Workgroups

Find the backup that fits your size. Don't try to trim back large-scale software to fit a smaller workgroup.

Workgroup administrators know the drill: Wait until system users go home at the end of the day, shut down the server, run the backup overnight, and come back in the morning to collect the finished product. If the system crashes tomorrow afternoon and data is lost, just restore last night’s data. It’s that simple, right?

Not anymore. As companies have become more dependent on constantly changing electronic data and that data is increasingly subject to more regulation, the old drill just isn’t good enough, storage experts say.

The amount of data requiring backups is growing exponentially, thanks in part to the popularity of audio, video and graphics files. Some 381 million drive units were shipped worldwide in 2005, up 24.4% from a year earlier, according to market research firm IDC. That means a tremendous volume of new data needs to be protected.

How often do you backup your workgroups?
How often do you backup your wireless devices or PDA's?
Source: Computerworld's Exclusive Survey of 287 IT Professionals, August 2006

Computing workgroups face unique challenges when it comes to system backups. These groups, of usually two to 50 people, use collaboration software that allows them to update and pass along files. LANs designed around workgroups provide electronic sharing of required data. These workgroups can operate on their own or within an enterprise and are typically outside the data center. Workgroup staffers often have little or no administrative IT experience, yet they are usually responsible for these backups.

“The backup is being built on this traditional model,” says Agnes Lamont, a spokeswoman for the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA), a nonprofit industry group with 460 member companies worldwide. “But we have to find and present users with better, easier, more complete solutions for backing up.”

Thanks to new software products and services, workgroups can now back up smarter.

Pitfalls to Avoid

Today’s computing workgroups leave gaps in their backup and recovery procedures when they make these common mistakes:

1. Choosing tape over disk. One of the biggest mistakes that a small workgroup can make is backing up data to tape drives instead of to disks, says Marc Staimer, founder of Dragon Slayer Consulting in Beaverton, Ore., which focuses on storage, networking and software. “It has an incredibly high failure rate” and requires more advanced IT skills, he says.

2. Storing backups on-site. Copying data is only half of the storage solution. The backup needs to be stored at another location in case of a fire, a flood or another disaster.

3. Cutting backups short. As the amount of data grows, the amount of time needed to back up data increases. Suddenly, that overnight backup window isn’t big enough and backups don’t finish in time, so some backups are incomplete. Employees who work after regular hours may also interfere with backup schedules.

4. Using enterprise-grade software. Many workgroups inside the organization try to use the same backup software as the rest of the organization.

Arun Taneja runs a small data storage research firm in Hopkinton, Mass., with a handful of employees who share files and data in a workgroup-type environment. But even the storage expert has a hard time meeting his firm’s data protection needs.

“Data protection is a nightmare in this environment,” says Taneja, founder of Taneja Group. “There’s not a storage vendor in the entire industry that wouldn’t send me free software and support in a heartbeat. But I still have a hard time finding something very reasonable for the small environment.”

Without adequate backups, some companies in the financial or health care sectors might not be in compliance with applicable regulations because their workgroup backup data isn’t protected.

For instance, if you’re inside a financial services firm, the same Securities and Exchange Commission rules apply to the workgroup in that company, explains Taneja. If you have communication with a broker/dealer, or if you have any communication with a client, the data must meet backup requirements.

Look to Automation

It’s time for workgroups to get back to the basics, Lamont says. “Try to automate what can be automated, and spend fewer resources on the mechanics of doing it,” she adds. Think about the data, the applications and the business processes they’re supporting, and determine an acceptable level of protection. How often does the data change? Can the data be re-created with the current backup schedule? If the data did suffer corruption or a site outage, what data would be needed to stay in business? What are the recovery time objectives?

Based on your answers to those questions, consider these options:

1. Outsource to a backup service. Many storage analysts agree that the easiest and most complete solution for workgroup backups is through a backup service provider. “You don’t have to buy any tape or disks or pay a license fee,” Staimer says, and as a small-business owner, “ have to do with my infrastructure, the more time I can devote to making money.”

2. Install a backup product tailored to small groups. Don’t use enterprise-grade software made for the data center and “clip its wings” to accommodate a smaller group, Taneja says. “That’s what many vendors are doing now, but the product needs to be simpler and more intuitive,” he adds.

Several products have emerged that cater to workgroup backups, including EMC Corp.’s Insignia, Unitrends Software Corp.’s Unitrends Data Protection Unit and Yosemite Technologies Inc.’s Backup Simplified.

3. Find a system that replicates off-site. Workgroups can also buy software that allows them to create on- and off-site backups automatically using disks. “I wholeheartedly believe that the entire backup system should be built on disk,” says W. Curtis Preston, vice president of data protection services at storage consultancy GlassHouse Technologies Inc. in Framingham, Mass.

“[Workgroups] are not going to swap a tape,” because the amount of data is too small, he says. Plus, disk drives can cost three to five times more than a tape drive. “It’s going to be more reliable, and it allows you to use some backup software that can replicate that backup off-site,” Preston says.

Products that feature off-site replication include Avamar Technologies Inc.’s Axion and Replicator, Asigra Inc.’s Tele­vaulting software, and the Symantec Norton Ghost 10.0 peer-to-peer disk software from Symantec Corp., to name a few. These products reduce to a bare minimum the amount of data that has to be sent off-site and replicated.

Open-source packages for Linux-savvy users include BackupPC, Back­ula, Amanda and Rsnapshot. “They have pretty good communities behind them,” Preston says.

4. Back up more often. Depending on the importance of the data, your information should be backed up every day at a minimum, Preston says. For companies that must comply with regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act or the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, continuous data protection (CDP) might be a smart choice. With CDP, data is backed up as it’s written to the hard drive and revisions are stored.

Some industry watchers say the method overburdens networks and individual computers and makes file revision management difficult. Others say that since only the changes are being duplicated, the amount of new data isn’t too large.

“You’re ultimately adding 0.4 to 2.5 times the amount of disks you would have had with a primary backup,” Staimer says.

CDP can be particularly important for specialized workgroups, according to SNIA’s Lamont, who leads a special interest group on the service for the association. Candidates for CDP include workgroups that support research, such as biotechnology groups working on cures for diseases, or insurance companies that accept time-sensitive updates to customers’ coverage electronically.

To date, however, there are few truly “continuous” data protection choices available for the small-business crowd, Preston says. Microsoft Corp. and Symantec have “near-CDP products,” he says. “Those are based on snapshots. You’re only keeping what it finds every hour. A true CDP product replicates everything within the [parameter] that you tell it to keep.” TimeSpring Software Corp. and Atempo Inc. offer products that recover data at any point in time, he adds.

Lamont strongly encourages workgroups to test their recovery operations before an emergency happens. “No matter what solution you have,” he says, “you’re better off finding out if it has any inadequacies before you’re in a stressful situation.”

See the complete Ultimate Backup Guide special report.

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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