Vendors battle for remote office backup

By Kevin Komiega

Backing up data at remote locations has been the bane of the IT administrators’ existence since the dawn of distributed computing. We’ve all heard it before: Branch offices typically lack the expertise and personnel to properly back up their systems, leaving organizations exposed to risk of data loss. But there is a major push in the storage industry toward making remote office backup easier by employing a myriad of different hardware and software technologies to tackle the problem.

One of the more recent developments in the war for remote office backup is the entrance of the storage switch vendors touting a combination of hardware and software solutions based on wide area file services (WAFS) and WAN optimization technologies. Brocade, Cisco, and McData (which is being acquired by Brocade) have all thrown their hats into the remote office backup and consolidation market in the past 12 months.

All of the WAFS-based offerings operate under the same principle: centralize data management and backup operations while enabling LAN-speed data access over WANs to branch office users.

McData’s Remote Office Consolidation (ROC) portfolio is anchored by a combination of a re-branded version of Riverbed’s Steelhead wide-area data services (WDS) appliance and virtualization software from FalconStor Software to bring remote data back to the data center. Brocade has a similar approach through a deal with WAFS vendor Packeteer and the acquisition of virtualization vendor NuView.

Cisco recently entered the fray with some new additions to its branch-office family, including an integrated hardware and software solution featuring its Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) networking software, which enables WAN optimization, application acceleration, and WAFS functionality (see “Cisco targets branch offices,” InfoStor, October 2006, p. 1). Like its competitors, Cisco claims the products can help users consolidate branch-office operations, including backup, all while boosting the performance of applications over the WAN.

Is the WAFS and WAN acceleration approach right for you? As with every IT decision, it depends on your specific environment and requirements.

According to Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Lauren Whitehouse, there is some confusion in the industry about WDS and WAFS solutions versus other approaches to remote backup.

“WDS solutions improve remote office backup performance, but do not reduce disk capacity. The same amount of capacity to store backup data is still required,” says Whitehouse. “WAFS is really more of a collaboration technology and is not designed for data management or protection. But since WAFS can make data-center storage available to branch offices as if it were local, remote backup of file system-based data can potentially be eliminated, and the storage resides-and backups are performed-at the central data center.”

Whitehouse also says WAFS allows some of the data to be taken out of the remote offices and centralized, but it does not address data that is still left at the remote sites, nor does it address e-mail or database applications.

There are many other relatively new alternatives for branch office backup, each with their own pros and cons.

There is the historically dominant software-based approach of adding agents to remote systems that replicate data back to a central site. New techniques such as data de-duplication and compression are being added to backup software applications to make the process more efficient. Vendors such as Avamar and Symantec advocate this approach, but the downside is that you have to change your backup application.

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Some vendors focus on snapshots and replication. Whitehouse notes that Network Appliance’s Open Systems SnapVault Software (OSSV) and Signiant’s Mobilize product send data back to the central data center and eliminate the need for tape hardware and backup software at the remote locations.

Other alternatives include disk-based products such as disk-to-disk backup/recovery platforms from vendors such as Data Domain, ExaGrid, and many other vendors, which use data reduction techniques to shrink the amount of data transferred over a WAN/LAN and stored on disk. (For more information on data reduction techniques, see the Special Report on p. 26.) Virtual tape library (VTL) solutions from vendors such as Diligent, FalconStor, Sepaton, and others offer the same benefits, but VTLs do not eliminate the need for backup gear or software on-site in the remote locations. They simply replace tape with disk while boosting data-transfer rates and reducing capacity requirements.

There is also a new breed of service provider to consider in the remote backup equation. For example, vendors such as AmeriVault, Arsenal Digital, Asigra, EVault, and Iron Mountain all offer data backup and restore as a service by maintaining customer data at a third-party location. The service providers eliminate the hardware and personnel requirements for remote backup.

The choices for remote office backup are many, as are the criteria for choosing the best method for your requirements. ESG’s Whitehouse says the technology choice should be based on business requirements, and that cost and the recovery time objectives (RTOs) are also key factors in the decision-making process.

“The problem for many organizations is the lack of IT resources at remote and branch offices,” claims Whitehouse. “In many cases a non-IT person takes care of tape handling. A few of these newer approaches eliminate the need for local IT or non-IT resources to be engaged in the backup process, and many eliminate or reduce the hardware at the remote site.”

But it’s also important to consider the impact of removing local backup from the remote site. “IT organizations will need to look at the criticality of systems and applications at the remote office,” Whitehouse advises. “If data needs to be recovered, how quickly could it be done? If no local backup copy exists, how long will it take to recover the application?”

There are plenty of options to address the increasingly important issue of data management in remote offices, which is good news, because the amount of data residing in remote offices is growing rapidly. For example, some research firms estimate that as much as 60% of all corporate data is generated outside of corporate headquarters.

This article was originally published on November 01, 2006