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Good laptop backup software can save the day

When employees recently found themselves in a faraway land without working laptops, backup software restored the important data the laptops contained.

Laptop backup remains a big challenge for IT organizations, but those who master it can find it a great value when that remote data gets lost.

Employees from the Ohio State University (OSU) Department of Mathematics and a large oceanographic institution based in San Diego recently received scares when their laptops were inaccessible while on international assignment. But OSU and the oceanographic institute -- which asked to have its name withheld -- successfully restored the data on other devices using Code 42 Software's CrashPlan PROe laptop backup software.

Here are their stories:

Tim Winningham, systems manager for OSU's math department, said his department has about 200 computers around the world. He uses CrashPlan PROe to back up the home directory on all those machines to a private cloud hosted by the department.

The math department switched to CrashPlan PROe from open source backup app Bacula at the start of the 2012 school year, soon after home directories were moved off a centralized file directory and onto local computers. Winningham said he felt he could give users better support by decentralizing control, and he expects users would demand that anyway. "We're getting out of the Stalinistic control that traditional system administrators have had," he said. "Most of our users know how to use a computer. For me to take a rigid approach as a systems administrator, I'm just getting in the way nine times out of 10."

Winningham said he gives users the option of having the CrashPlan PROe software installed on their laptops before they are issued. Some users choose not to wait for the installation, and install it themselves through the department's website after they pick up the machine.

The first backup may take close to three weeks -- it runs in the background -- because users must connect to the LAN. The math department offers external hard drives to back up larger personal files, such as baby pictures or videos. Users receive alerts if they haven't backed up recently, Winningham said. The same alert goes to admins, who can see where the system was located when the last backup took place. The biggest advantage of using CrashPlan PROe laptop backup software instead of Bacula is that the restore process is quicker and easier, he said.

Before, IT had to initiate all the restores. That was especially problematic when users were unsure of where their file was last stored or even what it was named. CrashPlan PROe allows self-restores, and users can usually find the last good file on their devices faster than IT can do it from a central repository. "Users can go in through their client or phone or Web interface; they select a file, they check a box, and they can have it to the place where it was originally or the desktop," Winningham said. "That kicks off immediately. It's customer-friendly. They're actually amazed that it can be done."

Winningham said OSU does not back up data on users' personal devices but users can access data on those devices in an emergency. That is how one faculty member salvaged a presentation after her laptop crashed at an academic conference in South America. "She had her non-university-purchased iOS device with her, and we were able to get an application to her on that phone [after her laptop crashed]," he said. "She used the CrashPlan client to pull up her backup from the cloud as she was getting ready to make her presentation the next morning. She could see that PDF and give her presentation from the phone."

Winningham said the laptop software allows the university to protect its data even if it resides on laptops that travel the world. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect data that taxpayers have paid for you to produce. If data is sitting on your computer and never touches our system, we have a problem with that," he said. "The data we paid for is ours, so by having it in the cloud, if you go off to another university or we terminate your employment, we have a copy sitting in our archive."

Oceanographic research in South Africa salvaged

Nate Huffnagle, systems engineer for one of the world's largest oceanographic institutions, uses CrashPlan PROe to support about 350 researchers. His remote users keep business records and research data on their PC and Mac laptops.

The institution also used CrashPlanPROe to bail out employees working far from home. Huffnagle said two marine biologists' laptops were stolen in South Africa. Those laptops held all their research data. But they retrieved that data by purchasing new Macs, logging onto their CrashPlanPROe accounts over the Internet and running restores.

"A lot of people use Time Machine to back up to disk," Huffnagle said. "But the disk is attached to the computer, so if somebody steals your computer, they steal your backups as well. So, we had our researchers go to the Apple store, buy a laptop, go to the Web page, download the [CrashPlan] client, insert their credentials and click restore. It took a couple of days to blast the files back into the computer, but they were up and running with no data loss."

The institute backs up remote data on CrashPlan appliances on-site, and Huffnagle said he configures the appliance so laptops in the field cannot access such sensitive data as human resources records.

Huffnagle said he switched from EMC Retrospect in 2010 because EMC was not updating the software (EMC eventually sold Retrospect to Sonic). CrashPlanPROe cost less than Retrospect, and allowed the institute to move off tape for client backups, he said.

"We were backing up to tape," Huffnagle said. "[Code 42] said, 'We don't do tape, just disk.' I said I needed something that talks to tape. Then I starting reading about how they constantly check data and how fast you can do verifies on the data with disk. I said this makes more sense, so we shifted our thinking on backing up to tape. Now we back up to disk."

Huffnagle said all his users have laptops issued by the institution -- he doesn't support personal devices. The client software is configured to back up user directories, and the users can select any other folders they want to protect. "If they have an Internet connection and their computer can see back to our organization, they start backing up automatically," he said. "We have it set for every 30 minutes. After they do an initial backup, it just sends little files. The software throttles automatically.

"We are protective of personal information. That's usually held in our business offices. The data we're protecting on laptops is not medical records or things like that. If outside people get the stats for the amount of fish caught, it's not that important. The business office data doesn't travel outside of the institution on laptops."

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