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Cloud computing backup isn't just for small organizations

Not every backup admin has installed new disk systems or added CDP software -- some have improved their backup process by removing it from their IT environment entirely, and relying on a service provider in the cloud.

In part one of our series on the state of data backup, we looked at how many users are favoring disk-based backup approach when buying a new data backup hardware solution. Then, you learned about new features like data deduplication and snapshot technologies are being incorporated into modern data protection applications. In this part, you will learn about one of the hottest trends in data backup today -- cloud computing backup.

As data backup and recovery gets more complex, some organizations -- especially those with smaller IT staffs -- are choosing to outsource the hosting or management of their backups. Cloud computing backup services are becoming a budget-friendly way to back up and recover data, especially for organizations who don't have in-house storage expertise. But these services aren't just for small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) -- larger firms are also turning to cloud backup.

Compliance and distance in hurricane country

Smaller shops on the Gulf Coast increasingly see the cloud as a cost-effective way to recover from hurricanes or other disasters while remaining compliant.

Mario Valverde, chief of the Systems Integration Branch of the National Weather Service's Southern Region, said his office had been using tape backup with offsite vaults across town in Fort Worth, TX, for disaster recovery. But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Valverde decided to move data farther offsite and make it "universally restorable," he said. "We wanted to be able to leave the area and still access our data -- and occasionally, tapes do go bad."

The weather service keeps its most critical data -- financial planning and email applications -- at its Washington, D.C. headquarters, but the southern region stores administrative office data for its regional offices and user data.

The southern region had neither the budget nor personnel to set up its own distance replication. Valverde chose a Web-based backup Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offering from DS3 to back up about 250 GB of data.

"People take this the wrong way, but if there were a bomb and this place went away and nobody was left here, our data is still preserved and retrievable," Valverde told in August. "We can download it onto another computer in another location and be up and running in a few hours. Tapes were password protected, and if nobody knew what the password was, all you have is a pile of tape."

Houston-based VAALCO Energy made a similar choice to prepare for hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. VAALCO uses local managed service provider NetMass, which like DS3 bases its SaaS offering on backup software from Asigra. VAALCO is a multinational oil exploration and importation firm with offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

About 70 GB of mission-critical email and financial data from the company's headquarters gets backed up to NetMass. The Asigra Televaulting backup app would support system-level backups as well, but purchasing and IT supervisor Robert Walston said the chief concern for the company is application data. Its flexible Windows licensing allows it to mount its operating system and applications to similar but disparate hardware.

The Internet-based service gave the company peace of mind when Hurricane Ike hit this year. Ike caused a bit of water damage to the company's data center but nothing that required restoring data from the offsite backup. "It was still great to know that the only thing that separated us from our data was an Internet connection," Walston said. "Houston was a madhouse -- it would've been a huge ordeal to retrieve our own tapes from a local vault."

Still, having an Internet connection as the only thing that stands between you and your backups has drawbacks, too. "If the Internet connection to our service provider is down, we can't back up offsite," VAALCO IT specialist Derek Stubbs said.

Proactive support helps avoid disasters

Not all disasters are caused by forces of nature. Scott Restivo, MIS director for southern Texas petroleum fuel transporter JAM Distributing, re-evaluated his approach to backups two years ago after a database became irretrievably corrupted. "We went to the tapes and the database wasn't there," Restivo said. "Luckily for me, it was a relatively new database, and we were able to get it back up again."

JAM was using CA Inc.'s ARCServe product backing up to Hewlett-Packard DLT tape drives before the database crash. "[Service provider] Terian Solutions did a cold call at the exact right time," Restivo said. The fuel company now sends backups offsite using Terian's rebranded Asigra software.

"They know when things go wrong at our data center before I do," Restivo said of the service provider. His company hasn't had to do any large-scale restores since signing up for the Terian service, but can keep up to five versions of files. That brings total backup storage at the service provider's location to about 1 TB. About 3 GB of data gets sent daily over a point-to-point T1 connection.

The cloud backup service provider sends a daily report on backup job completions and failures. "They are proactive, not reactive, in their support," Restivo said.

Cloud computing backup covers large firms, too

Cloud computing backup isn't only for small companies. Tobias Ford, CTO of AT&T hosting and application services, says large companies will also be tempted to go the hosted route. Ford said application hosting has also become inextricable from offering backup and DR services. "We want to offer a holistic solution," he said. "It doesn't make sense not to do so at the high end of the spectrum."

He says AT&T can't recover from tape fast enough to meet the SLAs it offers for application hosting services. "Our first step is to snapshot and clone within our 3PAR SAN," Ford said. "Some clients have snapshots and replication to a remote data center with no tape in the flow. We're looking to do away with tapes completely except for vaulting."

AT&T uses Symantec's NetBackup to back up 600 TB for its clients, around 40 TB for each incremental cycle. It will soon add a VTL, using NetBackup's OpenStorage API to let the backup software control the creation of virtual tape copies. However, Ford says he sees VTL as a transitional phase between a tape-only and a disk-only environment. "It's very hard to move away from tape," he said. "It's a lot of work, quiescing and scripting for disk-based backup. VTLs give tape a long tail."

Ford said he thinks that service providers will take over just about all backups soon. For his own division's data, Ford says the outsourcer outsources that to IBM. "Long term, most enterprises don't have a means of scaling to what's needed to do this job," he said. "Entities are going to outsource to a company with far more assets that can highly utilize those assets and keep costs lower."

Cloud backup growing pains

Cloud backup still has some rough edges. Major cloud infrastructures such as Amazon's S3 have experienced growing pains with widely publicized outages over the last 18 months, the most recent of which affected popular Web 2.0 sites such as Twitter.

There are other problems besides outages. In August, for example, users of EMC's Mozy service told SearchDataBackup that the restore process from Mozy's cloud had taken much longer than they expected.

For customers who prefer newer cloud-based services, the wait for services can be long. Walter Petruska, information security officer for the University of San Francisco, has been looking to offer faculty and staff on his campus centralized remote backup for Mac workstations for more than a year. He was a Mozy customer before it was acquired by EMC in late 2007.

While EMC Mozy has released a home-level Mac client and a Pro version that adds some enterprise features such as centralized management of multiple accounts, Petruska says he's still waiting for Mac feature parity with EMC's Mozy Enterprise. "We're still officially a Mozy Pro customer even on the PC side, but Mozy Enterprise is where we'd like to go," he said. Until then, the university's individual departments will continue using several backup tools, including another EMC software product, Retrospect.

"We're waiting until things align," he said. "It's a big undertaking, but it's important to get everyone on the same sheet of paper."

The fourth and final part of the series will explore data backup management tools that can make backup easier.

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