Cloud backups seen as alternative to tape in some organizations

Cloud backups involve placing data on off-site storage that is owned and maintained by a vendor who charges a fee based on the service level.

Cloud backups involve placing data on off-site storage that is owned and maintained by a third-party vendor who charges a fee based on the service level provided to the user. This tutorial will walk you through the pros and cons of cloud backups as well as recent developments in the cloud backup space.

Proponents of cloud backups say this approach offers greater flexibility and reliability when using data because users can leverage the benefits of scale by using a cloud vendor’s infrastructure, as well as the vendor’s experience in maintaining storage resources. 

One of the main challenges associated with cloud backups comes with the initial upload because moving a significant amount of data over a wide area network (WAN) can be time-consuming. Some cloud backup vendors try to address this shortcoming by mailing a storage device to backup customers, who load the device with their data and send the unit back to the vendor. After the initial backup, only changes are saved, so not much data is being sent over the WAN. Many products also employ source-side deduplication to further reduce the amount of data being backed up. In the case of disaster recovery, a vendor’s service agreement may include provisions for delivering a storage device loaded with a customer’s backup to the customer’s site.

Lauren Whitehouse, a senior analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group, said one of the biggest developments in cloud backup is the range of devices that are compatible with the technology.

“A lot of the online backup vendors are making data accessible from [a variety of] devices. So if I back something up from my laptop computer, but I want to access it on my tablet or my handheld device, I can do that. I can actually recover it to that device. So that’s just showing that users want to have more access and portability [with] their data, and they’re using online backup applications to get it,” she said.

Editor's note: For more information on choosing a cloud backup service check out our tip, Cloud backup provider checklist: Criteria for choosing a cloud service.

Legacy backup providers offer cloud option

Legacy backup software vendors that offer a cloud option include Commvault and Symantec that target the enterprise, while others have products aimed at smaller-scale customers. Often vendors will design their products to work with a specific cloud vendor – for example, Symantec’s NetBackup designed to work with Nirvanix’ cloud service.

Whitehouse said it’s significant that legacy backup software providers offer an option to keep data in the cloud.

“Those companies that are moving from a tape-centric to a disk-based backup strategy are looking for ways to off-site copies without having to create tapes. A cloud repository can be a low-cost way to store copies for long-term retention,” she said.

Editor's note: To learn more about how traditional backup tools are evolving, check out our podcast Data backup tools evolve with cloud, vStorage APIs and source dedupe.

Cloud gateways

Cloud gateways can be either a hardware- or software-based appliance that acts as a bridge between the customer’s system and the cloud storage provider. The gateway appliance is located on the customer’s side of the connection and uses REST to communicate with the cloud service. Gateways offer data encryption, deduplication, WAN optimization and other data protection features.

Editor's note: Cloud gateway appliances ease SMBs into cloud storage systems offers more information about the benefits of cloud gateways for SMBs.

Cloud services evolve to include high availability features

Growing beyond backup, cloud resources are increasingly being eyed as an option for disaster recovery, Whitehouse said.

“Very recently, Axcient introduced a disaster recovery service for their customers. So they came to market strictly as a backup software-as-a-service provider, but now they’ve enabled through their infrastructure, the ability to actually fail over applications to their cloud. So I have not only the backup data located in the Axcient data center, but now I can spin up a virtual machine and have a [version] running in a virtual machine in Axcient’s data center and be able to access my data and be able to actually recover a system from the cloud,” she said.

Another option is Amazon’s S3 cloud, which she said is further along with such services, which gives customers the ability of running instances of applications – using their own data – all within the cloud.

“It’s all on-demand, I don’t have to have a data center… I don’t have to have all that equipment sitting idle until recovery,” said Whitehouse. “I don’t have to lay out a lot of capital, whether we’re talking about hardware or software licenses, and I don’t have to have the operational overhead of renting [necessary] space and people to do operational recovery. It’s all done for me on-demand and I’m just going to pay for the resources that I use for the time that I use them.”

Cloud vendors like Amazon offer public cloud storage options – or organizations can create and manage their own private clouds. But Whitehouse said customers can create virtual private cloud backups as well, while addressing issues like data security.

“If you’re nervous about having your data in a shared infrastructure, like Amazon, you can actually create a virtualized private cloud. So I can actually carve out part of the Amazon public cloud, and make it my virtual private network that I can access through my private VPN. So I can have my levels of security, nothing of mine will be comingled with anyone else’s, but I still get the benefits of scale of the Amazon infrastructure,” she said.

Editor's note: Disaster recovery in the cloud explained offers more information on cloud DR services.

Who’s adopting cloud backup?

According to a Gartner Research study published in October 2011, the financial services industry has made cloud-based services like backup and recovery a “top priority.”

In a survey of more than 2,000 CIOs of financial services firms, 39 percent told pollsters that they expected about half of all transactions will be supported by cloud infrastructure and software as a service by 2015, according to a Gartner press release.  

“Early cloud adoption, especially in the financial services sector, may have been limited to non-core areas and proofs of concept, but it is set to go mainstream, moving the heart of the business, transaction origination and processing, into the cloud,” wrote Gartner Managing Vice President Peter Redshaw in the statement.

In an ESG study published in May 2011, a survey of more than 600 senior IT professionals, researchers found more than 80 percent of respondents have plans to use cloud-based services over the next five years.

While the scope of those cloud services aren’t seen as having a significant effect on current IT operations at the moment, there is the potential for growth. The infrastructure-as-a-service model, which can include cloud backups and other functions, is used by about 17 percent of survey respondents, while another 18 percent said they planned to use IaaS. An additional 26 percent of survey participants told ESG they “are interested” in IaaS.

Editor's note: Firms see public cloud storage as tape alternative in remote sites details how two organizations deployed cloud backup as a tape replacement.

Could cloud unravel tape?

While tape archiving technology continues to be the focus of development, the technology still has the drawbacks of being physically transferred from a customer’s location to a long-term archival site, as well as the technological investment in creating and utilizing tape to retrieve data.

Whitehouse noted that ESG studies have found that tape use is “decreasing significantly” while cloud backup is expected to grow over the next few years.

“People don’t want to deal with tape if they don’t have to, and cloud could be a great alternative to tape,” she said.

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