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Five challenges when buying backup and restore software

Backup software is a mature product category, so it can be tough to select a vendor. Discover the most important factors when choosing the best product for your environment.

Trying to cross-correlate how one vendor implements a product feature and compares it to another is a daunting task. Backup software moves data through almost the entire data center infrastructure, so implementing it, training staff and obtaining support for it is no small feat. The request for proposal for backup and restore software has to take into account all these factors to ensure the organization has a viable long-term data protection strategy.

Here are five challenges organizations will encounter when buying backup software.

Challenge 1: The support offered by backup software vendors

Support should be the most heavily weighted factor in any backup and restore software vendor selection. Backup software touches almost every corner of the data center, so the chances of it not interoperating -- or working at one point and later breaking -- are high. For these reasons, organizations need to consider a backup software vendor's ability to provide quality support and training.

Surprisingly, some of the best technical support is available from sources other than data backup software vendors. Resellers, for example, often provide excellent backup infrastructure support. The reason for this is that the backup software is often not the component that is broken; the problem is how that software interacts with the server hardware, storage adapters, operating systems (OSes) and applications. A reseller often has better training on the environment as a whole, while a backup software vendor may only know its particular software. Backup software vendors can point at the component in the environment that is causing the problem but, unlike a reseller, they often can't do anything to fix or work around that problem.

Challenge 2: It is a game of chess, not checkers

One of the most important requirements of any backup and restore software is that it support the various OSes, environments (VMware) and applications (Oracle, MS SQL and Exchange) in your environment.

Seeing which system the backup software can support is easy. The chess part of the equation is to ensure vendor support of the needed platform is more than just a checkbox. Typically, an organization will want the protection of these platforms to exploit various capabilities.

Surprisingly, some of the best technical support is available from sources other than data backup software vendors.

The specific feature you should look for largely depends on whether an organization is trying to implement a single backup process or filling some holes the current backup software doesn't cover.

Many organizations are more than 50% virtualized, so virtualization-specific capabilities are important. Backup software should also have the ability to back up off-host virtual machines, which means there is no need to install the backup agent within the VM or physical host. All modern backup applications should leverage change block tracking, which sends only the changed segments within a backup to be transferred to the backup device.

Recovery is another area that has seen significant improvements in virtualized data protection. Look for software with in-place or instant recovery features. If there is a physical server failure or data corruption, instant recovery allows a VM to access a protected copy of its data store directly from backup storage. This saves the time it would have taken to transfer data over the network.

Business-critical applications -- like Microsoft Exchange, Oracle and SQL -- provide application programming interface access to the database to protect it while online. Look for an application that supports these APIs. Applications should also restore data at a more granular level -- mailboxes, individual messages or tables -- than just the database itself.

Challenge 3: Protection from a 30-day evaluation

Backup and restore software is typically available as a 30- or 45-day evaluation. The expectation is that IT professionals can test all the features and capabilities of the software, as well as perform stress tests to see how it holds up under extreme circumstances in that evaluation window. Pushing the software to the limit is important. The goal is to simulate the use of the software over the course of several years. While testing basic backup and recovery is relatively straightforward, the reality is that IT professionals will rarely be able to simulate the long-term use case within 30 days.

Specific weak points require testing; most importantly, the metadata the software creates. This metadata points to the location of all the data and the data versions the software protects. Rapid searching and updating of the metadata is important to long-term use, and many backup applications lag in this area. Simulation of metadata weak points can include writing the same data over and over again to the system and then searching for a specific version of that data.

The reality is that no one can test everything. A request for proposal (RFP) should include some form of protection from unforeseen problems in the software that allows a company to receive free technical support or even a partial refund in the event of a problem. The wording has to be precise because, if done incorrectly, publicly traded companies may not be able to recognize the revenue spent on the software due to a penalty associated with nonperformance.

Challenge 4: Thinning the herd

Backup software is often surprisingly expensive, but it is an extremely competitive business because of the number of vendors in the market. Companies should look at the RFP as a way to thin the herd, but should certainly go back to companies for a "best and final" after the creation of the short list of vendor finalists. In almost every case, when buying backup software, the goal is to replace a product that is already in place. Organizations should specifically request a competitive trade-in as part of the RFP and look for ways to leverage this purchase as a means to get additional discounts on other products the vendor may sell.

Challenge 5: Price isn't everything

The software a business buys will protect one of the organization's most valuable assets: data. Losing this asset, even temporarily, can be costly. Organizations should therefore talk to prospective vendors about any additional value the software can provide. For instance, several backup software vendors now provide copy data management capabilities to reduce the need to create redundant copies of data throughout the enterprise.

Organizations and vendors need to establish a partnership instead of a customer vs. supplier relationship. Backup and restore software tends to be implemented for the long term, so liking your vendor will make that time much more comfortable.

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What's the most challenging aspect of evaluating a backup software vendor?
Is there anything on the time machine drive? Give apple a ring and they should walk you through it.