Relief for remote-office backup blues

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BACKUP REMAINS ONE of IT's biggest headaches, and with compliance mandates requiring companies to protect their data, the issue won't be going away soon. And backing up remote-office data may be the biggest headache of all.

Remote backup vendors promise that the latest revisions of their products will provide some relief. "We have 85 locations across Canada. Some are pretty small, no more than one or two people," says Scott Sutherland, VP, CIO at Crawford Adjusters Canada, a claims management company based in Kitchener, Ontario. Only approximately 30 of those offices have tape backup. "We had to manage backups at the branch," he says. "Tape drives would fail and have to be replaced. It was pretty costly." The other offices weren't being backed up at all.

Crawford turned to Asigra, one of a handful of vendors that provide remote backup, which allows for unattended backup from remote offices to a central location where IT can back up the remote data along with its centralized data. Avamar Technologies, EVault and LiveVault (recently acquired by Iron Mountain Inc.) offer similar capabilities. The Avamar technology is built into Arsenal Digital Solutions' remote backup offering.

Asigra and EVault recently upgraded their offerings. For instance, Asigra added support for Oracle 10g and SQL 8.0, as well as capabilities like bare-metal restore, which allows administrators to quickly restore lost, damaged or corrupted data to any bare-metal system (avoiding the need to manually reinstall the operating system or configure the hardware in advance).

Asigra and EVault are very similar, notes Mike Karp, senior analyst, Enterprise Management Associates, Boulder, CO. Both do consolidated, block-level incremental backups. Both employ a server appliance at the remote site that collects the local data and sends it off. One advantage Asigra may have is that it's agentless, although Karp says EVault's agent "is very lightweight."

It's the combination of a few technologies that together are making remote backup more practical, says David Hill, principal at Mesabi Group, an IT research firm in Westwood, MA. "Vendors have been able to speed up communication over the WAN by cutting down on the chattiness of the protocol," says Hill. "They also use deltas and eliminate redundant data to reduce the amount of data needing to be backed up."

Alternatively, wide-area file services (WAFS) technologies make it possible for remote branches to use central-office storage as if it were local, eliminating the need for remote backup altogether. Examples include WAN accelerators like Riverbed Technology's Steelhead appliances, Cisco's File Engine or WAFS-based products like those offered by Tacit Networks.

Organizations can also use continuous asynchronous replication, such as Symantec's Replication Exec, to back up remote data to a central or other site.

Whatever the approach, remote-office-focused backup products have had one unexpected consequence. "They're bringing back to life the failed SSP [storage service provider] model," says Karp. The original SSP model called for companies to turn over all of their storage to a service provider that would handle everything storage-related for them, relieving IT of storage responsibilities. That model failed, says Karp, because "SSPs tried to do everything and companies didn't want to give up all that control of their data." Remote backup, however, allows for a more focused SSP model. "The SSPs are now doing only one thing: backup and recovery. That's something IT doesn't want to do," says Karp. Now IT can cede backup to the SSP while still maintaining full control of the company's data.

A service model also makes it economically practical to back up small sites, which may have well under 100GB of storage.

LiveVault and EVault offer remote backup as a service. Asigra licenses its software and offers it through third parties as a service. "As a service, these products relieve IT of worrying about backup and recovery," says Brian Babineau, analyst, Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, MA. "That frees IT to concentrate on other priorities."

--Alan Radding

This was first published in March 2006

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