Backup software products evolve as backup process grows in complexity

Backup software products are evolving to meet user needs stemming from ever-increasing data stores, and greater complexity in virtualised server environments.

By Manek Dubash, Contributor

Backup software is rapidly evolving. Recent years have seen ever-larger volumes of data -- unstructured and structured -- that need to be backed up, as well as increased complexity in backup that results from server virtualisation.

At the same time, backup software products have become more complex and feature-rich. This is partly in response to the new landscape that virtualised servers have brought. But it is also the result of the incorporation of new features into backup products. Open source data backup products have achieved a degree of maturity that makes them a safe bet for smaller operations.

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Tony Lock, programme director at research and analysis firm Freeform Dynamics, said users need to look at what's changed in the backup market and be certain they're making the most of the products and features available. "The need to back up hasn't changed, but most people still don't have effective backup and recovery systems. The number of options now available to end users has increased dramatically with the advent of new features incorporated into backup products."

Backup software takes some stick

One reason users don't make the most of backup products is that backup is an area replete with pain and they spend all their time getting traditional backup to work properly.

Storage magazine's recent Quality Awards survey, in which readers were asked to rate enterprise and midrange backup software products, bears testament to that. While backup products' overall scores have climbed steadily in the five years the survey has been conducted, they are typically rated -- and sometimes significantly -- lower than the other product classes that Storage magazine conducts Quality Awards surveys on, such as enterprise arrays and NAS systems.

Perhaps more telling than the actual overall scores were comments from readers who completed the survey: Approximately 65 of the 350 survey respondents added a comment to their responses, and of those 65, fewer than 10 were unqualified endorsements of a product. The rest were either flat-out pans of the application ("a royal pain __ to use" and "never seems to work right") or tempered praise ("good product; however, it requires more staff to manage well than I have on the team.)"

Grow your own backup?

One UK user -- Chris Puttick, chief information officer at Oxford Archaeology -- said vendors need to sharpen up their acts, reduce their prices and simplify their complex licensing models.

"Backup software needs to back up servers, be efficient and use an agent on the remote server; be platform-agnostic, monitorable, and work with a range of target storage devices, including the cloud," he said. "Everything else is a gimmick."

For Puttick, the key pain point was management, for which he found an unusual solution. The company's general needs for backup are now met by the open source backup app Bacula. "It takes a bit of setting up, but they all do if you have a complex setup," he said.

Puttick said he's also rolling his own backup system. "We're inventing application-level backup using a document management system called Knowledge Tree. Every time a file is added, the system puts it into a queue to be replicated. Checksums are calculated on per-file basis, which protects against corruption, and the application backs up the document. With this system, we have a maximum backup delay of only an hour, which is better than anything we've had before."

UK backup vendor market shares
  • Symantec 38.5%
  • IBM 13.5%
  • EMC 12.5%

Source: IDC

Backup products: What do users want?

For most users, open source backup is not on the agenda. Larger organisations need the assurance of fully commercial products with reliable support and guaranteed development roadmaps.

So, what do they want from backup products?

For Michael Cock, IT manager at Sutton & East Surrey Water, the most important things he wants are an unobtrusive backup/copy function and data reduction capabilities.

"Once set up, a backup product should require little user intervention," Cook said. "It should use the smallest backup window to back up the most data and keep it for the longest possible period using the minimum amount of media. And when you really need it, it should be quick and easy to restore from, with users able to recover their own data without involving the IT department."

Meanwhile, Gareth Murphy, head of IT at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd., said the key attributes he is looking for in a backup app are virtual machine backup (VM backup) capabilities and data reduction.

"The new features [in backup products] we're most interested in are the interfaces available for backing up VMs and the data deduplication options available," Murphy said. "A backup product that can identify duplicate data within a file would be very beneficial and this does now seem to be being incorporated."

Backup vendors respond

Such user wishes have not gone unheeded by vendors and key additions to backup products in the past year or so have been data deduplication and VM backup capabilities.

In 2009, Symantec promised it would deliver software data deduplication in its backup products, and it arrived as part of Backup Exec 2010. The new version brought the ability to protect virtual servers in both Microsoft and VMware virtual environments. Symantec also offers data deduplication in its PureDisk product, which adds more advanced dedupe functionality.

Similarly, IBM has over the last year added source deduplication to Tivoli Storage Manager (TSM), while EMC offers similar functionality with its Avamar product. Avamar also allows the ability to move deduplicated data to tape, while its SME-targeted product Retrospect now performs off-host backups of active virtual machines.

The trend toward data deduplication also extends to smaller vendors. Over the past year, CommVault announced the addition of data deduplication technology to its flagship Simpana product, the ability to automatically track the location of a VMware-hosted virtual machine, as well as the ability to back up and restore across physical and virtual machine boundaries and to the cloud.

Read more on backup product advancements in our data backup software guide.

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