Back up desktop data

The job of protecting desktop data is much easier today with applications specifically designed for the job, continuous data protection applications and third-party services.

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Addressing compliance concerns
Some backup service providers (BSPs) offer compliance features such as:
Indefinite retention of the most recent version of any file saved in any active PC account.
Automatic deletion of files more than 10 versions old.
Corporate clients with thousands or tens of thousands of desktops have greater latitude in choosing the configuration of their archiving solutions. These include:
Setting data retention policies in accordance with company standards.
Removing expired data from the system.
Meeting Department of Defense levels for shredding old archives using technologies such as EMC's Centera.
Out with the old, in with the new is the refrain sung by storage administrators switching to new solutions such as continuous data protection (CDP) and backup service providers (BSPs) to protect their users' desktop and laptop data. Why the change in tune? Data on desktops and laptops remains at the fringes of data center control and outside the scope of many organizations' protection plans. That's because traditional desktop backup methods are difficult to administer, complex and of questionable value.

NetMass Inc., a McKinney, TX-based BSP, says that more than 60% of the companies they approach only back up and recover data stored on their central file servers. An administrator with the U.S. Dept. of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) says failing to protect his users' desktop data exposed his organization to problems ranging from high data recovery costs to project delays.

Emerging CDP and BSP desktop protection technologies address these issues by:

  • Minimizing upfront and ongoing costs
  • Allowing IT or a third party to take full responsibility for backups
  • Increasing data availability and recoverability
  • Reducing network traffic
  • Simplifying administration
  • Protecting distributed data
  • CDP benefits
    CDP technology offers a new and effective way to tackle the age-old problem of backing up desktops. Traditional backup products generally schedule backups to run once a day, require tape drives or file shares to be accessed at the same time by multiple backup jobs, and choke the network with backup traffic. New CDP products allow administrators to back up data throughout the day and reduce network traffic.

    Veritas Software Corp. began to recognize this trend away from traditional once-a-day desktop backups in 2003 based on feedback from its users. It found users weren't using desktop backup products due to their complexity, cost and the unwillingness of either administrators or users to take responsibility for the product or the success of the backups.

    Last year, Todd Wessels, a systems administrator with the U.S. Department of Energy, evaluated remote PC and laptop approaches and products, and chose Storactive Inc.'s LiveBackup. He says it's reliable, has a low per-client cost, and is easy to implement and manage. Initially, he expected users to resist the idea of him taking over their desktop backups. Instead, he says, users embraced the new backup policy. Wessels likes LiveBackup's system rollback capabilities, which reduce his workload despite the added responsibility, because he spends more time proactively preventing problems.

    He's also experienced some benefits he didn't anticipate: Storage consumption on the central file server slowed, and because users moved their e-mail .PST files from the central file server back onto their desktop drives, storage costs dropped. Also, Wessels now protects program files unique to specific applications. One of the desktops he supports is a Windows 95 PC attached to an older electron microscope with specific program files. Prior to installing LiveBackup, he spent many hours rebuilding the operating system hard drive each time it failed. Because new drivers and file updates had been applied over time, getting the right combination of program and driver files was nearly impossible using existing backup methodologies. With CDP, restoring this desktop is much easier.

    However, not every user is ready, able or willing to jump on the latest technology trend. Harold Alston, a network administrator at Athena Technologies in Warrenton, VA, prefers Veritas' Backup Exec to other, newer backup methods.

    Last year, Veritas reengineered its NetBackup and Backup Exec products to include CDP features. It first stripped out some seldom-used features such as its SendOnce option, and made CDP core to the desktop product. Then it stopped producing its NetBackup Professional line of software, and instead offered a desktop and laptop option for both lines of its backup software products with CDP as the internal engine. Finally, it lowered the retail price from $70 per desktop to $25 per desktop to make it easier for administrators to cost-justify the deployment of desktop and laptop backup products.

    Before purchasing a CDP-based backup product, it's important to identify how it performs the following:

    Local caching. If the desktop, laptop or central CDP server loses network connectivity, can changes to the data be cached locally until the connection comes back online? This feature should be viewed as a requirement for any CDP product.

    Open file protection. Most of these products don't have ways to handle open files. If this option is needed, make sure it's either on the vendor's roadmap or the current CDP product is certified with a third-party utility such as St. Bernard Software's Open File Manager.

    Data encryption and compression. These features place only minimal overhead on laptops and desktops while data is transmitted, and shouldn't greatly impact the user's experience. Laptop users will experience the biggest performance hits if they're only occasionally connected to the network or use only a dial-up connection.

    User vs. machine-named backups. Does the product recognize the backup by the logical desktop/laptop name or by the user name? If users tend to work on multiple desktops, it's best to find a CDP product that recognizes backups by user profile so users can restore files regardless of the PC they're using.

    Bandwidth throttling. If a user is offline often, the data in local caches can build up and negatively impact the ability to send and receive data when online, especially when using dial-up connections. Verify that the product has some way to control how much data gets sent and when.

    File recovery. Find out who has permission to do restores and if that capability can be controlled. It may be advantageous to give users the ability to restore accidentally deleted files rather than force them to require an administrator's assistance.

    Desktop protection applications

    How to select a backup service provider
    Backup service providers (BSPs) provide compelling arguments for desktop and laptop protection, but users must be careful when selecting a service. Key questions to ask include:
    What's their level of expertise? The BSP industry is still young, so companies need to be wary about selecting a BSP that may know less about protecting data than they do.
    What levels of data protection do they provide? Make sure the BSP's data protection offerings meet your requirements. Companies such as NetMass and DS3 DataVaulting house data in modern data centers with high levels of availability and secondary data centers for redundancy.
    How are the backups performed? BSPs offering Asigra's Televaulting product require an appliance to be installed at each site to collect and transmit the data back to their central site. Others BSPs, such as Iron Mountain and NetMass, back up data directly from users' PCs to their data center.
    Recovery options? A BSP should offer alternative methods for getting data into your hands when an Internet connection isn't available.
    Who monitors the success of backups? Even if backups are going offsite, the onus is still on users to verify that the backups completed and files are recoverable.
    How does it handle laptops? Laptops may be disconnected from the corporate network as often as they are connected, so verify that the laptop has a way to notify the backup server when it's on the network.
    The rise of BSPs
    A key to the successful implementation of a CDP product is the availability and willingness of a systems or storage administrator to assume management of the product and process. Outsourcing remote desktop and laptop backups to an online BSP can be a cost-effective method to achieve comparable levels of protection.

    The functionality of backup services offered by BSPs closely resembles that of most commercially available desktop backup software products. They offer similar abilities to set backup times, encrypt and compress data, and allow users to back up and recover files over the Internet. The main difference is that rather than someone within the company having responsibility for administering the product and data, the BSP assumes that role.

    The foremost concerns cited by users considering a BSP include backup times, and the security and protection of the data once it's moved offsite. The initial backup of every desktop and laptop takes some time, but subsequent incremental backups are barely noticeable. Each BSPs' products encrypt and compress the data before it's sent to them, and then the data is stored in an encrypted, compressed format. The data can only be retrieved by the client who holds the key to unlock the encrypted data. However, users need to ensure that the level of encryption provided by the vendor matches the level required by their business.

    Starting a subscription to a BSP plan is remarkably simple and takes about 15 minutes. For example, users who subscribe to NetMass download and install a 5.5MB executable, select the files they wish to protect and start the backup. NetMass and Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc. offer similar plans with free 15- to 30-day trial periods, and monthly and yearly plans starting as low as $9.95 a month or $79.95 a year for 250MB of data.

    The initial backup takes the most time, although the time will vary according to the amount of data that needs to be backed up and the speed of the Internet connection. A personal trial of NetMass' product was done using its SystemSafe Online Backup. Backing up 210MB of data on a three-year-old desktop running Windows ME with SystemSafe, while concurrently running Microsoft Word, Excel, Outlook Express and Internet Explorer, produced no discernable impact to the Microsoft applications. It took 50 minutes to complete the initial backup using a cable modem connection. The average throughput of the backup was 60KB/sec and had a compression ratio of roughly 4:3.

    While this approach may be fine for individuals, enterprises and some small- to medium-sized businesses need more effective ways to protect and manage their desktop and laptop data. Stacy Hayes, vice president of operations and business development for DS3 DataVaulting, Fairfax, VA, selected Asigra Inc.'s Televaulting product in 2002 as DS3 was preparing to enter the BSP space. One of DS3's main product selection criteria was the product's ability to enter enterprise environments in an unobtrusive manner. Hayes liked Asigra's Televaulting architecture; the Televaulting server software makes API calls over an existing TCP/IP network to Microsoft desktops. The Windows operating system then responds to this call, providing the data requested. This can all be done without deploying an agent on the desktop, which allows for fast and easy installs, and simpler management (see Asigra's Televaulting Products of the Year writeup).

    Michael Lucas, IT director for Hogan & Hartson LLP, found the combination of Asigra Televaulting product and DS3's offsite data vaulting service intriguing. But as a manager of offices in 24 cities on three continents with more than 2,000 employees, he realized he couldn't afford to lose any data. So he ran both his existing Veritas implementation and Asigra's Televaulting product concurrently for one year to work through any issues.

    Two years later, his shop now runs entirely on Asigra's product and, in doing so, Lucas has dropped his monthly run rate from $30,000 to $25,000. He estimates he's saving more than that because this figure doesn't include the decreased administrative time to manage the product. He also believes that if he kept using the previous arrangement, he'd be spending closer to $50,000 a month because total storage under management has swelled from 5TB two years ago to approximately 7TB.

    While BSPs relieve administrators of tasks such as handling and rotating backup tapes and responding to routine user restores, administrators must still monitor the success of backups and manage the BSP relationship. While there's no panacea for protecting desktops and laptops, CDP products and BSPs allow companies to begin moving closer to the ideal of protecting all of their remote users' data.

    Backup service providers
    This was first published in January 2005
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