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5 considerations before buying data center backup software

Backup and recovery software should support various OSes and environments such as VMware, as well as applications running in public cloud IaaS and SaaS platforms.

Trying to cross-correlate how one vendor implements a product feature and comparing it to another vendor's features can be a daunting task. Backup and recovery software moves data through almost the entire data center infrastructure, so implementing it, training staff and obtaining support for it is no small feat.

An organization's request for proposal (RFP) for data center backup software must consider the following five factors to ensure the organization has a viable, long-term data protection strategy:

1. The support backup software vendors offer. Support should be the most heavily weighted factor in any backup and recovery software vendor selection. Data backup software touches almost every corner of the data center, including as a source for test and development and analytics processes. So, the chances of it not interoperating -- or working at one point and later breaking -- can be high. For these reasons, organizations must consider a data 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 center backup software vendors. Resellers, for example, can provide excellent backup infrastructure support, as, often, it isn't the component that's broken. Rather, the problem is how the software interacts with the server hardware, storage adapters, OSes and applications. A reseller often has better training on the environment as a whole, having worked with the customer more closely to define and meet their requirements.

2. It's a game of chess, not checkers. One of the most important requirements of any backup and recovery software is that it supports the various OSes, environments such as VMware and applications, including Oracle, Microsoft SQL and Exchange. Increasingly, this needs to include applications running in public cloud IaaS and SaaS platforms.

The specific features an organization should look for largely depend on whether it is trying to implement a single backup process or is filling some holes its current backup software doesn't cover.

It's easy to identify which system the backup software can support. The chess part of the equation is to ensure vendor support for the platform is more than just a checkbox. Typically, an organization will want these platforms to exploit various capabilities, including cross-platform recovery.

The specific features an organization should look for largely depend on whether it is trying to implement a single backup process or is filling some holes its current backup software doesn't cover.

Many organizations are close to 100% virtualized and have a virtual-first strategy, so virtualization-specific capabilities are important. Data backup software should also be able to back up off-host VMs, which means there's no need to install the backup agent within the VM or physical host. All modern backup applications should use changed block tracking, which sends only the changed segments within a backup 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's 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. If the entire VM needs to be recovered, the image can simply be moved to primary storage with tools like Storage vMotion.

Some vendors offer recovery directly into the public cloud. This can eliminate duplicate or redundant equipment at DR sites and represents a significant capital savings to the business.

Business-critical applications such as Microsoft Exchange, Oracle and SQL provide API 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, such as mailboxes, individual messages or tables, than just the database itself. Check that the backup and recovery software keeps current with the latest release of applications. Otherwise, data center backup software can be a bottleneck in application upgrades.

3. Protection from a 30-day evaluation. Backup and restore software is typically available for a 30-day or sometimes a 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 the product holds up under extreme circumstances in that evaluation window. Pushing the software 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.

Editor's note: Using extensive research into the data backup and recovery market, TechTarget editors focused this article series on data protection products from both traditional and new entrants into the market that address the many data sources of today's IT. Our research included data from TechTarget surveys and reports from other well-respected research firms, including Gartner.

One way to overcome the time-limiting factor is to look for data center backup products with free or unlimited usage up to a certain capacity. This allows IT professionals to test over a longer period of time.

The reality is that no one can test everything. An RFP should include some form of protection from unforeseen problems in the software that allow a company to receive free technical support or even a partial refund in the event of a problem. The wording must 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.

4. Thinning the herd. Data backup software is often surprisingly expensive, but it's 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 the vendors for a final evaluation after creating a short list of finalists. When buying data backup software, in most cases, the goal is to replace an existing product. Organizations should specifically request a competitive trade-in as part of the RFP and look for ways to use this purchase as a way to get additional discounts on other products the vendor sells.

Also consider what products exist to either migrate backed up data or to keep existing data protection products in place after the organization installs the new vendor's software. The impact of running two backup environments can weigh heavily on costs.

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 talk to prospective vendors about any additional value the software can provide. For instance, several data backup software vendors provide copy data management capabilities to reduce the need to create redundant copies of data throughout the enterprise. Vendors have started to offer the appliance model -- including integrating existing software. Some vendors have moved entirely to an operational expense model and offer backup as a service.

Organizations and vendors must establish a partnership instead of a customer versus supplier relationship. Data center backup software tends to be implemented for the long term, so having a good relationship with the vendor is imperative.

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