Atlanta-based Adams Outdoor Advertising has no IT staff, which is not unusual for a small-to-medium business (SMB). However, the company still needs the most reliable technology possible for backup and recovery in its 13 offices east of the Mississippi. Like many SMBs, the company has the same expectations for service, reliability, and cost-effectiveness as large enterprises.

The billboard advertising company found the level of confidence it was looking for when it chose an online backup/recovery service. The company dumped its tape backup system and opted for Internet-based backup from LiveVault, which provides continuous, real-time backup and recovery. “It runs seamlessly behind the scenes,” says Nancy Cormican, human resources administrator for Adams.

It’s easy to see why online backup/recovery services, although a fledgling market, might appeal to SMBs since there is no need to buy expensive equipment or learn how to use and maintain it. SMBs use existing Internet bandwidth to send and retrieve data.

Currently, the market for server-based online backup/recovery (also called “managed remote backup-and-recovery services”) is $50 million to $100 million, according to Gartner Dataquest. More companies are expected to enter the market, which will grow rapidly in the next few years, predicts Adam Couture, a senior analyst at Gartner.

Although many companies can be labeled “online backup-and-recovery” service providers, some focus on PCs while others concentrate on server backup/recovery. The latter group has three main players, according to Couture—AmeriVault, EVault, and LiveVault.

Online backup/recovery services typically require users to install proprietary software agents on the servers. Next, users download all data to be backed up. The data is transmitted encrypted over the Internet. Then it is stored on disk at a data center—typically Iron Mountain or SunGard, depending on the services vendor. Thereafter, backups comprise only new files, or changes to files previously backed up. Since only changes are transmitted after the initial download, backups can be performed very quickly. Data can be retrieved either immediately via the Internet with a Web browser or within 24 hours delivered on a network-attached storage (NAS) device, depending on the amount of data and the type of service the user has bought. Users receive e-mails detailing backup status.

All online backup/recovery vendors provide detailed SLAs.

Pros Of Online Backup

The biggest benefit to online backup/recovery is reliability compared to other methods such as offsite backup tapes, says Skip Lohmeyer, IS director for the Haynsworth, Baldwin, Johnson, and Greaves law firm, which employs 175 employees in eight offices nationwide.

Lohmeyer was disillusioned with tape-based backup, which he claims is only 70% to 80% reliable for various reasons such as hardware/software failures and personnel failing to verify complete backups.

The law firm has been using AmeriVault for more than a year and recently signed up for three more years, although Lohmeyer has not forsaken tape completely.

“While the online backup system from AmeriVault was meant to be an additional safety net beyond the firm’s tape backup system, the online backup system has become the primary line of defense for disaster recovery due to its reliability, automation, and ease of use,” says Lohmeyer.

The law firm has various servers, RAID arrays, and mirrored drives. About 85GB of critical data is backed up each night over one T1 line for the entire network, including 11 servers in remote offices. Backup begins at 6 PM and is staggered in 30-minute intervals. It is complete by 11:30 PM. Triple DES encryption is used to ensure attorney-client privilege and to meet privacy law regulations.

Automating, outsourcing, and retrieving data quickly may be compelling reasons for using online backup/recovery. If you have IT staff, they do not have to be burdened by time-consuming backups. Backups can be scheduled or, in some cases, continuous. Automatic e-mail notification occurs when the backup is complete or if it cannot be completed if the Internet connection is down. Also, data is sent off-site immediately and can be restored in minutes from disk versus hours or even days if data is restored from off-site tape.

“Disk-to-disk backup is a hot button, and the benefits of it are inherent in online backup and recovery,” says Bud Stoddard, CEO of AmeriVault.

A New Twist

EVault offers two options for users. One is the traditional online backup/recovery service, which accounts for the majority of the company’s business. Last November, EVault began selling its InfoStage online backup-and-recovery software, which is a component of its service offering. InfoStage allows users to license the software and to manage their own backups in a disk-to-disk operation.

InfoStage works by sending encrypted backup data from various sites over a WAN or LAN to a QuickRecovery disk vault in an InfoStage Director subsystem. The vault is a storage pool for each server backed up. It also keeps a history of all backup activities for each protected server.

The InfoStage Director manages the disk, catalogs backup files, and monitors backup processes at local and remote sites. InfoStage Agents scan protected servers for changed data. A management console oversees the processes.

Interior Architects is using InfoStage to manage backup in 15 offices worldwide with four full-time IT staff. The company realized that its remote offices were having trouble managing tape systems and that it needed a system that was “hands off.”

“We decided to go to a centralized system, and in evaluating the options of either a large tape library or disk storage, it quickly became evident that disk storage would be a lot faster and more scalable,” explains Bryan Almquist-Lee, IT director and CIO for Interior Architects, in San Francisco.

Initially, the company tried online backup/recovery with another company, but the costs became prohibitive when they wanted to scale up, says Almquist-Lee. A better solution was buying the software and using their own disk array, he says.

EVault specified a system for the architectural firm. The hardware includes Windows-based Dell 775N NAS appliances with 24 73GB drives in two RAID-5 arrays.

“Recovery is a piece of cake now,” says Almquist-Lee. If there is a “disaster” in one location, data can be spread to other servers all over the world. If one server is lost, data can be recovered very quickly, he says.

Users Beware

While the benefits of online backup and recovery are enticing, there are potential downsides, according to analysts. For example, there are no standard pricing models, and it can be difficult for users to make apples-to-apples comparisons (see “Pricing options for online backup”). Also, bandwidth can be a potential problem.

“The conduit has to be fast enough to provide at least as much capability as required, and the bigger the pipe, the more expensive it is,” says Anne Skamarock, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates.

The first time users send their data to the data center, it can be a long process, depending on the amount of data being sent.

Countering that criticism, EVault CTO Ray Ganong argues that data is compressed, and only a small percentage of data is transmitted after the initial download.

Also, customers may have bi-directional links for their Internet connections. It is typical for more data to travel inbound than outbound, according to Scott Jarr, director of product management at LiveVault. Therefore, backups have access to more bandwidth if necessary.

Analysts also express concern about the financial status of the various vendors, some of which are venture-backed and still in start-up mode. Knowing what will happen to your data if a company goes out of business is a key question to ask prior to your buying any services, according to analysts.

However, service providers typically partner with established data-center providers to ensure that data is safe and retrievable.

While the pros seem to outweigh the cons of online backup/recovery, analysts agree that data needs to be backed up off-site as an insurance policy against disaster. “It’s a lot better than doing nothing, or not knowing if your backups are complete,” says Couture.