The essentials of an effective laptop backup strategy

Laptop backup is a pain. Or it was. Now encrypted removable drive products and laptop backup software allow you to tame previously untameable portable devices.

By Danny Bradbury, Contributor

Laptop backup is a headache. These highly portable devices are difficult to manage in the field and are prone to loss and theft. Ensuring that laptop data is backed up effectively is a daunting task, but an important one.

It appears that IT organisations recognise how critical laptop backup is. According to Lauren Whitehouse, senior analyst at the Enterprise Strategy Group, laptop backup is a high priority for IT departments. "When we asked organisations to tell us what their challenges were for all data protection issues, desktop and laptop backup ranked fourth in the list," she said. "When we asked about spending priorities, it again ranked fourth. It's a big problem, and people are willing to invest in it."

So how can we effectively carry out laptop backup? There are various ways. You can use a removable storage medium, like a USB key or a proprietary removable drive system like ProStor's RDX or Iomega's REV. Alternatively, backup software products enable users to automatically back up their data, either into a private cloud or a public one licensed for the enterprise.

RDX, a HDD-based technology designed to replace tape, uses a drive inserted into a docking unit attached to the laptop. It is most appropriate for a whole-volume image, where large amounts of data need to be backed up from a laptop.

"If you have an RDX device then you have the disk unit separately," said Hamish MacArthur, founder of analyst firm MacArthur Stroud International. "That also means that if someone has an RDX device at home, they can move [the drive] between an office and a home environment."

With any removable backup device it is important to encrypt data when stored at rest. When using USB devices, Windows 7's BitLocker To Go technology can be used to force encryption on a USB device used to transfer information from the laptop.

In many cases, USB laptop backup happens by default. According to Whitehouse, companies often leave users to back up data on their own, providing little or no guidance -- or equipment -- to help. It is often the result of poor organisational practice within IT departments.

"Responsibility for doing backup is often distributed. The server group, the storage group and the desktop operations group might all have a part in it, and it feels as if no one group takes ownership for it," she said.

This can happen even in larger companies, such as Capita Group, a technology and professional services group that has 6,000 laptops in operation. Ian Gates, director of Capita Software Services, said that until the company deployed a cohesive laptop backup solution, users were backing up their data on their own.

"Our standard solution for home users was to have a local backup drive," he said. "But, we didn't want data spread around the country on unknown devices, so we banned people from doing that. Now, data has to be backed up centrally and encrypted too."

Capita uses Druva's InSync product, which is one example of the agent-based laptop backup software approach. The product is set to automatically back up data on a laptop at preset intervals when the user has an Internet connection. Like many backup systems, this means a huge initial data transmission followed by a series of incremental steps. However, that problem can be averted by beginning with the same image on the server and on the laptop at the time of initial deployment.

Gates warned that sizing the back-end infrastructure to support the backup load is an important part of any deployment. "We undersized the central configuration, and we found lots of contention problems at that central point. A lot of that was hardware-related. It was originally part of a shared infrastructure on SAN storage," he said, adding that the backup server also ran as a virtual machine.

I/O congestion became a major issue when the firm hit the 1,000-user mark. "We rebuilt it on dedicated servers and storage. It works fine in that environment, but it wasn't something that we originally anticipated doing," he said. He is now up to 2,000 of his 6,000 client licenses and continues to roll out the system.

The other consideration in laptop backup is bare-metal recovery. Backing up a whole system image is often a precursor to recovering a whole laptop cleanly and simply in the event of a catastrophic failure. This contrasts with limited folder-based backup, which requires a user's laptop image to be rebuilt manually and then reloaded with their documents.

Patrick Burgess, IT and communications manager at the UK arm of German pharmaceutical firm Merz Pharma, uses Acronis TrueImage for bare-metal recovery, along with Druva for user data (which can be restored manually on a file-by-file basis by the user, in a self-service model).

When he deployed Druva InSync, Burgess was already using the Acronis product, which uses an ISO-formatted disk as a boot mechanism. For bare-metal recovery, the disk boots into a Linux OS, which then accesses an online server to download the user's disk image and enables the company to deliver user data exactly as it was left in the event of a laptop failure.

"Practically, you may not want to do that remotely, but if the remote user wanted to do it overnight, the problem would come down to size of image and Internet connection bandwidth," he said.

Burgess recalls one field representative based in the north of England whose laptop died. Before the bare-metal recovery solution was available, she would have spent four hours driving down to head office, where a new laptop with a new operating system image would have been provided. "Then it would have taken her half a day to set up the laptop with her own data and then she would have driven back," he said. "Now we are able to build the data here and send the new laptop out to her and know that when it arrives at her doorstep, it has everything exactly as she left it."

Laptop backup to a data centre removes the headache of recovering non-technical users' data and applications from a removable drive, which in turn reduces support costs. It's also comforting from a compliance and help desk perspective to know that all of a user's data is in one central location and encrypted. But if a company is to deploy this kind of laptop backup solution properly, correct back-end system sizing is important. Storage, I/O and computing power all factor into this, making it a more complex task than some may think.

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