of Storage Switzerland LLC, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments.

This was first published in August 2013
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