A healthier diet for disaster recovery

Some upfront planning and a handful of non-proprietary products can make disaster recovery a whole lot easier.

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Some upfront planning and a handful of non-proprietary products can make disaster recovery a whole lot easier.

A while back, I found myself giving a dinner presentation on disaster recovery (DR) and data protection to an enthusiastic (and apparently quite hungry) group of IT operatives at a steakhouse in Calgary, Alberta. The event was sponsored by a vendor keen to promote its latest wares for disk/tape storage and ancillary processes like replication, mirroring, backup and archive. My presentation was the “hook” intended to pull folks in so the sponsor could follow up with a brief commercial advertisement.

Typical of these events, there was the “meet and greet” as attendees arrived before everyone was seated for dinner. Then I was introduced, the old PowerPoint machine was fired up and we were off on a journey into the world of business continuity (BC) planning -- a subject that can only be enhanced by a medium rare filet mignon and a glass of wine.

To be honest, there isn’t a lot of detailed content that can be communicated in just one hour, so I tried to state a few basic ideas. A key principle I hope got through over the din of cutlery clinking on porcelain was one that seemed to be a real eye-opener for the crowd, although it strikes me as somewhat obvious.

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It’s much easier, I argued, to build in storage resiliency when storage is conceptualized, planned and deployed than it is to bolt on protection afterwards. The advantages reveal themselves at many layers of the continuity planning process.

Continuity planning serves two masters, I offered. First, we strive to avoid preventable disasters by doing such things as monitoring and managing infrastructure. That way, we can spot burgeoning error conditions and resolve them before we’re hit by an outage.

But infrastructure management is mostly nonexistent in the majority of organizations. With respect to storage in particular, management is too often an afterthought -- certainly not a key criterion most hardware guys list when purchasing a storage rig.

Some of the attendees smiled and nodded with implied agreement at this “insight,” oblivious to the impact of the overdose of rich, fat-laden, charred-flesh-of-cloven-hoofed-mammal they were forking into their mouths. Strangely, my thoughts turned to their spiking cholesterol levels, portending higher blood pressures, expanding equators and Type II diabetes down the road.

In addition to doing something about disaster prevention, I continued, continuity planning aims to develop strategies for coping with disasters we can’t prevent. This is where data protection comes in. Because data can’t be replaced, it must be made redundant as a safeguard against corruption or loss, whether caused by user error, application faults, malware and viruses, equipment malfunctions and so on.

This idea was washed down with gulps from wine glasses accompanied by more smiles of familiarity and agreement. I flashed momentarily on the effects the alcohol might have on them.

@pb

Moving forward, I said that a bit of consideration at the time of infrastructure planning regarding how data would be protected could make all the difference between a smooth recovery or lots of delays and disappointments and, well, disasters. Hardware lock-ins, which are created when relying on proprietary on-hardware snapshot, mirroring and replication technologies purchased with the storage rigs themselves, are problematic over time. For the functionality to work at all, you usually need to buy two copies of the rig from the vendor: one for the primary site and another for your recovery facility. These specialized pairings get in the way of coherent data protection and recovery, especially as data storage infrastructure grows more heterogeneous.

The good news, I offered, is that software-based storage virtualization can help to alleviate this problem by enabling delivery of protection services such as continuous data protection (CDP), snapshot, mirroring and replication services on a cross-platform basis -- irrespective of hardware brand. Preventing hardware lock-ins from the outset is key to making disaster recovery efficient. A good storage virtualization approach can provide a more unified way to deliver the right data protection services to the right data at the lowest possible cost.

Some confused looks came my way as the attendees slathered butter and salty sauces onto their potatoes and vegetable. After all, they spent big dollars on storage rigs precisely for the data protection benefits touted by their vendors. Was I saying that all this extra cost was unnecessary?

These concerned expressions deepened as I offered another quick caveat: Not all storage virtualization software is the same. When VMware adds a storage hypervisor microkernel to its stack later this year, in all likelihood it won’t deliver the finely tuned service resiliency and platform agnosticism of more tenured storage hypervisors already in the market. Instead, for the VMware stuff to work, you would need to have all servers running the VMware hypervisor, which is essentially the same dog you get from buying single vendor lock-in hardware, but with a different set of fleas.

Citing examples, I explained that the complexity of recovery is made worse by the proliferation of data protection service lock-ins. If you think it through from the start -- when building infrastructure itself -- you can create a rich, built-in, hardware-agnostic, data protection-enabled infrastructure that will cost a lot less than bolting on various mirrors, replicators, clusters and backup processes after the fact.

My time was up, aperitifs and gooey chocolate cake was served, and the sponsor took the stage Yes, the right way to build disaster-proof infrastructure might be the approach that Toigo spelled out (the sponsor noted), but for the rest of us, the affinity for a particular vendor’s gear, pre-integrated with the functionality you need, is often simply the more preferable way to buy storage gear. Rather like buying a prepared dinner at a nice restaurant instead of cooking a healthy meal yourself featuring judicious limits on fat, starch, sugar, salt and other ingredients.

We opt to exercise afterwards rather than designing a healthier diet up front. So it goes.

BIO: Jon William Toigo is a 30-year IT veteran, CEO and managing principal of Toigo Partners International, and chairman of the Data Management Institute. 

This was first published in June 2012

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