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End-user file recovery: bonus or bust?

Snapshot technology has made end-user file recovery possible. But will getting end users involved in recovering their own files prove to be more trouble than it's worth?

Pros and cons of end-user file recovery
  • Reduces IT workload
  • Speeds file restoration
  • Users appreciate the empowerment
  • Requires investment in snapshot technology and disk capacity
  • Users may try to do things they shouldn't
  • IT loses touch with what's happening unless it monitors restoration activity
The growing adoption of snapshot technology is making end-user file recovery possible. End-user file recovery occurs when a user accesses recent file snapshots to recover personal files that may have been inadvertently deleted or damaged. Some IT managers are discovering that this capability allows users to recover their own files, a chore some are eager to relinquish. This, however, raises the question: Is end-user file recovery a godsend or a potential disaster?

End-user file recovery is the byproduct of storage snapshot capabilities combined with low-cost ATA disk. In a typical scenario, the storage group schedules automatic, point-in-time snapshots every few hours or every day and stores them on online or nearline secondary storage. If end users need to recover a particular file, they can navigate across the network and pull it from the most recent snapshot. The storage administrator initiates the snapshots and the user never encounters the snapshot software. Then, the user accesses the file to be recovered by finding and opening it as usual, from the folder or directory designated for snapshots.

Users doing it for themselves
"This is a huge issue. End users screw up files all the time," says Randy Kerns, senior partner, the Evaluator Group, Greenwood Village, CO. And when that happens, it's usually the storage administrator's job to restore files quickly so the worker can get back to the task in question. With end-user file recovery, users retrieve the file themselves; IT doesn't need to get involved at all, which is definitely a benefit.

Without end-user file recovery, the worker would request the file from the storage administrator, who would have to retrieve it. Depending on how many workers there are and how often they need to restore files, this could be nothing more than a bothersome distraction, or it could become a significant drain on the administrator's time.

The problem, in fact, may be much larger than storage managers suspect, based on requests they receive to restore files. As far as the storage group is concerned, "over half [of] the end-user needs may never surface," says Kerns. This is because the typical process to get a file restored involves chasing down the appropriate IT person and bugging him to do it quickly, an unpleasant process for all involved. "If IT makes the process [of restoring a file] painful enough, the users will do their own workarounds," Kerns adds, a situation IT generally wants to avoid. Such workarounds might entail users keeping their own backup copies on floppies.

The major determining factor in the adoption of end- user file recovery is IT overload. "Whether this takes off in a company depends on IT's ability to service users and its need to offload some of the workload," says Jamie Gruener, senior analyst, Yankee Group in Boston. End-user file recovery will be embraced the most at companies where IT is struggling to meet service demands.

Right now, end-user file recovery is at the earliest stages of adoption. What may speed adoption is pressure from compliance initiatives. "Companies are letting users define what files must be kept for compliance," Gruener adds. The next logical step after that is to let users recover those files directly.

Lower storage costs with snapshots
Companies can use snapshots to increase the accessibility of data while reducing storage costs. The key is to store the snapshot on low-cost disk, typically ATA disk arrays. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Use snapshot technology from an independent software vendor. This allows you to take a snapshot of data stored on pricey Fibre Channel or SCSI disk and save it on less-expensive storage from any vendor.

  2. Use built-in snapshot capabilities from vendors such as BlueArc, EMC, HDS or others that can put both high-performance disk and low-cost ATA disk in the same system. Organizations can use the vendor's high-performance disk for their primary storage while using the less-costly disk to hold the snapshot.

Organizations typically initiate snapshots for reasons other than end-user file recovery, often as part of a disaster recovery or high-availability strategy. But once you have snapshot capabilities--which may come as part of the disk array or sold separately by a third-party software company--users can easily access the snapshot or make an extra snapshot just for themselves.

Southern Adventist University in Chattanooga, TN, uses a BlueArc Corp. network-attached storage (NAS) appliance to store files for its School of Visual Arts and Design. BlueArc includes snapshot capabilities at no extra charge with its arrays, as do many NAS vendors. Now, the school is planning to add low-cost ATA disk drives to allow students to restore files on their own (see "Lower storage costs with snapshots").

"We'll create a hidden folder using the tilde (~) and put all the snapshots in this folder. Students who need to restore files can go to that folder and just do it themselves instead of coming to us," explains William Cordis, IT administrator for the university's School of Visual Arts and Design.

End-user file recovery won't save Cordis much time--"it only takes me two minutes to restore a file from a snapshot." But it will save the students a lot of time. "For students, it's a big hassle. They have to run around and find an IT person and then describe the file," he adds.

Snapshots for everyone
The payback from end-user file recovery can be attractive. In an online storage forum discussion on the topic, one participant reported: "We use NetApp's snapshots all the time. Probably 80% of the user base knows how to use it and regularly does. Our operations guys have said that this takes care of about 60% of restore requests for data on filers."

Mainframe Entertainment, a Vancouver, BC-based video animation house, is slowly stepping into end-user file recovery. "I'm letting a few do it on a one-off basis," says Wendi Davies, manager of information technologies. The company uses pricey Fibre Channel disk for its primary storage and low-cost ATA disk for its snapshots, and puts strict limits on the amount of primary storage it allows its video engineers. But Davies is concerned that the company's engineers may intentionally delete valuable files just to gain some extra primary space, assuming they can simply retrieve the deleted files later from the snapshot. So for now, she's limiting this capability to a case-by-case basis.

Some managers don't like the concept at all. "I won't allow end-user file recovery," says David Weaver, manager of operations at Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, KY. "Users don't always know what they need, so they'll go look around in the logs. I don't like that. I'd rather they come to me if they have a problem."

Setting up end-user file recovery
  1. Implement snapshot technology

  2. Define snapshot policies and schedules for point-in-time snapshots of end-user files

  3. Allocate sufficient disk capacity

  4. Educate users

  5. Monitor activity

  6. Continue to educate users

The school system recently installed a disk-based virtual tape system using FalconStor's IPStor, but hasn't purchased the additional snapshot capability that would make end-user-managed file restoration possible. Snapshot capabilities from independent software vendors allow the organization to store a snapshot on a disk array from a vendor other than the primary array vendor. With snapshot capabilities provided by disk array vendors, however, both the primary array and the target array where the snapshot resides must be from the same vendor.

Certainly, there's a potential for problems. "Users may try to recover something that shouldn't be recovered--let's say something that has passed its retention date or maybe should never have been saved in the first place," suggests Gruener. There are, however, ways to prevent this, he quickly adds, mainly through access controls.

Kerns downplays any fears about end-user file recovery. "The users are only going to see the files they are authorized to see," he says. And the files they do access are read-only, so they won't be able to change anything. To make changes, they will have to bring the file back to their system and save it as a new file. At this point in the adoption of end-user file recovery, there haven't been enough reports of problems to merit developing and deploying special tools to manage the task. Managers who provide end-user file recovery rely on their standard access controls to handle the new capability.

Although it's pretty simple, don't expect users to intuitively know how to recover a file. "You will still have to educate the users properly," says Cordis.

Finally, end-user management isn't free. You must have the snapshot capability--for which some storage vendors charge extra--and you need to purchase sufficient additional disk capacity to store the snapshots. Typically, an organization will keep a series of point-in-time snapshots online--usually about a week's worth--before moving them to tape or deleting them.

End-user file recovery is not for every organization. It doesn't work, for instance, for databases or where files may be synchronized. But wherever the storage group is distracted by requests for file restoration, end-user file recovery promises relief.

Article 10 of 19

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