Laptop data protection is a mixed bag of bespoke and product add-ons

Product survey: Laptop data protection products range from those engineered for laptops to those that are bolted on to existing backup applications.

With the rise of an increasingly mobile workforce come a number of new challenges for storage and IT managers, not least of which is laptop data protection. Traditionally, data has been held within your company's data centre, but that picture is undergoing rapid change as workforces become more mobile and a proportion of your company’s data is being carried around in laptops.

Those devices are in some ways more vulnerable than the desktops that reside in end users’ cubicles. Laptops get left in taxis, on trains and in hotel rooms; since they’re portable they are more vulnerable to breakage and theft; and, unlike desktops, they are not perma-connected.

But, the task of protecting these devices is not trivial. Laptops often access the network over slow links, such as cellular connections; they are intensively used so users object to being slowed or interrupted by a bandwidth-hogging, CPU-intensive backup job; and they are usually switched off or asleep when not in use.

Vendors of backup software have often responded to these issues by bolting laptop-specific features onto existing products aimed at data on on-premise hardware. Meanwhile, new companies have sprung up with laptop backup point products. Can they compete with the big boys? We examine 10 backup software packages from the point of view of laptop data protection.

Laptop data protection in backup products

There are, perhaps unsurprisingly, strong commonalities throughout this collection of products. The baseline feature set in modern backup software includes data deduplication, which reduces the volume of backup data traversing the link; online and offline continuous file backup to protect files from the moment they are saved; encryption to protect data on the fly and at rest; central backup policy management to ensure that backups occur; and self-service restore to reduce the load on IT. Some products also offer cloud-based backup and restore, while dedicated products go much further in supporting laptop-specific use cases.

Symantec's Backup Exec 2010 offers a wide range of features for backing up servers, desktops and clients, with optional extras providing application-specific features such as data deduplication and archiving. Laptop data protection is catered for by the Desktop and Laptop Option, which provides continuous, offline and online disk-based protection managed by corporate backup policies. It enables users to restore their own files and keep multiple desktops and laptops in sync using a network share; it does not need a dedicated backup server.

IBM's Tivoli Storage Manager also offers continuous data protection for laptops, with users able to flag areas of their file systems for backup using Tivoli Continuous Data Protection for Files. It also allows users and IT managers to decide how long files should be retained and to retain multiple versions of files to allow date-based restore. Administrators can discover TSM client devices and view client configurations as well as edit and lock them and set admin email alerts from clients.

In addition to the baseline feature set of modern backup software described above, CommVault Simpana 9 Edge Data Protection provides specific support for mobile devices, including laptop data protection. It uses parameters such as current CPU utilisation, type of network connection and power source as factors to stop, pause, start or throttle bandwidth. Administrators can discover, install and update backup agents automatically and can give users some freedom to configure backups as long as they abide by corporate policy. Self-service backup and restore are via a browser, backed-up data is fully searchable, and a cloud storage option allows users to back data up to the company's cloud storage service provider.

Under the control of central backup policies, HP's Data Protector 6.2 provides continuous file backup in the background when the client is both offline and online, along with source data deduplication, backup of open files, compression and encryption. The Notebook Extension option allows users to save files outside the data centre.

EMC offers Avamar as its client backup product. It provides data deduplication, which helps to reduce the backup load across the network, while encryption protects data on the fly and at rest. The product has no laptop-specific features.

From its ARCserve suite of backup products, CA’s ARCserve D2D offers laptop support with features such as bandwidth throttling and incremental snapshot backups at the block level, which continuously copies only blocks that have changed. Backing up to the cloud is also an option. Restore options include the ability to recover a single email rather than a whole file.

From among the smaller vendors, Atempo Live Backup -- which has just been acquired by ASG Software Solutions -- also provides online and offline continuous protection for laptops, with only block-level changes being stored until the next connection; deduplication; centralised policy management; self-service restore; and compatibility with both Macintoshes and PCs.

BarracudaWare’s Yosemite Desktop/Laptop Backup offers continuous backup, both offline and online; self-service restore; open file protection; centralised policy management; and encryption. It also allows users to search through files for the one they want to restore, using the familiar Windows Explorer interface.

Druva goes further than the rest with its inSync product. In addition to the baseline features set outlined above, it includes WAN optimisation technology: InSync detects the network bandwidth and can tailor its data rate and alter TCP packet sizes to suit the connection's latency and throughput characteristics. Druva claims that this WAN optimisation along with inSync's deduplication technology -- whose scope includes email attachments to further reduce backup data volumes -- speed email backup by up to 10 times compared with products without the feature. InSync also allows users to manage backups and restore operations via their mobile devices -- iOS or Android -- as well as using a native PC application or a browser.

Copiun’s Laptop Backup for the Enterprise uses continuous, object-based deduplication to reduce the volume of laptop data that needs to be backed up. The company claims that it can detect embedded objects in backed-up data, including those inside Microsoft Outlook PST files, across the enterprise. It transmits and stores them only once. According to Copiun, the advantage of this approach compared with block-based deduplication is greater efficiency. Like other products here, it also permits users to restore using Windows and backs up only when the machine is not in use. Users can also access their backed-up files using a smartphone.

Most vendors of backup software are focused on protecting data inside the corporation firewall, such as that held in the data centre, and protecting laptop data is not as simple a task. CommVault and Druva are unusual in catering entire products to the backup needs of laptops, although the continuing movement of data outside the company walls and the need to be compliant  in the legal and regulatory sense -- which includes the need to know where your data is and how to retrieve it -- are likely to drive enterprises towards products with the kinds of features that those products offer. It is also likely that more technology will be developed that will in future make laptop backup a routine process, with most users unaware that backups are under way.

Manek Dubash is a business and technology journalist with more than 25 years of experience. 

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