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Mobile backup: There’s an app for that

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Your policies may not be enough

Although organizations generally have clear policies regarding the separation of private and business use of devices, they rarely specify data protection requirements or procedures. Mobile device backup often falls between the cracks. Backup is the domain of the data storage organization, but PCs are the domain of the end-user computing group, and cell phones are typically within the domain of the telephony or telecomm group. Tablets haven’t found a place in most companies yet, so they may just be the domain of the user. So, the physical asset is managed by one group and the process by another; neither group assumes ownership. Hence, the first step in establishing a policy is determining who owns the whole operation. In practice, it will require the coordination of all groups.

This cross-functional complication is an excellent reason to consider outsourcing the whole thing to a cloud backup provider. Third-party providers will manage the whole process, including deployment, management and technical support. There may be cases, however, due to security, compliance (or corporate governance) or IT’s reluctance to use third-party services, that make outsourcing an unattractive alternative. In those situations, IT must instigate the data protection policy based on business requirements.

Backup policies are ordinarily driven by recovery time objectives (RTOs) and recovery point objectives (RPOs). Mobile backup

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is a bit different and needn’t be as complicated. RPO may not be easy to establish, as it may be driven by network connectivity, a daily backup schedule or product options. The variables of ultraportable device availability make backup timing less certain than an always-on storage array in the data center. Information changes on individual devices aren’t as volatile as data center devices. Therefore, recovery certainty is more important than backup timing. Moreover, a 24-hour RPO is probably a vast improvement over the intermittent or non-existent data protection users have today.

The essence of a mobile backup policy is pretty simple: who, what, when and how. The “who” can be the user (i.e., user-initiated backups) or system/software control (i.e., pre-scheduled and automatically launched). The “what” is the device, the “when” the backup event and the “how” the backup utility. That’s about as complicated as it needs to get for typical applications and users.

PCs: The center of the mobile universe

To get a handle on ultraportable devices, the first thing to do is to designate the PC as the center of the mobile universe. Some might argue that tablets are quickly supplanting PCs as a primary device. This may be true for certain tasks, such as Web surfing, video conferencing and even document lookup, but tablets still have a long way to go for effective document, spreadsheet or presentation creation. Tablets may be great display devices, but PCs remain the go-to platform for document creation. (This article is being written on a PC, while an adjacent iPad plays tunes.) Nobody does any serious document creation on a smartphone and the inherent form factor of those devices makes it forever unlikely. The larger size of tablets may allow them to evolve to supplant PC functionality, but for the foreseeable future consider PCs the hub of the mobile world.

From an ultraportable perspective, PCs play a key role as the central repository for syncing data with multiple devices. This will most often include calendars, contacts, email and the like. Yes, this data can and often is synced to external servers. However, BlackBerrys may be synced to a BlackBerry server, Exchange to an Exchange server and so on. By using the PC as a central syncing device, the user has one central location to recover data on a self-service basis. The added inherent remote sync gives the best of both worlds with user self-service and protection from data loss. Moreover, if one service experiences an outage, users have a “high-availability” solution from other devices. Not bad for what’s essentially a no-cost solution.

Placing the PC in this key role exposes the vulnerability of most PC backup strategies or, more accurately, the lack of a strategy. Even though they’re well understood, they’re not necessarily well protected. Organizations that don’t have an automated laptop backup solution must seriously consider one. Convenient in-house solutions are available from most name-brand backup vendors, including CommVault, EMC and Symantec, and specialized vendors such as Copiun and Druva. Remote laptop backup is also a perfect application for the cloud, as provided by well-known vendors such as Asigra, Barracuda Networks, Carbonite, Mozy (EMC) and Norton (Symantec). Cloud-based solutions provide consistent policies across the organization, while minimizing the impact on the IT organization.

By using the PC as the central syncing platform, it becomes the backup server for the ultraportable devices. In most cases, the sync process is automatic. In this architecture, backing up tablets and smartphones takes less effort to protect corporate soft assets than one might think.

This was first published in December 2011

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