Tape backup alternatives for remote offices

If you're still running tape drives in your branch or remote offices, it's time to consider the alternatives. Tape has always made for backup headaches and newer alternatives now exist that can be a whole lot easier to manage. Tape at remote offices can be eliminated by local disk, or a combination of local disk and remote disk and tape.

If you're still running tape backup drives in your branch or remote offices, it's time to consider alternatives. Tape backup has always required a lot of attention and maintenance, but tape backup alternatives now exist that can make backing up remote offices easier to manage.

The challenges of looking after remote backup offices where there's no local IT staff are manifold. Who changes the tapes? Does anyone take them offsite? As local data volumes grow, and more remote sites run applications (other than just file and print), what do you do when your previously established backup window isn't long enough any more?

Local removable disk

The most obvious step is to  replace local tape with local disk. Whether it's centrally managed or a standalone appliance, a fixed array or removable cartridges such as Iomega Corp.'s REV (an EMC Corp. company) or Tandberg Data's RDX, it functions the same way but faster. And if you size it right, you have a local disk copy of your files for recovery purposes.

That's the route chosen by Austrian industrial retailer B+M Group, which has 25 locations around central Europe. The company backs up between 15 GB and 25 GB per branch using Acronis Inc.'s True Image, and has switched from using Colorado and DAT tape drives to REV disks.

IT manager Rudolf Buechner said two employees in each B+M branch are responsible for changing the disk cartridge daily. Each branch needs just five REV disks, which are almost infinitely reusable and are stored in a fireproof safe or in a part of the building away from the server. Data is encrypted, yet can be restored as quickly as it was backed up, he added.

"For me, being able to save company data onto a secure medium wasn't enough. I also wanted a medium that offered a high data transfer rate and instant data access," Buechner said. "Neither tape drives nor optical media such as DVDs could offer me all of this."

Remote backup

Another possible route is online backup to disk arrays in your data centre (if you have one) or to a third-party managed service or  cloud. Online backup is a particularly useful method for smaller offices or individual machines such as laptops.

You can also back up the branch offices to tape remotely using a more cost-effective tape library located in the data centre, where it can be properly managed.

Some observers argue that tape backup is merely finding its new place in the changed order of things. It may impose relatively high management and infrastructure costs -- too high for the branch office, perhaps -- yet it remains a remarkably cheap medium for long-term storage.

The Data Domain boxes are cheaper and take up less space than a tape drive. We don't have to change tapes and the speed has doubled.


Malcolm Todd
head of systems deliveryNorton Rose

 "Tape backup is not dead; it's an important component of ILM [information lifecycle management], but in the branch office it can make a lot of sense to eliminate it," noted Frank Bunn, marketing chair for the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) Europe.

Bunn said consolidating backup at the data centre can bring benefits beyond merely making branch-office IT more reliable. Information can be searched and archived when it's centralised.  Deduplication can also be applied, which means less data to back up from the branch office with less bandwidth.

Add continuous data protection (CDP), and there's the possibility of rolling back to an older version of an accidentally altered or deleted file.

Hybrid local/remote disk and tape

The problem with remote data protection is how long it can take to  restore a failed system, especially if bandwidth is limited. That's why in most cases you'll need a combination of two different schemes, with a local element for fast file recovery and an offsite element for archiving and disaster recovery.

Andy Brewerton, technical director for EMEA at BakBone Software Inc., suggested using disk-based virtual tape libraries (VTLs) rather than going straight to native disk. "People focus on the movement of data, but often it's the speed of recovery that's more important," he said. "We're being asked for and are developing more hybrid solutions. For example, you can back up to a VTL then replicate that over the WAN [wide-area network], and we have some customers doing disk to local disk to remote disk to tape backup."

Malcolm Todd, head of systems delivery at London-based international legal group Norton Rose Group, said that's pretty much the route his organisation chose. Its branch offices now back up their file and email servers to local disk. That's then replicated to more disk in the main data centres and, after four weeks, the data is archived to tape.

 "We were using Symantec [Corp.'s] Backup Exec 12 and LTO drives, with an arrangement where one of the local staff would take tapes home to get them offsite [and] then post them to London weekly," he said.

The take-home part worked for Todd. But with a nearly 50% growth in data, the daily backups were getting longer and longer, with one of the Paris backups taking 27 hours, for example.

Todd said Norton Rose took advice from Gartner Inc. and  looked at three main options for replacing its local tape drives: Data Domain Inc.'s deduplicating disk appliance, EMC's Avamar and Symantec's Veritas NetBackup PureDisk software. Norton Rose eventually chose the Data Domain product.

"EMC is our main storage provider, but Avamar would have taken a whole rack in some cases while Data Domain is a compact 3U box. The Symantec solution would have required us to buy disk and worked out incredibly expensive and quite bulky," he said.

"We put the Data Domain boxes in as if they were tape drives. They're far cheaper and they take up less space than a tape drive," Todd said. "Plus, we don't have to worry about changing tapes now, and the speed has roughly doubled."

This works for Norton Rose because it doesn't have the bandwidth to do online backup. Its offices have a minimum of 512 Kbps and a maximum of 2 Mbps for the central applications, and the deduped data from Data Domain provides very low bandwidth utilisation.

In the event of a local server failure, users would first be switched to a disaster recovery (DR) email system run from the data centre, Todd explained. "Then, within four hours, we should have recreated their environment, including email and file data, on virtual servers in London. That would be accessed via Citrix, so they could work from home or an Internet café if necessary -- we use RSA tokens for authentication. Then, once the server or office is repaired, we would replicate the data back.

"We did want to eliminate tape backup altogether, but it's not that easy. We have a 12-year retention policy so we need to keep everything," Todd continued. "We do have a long-term plan to move it all onto EMC Centera, though. Then it can always be accessed online."

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