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How to select a backup service provider

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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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