WAN and disk emerging in remote office backups

The landscape of remote backup is quickly changing. Remote offices are making the shift from traditional tape backups to disk-based data transfers. Centralized IT staffs are leveraging more intelligent software products to manage remote backup procedures. Third-party backup services are helping many smaller companies protect their data off site, and the growing use of disk is bringing more speed and economy to the backup process. This article looks at these important trends and shows how some remote backup users put these changes into practice.

The landscape of remote backup is quickly changing. Remote offices are making the shift from traditional tape backups to WAN-based data transfers. Centralized IT staffs are leveraging more intelligent software products to manage remote backup procedures. Third-party backup services are helping many smaller companies protect their data off site, and the growing use of disk is bringing more speed and economy to the backup process. This article looks at these important trends and shows how some remote backup users put these changes into practice.

WAN backups dramatically reduce labor

To appreciate the revolutionary impact of WAN on remote backups, it's important to realize that traditional tape-based remote backup is fraught with problems. Remote offices are typically not staffed by IT personnel, leaving backup procedures in the hands of untrained employees (who rarely appreciate the business and legal implications of the data they are being asked to handle). Far too often, untrained personnel cannot determine the validity of a backup and are trusted to either ship tapes to a main office (or vaulting facility) or transport tapes to some other location without any type of oversight or verification. Analysts cite examples of tapes being left in car trunks in searing heat or bitter cold, accidentally misplaced or stolen, or lost during shipping. When such problems occur, that office (and the company as a whole) is left exposed to potential data loss.

Companies are overcoming tape problems by sending backup data directly across a WAN link to a central IT location, such as a corporate data center. "For 30 years, it's been impractical to do that because of bandwidth constraints," says Steve Duplessie, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Application latency has meant that you had to do things locally." However, Duplessie points out that bandwidth improvements and data handling techniques have evolved to a point where local tape-based backups are no longer necessary. He cites technological advancements like data compression and delta technologies (only sending changed blocks of data over the wire) as two key developments making WAN-based backup more attractive for remote offices.

Farmers and Merchants Bank (FMB) is one regional bank where WAN backups made a serious improvement to daily IT operations. FMB operates 20 individual offices and a data center in the southeastern U.S. While small by some standards, tape backups were taking a significant bite out of the IT labor pool. "We were running [Veritas] backup on each of the 20 locations' servers and backing up to tape -- and of course backing up to tape here in the data center," says Bob Graham, senior vice president of information technology at FMB. "The problem we had was trying to get people in a remote location to put the correct tape in the drive at the right time. There were problems with [aging] tape drives failing. And we were spending probably 20 hours per week to get the backups completed."

By eliminating local tapes and automating the backup process across a WAN, FMB has trimmed a significant amount of personnel time. Graham notes that 20-40 hours of backup-related labor per week has been eliminated from remote locations, and another 20 hours per week of direct IT support has dropped dramatically. "It has reduced our network [IT] time to probably two hours per week," he says. "It's basically just, 'did everything run OK,' and you're done." While FMB would like to see more bells and whistles in its backup software, Graham's IT department is very satisfied with the direction of its Veritas backup products.

Shrinking staff involvement demands more control

When a company finally implements WAN-based remote backup, the backup process becomes transparent for local employees. In actual practice, this poses a dilemma for centralized IT staff because the eyes and hands that IT staffers relied on at remote locations are no longer involved in the backup process. IT personnel are now primarily responsible for backup operations at each remote office. Consequently, remote office backup products must be easy to install, maintain and use. IT users must be able to check backup hardware status, schedule or initiate a backup process, verify successful backup completion, then launch and validate restorations without ever seeing the remote location.

These are crucial considerations to Al Zaccario, director of hotel technology for New Castle Hotels. Zaccario is responsible for the Newcastle network, which connects 20 major hotels located all over the U.S. and Canada. As a single-person IT resource, there is no other IT staff to manage or maintain the company infrastructure, leaving Zaccario to cover an extraordinary geographical area alone. "We were finding that we couldn't make IT people out of hoteliers," he says. "So it's much easier for me to have a centralized control and be able to back up their critical files (like payroll and sales) remotely."

Zaccario underscores the importance of convenience and versatility in a remote backup platform. "Because it's just me, I needed an easy, quick interface -- one that can run via Web from anywhere," he says. Zaccario uses LiveVault products to monitor hardware, plan backups and perform restores from virtually any Web browser. "I could be at any one of these hotels with or without a laptop, even home or on vacation somewhere. If I can get to a terminal, I can tell whether the systems are being backed up. More important, if someone does have a problem, I can push files back to them from any public terminal if necessary." Zaccario cites one instance where he managed to get backups running from 250 miles away on a weekend, saving unnecessary travel time or involvement of nontechnical personnel at remote locations.

Backup services command the low end

But not every organization is willing or able to grapple with the IT demands of remote backup. Many companies often opt for third-party backup services, enabling users to establish a known pricing structure and implement greater backup consistency without an undue burden on limited IT resources. W. Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection at GlassHouse Technologies Inc., notes that large global enterprises are sometimes uncomfortable trusting their mission-critical data to service providers, but small businesses are ideally suited for backup services. "The vast majority of them [small and midsized businesses (SMBs)] don't have dedicated IT staff," he says. "They're going to go with the service model every time." Duplessie agrees. "If it's a service, you can pretty much wash your hands of the whole thing," he says.

Randall Kane, partner and chief operating officer at Acquis Consulting Group, says that the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11 truly underscored the need for off-site remote backup practices. Back in 2000, numerous mobile employees worked from a single office located just one block from the World Trade Center. "When Sept. 11 happened, five employees' laptops (one of them being mine) were actually in the office," Kane explains. "Of course, the backup cartridges were in the office, too. And we couldn't physically get into our office for two and a half weeks." The immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks left of much of Kane's corporate data inaccessible.

Within several months after the attacks, Acquis selected off-site backup services using Connected Data Protector (from Connected Corp., a subsidiary of Iron Mountain Inc.) for its level of backup control and data accessibility. "I wanted a solution that would back up all data on everybody's laptop with (or without) their choice," Kane says. "I want to control the data being backed up -- not leave it to the individual. I also wanted the data backed up someplace other than where they were. And I wanted access to that data from anywhere at any time." Thus, Kane was able to ensure timely backup, leverage the protection of an off-site storage location and realize the convenience of rapid file (and even system) recovery on demand. He explained that one remote employee experienced a laptop failure while visiting a client in Ireland. That employee was able to restore his laptop files on another local computer through the backup service, allowing the employee to resume his work in under an hour.

Mixing tape and disk for superior results

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Backing up remote offices without tape

Improvements in hardware are also influencing remote backup strategies. Tape has been the traditional standard for backups, but tape is slow and usually unable to restore critical business operations quickly (e.g., inadequate RTO). As tape drives disappear from remote offices, disk drives are filling the need for fast and cost-effective storage. Robert Abraham, president of Freeman Reports, says that disk storage is gaining ground on tape. "The disk approach has a lot of appeal, but tape is still the champion when there's a large amount of data to back up," he says. "The economics of tape far outweigh those of disk [at the high end]. If you need to backup a petabyte of data, it's pretty difficult to justify backing up on disk." However, Abraham acknowledges that many remote offices maintain far smaller volumes of data, making disk storage potentially attractive for applications where the faster performance and competitive costs are important.

A key trend that Abraham sees is the move toward disk-to-disk-to-tape implementations: storing data on disk locally, moving the data to disk at the data center (across a WAN link), then leveraging the economics of tape (and the availability of IT personnel) to accomplish comprehensive backups to tape at the data center itself. This is precisely the strategy adopted by FMB. "For us, backing up to tape [at the data center] is uncomplicated because the tape is here and it's all brand new, and we can keep it clean and take care of it," FMB's Graham says. "So tape just isn't an issue anymore. The real power of the backup is because it's all going to disk."

Finally, Abraham acknowledges that tape use is falling among SMBs in the face of WAN backup technologies. "Some SMBs believe that they can eliminate the tape function because they have the ability to transfer data through broadband back to the home office. We are seeing that," he says. "Even that tape that is still being used is perhaps being used less frequently, and in a less-critical mode."

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