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10 basic steps for better backup

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Geographic considerations and functions within backup operations can be delegated, but given communication capabilities and the management tools available today, there's little justification for decentralized backup.

As the complexities of the backup infrastructure grow, automation can help by providing tools to facilitate repetitious processes. As discussed earlier, tasks such as checking logs on a scheduled basis are key. Deploying automation to provide automated alerts for previously identified errors in logs can make life easier. The inverse is also true--providing automation to aggregate repetitive error entries in a log can be helpful.

In an unadulterated log, if I see one SCSI error, I see 1,000 of them. Scanning through all the entries of the same error can be daunting--so much so that I may be tempted to not perform the necessary daily log scan. Automation tools can successfully facilitate various activities if you identify the task to be performed and define the expected result.

8. Create and maintain an open issues report. Finding and fixing problems like the ones I've discussed are tactical activities critical to backup success. However, the process of managing those problems effectively and establishing appropriate metrics indicative of backup quality is essential to drive systemic improvement of backup infrastructures.

In larger environments, problems may be tracked through a formal ticketing system. If you don't

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use such a system, an open-issues log can be an important tool to help a backup operation evolve from fire-fighting mode and ensure an optimized steady-state operation. Either way, regular reports detailing open problems that indicate the rate at which new problems are added and existing problems are closed can speak volumes about the overall health of the backup operation. A simple trending report with appropriate supporting data can uncover fundamental operational problems and help you reach an appropriate resolution.

9. Ensure that backup is integrated with the change control process. Backup environments are by their nature highly dynamic. Unfortunately, within backup organizations, too often the change process for backup is equally dynamic. Just as backup must be part of the strategic planning process, on an operational level, backup must be part of an organization's formal change control process.

This implies a two-way relationship because changes directly and indirectly related to the backup infrastructure must be part of the notification, impact assessment and contingency planning process that's included within change control. Stories abound of unintended backup outages due to SAN switch topology or zoning changes, or system bottlenecks due to backup configuration modifications. They can and should be avoided with the proper process in place.

If a monthly outage window is necessary for the backup infrastructure to facilitate upgrades or verification tests, then this outage window shouldn't overlap with outage windows for other production systems. There's an increased demand for restores when changes occur in the systems as system files are upgraded and backing out of change is desired. If the backup infrastructure is down for maintenance at the same time, data can't be restored in a timely manner. The backup infrastructure is a production system, just like the most important application in an organization's environment, and it requires the same respect and support.

10. Leverage your vendors effectively. Backup environments are complex and get more so with the introduction of new technologies. Hardware and software vendors are racing to add new features and functionality in the struggle to differentiate themselves from one another.

While much of this technology can be helpful, and it certainly all sounds good, there's a considerable challenge in understanding the nuances of functionality of one technology option vs. another. For example, there are a significant number of different approaches to disk-based backup. Which one is right for your environment and what precisely is the impact?

A fundamental question that you must be able to answer is: Does your vendor have the right skills to support your needs? All technical problems get resolved eventually. If your technical problem isn't being resolved in a reasonable amount of time, then you may not be working with the right vendor. This becomes extremely apparent when multiple products from multiple vendors are integrated.

These 10 tasks may seem basic, but accomplishing them isn't always easy. They depend on a number of key elements: appropriate reporting and measurement capabilities, a high degree of staff competency within the backup organization and solid cross-functional communication. The impediments can be significant, including costs, resource availability, skill levels, organizational politics and a host of others.

If you can't accomplish all of these things, try to address the most critical. If time and resources are the issue, develop a plan to justify them. Against these hurdles you must consider the risk of unrecoverable data and major outages. After all, the news is full of those kinds of stories.

This was first published in November 2005

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