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Case in point: Replacing tape backup with Avamar

With many companies looking for alternatives to tape, Ed Holmes' story is is not unique. His company recently switched from tape to Avamar for backup.

Ed Holmes grew up using tape for data retention and protection. Over a period of many years, his company built what was, in his view, a robust tape environment. But their last round of infrastructure upgrades, which were intended to serve the company's tape needs for the next four years, ran out of steam after only 18 months.

That's when Holmes started looking for an alternative. And that's when he discovered Avamar Technologies in Irvine, Calif.

Ed's situation is popping up in more and more companies of every size and in every industry segment. Like many others, Holmes came to manage storage as a sideline to his server administration role. He built a tape backup solution that steadily consumed more resources over time.

"Growing our tape environment translated to steadily increasing costs in terms of hardware platforms and upgrades, supplies, management time and service time. Media management was creating a manpower issue, and new regulations were adding more complexity than before," Holmes said. "At last count, we had about nine terabytes (TB) of data going to tape every month: 30 days of rotation in the library, and more offsite. I started to see it as money sitting on a shelf somewhere."

Moreover, he said, analyst reports pointing to vulnerabilities of tape media were becoming a concern for him, "A Gartner analyst told me that between 20% and 40% of tapes on average failed on restore. I had seen a small number of bad tapes in my career, but never on that scale." It concerned him that he might need to devise a program to test and recycle tapes more closely, he added.

Holmes' doubts about tape reliability also increased as tape densities improved, "The industry has been squeezing more and more data into the same space on their media. At one time, if you lost a tape, you lost, at most, a few megabytes. If you loose a tape today, you are looking at about a half-terabyte of data."

All things considered, Holmes decided to look at the alternatives. He says that the idea of copying data directly from disk to disk (D2D) -- particularly to large, inexpensive Serial-ATA (SATA) disk -- piqued his interest. He tested several products under workload to see whether the technology had matured beyond the "renegade, cutting edge" phase.

He quickly dismissed D2D products that made the second disk tier a surrogate tape target, "At first, it seemed like a good idea to do tape emulation on disk, but there was no convenient way to move it offsite [so the data was still exposed to disasters]. Plus, it was a waste of network capacity to run backups from a server or desktop system."

It was then that he was approached by Avamar, and the more he learned about the company's Axion solution, the more impressed he became.

"It sounded like a more powerful computing solution. Basically, you would let the storage solution roll up your data and put it away for you," he said. "Axion technology parses data on existing storage, and migrates it, in accordance with user defined policies, to a content-addressed storage repository. In the process, data is compressed to a fraction of its size on the primary disk."

Holmes says that he invited Avamar to present their solution several times before he licensed the product, "They needed to show me better density than what I had with tape in order to make their solution attractive," he said "They had to prove that their numbers were legit."

In the middle of 2004, he initiated a live test of the product in his shop, running Axion in parallel with his existing tape solution. At that point, Axion was "not an off-the-shelf, plug-and-play" solution, he said.

"The first snap up [copy of all data in the test storage platforms] took a long time. Afterwards, it was very fast. Still, we waited for changes and upgrades to be made, and we took an additional 3 to 4 months to make sure that we were choosing the right approach," he said.

By the beginning of 2005, his confidence in the solution was unshakeable. "We recently did a test data restore comparison: it took 15 minutes to recover a data set from tape, while Avamar's Axion did it in three-and-a-half minutes," he said "Bottom line: we were ready for a full-fledged roll-out. And what's more, I didn't just want to use Axion for the protection and management of 17 TB of data in this data center, I wanted to use it throughout the company for all of our data: the whole data enchilada." Holmes is currently rolling out the Axion solution within his Milpitas, Calif., data center, owned by Adaptec, where he serves as a network systems administrator. Holmes was concerned that his Axion solution might be passed over by readers who would view his situation as unique. However, he argues that, when it comes to its IT systems, Adaptec is as conservative and budget conscious as any company.

Given the cost savings compared to tape that are expected to accrue to the Avamar solution, he said, "We would have had to have adopted it even on a futures basis."

Avamar's Axion is appearing in more and more competitive bids for data protection solutions. The product is offered in three different versions, including a software-only option that consumers can implement on whatever storage hardware they choose. Worth a look.

About the author: Jon William Toigo has authored hundreds of articles on storage and technology along with his monthly "Toigo's Take on Storage" expert column and backup/recovery feature. He is also a frequent site contributor on the subjects of storage management, disaster recovery and enterprise storage. Toigo has authored a number of storage books, including "Disaster recovery planning: Preparing for the unthinkable, 3/e."

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