Application-aware data protection: Databases

Posted on September 24, 2007


New database technologies usher in new approaches to data protection and disaster recovery.

By Steve Norall

—Although disaster recovery (DR) and data protection require cross-IT coordination and planning, the accountability and responsibility for implementing DR and data protection frequently fall to the storage team. Technologies such as replication, snapshots, and backup have become the "bread-and-butter" tools in the storage administrator's toolkit.

Traditionally, storage managers have utilized disk array-based capabilities to safeguard their mission-critical applications. However, with the maturing of application-integrated and data-aware protection approaches over the last few years, storage teams face a much more complex decision-making process. Nowhere is this choice more important than in database-centric storage environments.

Given storage teams' pivotal role in DR and data protection, storage administrators and managers need to be cognizant of database-centric DR and data-protection approaches and carefully analyze whether to use them instead of traditional storage-centric technologies to achieve the desired recovery time objective (RTO) and recovery point objective (RPO).

In this article, we examine how new product capabilities at the database level are altering the calculus of data protection and continual access to information stored in databases.

In light of recent events, end users have had to revisit how to safeguard and plan for local and catastrophic outages. Over the last few years, two technology trends have emerged that alter how users should think about protecting mission-critical systems:

Data protection and DR approaches become data-aware—Traditionally, most DR and data-protection technologies were "dumb"—copying bits to disk or across the wire without knowledge of their meaning or structure. However, a new class of intelligent data protection and DR approaches has emerged that "understand" the underlying data structures of the application. As a result, application vendors are subsuming more storage management, data protection, and disaster-recovery capabilities into their applications, obviating the need for expensive storage-centric technologies at the array or network level. This new class of data protection and DR tools can significantly speed recovery of data and ensure better efficiency than approaches that simply protect data at the bits and bytes level.

CDP changes the RTO/RPO calculus—Continuous data protection (CDP) has emerged as a major industry buzzword. The core concept of continuously capturing data changes coupled with the ability to create "any-point-in-time" images of a volume has the power to compress RTO and RPO to seconds from hours and days. Despite the hype, CDP, if implemented properly, has tremendous value for IT users.

Taken together, these trends redefine what is possible in terms of data protection and DR and require storage administrators to reassess their current approaches.

Traditional storage-centric approaches
Today, storage teams rely on a combination of copy creation and mirroring/replication techniques to meet RTO and RPO requirements. They use snapshots to non-disruptively create point-in-time copies of the database that then can be backed up to disk or tape. A snapshot provides a consistent recovery point from which the database can be restarted. In addition, storage teams employ asynchronous or synchronous mirroring to create copies of the database in other locations and protect their systems from catastrophic events.

Storage-centric technologies provide a simple horizontal solution for safeguarding data across all applications and data types. However, with this lowest-common-denominator approach, storage teams make several crucial sacrifices that impact the overall manageability and recoverability of the underlying storage infrastructure. Here are the most common trade-offs and issues that we hear from users:

Limited functionality and automation—Storage-centric technologies have no knowledge of the underlying data structures or consistency points of the database. As a result, after a fail-over, manual steps are required so that the database can perform crash-consistent recovery before it is online and able to process requests. This lengthens the recovery time. Similarly, if the underlying bits get corrupted because of physical or logical failures, storage-centric technologies will not recognize this condition and will mirror the corrupted bits to the target storage volumes as well, thereby severely compromising recovery.

Bandwidth inefficient—Since storage-centric replication approaches do not understand databases' data structures, they often end up replicating substantially more write operations than are necessary, even when they replicate only the incremental changes. This lack of intelligence results in more bandwidth consumed and a high telecom bill for the data center.

Cost-prohibitive—Storage vendors have typically charged additional money for high-end software capabilities such as replication, snapshots (in some cases), and CDP. This can significantly increase the overall cost of a high-end storage system.

Hardware lock-in—End users often want to use high-end storage systems to store their database data in their primary data center, but prefer to use more cost-effective storage devices at their secondary sites. Unfortunately, many storage-centric approaches require users to replicate from one high-end storage system to another of the same make and model, forcing users to be locked in to a single vendor or product family.

Database-integrated DR, DP
Intelligent data protection and disaster-recovery technologies integrated within the database kernel mitigate the aforementioned drawbacks of storage-centric approaches. Let's examine the key advantages to leveraging replication, snapshots, and CDP at the database level, instead of at the storage device level:

Data-aware—A database, unlike a storage system, can create continuously consistent snapshots of the data that do not require crash-recovery procedures. As a result, database-centric approaches offer greater granularity in terms of recovery and enable hot standby operations that storage-centric approaches cannot provide. For example, a DBA using native database protection capabilities can roll back modifications to a table, a transaction, or the entire database to any point in time. Furthermore, in the case of disaster recovery, a production database can replicate data to a hot standby database, which is online and ready to process requests. Thus, database replication obviates the need to perform a lengthy crash recovery operation before startup. Finally, DR solutions integrated within the database offer more-resilient data protection because they do not mirror corrupted bits to the target storage volumes. Since the data is already validated, end users do not have to wait until the disaster fail-over time to determine whether the data in the protected storage volumes is valid or not. In short, data-aware protection technologies compress RTO and RPO SLAs.

Hardware-agnostic—Database data protection and DR technologies interoperate with any type of storage system. Unlike array-based replication technologies, database-centric storage technologies allow users to choose a high-end storage system at the primary site and a more cost-effective midrange storage system at the secondary site to reduce overall costs.

Bandwidth efficient—Unlike some storage-centric replication technologies, database replication technologies propagate only selected incremental changes to the secondary site, allowing end users to reduce their telecom bill and use scarce bandwidth efficiently. This is more efficient than storage-level change tracking because sending the logical description of a change is usually more compact than sending the bits.

No distance limitation—Database-resident replication technologies can ship data to any location around the world using WAN IP links and are not limited by Fibre Channel distance limitations, as are some storage-centric mirroring solutions.

Database-centric protection approaches do have some drawbacks. They only focus on what is stored within the database, without considering data or files stored outside the RDBMS. Moreover, a database approach only works with a particular database vendor's software and is not extensible across other databases and applications.

Assessing vendors
The three major database vendors—Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM—have different product strategies and capabilities as they relate to disaster recovery and data protection. All of these database vendors for several years have supported log-shipping as a baseline mechanism for data protection and disaster recovery. Log-shipping is the process of copying the database transaction logs (that capture the database changes) on the primary database to a secondary (or standby) database and reapplying the transactions to the secondary system. Although a common and simple approach, basic log-shipping requires some manual oversight for managing the DR configuration.

Over the past few years, database vendors have begun to subsume more-advanced recovery capabilities previously thought to be the domain of file systems, volume managers, and storage systems into their offerings. As a result, we have witnessed database-centric solutions increasingly incorporate technologies such as CDP, snapshots, replication, and storage virtualization into their products—often for free. In short, the database, like file systems, has become an extension of the storage infrastructure, and as a result the storage administrator needs a working knowledge of what each RDBMS kernel can provide.

Oracle Database 10g & 11g
Oracle provides the most comprehensive and sophisticated suite of data protection, disaster recovery, and storage management capabilities of any of the major database vendors. Storage administrators operating in an Oracle environment need to be aware of at least three core Oracle storage technologies: Data Guard, Flashback Technology, and Automatic Storage Management (ASM).

Data Guard, a standard feature of Oracle Database 10g and 11g, synchronously or asynchronously replicates granular database changes on the production database to one or more remote or local hot standby databases. If the production database becomes unavailable because of a planned or an unplanned outage, Data Guard automatically switches a standby database to the production role, allowing client applications to automatically connect to the new production database. This approach offers high levels of both RPO and RTO. Active Data Guard, a new capability introduced in Oracle Database 11g, allows standby databases to offload real-time queries, reporting, fast backups, and testing from the production database, without compromising RPO. In summary, as a result of its underlying knowledge of Oracle data structures, Data Guard represents a higher-performance, more bandwidth-efficient substitute to traditional storage-centric mirroring technologies.

Oracle Flashback Technology is akin to CDP for the database. Flashback Technology provides a near instantaneous, non-disruptive mechanism for recovering the entire database, a table within the database, a row, or rolling back a transaction to any point in time. Oracle Flashback Technology provides a level of granularity and performance optimization that storage-centric CDP simply cannot match. While storage-centric CDP solutions can re-create a volume at any point in time, Flashback Technology allows administrators to easily roll back individual logical elements of the database (e.g., tables, transactions) and rewind operator errors that might occur.

Lastly, Oracle provides Automatic Storage Management (ASM) that can obviate the need for third-party cluster-aware file system and volume management on the database system. Using ASM, Oracle optimizes the underlying storage performance by striping and mirroring the data files over all available spindles. Given the complexity of tuning the storage performance of an Oracle deployment, ASM provides a simplified, automatic approach to data layout and resiliency for the administrator.

Microsoft SQL Server
With the release of SQL Server 2005, Microsoft also began subsuming traditional remote mirroring and copy creation technologies into the RDBMS, although the capabilities are not as rich in functionality as Oracle's. Microsoft offers two capabilities—database mirroring and database snapshots—of which storage teams need to be aware. Database Mirroring transfers transaction log records from one server to another, allowing quick fail-over to the standby server. In the event of a fail-over, client applications can automatically redirect their connection to the standby server. Unlike Data Guard, SQL Server database mirroring is limited to a single pair of database servers—production and standby—and does not support a "hub-and-spoke" deployment model.

SQL Server database snapshots allow administrators to create a read-only, static view of the database at a single point in time. Database snapshots can be used to recover from operator errors or for reporting purposes. However, SQL Server does not provide a CDP mechanism that allows administrators to roll back the database or individual database objects to any point in time.

Of the three major database vendors, IBM DB2 has subsumed the least amount of advanced data protection and disaster recovery capabilities into the database engine. DB2 offers an integrated replication capability called High Availability Disaster Recovery (HADR), but does not provide snapshots or CDP level functionality in the database kernel. HADR is similar in capabilities to Microsoft SQL Server database mirroring. HADR replicates data changes, synchronously or asynchronously, from a primary database to a single standby database. In the event the primary database fails, clients can be re-routed to the standby database at another location.

Advice to users
Storage managers' focus has shifted from how to back up and protect data to how to recover data quickly and at increasing granularity. This emphasis on recovery is widespread throughout the data protection and disaster-recovery markets. In that context, users should consider four points as they plan their database infrastructure:

First, users need to assess their RTO and RPO objectives on an application-by-application basis. Storage teams must break out of the "one-size-fits-all" dogma and expand their understanding of different data protection and recovery approaches available today.

Second, database-centric data protection and disaster recovery approaches offer compelling ROI benefits over storage-centric approaches and should be leveraged when feasible. Conventional wisdom has held that there is an implied trade-off between cost and SLAs (e.g., low RTO and RPO). With the advent of application-integrated and data-aware data protection and DR technologies, users can get better RTO and RPO at a lower cost point than what has been possible with traditional storage-centric approaches.

Third, in assessing how to protect their database infrastructure, storage teams must weigh the RTO and RPO for the database, the budget to achieve that RTO and RPO, the native capabilities of the chosen database, and how they compare to storage-centric technologies. End users who have standardized on a particular database platform with rich data protection and DR functionality should strongly consider using database-centric DR and data-protection capabilities. For example, Oracle's rich CDP, replication, and storage management capabilities make it a natural fit for any Oracle shop. Furthermore, since most of the database vendors do not charge additional money for these features, users who are looking to contain costs can utilize them in lieu of more-costly storage- centric approaches.

Finally, even though the mantel of data protection and disaster recovery may fall upon the storage administrator, storage teams must increasingly coordinate activities with DBA teams to jointly deliver the desired RTO and RPO objectives. This is particularly true as planning and cross-domain IT coordination become central to meeting ever-increasing RTO and RPO requirements.

Today, database-centric disaster recovery and data-protection technologies allow users to meet higher SLAs at a lower cost point than previously possible. As a result, storage teams face a new challenge. They must reassess their current approach to disaster recovery and data protection for their database infrastructure and determine whether to use CDP, replication, and snapshot capabilities at the database layer. With innovation comes added risk, but in the case of database-centric DR and data protection technologies, users will find these new intelligent, data-aware technologies to be up to the challenge.

Steve Norall is a senior analyst with the Taneja Group at

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