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COVID-19 impact on data backup will continue in 2021

COVID-19 accelerated certain data backup trends throughout 2020. Now, with vaccines available, experts share what they believe 2021 has in store for backup and recovery.

Data backup and protection industry experts see many of the trends that started this year persisting into 2021.

In 2020, COVID-19 brought massive acceleration in cloud adoption, SaaS adoption and ransomware. From a data protection perspective, that means more environments to protect -- and more attack surface to worry about.

Industry analysts and vendors say 2020 looks to be more of the same, even with the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine. They've concluded that the IT initiatives resulting from the pandemic, often out of necessity, aren't getting rolled back.

"My hunch says we'll never go back to the patterns of the past," Commvault CEO Sanjay Mirchandani said. "We've gotten pretty good with this. Why lose that?"

Increased Kubernetes adoption

Experts agree Kubernetes adoption will increase in 2021. Kubernetes applications are moving from the conceptual, experimentation phase to the production and practical use phase. This means more applications and stateful volumes of data will need some form of data backup, and Kubernetes will become a new environment that backup products need to support. Vendors such as Trilio, Catalogic and Zerto have already released Kubernetes data backup products earlier this year in anticipation of a growing market.

The growing need for Kubernetes backup also will bring a steep learning curve. Krista Macomber, senior analyst at Evaluator Group, likened Kubernetes backup to the SaaS backup situation. She said there will be an initial need to educate customers who don't understand why their Kubernetes deployments need protection.

"The real question is: Are customers backing up container and SaaS apps, and how are they doing it? Are they going to be looking for internal capabilities, or will they be looking at third-party solutions?" Macomber said.

Eran FarajunEran Farajun

Eran Farajun, executive vice president of Asigra, also compared Kubernetes backup to SaaS data backup. There was a myth that SaaS applications were automatically protected by virtue of being in the cloud, but that's been dispelled as more organizations realize the native backup capabilities provided by Microsoft 365 and Salesforce aren't enough. However, Farajun pointed out third-party vendors only cover the most popular SaaS applications. It usually falls on customers to come up with their own ways to protect data on Google Workspace and Dropbox from accidental or malicious deletion, or to make that data available during a service outage.

"People are not widely protecting SaaS apps. It's not actually further along than Kubernetes backup," Farajun said.

Continued adoption of cloud and backup as a service

Cloud and SaaS-based data backup adoption grew even before COVID-19, but the pandemic accelerated the trend. Even with vaccines available, experts don't see this trend slowing down or reversing in 2021. Many of them pointed to financial reasons for this: The shaky economic climate of 2020 has given organizations incentive to adopt consumption-based, pay-as-you-go pricing models for as many aspects of their IT as they can.

In November, market research firm Vanson Bourne published a survey finding most IT decision-makers are working with reduced budgets for 2021. Of the 500 respondents, 10% reported they were expecting a 25-50% budget cut next year. Sponsored by Cohesity, the study concluded more organizations are going to turn to SaaS-based backup to simplify their data management and protection capabilities, reduce their own IT management burden and, most importantly, get a predictable cost.

Doug Free, director of corporate communications at Cohesity, said cash on hand became extremely important during COVID-19. Although the study found a host of IT reasons for turning to SaaS-based backup, including 89% of respondents saying they'd rather spend their time on business-critical duties, predictability and the ability to pivot against unforeseen events are important from a business perspective.

"There's a level of uncertainty going forward that we haven't seen, so people want flexibility," Free said.

Macomber similarly concluded that uncertainty in the global economy as a result of the pandemic means IT purchases need to have very strong justification. Only IT projects that fulfill a clear business need will get funded -- it's a business decision and not an IT one. She expects more vendors will try to adopt flexible licensing if they haven't already. Others, such as Cohesity, may even develop ways of delivering their products as services through the cloud, if possible.

Arthur Lent, CTO of Dell EMC's data protection division, sees consumption-based pricing as the "number one trend" in data protection.

"We're going to see it further accelerate for protection of on-prem workloads, as well as in on-prem to on-prem, on-prem to cloud, and protection in cloud workloads," Lent said.

Lent also pointed out more customers recognize the need to protect their SaaS applications, and Dell EMC will increase its ability to meet those needs in 2021.

"There's an increasing recognition that the SaaS application vendors provide sort of a broad service level availability," he said. "But traditional capabilities expected with on-premises solutions around backup recovery and leveraging recovery points are not fully delivered by the SaaS application vendors, and people recognize that data protection solutions are needed to complement them."

Customers, government will take ransomware more seriously

Various studies throughout 2020 have reported increased ransomware attacks, including a Bitdefender report finding a sevenfold increase over 2019. Industry experts concluded this problem won't go away in 2021.

Christophe BertrandChristophe Bertrand

Christophe Bertrand, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, predicted more companies will adopt ransomware defense. He expects isolated recovery and sandboxing will grow to limit the blast radius of ransomware attacks and checking environments for possible compromise. He also expects data protection and security to continue to converge, in ways that vendors Acronis, Arcserve and Asigra do with their products.

Farajun said ransomware attacks will become more intense and frequent because of new technology. He saw Kubernetes containers and SaaS applications as attack points for bad actors to exploit because data protection for these environments has not yet matured to the point that on-premises protection has.

"Every time there's a new technology, it's an opportunity for the bad guys to attack it," Farajun said.

Farajun expects the government to step in and take ransomware threats more seriously, as well. Citing the U.S. Department of Treasury's ransomware advisory issued in October as a sign of intent, he believes ransomware payments will become illegal in the U.S. in 2021. The Treasury Department's statement said paying cyber ransoms could potentially be supporting terrorism and warned companies against it.

Furthermore, Farajun predicts the U.S. government will require cybersecurity services providers to register with the government. As these businesses manage a lot of people's data, they are big targets for cybercriminals, some of which are working on behalf of adversarial nation-states. Being registered allows the government to step in and help during an attack, at the cost of stricter reporting and disclosure requirements.

Cloud seeds tape growth

The growing popularity of one of the newest storage technologies available will lead to the increased use of one of the oldest types of storage media.

Bertrand said because of cloud, tape is "absolutely not going away." He said due to its scalability, cloud storage will lead customers down a path of examining the usefulness of their data more carefully and keeping much more of it since they are no longer limited by hardware and physical space. Analytics tools and machine learning work better when they have more historical data, further incentivizing organizations to retain data longer. Tape supports these use cases, because that much data can't reasonably be stored on disk for that long.

"People will realize their data is their power, so more organizations will be looking to store their own data long-term," Bertrand said.

Tape is the only storage medium for digital data that doesn't require power when it's not active and can maintain the data's integrity for up to 30 years if properly handled and stored. Bertrand's research found that tape users cited proven reliability as the number one benefit for tape, followed by optimized cost and improved security. He doesn't believe organizations will go out in droves to buy a tape library in 2021, but he expects some number of them will use tape on premises as nearline storage. Instead, the biggest bump will come from cloud providers -- data on a cloud-based cold storage tier will likely live on a tape in an AWS or Azure data center.

Supporting Bertrand's prediction on the continued relevance of tape, IBM, in partnership with Fujifilm, demonstrated a magnetic tape prototype in December. The tape is made from strontium ferrite and has an areal density of 317 GB per square inch, which translates to potentially 580 TB in a single tape cartridge. For reference, an LTO-8 cartridge offers 30 TB of compressed capacity or 12 TB uncompressed capacity. Although IBM didn't provide a timeframe on when this technology will be used in an actual product, it showed tape is still being improved upon, and is far from dead.

Dave Raffo contributed to this story.

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