SMBs address data-protection issues

By Michele Hope

InfoStor recently took a look at how four small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) are tackling their data-protection challenges. We found a lot of the same data-protection drivers influencing both SMBs and larger enterprises, regardless of the companies’ size, revenue, or storage budgets.

Companies of all sizes say that rapid recovery with little manual intervention is crucial. The ability to allow the backup/recovery system to operate virtually unattended in the background also topped the priority list of most companies and was especially critical for SMBs with limited (or non-existent) IT resources available for backup tasks.

Low cost of entry was another big factor for SMBs, with many companies implementing solutions that offer robust, enterprise-class data-protection functionality such as snapshots, replication, and “continuous data protection.”

Finally, SMBs tend to look at data-protection offerings as not just an isolated fix, but as something that will augment a multi-layered disaster-recovery strategy. This usually includes nearline disk-based backups coupled with tapes taken off-site.

Three-tier backup

Even the smallest SMB in our survey took disaster recovery and data protection seriously enough to warrant three different tiers of backup. Joel Schapps, president of Los Altos, CA-based Bedrock Capital Management, knows only too well how critical protecting client data is to his three-person firm of investment advisors. The firm currently manages around $75 million in assets for about 150 clients.

“Although the amount of data isn’t that much-about 6GB-it’s all client history,” says Schapps. “We have 17 years of client transactions in our computers. This includes every dividend, stock, or mutual fund purchase a client has done.” Although all transaction data is also duplicated at Bedrock Capital’s custodian organization, Fidelity Investments, transactions combined with more-detailed client information and history are still saved locally.

Facing stricter disaster-recovery requirements and SEC requests to produce detailed client information, Schapps adopted three separate data-protection methods. The primary method uses EVault’s Small Business Edition (SBE) online backup service, which encrypts and backs up Bedrock Capital’s critical files each night via a DSL connection. EVault’s pricing for the SBE service starts at $50 a month for up to 2GB of data. Schapps also uses a clone drive he backs up once a week and takes off-site to a fireproof vault.

Finally, the company uses a Mirra Personal Server that backs up key files 12 to 15 times a day.

CDP for SMBs

Financial services-oriented SMBs like Bedrock tend to invest in data protection to reduce their overall risk and exposure. CTO and senior vice president Jim Read at Barrington, NJ-based E.A. Pifer Financial Systems understands this risk aversion as well-from both his company’s own experience and that of the company’s community bank and credit union clients. Pifer offers specialized network, security, and imaging solutions to the financial services market, also providing what the company terms “rapid-response” hardware support and maintenance services.

At the core of Pifer’s 35-person operation is an integrated call-tracking/CRM application with a back-end Microsoft SQL Server database containing 600 customer records, 40,000 service call records, and about 60,000 customer notes. How important is the SQL database to Pifer’s operations? “If we can’t take a service call, we’re out of business,” says Read.

In terms of data protection, Read wanted something that didn’t require the application to be closed in order to back it up. He also wanted to avoid having to rebuild the database-potentially, an 8- to 15-hour job-if something failed or became corrupted.

To meet his data-protection requirements, Read installed TimeSpring Software’s TimeData for SQL Server continuous data-protection (CDP) software. Pifer installed TimeData on a Hewlett-Packard ProLiant server, where the software continuously monitors the SQL Server database for changes. When it sees database checkpoints or committed application transactions occurring, it captures only the changed bytes associated with each change.

Read is sold on the concept of CDP, noting that the software requires no need to quiesce the database or place it in backup mode. Restores are also relatively painless, because of what TimeSpring calls “return to the moment” technology that lets users access and retrieve views of the data associated with the nearest moment in time prior to database failure or corruption.

Pifer was so pleased with his experience with CDP that the company has since decided to sell TimeData to its own client base. “Our customers don’t have database experts in-house. If there was a problem with their database, we might have needed to send a database expert out to their site,” Read says. “With the TimeSpring system, it’s simple. The customer’s system administrator can easily bring back what they need.”

VTLs for SMBs

Another SMB that moved from customer to reseller is Daphne, AL-based Abbott Systems, an IT consulting and services firm that works with a number of companies in logistics and transportation management. According to Henry Cano, vice president of network infrastructure, Abbott often develops proprietary software for clients and then hosts the solutions from its data center.

Strict service level agreements (SLAs) usually allow only one hour of downtime per month for client data. Based on these requirements, Cano and his team searched for a data-protection solution that would offer fast restores of client data, along with the ability to back up and restore the terabyte of data in Abbott’s data center in less than 12 hours.

The 15-employee company had been using an AIT-based tape library with multiple drives. Faced with performance that did not allow them to meet their SLA criteria, along with capacity ceilings, Cano began to evaluate virtual tape libraries (VTLs), which emulate tape libraries but offer faster, disk-based throughput for backups and restores. He eventually went with Sepaton’s S2100-DS VTL system, which allows users to purchase storage in 1.5TB increments up to 6TB.

Sepaton pre-configured the system to match Abbott’s existing IT security policies and backup requirements. “They configured about 90% of it ahead of time,” notes Cano, including everything from clock speeds and firmware versions on Abbott’s backup master and media servers down to tape bar-code prefixes and associated bar-code start-and-end numbers.

Cost of entry for the VTL was also an attractive selling point, which Cano estimates at about $10 per gigabyte of storage. With the VTL, he now estimates one of his full-time employees spends only about a quarter of his day or less monitoring and verifying backup job performance, running test restores, and tuning backups. That’s a big improvement over the half-day or more the employee used to spend. After using the Sepaton unit for seven months, Abbott has become a reseller of the product.

Attractive pricing and vendor implementation support were two areas that led Gallatin, TN-based ServPro to replace much of its tape-based backup methods with an integrated backup software/hardware Data Protection Unit (DPU) and off-site Data Protection Vault (DPV) from Unitrends Software.

The 180-employee ServPro supports more than 1,250 franchises in the US that provide cleanup-and-restoration services for damage due to fire, water, mold, etc.

According to CIO Dave Dozier, ServPro’s rapid growth led to a growing need for better data protection and more-robust disaster recovery. With close to a terabyte of data at ServPro’s data center, the company is often called upon to support the data delivery needs of its franchisees and several hundred insurance-related customers.

Franchisees upload 600 to 800 job files to ServPro’s data center each day. These often take the form of images, work orders, or insurance claims that are then stored in a SQL Server-based data warehouse associated with a Web-based service that retrieves and displays the various job files to insurance customers and franchisees.

More than a year ago, Dozier and his team began to look at ways to send data off-site to support more-rapid recovery and reduce the risk of loss to their primary data center. “We initially planned to simply mirror the data and forward it to a NAS unit. We looked closely at disk-to-disk options,” says Dozier. “Unitrends surfaced to the top [in part] because of its bare-metal recovery features and pricing.”

ServPro now has a DPU with about 1.7TB of capacity operating at the main data center.

This system replicates data synchronously over a fiber-optic link to the secondary vault, or DPV, at the company’s disaster-recovery site.

Dozier is pleased with the added reliability and flexibility of this solution compared to the previous tape-based infrastructure. He also appreciates the reduced overhead and maintenance now required. Finally, Dozier applauds the entry price for the Unitrends solution, which included support and training.

“We looked at solutions that cost $250,000 or more,” he says. “In contrast, the Unitrends solution cost less than $60,000, and we’re replicating in real-time and we haven’t had to use any people to maintain it.”

Michele Hope is a freelance writer. She can be reached at mhope@thestoragewriter.com.

This article was originally published on February 01, 2005