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Managing storage at the edge

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Local backup for laptops
When dial-up is the only connection available, it's sometimes harder to

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convince remote users to perform network backups than to back up to a local device. As usual, the quicker and easier the backup, the better. The range of backup devices includes:

Zip drives. Iomega has an entire line of removable magnetic media drives, including models that slip into the expansion bay of Compaq, Dell, IBM, and Toshiba laptops. A six-pack of 250MB cartridges costs $80.

CompactFlash cards. You can't back up a whole hard disk with one. But in conjunction with automatic backup software, a $150 256MB card plugged into a free Type II PC Card slot can do incrementals without the user being the wiser.

Microdrives. Like CompactFlash memory cards, these slip into a Type II PC Card slot, but they provide cheaper storage by the megabyte. A 1GB microdrive in a PC Card adapter sells for less than $300. IBM and Kingston are leading vendors.

CD-RW. Buy your laptops with a CD-RW drive already installed, and you can simply leave a disc in there for periodic backups. To ensure problem-free incrementals, the disc needs to be in packet-write format, which reduces capacity to 540MB. Be forewarned: Users can't do much else while the CD-RW records.

External hard drives. User intervention is required, but you can easily find a unit with enough capacity to back up a laptop full of data. Choose a model based on a 2 1/2-inch laptop hard drive, because - although laptop models are slower than desktop drives - they're far more resistant to shock.

If you opt for an external device, a word about connections. Laptops and drives equipped with FireWire or USB 2.0 ports will increase the likelihood that users will actually back up data, because USB 1.0/1.1 devices are pretty slow. If the laptop has only a USB port, you might consider connecting an external device to a PC Card adapter.

For automatic external backups, CMS Peripherals sells a line of devices preloaded with backup software that kick in as soon as a connection is made. Finally, the Amacom Flipdisk boasts the greatest versatility of any external drive, with PC Card, FireWire, USB 1.0/1.1 and Parallel interfaces in one device.
Mobiliti's Network/Unplugged speeds up those incrementals in a couple of ways. Like other remote packages - such as Computer Associates' BrightStor Mobile Backup, Legato's NetWorker Laptop, NovaStor's NovaNet-Web, Novell's iFolder, and Storactive's LiveBackup - Network/Unplugged takes a store-and-forward approach. The software aggregates and compresses incremental file backups on local drives and automatically starts backing up when a connection is available - a 40-bit encryption algorithm protects data in transit. Delta transfer technology synchronizes files between host and client systems, uploading only the portions of files that have changed instead of the whole file. Reilly, who says she's impressed by the quick backup times, paid $43,000 for the 300-client license and dedicates a single server to remote sales force backup.

Of course, not all IT departments back up their laptops with specialized mobile packages. Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, deployed the same version of Veritas' NetBackup Professional across roughly 500 faculty and staff, around 150 of whom use laptops. Initially, the main reason was the lack of a viable tape backup solution for laptop users.

Gene Spencer, associate vice president of information systems for Bucknell, was surprised by the immediate benefits of NetBackup Pro's self-service features. "Having users be much more self-sufficient in terms of getting files back from the system when they need to restore a file ... changes our support model and allows us to provide users with solutions that are actually much easier for them." NetBackup Pro lets users choose between two backup profiles, one for remote and one for local use. Remote users get the benefit of store-and-forward, delta transfer and 128-bit encryption. And data compression increases automatically with slower connections.

Spencer dedicates two backup servers to support his 500 users. Laptop users that roam the campus tend to connect via wireless LAN; backup over dial-up is "not totally unreasonable," but not especially fun, either. A major drawback of NetBackup Pro is that it doesn't support Mac or Linux users who are obliged to copy files to a server by hand. But after messing with tape backups and other manual solutions, Spencer says NetBackup Pro has provided Bucknell with its first effective solution spanning both local and remote users.

Getting serious about PDAs
Laptops are merely desktop PCs with legs. With tiny storage and a much higher risk of loss, PDAs require an altogether different approach. But according to W. Curtis Preston, founder of The Storage Group consultancy, Oceanside, CA, many companies still make PDAs the user's responsibility. Often, the sum total of IT's storage management policy is to admonish users to plug into a desktop cradle once a day. The basic attitude is, "either you synch or you don't," says Preston.

"There are two types of organizations," says Jeff Warner, product manager for Extended Systems, Boise, ID, a provider of mobile infrastructure, "organizations that look at mobile devices as a strategic tool and have an estimated cost of ownership - and organizations that are just reacting and kind of sweeping it under the rug." The risks of turning a blind eye can be political as well as financial, Warner says, because spiffy PDAs typically fall into executive hands first.

Among IT departments that have developed a real plan, ensuring the integrity of handheld data devolves to two basic strategies: flash backup and server-based synchronization.

Flash backup is a cheap and simple way of guarding against the main enemy of PDA data: dead batteries. All users do is pop a $50 flash memory module loaded with auto-backup software into a PDA expansion slot. "When you're doing mission-critical stuff and you're in the field, these things can fail," says Alex Hinds, CEO of BlueNomad, Redwood City, CA, developer of the BackupBuddy program for Palm devices. "So if you don't have access to a desktop, laptop or modem, it's convenient to have a backup available to you on a card." Lose the PDA, however, and you're out of luck.

Managing data on PDAs gets serious when you start connecting them directly to a server and begin synchronizing, downloading or backing up data. Most often, companies choose the server option for simple group scheduling or contact management. "The application already exists on the device - a Palm, a Pocket PC, a Symbian, a RIM - all of them already have e-mail, a calendar and a contact manager," says Warner. "And obviously, groupware systems like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange are already there, so no one has to create an application or a database on the back end."

Pushing PDAs to the edge
A few bold businesses, however, have begun deploying mobile versions of real enterprise applications on PDAs. Naturally, the notion of tiny, easily misplaced devices carrying valuable enterprise data - or worse, providing remote access to enterprise applications - gives IT nightmares (see "Seven ways to secure a PDA"). To support sales or field forces, however, some companies see real benefits in forging ahead.

Steve Allocco, a project manager for Pyxis Consulting, Wellesley, MA, chose Synchrologic's Mobile Suite of synchronization and management software to deploy a CRM application on PDAs for a major financial institution in the northeastern U.S. A full client version of the app was already on laptops, but less than a third of the 60 mutual fund wholesalers for whom it was intended were using it. "They were sending out a lot of data, which was taking a long time to transfer," Allocco says. Worse, the wholesalers found the laptops too bulky and the app too complex to use in the field.

Pyxis proposed a simple alternative: Push a small quantity of targeted sales information about the accounts wholesalers regularly deal with and display that data, such as spouse's names, sales data, etc., in a simple custom application running on a Palm handheld. Pyxis used Synchrologic's data and file synchronization servers to extract updated information from the CRM database every night and downloaded it to wholesalers when they synched up every morning.

This was first published in September 2002

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