Data backup software products: What features are most important?

When purchasing data backup software products you need to consider your company's needs, support from backup product vendors and if you need a backup reporting add-on.

Data backup software products are available from a wide variety of vendors and can help you address the data protection and availability needs of your data storage environment. New data backup software offerings have moved beyond traditional backup functions and now incorporate a wide variety of new features, including data...

deduplication, continuous data protection (CDP), reporting features and virtual server backup capabilities.

In this interview, UK bureau chief Antony Adshead speaks with Ian Lock, service director for storage and backup at GlassHouse Technologies (UK), about the key things to look for when you purchase data backup software.

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Purchasing data backup software
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Lock: The key things to take into account when considering purchasing a backup product are coverage, features, usability, reporting and support.

First, does the product provide the right features and coverage to protect your company's servers and application data? For example, if you have lots of small remote offices with no onsite IT presence, then a product which compresses and deduplicates backup data at the client before sending it over the network to a backup server in a central data centre will be a great solution.

If, on the other hand, a major requirement is to be able to recover a critical billing system within minutes to a very specific point in time, then a product providing continuous data protection might fit the bill.

Also, make sure that the product provides good coverage for any specialist devices or appliances in the estate. If you use NAS filers, does the product provide good support for NDMP backups from your particular filer brand, along with the ability to restore individual files from these backup images?

Perhaps you need to be able to mount and back up snapshots from NAS or SAN devices, to take the load off your backup clients? Backup products vary in their support coverage for other vendors' storage devices, so check that yours is fully supported.

In many environments, the realisation is starting to dawn on storage and backup administrators that they are backing up the same, unchanged data and files day in, day out. This consumes backup storage space, valuable processing time, and resources on the backup servers and clients. As data volumes grow, the problem gets worse and worse, when in fact the amount of new, changed data created each day is relatively modest.

Data deduplication is one way to address this issue; the synthetic backup concept, which has been available in mainstream backup products for several years, may also be a feature to look for here. Synthetic backups are full backup sets created by intelligent processing at the backup server from a series of incremental jobs. This reduces the requirement for those time- and resource-intensive full backup jobs, and can help to improve the usability of the backup systems.

In a large enterprise environment, responsive support from the backup product vendor will be essential and there will always be occasions when something unexpected happens which is not covered in the standard product documentation. You will want to be able to ask a question of your data backup vendor and get a prompt, accurate answer. Check the levels of support coverage which your vendor offers. Backups generally happen overnight, so if something nasty does go wrong you may well want to be able to raise a call and get help in the middle of the night.

At the other end of the scale, perhaps you just need to back up a set of lower-criticality development machines and have a limited budget to work with? You have the option here of considering data backup products from the smaller players in the backup market or even open source backup products such as Amanda backup. If using an open source product, you will be on your own with support issues, but balance this against having no software licensing costs. What are the key features that differentiate backup products?

Lock: Some of the key features that differentiate the newest releases of the main backup products are data deduplication, CDP, virtual server backup and reporting.

Until recently, data deduplication functionality has primarily been provided separately from the backup software products themselves by third-party appliances or software-based solutions.

These appliances or software-based solutions have acted as target devices for the backup applications and have handled the process of data deduplication in a standalone fashion. Levels of integration with these devices have varied between products.

All of the main enterprise backup apps -- we'll take these as Simpana from CommVault Systems, NetWorker and Avamar from EMC, Tivoli Storage Manager from IBM and NetBackup from Symantec -- have with recent releases included dedupe embedded within the products themselves. These products approach dedupe in slightly different ways and have different limitations in areas like capacity, use of inline or post-processing methods, and deduplication ratios.

Continuous data protection-type functionality is still at the relatively early stage of the adoption and maturity cycle, and is much less integrated into mainstream data backup products. Each of the main four vendors has a solution providing CDP to some degree, but they differ quite widely in their format; for example EMC's RecoverPoint is storage appliance based, while [Symantec] NetBackup RealTime is software based.

Virtual server backup methods and functionality are evolving quickly as the main virtualisation platforms themselves evolve. VMware and Microsoft Hyper-V are supported to differing degrees by the main backup products, particularly in their integration with the newest features.

Virtual server environments are being deployed in most data centres today to improve server, power and management efficiencies. They bring their own backup challenges though.

Traditional solutions have installed standard backup client software onto each guest machine and treat each one as if it were a physical server. This is done in VMware environments to use VMware Consolidated Backup [VCB] functionality with SAN storage and a proxy backup server. A client per guest server can be costly and goes somewhat against the improved efficiency grain, while VCB can be complex to set up and manage. VMware announced its new vSphere 4 architecture last year with improved backup functionality for ESX 4 virtual environments. If you have an ESX 4 environment, check that the backup product you are considering supports the new vStorage APIs for Data Protection.

Perhaps you manage an enterprise estate with a large number of backup servers and clients? In that case, good, centralised reporting functionality will be crucial. You will want to be able to quickly see reports on job success and failure rates, but also to report on growth trends per server and client, device efficiency and obtain roll-up summaries.

While the information is normally available somewhere in the products' logs and databases, not all backup products have especially strong built-in reporting capabilities, which is why separate specialist add-on reporting products have emerged. Ask yourself what level of reporting you need to provide and whether you can spend the time to extract the data yourself, possibly using scripts, or whether you need a backup reporting add-on.

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