Storage: unified approach helps businesses manage data back-up across branch office network

Storage is one of the most costly elements of IT. The wealth of information that businesses produce and need to save is continually growing, and with it, the storage needs and associated costs.


Storage is one of the most costly elements of IT. The wealth of information that businesses produce and need to save is continually growing, and with it, the storage needs and associated costs.

These storage needs can be notoriously difficult to manage, and never more so than when the IT department has the task of managing storage for businesses that are distributed on a national or international basis.

According to research company Nemertes, on average, 90% of employees work away from headquarters. Most of these employees are working in distributed offices, whether they be retail stores, bank branches, or even satellite classrooms.

An important consideration is how to cost-effectively back up data that resides on desktops and servers within branch offices, which can be tens or hundreds of miles from head office.

One option is to consolidate data into a main storage facility, so that as much information as possible can be backed up from a central data store. This can be achieved through the use of leased storage or extra servers at headquarters.

Another approach is network attached storage, where single-function servers sit on the network and provide storage space that is accessible to the rest of the organisation and optimised for that purpose.

In the branch office environment, IT directors also need to support staff who may not have the technical skills needed to keep the branch office IT up and running.

Server consolidation at a central location is gathering support as a solution to this problem. According to analyst firm Gartner, 93% of enterprises either have or are planning a server consolidation project.

Hamish MacArthur, chief executive at analyst firm MacArthur Stroud, said, "Users need to consider whether they want to run a central or distributed storage infrastructure."

Although businesses prefer to manage everything centrally, in practice it is difficult to achieve in a branch office due to the scale of the operation, Stroud said. The challenge, he said, is that back-up and recovery procedures can fail.

Gordon Young, managing director, Europe, at networking supplier NetDevices, said, "As there are often no staff with specialist skills at the branch office, being able to manage IT remotely without experiencing downtime is one of the key aspects that network operations managers are considering, and storage is no exception."

Many firms have implemented clustering, storage management and replication technologies as a defence against downtime caused by server and application failures, site outages, human error and other events that can threaten business operations.

These technologies are an essential element to managing branch storage, especially in the event of a failure. The combination of virtualisation and clustering automates the process of bringing up storage, servers and applications, and clients can be redirected to a secondary site in the event of a problem.

Guy Bunker, chief scientist at IT security supplier Symantec, said, "Replicating and clustering technologies provide the highest level of availability for critical applications by ensuring power is applied where it is needed."

Bunker suggested that by deploying clustering technology users could monitor the health of applications and physical hardware. This technology is able to automatically take corrective action should either fail.

He said, "If applications are placed under cluster control, the entire process of bringing up an application and data is simplified by automatically bringing up the storage and application, then redirecting users to the correct network address.

This reduces the chance for human error in the event of an outage and provides an automated approach to storage, server and application availability."

Essential storage is no longer confined to database archives and business documentation. In many organisations Microsoft's Exchange Server is at the heart of the business, and everything from the server database to mailboxes, messages and user settings must be stored, backed up and retrievable to the remote offices. The majority of data on servers can be older than 90 days, and may never be accessed again, but most back-up effort is focused there, while much current and vital business information is stored in .pst files.

Not surprisingly, a number of products target the back-up of Exchange Server data. When assessing which products to choose it is worth considering whether they will require the installation of a separate Exchange 2003 server. Symantec's Backup Exec 10, is aimed at providing protection for Exchange Server data in branch offices while the application is online.

Along with other similar products, it provides full, incremental, or differential back-up and restores, embedded objects, attributes and all Outlook components.

A major concern of IT professionals is the weight of traffic that flies around the network when storing data at locations other than branch offices. Many products address this by allowing source-level compressing at the client end.

Incremental back-ups alleviate the heavy traffic during a typical back-up window, and they are particularly important when many of the users are mobile and may not be connected to the network at times when a full back-up is implemented.

Most of the major suppliers incorporate some form of replication or remote mirroring function in their storage products, so users have no reason not to be replicating business data back to a central point.

However, Martin Davies, managing technical consultant at IT services company Morse, said, "The most challenging thing for businesses is striking a balance between keeping applications accessible by hosting and backing up locally and easing branch office data management through centralisation."

Davies said companies are embracing the combination of central and local data management. They are adopting some of the concepts of a serverless office and using thin client technology to host and back up business-critical applications centrally.

He said, "Companies are also balancing out the risk of the Lan going down, preventing users from being able to work, by keeping Office applications such as Microsoft Word hosted locally but backed up centrally to make the data easier to manage."

Problems with back-up can arise when the member of staff responsible goes on holiday and no one takes over, or tapes are not taken offsite, or the same tapes are used day after day. To be of use in a disaster recovery situation, the tape must be stored offsite. However, this is not practical for everyday file recovery.

If the only copy of the data is sitting on a shelf in a warehouse,  in a full system restore an engineer has to come from head office and have access to that tape. This is obviously impractical for simple file recoveries that occur on a regular basis.

Ed Jones, director of back-up specialist Thinking Safe, said, "We have seen a large number of companies migrate to disc-based back-up and archive who have Dat, DLT and LTO tapes in their archive.

Their challenge is they do not have any mechanism that can be used to read the archive if it is needed. This set of problems is then multiplied by the number of sites."

Experts believe the way forward is disc-to-disc back-up. Jones said, "It is more reliable  - 100% of data is restored in a disaster recovery, which is more than the generally accepted 75% to 80% with tape. It is more cost effective - our customers have cut their costs by up to 60%. And it supports remote offices much better, with automation, central control and no single point of failure."

Companies are searching for multifunction appliances which have the resilience and management capability to make their branch office IT simpler. They want to easily link storage capacity into this framework as it is more flexible than traditional approaches.

Taking a single unified approach to branch office storage management means IT staff no longer need to make long trips to the branch office to fix the simplest problems.


Managing storage in the Windows environment

Microsoft is aware that the management of storage around organisations is an increasing challenge, and release two of Windows Server 2003 R2 has incorporated features that directly relate to the branch office environment. These include centralised file replication and printer management technology, built-in Unix interoperability and Active Directory Federation Services.

The Distributed File System (DFS) has been rewritten and, together with advanced compression technologies such as Remote Differential Compression (RDC), should improve branch office replication and the server's overall performance.

There are also new integrated storage management tools including File Server Resource Manager (FSRM), which provides reporting on the storage environment, and Storage Manager for Sans.

Amir Shaked, chief executive of storage supplier DiskSites, said, "For branch office back-up, the most notable feature is the improved File Replication Service (FRS2), which improves replication abilities by efficiently transferring differences since last replication. In a branch office environment this could help in copying all the branch office data daily to the central site where back-up for tapes is usually applied."

Microsoft has also released Windows Storage Server 2003, an operating system designed with network attached storage technology to manage these storage devices. A network attached storage device built with Windows Storage Server 2003 is designed to perform without requiring a monitor, keyboard or mouse, and is remotely configured and managed through a web interface.

Other products from Microsoft include Data Protection Manager (DPM) and Microsoft Operations Manager (Mom).

DPM is a member of the Windows Server System family and will be separately licensed and sold as a server application product. It runs on top of the Windows Server 2003 operating system. DPM watches file shares and when a new file is created or changed it takes a snapshot.

Mom watches systems across the network and monitors their status and performance. It provides information on different devices and Mom monitoring packs are provided for various application components such as Exchange Server and SQL Server. It comes preconfigured to differentiate between serious alerts and minor performance glitches, and supports non-Microsoft hardware.

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