By Alan R. Earls
Laura Hunter, senior IT specialist at the Student Financial Services office of the University of Pennsylvania, realized she had a problem the minute she saw the fire trucks outside her downtown Philadelphia office. That’s because Hunter is responsible for backing up the computer system that manages the student financial aid process for the university’s 20,000+ students. And like most organizations, Hunter’s backup operation was tape-based, requiring her to periodically remove the tapes from her building for safekeeping. She did this according to a scheduled rotation, switching tapes on a regular basis.
But as Hunter watched the firefighters converge on the building, she realized that emergencies don’t respect backup schedules or the fact that she wasn’t supposed to take the backup tapes off-site until the next morning.
Fortunately, the firefighters’ visit turned out to have been prompted by a false alarm. But the experience was enough of a jolt that it persuaded Hunter to take action. The fact that the data in her department’s computers-thousands of financial documents as well as tax records and a document imaging system-could have gone up in flames prompted her to look into online backup services the next morning.
Like IT professionals at most organizations, Hunter had grown accustomed to the familiar process of tape backup. So her decision to eliminate that familiar technology in favor of an online solution wasn’t easy. But it is one that is being embraced by a growing number of companies. Some choose third-party turnkey services, while others take approaches in which more of the responsibility, cost, and hardware are handled internally. But in every case they are opting for advantages such as speed, improved reliability, reduced labor and, potentially, lower costs.
Ultimately, Hunter and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania selected Dataguardian On Demand, a disk-based online backup/recovery service from IPR International. The service provides both primary and secondary copies of data, encrypted and maintained off-site, while the university still has 24x7 access to all backed up files and folders.
Since working with IPR, Hunter says the university hasn’t lost any data, and restores are easy. Dataguardian On Demand has even helped Hunter quickly migrate data from old servers to new servers.
The do-it-yourself approach
But not all organizations are ready to swallow the costs of handing off the entire backup problem to a third-party service provider. And some are concerned about losing control of key data.
Darrell Statz, network manager at the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative (RWHC), a consortium of 29 hospitals, noted that protecting data by physically switching and transporting tapes does not always happen in an environment that is dependent on a one-person IT staff. If that person is ill or on vacation, backups may not happen. To combat that problem, about a year ago RWHC deployed Unitrends’ Data Protection Vault (DPV) at its Sauk City, WI, office; member hospitals use Unitrends’ Data Protection Units (DPUs) to electronically collect and transmit data in a HIPAA-compliant manner to the DPV. “Tape simply does not make sense any longer for many of our member hospitals,” says Statz. “We believe that disk-to-disk data protection, coupled with electronically vaulting the data off-site for additional safeguarding, provides the speed and reliability our hospitals require.” (HIPAA regulations require off-site copies of data for D/R purposes.)
RWHC did not consider the third-party services option, primarily because of cost.
Initially, RWHC set up a 400GB DPU at one member hospital and a 1.2TB vault in Madison. The vaulting unit can be expanded to 9TB, or more by adding other units. “It isn’t a great difference in cost [compared to tape], but it provides much better performance,” says Statz.
A middle road
Some companies are taking an approach that combines the benefits of internal backup with the advantages of online backup. For example, the NASA Federal Credit Union uses existing servers at two different facilities in combination with designed-for-the-purpose software to tie it all together.
Tim Burch, VP of technology services at the NASA credit union, says there were several reasons why he ultimately decided to implement online backup, the primary one being security. “We were sending out eight tapes a day, unencrypted,” he says, “and although they were shipped in locked boxes there were too many stories circulating about organizations losing tapes. We did ROI calculations and discovered that even without figuring in soft costs, online backup quickly paid for itself.”
For instance, Burch estimates it required at least one hour a day for an administrator to manage the backups. Then someone had to load and label boxes, create an invoice list, and track the whereabouts of tapes-another very labor-intensive process-and then tapes still had to be maintained. What’s more, says Burch, “as the amount of data to be backed up kept growing we were actually running into limits on the space on the tape and we had to consider the possibility of purchasing new tapes, drives, and compression software.”
The credit union opted to use EVault’s InfoStage software to manage the backup process, after considering EVault’s online backup/recovery services. In other words, the company chose to maintain ownership of the hardware and facilities that housed the data. “Our network engineers looked at a variety of outsourcers, where we would have sent data over a VPN to their facility-but none of those were as attractive cost-wise,” says Burch.
“We have a backup server at our corporate headquarters in Upper Marlboro, MD, and another at our Columbia branch-so our backups take place in Upper Marlboro and are copied to the Columbia branch,” Burch explains. All of the backup data is encrypted. “In one incident, a DBA accidentally deleted an important database. With the EVault software we were able to restore it in five minutes,” says Burch. “If we had been using tape backup it would have only been as current as the previous night, and at best we would have had to wait at least two hours to get the tape.”
Although only a few online backup/recovery services providers are well-known, there are actually hundreds of vendors in the market, according to the Gartner Inc. IT research and consulting firm. A short list would include vendors such as Arsenal Digital, Asigra, Bluepoint Data Storage, EVault, LiveVault, and Managed Storage International.
Many of the online backup vendors partner with larger, more-established companies. EVault, for example, partners with SunGard, and LiveVault works with Iron Mountain and IBM.
The widely reported loss of backup tapes and the cost of physical tape vaulting provide further incentives for switching to online backup/recovery. Data can be more secure with online backup because of automatic data encryption.
Of course, the decision about whether to switch to online backup eventually comes down to money, and each company has different circumstances that need to be considered. Factors such as how much data (and how critical it is), how many remote locations, and the nature of the existing infrastructure and IT staff all need to be considered.
Which approach is best depends on how much a company wants to get involved, according to Mike Karp, a senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, an IT research and consulting firm.
Many small and mid-sized companies would rather focus on their business than take on yet another source of complexity. Compliance issues may further complicate matters.
“Many companies don’t have the experience and they might not feel comfortable implementing something like online backup themselves when they already have so many concerns about compliance,” says Karp.
One other important factor to consider is how files are retrieved and the degree to which, if you are hiring a third party, you want to have your own people involved. For example, can end users retrieve files themselves, or do they have to involve a help desk?
“Whether to hand off backup operations to a third party or not must be a business decision: Take the time to run a spreadsheet to see if it makes sense,” Karp advises.
Alan Earls is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.