Centralizing remote-office data backup


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Eight key questions

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Here's what you need to know to begin your assessment of remote office backup:
How many remote sites are there?
How many servers?
How much storage?
Which backup software is used at each site?
What kind of tape drive technology?
How many tapes are used annually per site?
What are the maintenance agreements on hardware and software?
Who actually runs the backup operations at each remote office and what kind of training and skills do they have?
Close your eyes for a second and think about storage. Do images of racks of sophisticated IT equipment in a raised-floor data center come to mind? Maybe you're visualizing large boxes such as EMC Symmetrix, Hitachi Data System Freedom Array or IBM Shark. Of course, thoughts of enterprise storage wouldn't be complete without large tape drives from companies such as StorageTek, and high-end data movement software like EMC's Symmetrix Remote Data Facility (SRDF) for disaster recovery protection.

Those are accurate pictures of data center storage requirements, but what about all those remote offices out there? Large companies have dozens of domestic remote offices, and perhaps some overseas. However small or far-flung, the data in these offices can be critical. Increasingly that data is also subject to retention and privacy laws and regulations that mean your traditional "hear no evil, see no evil" relationship with branch offices will no longer cut it.

Remote office storage is humbler than its enterprise cousins. We're not looking at independent direct-attached storage (DAS), let alone network-attached storage (NAS) or a storage area network (SAN). Remote office storage is likely to live within Intel-based servers. Depending on its size, each remote office may have from one to three servers, generally performing tasks such as file serving and e-mail, although some run specific business applications.

More to the point, many remote offices have no IT staff. Desktop management and help desk tasks are either handled by central IT or farmed out to a local outsourcer. Day-to-day storage tasks are usually handled as an afterthought by a local operations, facilities or administrative person. These folks get basic training on backup: how to install a tape, run a few commands and remove the tape when the job is completed. Perhaps they've been told how to label and store the tape--perhaps not.

Vital data unprotected
Here's the newsflash: Those backup tapes are mission-critical, and contain user data, transaction records and customer information. What's more, some of the data in remote offices could fall under the auspices of regulations such as Gramm-Leach-Bliley or the HIPAA. Without proper policies, companies can unknowingly get out of synch with regulatory compliance.

Each remote office requires tape drives, tapes and some type of tape storage process. How much does this cost each year? If you're like most companies--not that much. At your current level of spending, you're buying poor processes that put critical data at risk. What would happen if one of these offices burned to the ground and IT had to restore systems from tape? Pretty scary.

Clearly, something should be done.The key is to plan a short- and long-term strategy. The first priority is to improve operations and close security vulnerabilities. The strategic objective should be to find an appropriate technical solution that best eliminates remote office costs, operational overhead and security risks.

This was first published in September 2003

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