Remote-office backups made easy

"A receptionist or someone has to change tapes daily," adds Ruffolo. "They mean well, they're trying hard, but they're busy." There have also been cases where someone has left the same tape in the drive all week and, in one case, an employee locked the tapes in a safe and lost the key.

Miron Construction has four remote offices spread across the upper Midwest, some of which are four or five hours from its Neenah headquarters. That makes it hard for the IT staff in Neenah to handle problems.

It could be worse. Grey Healthcare Group Inc., a New York City-based healthcare advertising firm, was very nearly a worst case for tape in remote offices. The company was using a combination of LTO-1, LTO-2 and LTO-3 to back up its remote offices, and a DLT library to back up 8 TB to 13 TB of data at its central location. Not only was its tape capacity maxed out, but the tape systems were old and growing unreliable, requiring constant maintenance efforts by the company's small IT staff to keep them running. Even when the tape systems were running, they weren't running very well. The worst part, says Chris Watkis, Grey Healthcare's director of information technology, was that the backups were unreliable and couldn't be counted on to recover lost data.

Grey Healthcare replaced its tape system with two FalconStor Software Inc. Enterprise Storage Appliance virtual tape libraries (VTLs) and now backs up its other remote offices over the WAN to the libraries. Grey Healthcare

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Group has four remote sites; one of the FalconStor VTL appliances is in its headquarters and one is in a remote office.

Still a place for tape

Despite some of the drawbacks of tape, it's still the most common method of backing up data at remote offices. The big reason, says Subodh Kulkarni, vice president of global commercial business at Imation Corp., a maker of tape as well as tape-, optical- and disk-based backup systems, is cost. "Tape continues to have the lowest cost per terabyte," he says. "A terabyte cartridge costs $50 to $70, much less than disk."

Although we tend to assume that remote-office staffs lack the skill or time to manage tape, that's not always true. "I may have someone who knows how to deal with tape," says David Hill, principal at the Mesabi Group, a consultancy that deals with backup issues.

And the assumption that remote offices have modest data storage needs doesn't always hold water. Remote sites such as engineering field offices or laboratories can produce very large data sets that have to be archived, something tape is often ideal for. Even if a site has modest storage needs, the data may need to be archived. "Dentists want to keep their X-rays for a long time, but they don't want to keep their business data for 20 years," says Hill. That tends to lead to a hybrid solution with tape as part of the mix.

Hill also suggests that backing up to a central repository may not be ideal. "I may not want to depend on a central site to restore," he says. "If something happens and I need to restore, I may not feel I can restore from the central site because of bandwidth reasons."

Some businesses may want to move their remote sites away from tape, but economic constraints come into play. "It also comes down to the timing of decisions," says Stephanie Balaouras, principal analyst at Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based market research firm. "Corporate policy often says the useful life of IT equipment is five years. They have to use what they have for five years."

This is especially true in today's economy. Not everyone is satisfied with tape, but those who are don't see much point in changing. And tape can be extremely reliable. Drives can work flawlessly for years, so many companies see no reason to replace them. Kulkarni notes that Imation is still making cartridges for obsolete tape formats like Travan because there's still demand for them.

Kulkarni agrees that tape has some disadvantages. "On the negative side, tapes do need some knowledge, especially of the tape identification scheme," he says. "It's not quite an off-the-shelf product."

This was first published in March 2009

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