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Three ways to outsource backups

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The path to managed backups

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No matter which managed backup option you choose, preparation is the key to successful outsourcing.
  • Optimize and stabilize your current environment before handing it over to someone else to manage. Some providers will be only too happy to manage a bloated environment, especially if it puts more money in their pockets.
  • Understand the reporting the provider offers. Is it a Web-based portal, hard copy or e-mail? How often is it updated and how much history does it offer? What attributes of your backups does it measure? Also, be sure you know your compliance reporting requirements.
  • Look for a suite of services that meets your needs. Some are nuts and bolts, some are people-oriented and others are operational.
  • Understand the migration plan. What happens to the old infrastructure, and how will capacities be increased when needed?
  • Improve the backup process. There's no advantage to having someone take over bad backup processes.
  • Maintain flexibility with your service provider; your business and data will change.

What's included?
A major consideration in choosing an outsourcing vendor is how easily its processes will integrate with your IT procedures (see "The path to managed backups," at right). Backup and restore activities aren't simple or standalone processes. Setup, daily operations, troubleshooting of backup failures, and the restoration of data all require interaction with system administrators, database administrators, network administrators and operations support staff. For example, you'll need to determine which members of your staff will do the following:

  • Manage client configuration, exclude lists and schedules
  • Monitor the nightly backups and respond when trouble arises
  • Manage the offsite storage vendor
  • Initiate and manage the data restores
Other issues to consider include:

Service-Level Agreements (SLAs). Most outsourced backup options are governed by an SLA. The content of SLAs can vary widely. Some specify only high availability of the backup service, while others focus on metrics like recoverability or even promise improvements in the alignment of data protection with user needs. Make sure the backup outsourcer's SLA corresponds with the factors you care about and that there's a satisfactory balance between service delivery, risk and cost.

SLA adherence. Most backup service providers offer a Web-based portal that provides real-time access to key performance indicators and metrics for daily backup success and failures, the amount of data being backed up, and tape drive and media utilization. Other common reports include weekly or monthly backup trends, and whether your contract with the service provider is nearing a cost or service threshold.

Incident management. Incident management deals with the discovery, resolution and reporting of events in the environment. Determine your organization's requirements as to when you should be informed of incidents and then delegate someone to take action as necessary. Questions to consider include:

  • Do you or your service desk want to be called when something fails?
  • What if an incident falls under the responsibility of a database or network administrator?
  • Who has to fix the errors and what's the expectation for a response?
Asset management. Who worries about replacing obsolete equipment and who pays for it? Online backup services hide this aspect from you, but insourced solutions may not. Consider whether your company is in a better negotiating position with hardware and software vendors than your outsourcing provider.

Offsite tape audits. Most organizations pay a monthly fee to store tapes offsite for archival purposes. Media audits can help to realize significant savings by identifying offsite tapes that have expired, are beyond the required archive duration or have been orphaned. Similarly, avoid backing up duplicate data (i.e., it's generally not required to back up a copy of primary data on disk).

Delivery. Service delivery is the level of service across various attributes of the backup and restore process. Some examples include the length of backup windows, the number and flexibility of data protection policies, the time it takes to add a new backup client to the backup schedule, the response time to backup failures and the time it takes to initiate a restore. In general, assume that the higher the level of service, the higher the cost.

Risk. There are different types of risk: failing to back up data, not backing up the right data, inability to restore data or to restore an application to a consistent point in time, security failings, and failure to comply with internal or external regulations. The lower the risk your business is willing to tolerate, the higher the cost of service.

Cost. You want to minimize costs, but not if it puts your company at risk or jeopardizes your service-level requirements. Your current backup process may be in such a poor state that your data is already at risk. In that case, service costs from an external provider may be more than your internal costs, but a reduced risk and increased service level might be worth the higher price. Many factors go into a "total cost of backup" calculation, including libraries, backup servers, networks, software licenses, maintenance, administration and management, media, facilities, offsite tape storage, migrations and finance charges. You'll need to understand which of these costs will be "transferred" to a service provider.

While often overlooked, it's a good idea to establish a baseline of your current backup metrics. Knowing the current state of your service delivery, risk and costs will help you determine your backup goals. If you outsource, do you want to maintain the status quo in terms of client coverage and backup windows, or do you want to improve them? A good first step is to conduct an assessment of the current state of backups. You may find that many systems aren't currently backed up correctly. Other common problems include improperly sized backup infrastructures, excess offsite tapes and overflowing backup windows. These issues should be addressed before an SLA is put in place.

This was first published in September 2006

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