Three ways to outsource backups


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Heading off trouble
If you plan to keep your existing backup infrastructure and believe it's not currently optimized for service, risk and cost, work with your service provider to institute a plan to assess and optimize your environment. Watching for trouble spots is important, whether you're in the process of choosing a service provider or monitoring the infrastructure you have.

Backup failures can be caused by hundreds of issues, many of which aren't directly related to the backup hardware, software or provider. For example, open files and locked databases can cause a nightly backup to fail. Similarly, network trouble can cause backup performance issues, failures or missed windows. These faults are usually excluded from backup service provider SLAs, yet your data is still at risk. Consider whether you want a collaborative relationship with a service provider that works closely with your network, database and system admins to determine the cause and resolution of a problem, or whether you just want your service provider to inform you that your data is at risk, leaving corrective actions to you.

Tape media ownership is another consideration for outsourced backup. If your provider owns the assets, make sure your contract specifies who owns offsite media at the end of the contract term. We've heard of at least one firm that had to write a large check after a difficult negotiation to get back its own data, which was on the service provider's

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You may also need to consider if you want your service provider to buy your backup-related assets or provide their own. The benefit of getting the assets off your books might be enticing, but it may not be prudent to force your service provider to use an inappropriate infrastructure. A service provider may not guarantee an SLA if your equipment isn't what they would have chosen. Consider the future, as well. While the capacity of your current configuration may be sufficient now, it might not be as you grow. If you transfer existing assets to a service provider, there may not be an incentive to update the equipment. There are two solutions to this problem: Assess your growth and plan for your future needs when you start your contract, or ask the service provider to specify an entirely new infrastructure.

If your users' needs change before the contract is up, you could end up paying significantly more than expected. This "scaling trap" happens when a metric that influences price is based on a threshold you want to avoid exceeding. If your data doubles in a year and your "scaling factor" is backed-up gigabytes, your costs will double, too. We've seen scaling factors based on the amount of data backed up to tape, the amount of primary data, the number of servers being backed up, and the cost of delivering the service plus an agreed-to profit margin ("cost plus"). Each method has its positive and negative aspects. Careful analysis should help you to avoid overpaying, while leaving some reasonable room for growth.

Cost, capacity and capability are often the driving considerations in outsourcing or insourcing IT talent. What's important in any decision to insource or outsource is the ability to restore applications, systems and files. You also need to consider your vendor's willingness to share risk, its ability to deal directly with the business user without damaging the IT department's relationship and its commitment to continuously improving backup performance. All of these are areas crucial to the success of outsourcing initiatives. Finally, remember that finding the ideal backup operations partner and building on that relationship requires time and management skills.

This was first published in September 2006

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