Backup SLAs: The art of diplomacy


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Separate what from how
Perhaps the most important line to draw in the sand when documenting service levels is to set unequivocal demarcation on who gets to make what decisions. Put simply, your job as the service provider must be to determine how to meet your customers' needs; in return, you must allow your customers to decide what those needs are without second-guessing them. This doesn't mean you can't guide them in the decision process and provide feedback on the impact of their choices, but the end users of the service must have the final say in what their service will look like.

Chaos ensues when these roles are confused. Giving a customer too much say will make the IT infrastructure unmanageable. Conversely, IT staffers who are out of touch with users are unlikely to build a system that will meet the real needs of the business.

When it comes to backup, the default (and incorrect) decision is to radically overprotect the business unit's data. Most IT staffers will overestimate the value of data, often citing nonexistent compliance policies. In one large company, for example, the outsourced IT staff decided to keep all backups forever to provide "better service," even though this was in direct opposition to the strategic decision of the company's policy chief. To their own detriment, IT members even tend to overspecify backup by building systems that can't function--leading them "back to the well" for additional hardware

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to meet requirements that never existed in the first place.

These pitfalls can be eliminated, or substantially reduced, when the "What vs. How" position is declared. IT can serve as a guide for the business, describing the merits and costs of the various options plainly but allowing the final decision to rest with those who know the data best. When this process takes place, the infrastructure team is invariably surprised by just how lax the actual requirements for data protection are on the whole. The majority of applications often need little more than regular incremental backups, and long-term retention of backup images may not be necessary (see "What not to say,").

There are exceptions, however. Certain applications may need transaction-level data protection and long-term retention. But the default backup scheme applied across the board at most companies (daily backups, weekly fulls and daily, monthly and annual retention of backups) fails to meet this requirement, just as it overprotects the majority of data. Currently, most data isn't protected correctly. If IT can get valid requirements from the business, existing backup resources could be reallocated and everyone could get what they need.

This was first published in September 2006

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