Is cloud-based backup right for you?

Before deciding if cloud-based backup is a fit with your company, you need to understand the two basic flavors of cloud backup -- SaaS and hybrid.

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Before deciding if cloud-based backup is a fit with your company, you need to understand the two basic flavors of cloud backup -- SaaS and hybrid.

Cloud-based backup is garnering a lot of attention from small and large companies alike. There are many reasons why you might consider outsourcing all or part of that function, ranging from the need to improve backup processes, a desire to reduce costs or an interest in taking advantage of the elasticity of the cloud. But how do you know if it's right for your company?

To answer that question, you need to understand the two basic flavors of cloud backup: backup software as a service (SaaS) and "hybrid" cloud backup.

With backup SaaS from the likes of Carbonite Inc., Decho Corp., IBM Corp., Iron Mountain and Symantec Corp., IT accesses an application hosted and operated at a central location via a Web interface and takes advantage of a shared, scalable infrastructure. Disk-to-cloud transfer of data occurs at scheduled intervals.

The hybrid scenario calls for the use of existing on-premises licensed backup software and hardware with data backed up to a cloud storage provider. Vendors in this space include Axcient Inc., Barracuda Networks Inc., CA, Hewlett-Packard Co., i365, IBM, SunGard, Symantec, VaultLogix LLC, Venyu Corp. and Zmanda Inc. The hybrid approach allows you to maintain on-premises control of infrastructure while taking advantage of off-premises infrastructure and services staff. Often, the cloud provider's data center facility, infrastructure, staff and processes are a step (or two) above what you may have at your primary site. Typically, data is backed up first to on-premises disk, and a duplicate copy is maintained at a third-party cloud provider.

Where cloud-based backup makes sense

Cloud-based backup is increasingly becoming the basis for the entire backup strategy at smaller companies. At bigger organizations, it can help plug gaps in the data protection strategy -- gaps that can't otherwise be filled due to staffing or budget constraints. For instance, some IT shops don't have a core competency in data protection, so outsourcing all or part of the function may make sense. One of the current contributors to backup angst is a lack of budget to support staffing levels or to acquire and maintain infrastructure. Without the people, processes and technology to manage backup and recovery, it's difficult to meet service levels.

It's also possible that you just don't have the ability to provide complete protection. For instance, at some firms, laptop and desktop PCs aren't incorporated into server backup processes, creating vulnerabilities. Similarly, edge data at remote offices and branch offices (ROBOs) is often underprotected or not protected at all. In those scenarios, outsourcing these pockets of the data protection function may be wise.

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Determining your suitability

Assessing your organization's challenges, abilities and assets will help to determine if deploying a cloud-based backup strategy is a better alternative than relying on an on-premises one. Here's what to consider:

Budget. Do you know what your current costs are for data protection? Have you evaluated staff costs to determine if eliminating any on-premises infrastructure, introducing automation or adopting more-advanced technology, would alleviate issues? A comparison of all capital and operational expenses for on-premises technology over three years vs. the operational expenses for cloud-based backup over three years may yield surprises. For example, for a backup tape strategy, the maintenance fees for on-premises hardware and software, media purchases and storage fees, and operations overhead over three years could pay for three years of a hybrid cloud service.

Daily capacity of backup data. How much data needs protecting (based on the total capacity of data and the daily change rate)? What's the frequency of backups required to meet recovery objectives? Calculate how much backup data needs to be transferred on a daily basis and, given the available bandwidth, whether or not the transfer can be accomplished within the backup window.

Data protection gaps. Do you have new directives to improve protection at ROBOs or with endpoints? Do you have the staff and capital budget to invest in these new initiatives? Do you currently have a disaster recovery (DR) strategy? If yes, do your people, processes and technology allow you to meet recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs)? Leveraging a cloud backup vendor to augment current on-premises data protection processes may be more cost-effective (no upfront capital investment in infrastructure and no additional headcount required) than extending on-premises capabilities.

Infrastructure. Is the current infrastructure limiting your ability to meet the needs of the organization? Have budget constraints limited your ability to keep pace with technology advancements? Were you going to do a technology refresh soon anyway? Organizations without the capital budget to extend or refresh the IT infrastructure to meet data protection needs, but with a sufficient operational budget can fund monthly service fees through their operational budget to improve data protection processes.

Service-level agreements (SLAs) and compliance mandates. Can you successfully complete your backup within the prescribed window of time? Can you recover data to meet agreed-upon timeframes? If not, is the inability related to outdated technology or lack of sufficient operational staff? Can you meet corporate and/or regulatory requirements with your current people, processes and technology? Does your process for maintaining offsite copies introduce any security risks? If you have recovery SLAs that are more aggressive than what can be delivered by streaming data over your WAN link or physically transported on portable disk (not unlike tape media from offsite storage), cloud-based backup may not be for you. If you don't have the discipline and capabilities to meet compliance objectives, then outsourcing data protection to a vendor that can support compliance efforts may pay off.

Staffing levels and expertise. Has the economic climate impacted your ability to appropriately staff the data protection function? Do your current backup/recovery infrastructure and processes rely too heavily on operational staff? Do you have in-house expertise to properly architect, build and maintain data protection infrastructure and processes to meet objectives now and in the future? Operations staff is often the most costly aspect of data protection, so adding data protection capabilities without necessitating additional staff could be more feasible.

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Decision time

Once you've considered those questions, you're ready to decide whether or not cloud backup makes sense for your company. Because many organizations still rely on on-premises solutions and tape media storage for offsite copies, it's a good bet that improvements can be made to the existing data protection process. Local disk-based approaches can improve performance and reliability, which saves time in backup, recovery and management processes. And disk becomes even more cost-effective if data deduplication is part of the mix.

Alternately, leveraging a cloud-based service can save time and money. Management of the data protection environment is removed from IT (which is often the biggest expense in backup environments), cutting down on the amount of operational overhead needed. Because a cloud-based service is funded out of an operational budget, it's often more palatable for budget-constrained organizations. Finally, backup via a cloud service delivers built-in DR.

A popular approach is to combine these two strategies -- local disk-based backup for operational recovery of data and remote cloud-based backup for disaster recovery. This model delivers the benefits of both and removes a huge burden from IT organizations.

BIO: Lauren Whitehouse is an analyst focusing on backup and recovery software and replication solutions at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

This was first published in September 2009

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