Enterprise Backup: What You Need to Know

Frank Ohlhorst
Backup started out as simple concept in the early days of networking. Creating successful backups was just a matter of copying data files from the server over to tape or another storage medium. Today, the rules have changed; the backup process now has to contend with open files, active databases, running applications and many other elements that make performing a backup anything but simple. The emergence of new technologies such as storage and server virtualization, as well as the ever-changing legislative requirements for protecting and archiving data add to the challenge.

Quite often, changes in an organization's IT Infrastructure forces management to consider new backup technologies. Those changes might be as simple as an increase in storage space or as complex as a SAN deployment. With hundreds of backup products on the market, it can be a daunting task to determine which product best fits a particular environment and which features will deliver added value and strategic capabilities.

Defining the environment:
The first step in selecting a backup product is to define the environment in which the product is expected to work. An inventory of software and hardware should be completed and business requirements should be established to create guidelines for selecting a product.
Those guidelines should include questions such as:

  • Are the IT systems required 24/7?
  • Are the IT systems distributed over multiple locations?
  • Is connectivity and access backed by business-continuity methodology or a disaster-recovery environment?
  • Is any type of virtualization technology in use?
  • Will workstations and local PC data be backed up?
  • What types of open files will be encountered during backup?
  • What types of databases are in use?
  • Are mobile users and frequently disconnected endpoints supported by the IT systems?
  • Are there any compliance-driven requirements?
  • Does data need to be archived on a regular basis?
  • How long does data need to be preserved?

The above questions prove to be a good starting point for determining the level of backup technology needed. Most enterprises have complex needs, yet once the task of backing up data is broken down into manageable pieces, it becomes much easier to create effective backups.

Critical features:

As part of the selection process, it is important to identify product features that can improve the backup experience, while still meeting the requirements. Some features worth considering include:

Data deduplication:
A technology that eliminates duplicate files during the backup process. Deduplication can reduce backup size by as much as 90 percent and can be of great benefit to enterprises that use virtualization for servers and desktops. Those systems often contain many duplicate images and virtual hard drives that are duplicated throughout the enterprise.

Bare metal recovery: With bare metal recovery, backups can be restored to dissimilar hardware. That enables administrators to replace failed systems with different hardware and also can be used as part of an upgrade process, where older systems are replaced with new systems.

Image-based backups: Many backup products now apply the concept of imaging to backup systems. The technology works by taking a 'snapshot' of the system's hard drive and then saving a compressed image of its occupied data sectors. Imaging tends to be much faster than file-by-file backup technologies.

Selective backup: Most enterprises do not need to back up every file on every storage device every time. With selective backups, administrators can choose which files or directories to back up.

Quasi file-by-file backups: For purposes of archiving and retrieval of data for discovery purposes, a file-by-file backup storage methodology offers a way to retrieve individual data files. Most imaging products today support the ability to mount an imaged hard drive and then selectively mark files for retrieval.

Open file handling: The product should be able to close or hold open files to guarantee that data is not corrupted during a backup procedure.

Automated script capabilities: Administrators may need to create event-based macros or scripts to set a database or other service into a state that may be required for backup.

Integrated reporting and logs: For businesses that need to fulfill compliance requirements, logs and reports are usually necessary to document backups and the procedures used for backups.

Compression: By compressing backup files, storage requirements can be reduced by as much as 80 percent.

Encryption: To protect backups from unauthorized access. Strong encryption is often a compliance requirement and it also protects businesses from data theft.

Management console: To allow execution, scheduling and monitoring of backup tasks.

Multiple agents: Agents are used to run backup jobs on various endpoints. The product selected should offer agents for all devices to be backed up.

Agnostic device support: The product should be able to work with any storage device used in the enterprise, including tape, virtual tape, optical media, hard drives, and removable media.

Scheduling: The product should support multiple schedules and should be able to run independent backups concurrently to reduce the time needed to backup and automate the backup procedure as much as possible.

While the above features are critical for most environments, some capabilities may not be needed in every environment. For example, a business that does not require 24/7 access may not need open file support or advanced scripting - while, other businesses may require a specialized feature that is not included in the above list, such as virtual machine synchronization or remote management agents.

The key to success is to match the features to the business requirements and also plan for future needs. By mapping out the existing infrastructure and applications, most IT administrators should be able to quickly develop a required features list and narrow down the product-selection process.

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