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SMBs are still using tape storage for remote-office data backup

Tape storage has been called a dying technology by many storage pundits and analysts. But tape is still alive for many SMBs and remote offices.

Tape storage was supposed to have died a decade ago, and countless eulogies have been said for it over the years, but tape is still kicking, as many SMBs will attest. Most SMBs still back up to tape because they're comfortable with the technology, or they don't have the time, trust, or resources to explore newer data backup strategies.

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EvensonBest, a furniture distributor with offices in New York, New Jersey and Washington, DC, backs up 4 TB to 5 TB of data to tape every day. The company designs furniture systems using AutoCAD software along with business-management, project-management and logistics tools, which generate both large and small files. A floor of workstations can require 300 to 400 pages of line items, according to Martin Silverman, director of IT at EvensonBest. The life of the business depends on being able to access that data.

EvensonBest only uses tape at its centralized data center. Each of EvensonBest's satellite locations synchronously replicates its data to a live server at the data center. Then all of that data, approximately 2 TB to 3 TB, is backed up with Symantec Corp. Backup Exec software to 10 400 GB AIT-5 cartridges on Sony tape libraries. Twice a week, those tapes are sent offsite to Iron Mountain Inc.

Silverman said that because so much of EvensonBest's business depends on being able to access large files quickly, the branch offices can't wait the estimated 18 hours it would take to restore from tape. So, since the company's remote offices replicate their data to the central data center server, they can failover to or recover from that server.

Some SMBs are turning to managed data backup services

Chappell Supply & Equipment Co. in Oklahoma City, a company that sells pressure washer and waste water systems, has a remote office 180 miles away in Texas. The remote office runs Sage MAS 90 accounting software provided by the Oklahoma City office, and backs up to the home office through a VPN.

Ken Jones, director of office services for Chappell, said the company used to use tape storage, but now outsources all of its backups to a managed-service provider (MSP), CoreVault, which uses Asigra's Cloud Backup and Recovery software platform for electronic, offsite backup. He said at $100 per month, it's a bit more expensive than tape, but the reliability and simplicity is worth it. He receives confirmations and alerts on the backed up data. He also enjoys the pricing structure, which allows archiving: taking older data and putting it on slower storage for an indefinite period of time. To date, he has not experienced an outage with CoreVault's services.

When they used tape, they would insert one tape into a Dell PowerEdge server, back up the data, and the owner would take the tape home with him. Often, they would run out of tapes, finding it cumbersome keeping track of each one.

Chappell backs up approximately 300 GB in nightly incrementals to its offsite backup location. Jones also backs up to portable hard drives in the office in case he has to quickly restore a file. A few times when using tape, he had to retrieve a lost file, and because he's not an IT person, he had to call a local vendor to come in and restore the data for him. Although it took the vendor only about 15 minutes to restore the file, they often lost several hours waiting for him to arrive.

Rand Morimoto is president of Convergent Computing (CCO) in Oakland, Calif. CCO helps organizations design and manage their networks. The company has an office in Tokyo, one client site and a dozen consultants housed at another remote office.

Morimoto said his company used tape backups for 20 years. Because employees took the tapes offsite each night, he could never be sure that the backup had actually been successful. If a salesperson lost a file at a remote office, there was no one on site to recover it for them.

"CCO does not have a full-time IT staff, and the process to retrieve a tape from its offsite location took a day, so employees would just 'make do' and redo their work," said Morimoto. "So recovery from tape never really happened."

When the company backed up to tape, the process was performed automatically and was overseen by a technical employee. At the end of the day, an employee from the accounting and operations department usually took the tapes home. When they went on vacation, someone else would have to take over. To keep track of who had which tapes, the company used a database and carefully labeled each tape cartridge.

Last year, CCO switched to disk-based backup using Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM). From the DPM, they use Microsoft Cloud Computing to back up its data offsite, ultimately to an Iron Mountain facility. Now it's easier to tell if any backups were unsuccessful, and CCO employees can recover their own data or files at any time.

Industry analyst Curtis Breville, author of the Ask Mr. Storage website, said that SMBs using tape backups in remote offices face challenges because there are rarely technical people at those sites.

"Did a tape get stuck in a drive? Did a leader pin get pulled off of the tape?" asked Breville. "Who is there to take care of that? Tape cartridges have a recommended number of uses before they should be retired. Is there someone making sure they aren't using tapes beyond the recommended end-of-life?"

According to Breville, just checking all of the small libraries at an SMB's remote location could nearly be a full-time job. "Some small companies' IT professionals have told me it sometimes takes them two or three days before they even know a problem took place at a remote location."

Using tape-monitoring software

Breville recommends that SMBs consider using tape-monitoring software, such as Hi-Stor StorSentry or Crossroads RVA, which he says can be one of the least-expensive ways of making sure that backups are reliable. Tape monitoring software keeps a history of every mount on every drive along with every cartridge and reports trends to end users. They send an alarm to the administrator if there is a problem, so that the cartridges and drives with problems can be replaced before they fail. Breville believes there is no backup software that reports with this level of detail.

Having all remote locations report to one management server and immediately notifying someone when an issue arises is a huge relief to those who have adopted one of the tape-monitoring products on the market. Breville said that if the remote tape libraries are part of the same network as the centralized environment, the tape management software reaches out to all of the remote drives and allows the administrator to view all of the reports on one console. In organizations that keep their remote environments separate, each environment is monitored separately on location. However, if this type of organization wanted one console view, they can copy the remote-office databases and create a single report for the total environment.

Pact is a global nonprofit organization with 25 field offices in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. The organization provides technical assistance, training, and mentoring to international and local non-governmental organizations.

Having transitioned from tape backup to disk-based backup, Pact still follows a tape routine, but instead, uses removable disk cartridges, which it treats like tape. The nonprofit's field offices use Symantec Corp.'s Backup Exec to back up their data onto 80 GB removable hard-disk cartridges on each location's in-house Dell PowerVault RD1000 storage unit.

On a weekly basis, sites perform backups of 40 GB to 200 GB, and then store the cartridges offsite. They run incremental backups during the week. Data can be stored in a bank vault, a manager's home, or a vendor with the appropriate facilities depending on each branch office's location. Email confirmations of backups and regular audits by the internal audit team monitor compliance with the organization's backup policies.

What should your company do?

SMBs with remote or branch offices that still choose to use tape can take some steps to ensure that their data is protected and that their business can continue to operate even if data is lost. Develop scenarios for data retrieval, educate your remote office employees on the proper tape storage handling procedures and backups and keep track of where your tapes are and how many times they've been used.

Don't cross your fingers and hope that there's actually data on your tapes. Take the time to test your backups and practice restoring data, because if you'll ever need to, you'll be able to do it as quickly as the technology will allow, and will hopefully keep your business running right along.

About this author: Ann Silverthorn has been writing articles and white papers about the management, storage, and protection of data for nearly a decade. She can be contacted at

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