Backup Breach

It's not difficult to do, but backing up BI data takes time and effort. Without it, that hard-earned data could float away.

Mechanically, the backup of business intelligence data is easy. More arduous is the crafting of cohesive plans to protect strategic, analytical information that drives vital business decisions.

There's good news for executives worried about the preservation of BI data. Backup utilities are bundled into most BI products, and use of these functions seldom requires help from vendors or consultants.

But there's some not-so-good news as well: BI backup isn't automatic. Instead, corporate officials must devote energy to key data collection and retention decisions that will affect backup strategies mightily.

And while most companies that have embarked on BI projects perform at least some backup, the largest companies are doing less BI backup because their data warehouses are so big, according to Gartner Inc. analyst Donald Feinberg. For instance, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reportedly backs up almost no BI data because of the size of its warehouses, which contain terabytes of data.

"The trouble with the backup of BI data is that you are forced to think about it, whereas with transaction data, you aren't," notes Mayur Raichura, director of information systems at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Fairfax, Va.

Raichura and his staff are now sharpening Long & Foster's BI data collection policies -- moving away from initial attempts to capture metadata about every search conducted against the company's site. If all that data were to be captured, Long & Foster would generate more than 30 million rows of data in a single year, says Raichura. "How fast you decide to delete -- or not to delete -- your BI data and how you collect this information will impact your backup strategy," he says.

The first issue to think through is whether particular BI data sets need backing up at all. Consider the company that loses strategic BI data that's factored only into high-level decisions made at quarterly or annual meetings. It might be fairly easy to reproduce that lost data, because the information is highly aggregated and not very detailed, according to Keith Gile, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc.

On the other hand, tactical and operational data feeds more immediate decisions and likely requires more-hearty backup measures. "Tactical decisions are made over days or weeks and are more associated with specific business cycles. Under these circumstances, BI data backup is necessary," says Gile.

Having decided where to focus backup efforts, BI executives should then begin shaping BI data maintenance policies into sound backup strategies. It's an effort that can prove challenging for even the most seasoned organizations.

"We are pretty mature in this area," says Grant Felsing, decision support manager at Briggs & Stratton Corp., a Milwaukee-based engine manufacturer. "In a lot of the conversations I've had with other companies, I've come across a lot of blank looks."

Briggs & Stratton's data warehousing infrastructure uses Unix-based servers running software from Cary, N.C.-based SAS Institute Inc. to churn BI data from dozens of operational sources into executive management information. Briggs & Stratton gathers transactional data from financial documents and backs that information up on a monthly basis.

Backing up this BI data is technically simple but is no rote exercise. "While the Unix backup tools are pretty thought-free, you've got to decide on the timing of the backups and set them up based on standard models that extract data from various sources," says Felsing.

Be Vigilant

For companies with less BI savvy, there's also the risk that BI backup routines will be neglected. "My feeling is that not too many people are going through these exercises because they are so new to warehousing. But a company is smart not to overlook this," observes Jody Porrazzo, director of econometric risk strategy at Apex Management Group Inc., a consulting and insurance services firm in Princeton, N.J. Apex collects metadata and uses it extensively in reporting operations.

Apex is deploying a new SAS BI server, and backup functions are included as macros in the system. "It's very straightforward and very simple," says Porrazzo.

Experts prescribe the following good habits to safeguard precious BI data:
1. Decide the frequency at which BI data will be backed up, and program accordingly.
2. Make top officials in key departments aware that BI backup is crucial, and decide whose head will roll if it isn't done.
3. Be consistent, and make sure naming conventions and other data descriptors are uniform.
4. Factor backup into major BI moves, such as the purchase of new storage-area networks.
5. Realize that BI backup strategies must change with data collection and retention policies.

Specialized BI applications aren't the only systems with standard backup tools. "These are standard utilities among hardware and software vendors," says Gartner's Feinberg. Major vendors, such as IBM, include backup functionality to safeguard BI data. Products from storage vendors such as Symantec Corp.'s Veritas unit, EMC Corp. and Storage Technology Corp. also include BI backup capabilities, says Feinberg.

Although the tools for BI backup are prevalent, proper use of these routines isn't. "We are finding that backups are being done infrequently and by individual departments that don't have the understanding or discipline that IT staffs do," says Gile. "Most companies realize this is something they should be doing. But there seems to be a degree of casualness here." This attitude will likely change as BI data becomes more mission-critical. "Loss of this data will then cause pain more quickly," he predicts.

Awareness of the potential pain of losing BI data is already taking place at companies like Owens & Minor Inc., a medical and surgical supplies distributor in Glen Allen, Va., that is working with San Jose-based Business Objects SA on its BI strategy.

"The BI environment has become more of a must-have -- more so than three to four years ago. People rely on that information to do their jobs every day, and the ability to recover from an issue is becoming increasingly important," says Don Stoller, director of information management at Owens & Minor.

Other companies will almost certainly follow Owens & Minor's lead. As more executives base strategic decisions on BI data, the danger of losing valuable BI assets becomes more real.

Jones is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. Contact her at jjwriterva@aol.com.

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