Cloud backup - the pros and cons

Cloud backup is fast becoming a rival to tape. But it's not for everyone, as analyst Lauren Whitehouse explains in this assessment of the pros and cons of the technology.

Fueled by affordable bandwidth and capacity optimization technologies, cloud-based backup is becoming a popular alternative to portable media, such as tape.

There are currently two popular approaches to cloud backup: Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) and cloud storage services. As an alternative to on-premise software and secondary storage, backup SaaS is a Web-native application hosted and operated at a central location and accessed via a browser-based interface. It is typically characterized as having a multi-tenant architecture (i.e., a shared, scalable infrastructure that keeps data virtually separated) and a utility pricing model. Lightweight agents residing on the systems to be protected pass data at the primary site to the cloud.

Cloud storage services are a hybrid of on- and off-premise components. For backup, the IT organization has on-premise control of software and, optionally, hardware, coupled with leveraging off-premise services or infrastructure (massive data centers housing powerful computer, network and storage resources). Cloud backup services are charged back to the customer on a consumption basis -- based on capacity, bandwidth or seat.

Cloud backup considerations

Every cloud has a silver lining, and in the case of cloud-based backup, there are several benefits. Both cloud approaches are convenient because the information can be accessed from any Internet-connected device; information can be more easily shared; it has built-in security; and digital information is easier to manage, search, retrieve and transfer. There may also be some cost and/or budgeting advantages to outsourcing all or a piece of the backup storage.

There are several advantages to cloud backup:

  • Efficiency and reliability. Cloud providers utilize state-of-the-art technology, such as disk-based backup, compression, encryption, data deduplication, server virtualization, storage virtualization, application-specific protection, and more in SAS 70-certified data centers. In addition to the security that accompanies their certification, many providers offer 24/7 monitoring, management, and reporting -- features and capabilities that may not be afforded by many companies otherwise. Furthermore, there's no need to worry about upgrades, migrations or technology obsolescence; the burden of the backup infrastructure lies with the service provider.
  • Scalability with capital savings. Organizations can leverage the unlimited scalability of a third-party cloud provider without the upfront capital expenditure. In fact, the pay-as-you-go model significantly reduces the procurement and provisioning headaches for backup. This approach allows for predictable management of capacity growth and operational costs.
  • Improves recovery time for small data sets. For a recovery from tape, an operator would need to recall the tape, load it, locate the data and recover the data. Conversely, file recovery from cloud storage is faster; it doesn't require physical transport from the offsite location, tape handling or seek time. Files to be recovered are located and streamed over the WAN connection, saving time and eliminating the need for a local tape infrastructure.
  • Accessibility. Cloud backup may be attractive to organizations that couldn't afford the investment and maintenance of a disaster recovery infrastructure -- or for those who can, but recognize the greater efficiency and cost savings to be gained by outsourcing. Offsite data copies -- accessible from any Internet-connected device/location -- provide an added measure of insurance in the event of a regional disaster.

There are cloud backup tradeoffs, too, including:

  • Seeding data and full recovery. Depending on the total capacity of data, the first full backup and/or full recovery of site data could prove to be too time-consuming and impactful on production systems.
  • Size limitations. Depending on bandwidth availability, every organization will have a threshold for the most reasonable capacity of data that can be transferred daily to the cloud. These limitations will have an impact on backup strategies.
  • Discontinuation of the service. Understanding the most graceful "exit strategy" for the service is just as important as vetting specific features. Termination or early-withdrawal fees, cancellation notification, and data extraction are just a few of the factors to be considered.
  • Nonexistent service-level agreements (SLAs). The performance of the service and the "guarantees" that backup is completed successfully is not always in the provider's control. For example, availability of sufficient bandwidth, the amount of data that has to be transferred over the network, and accessibility to systems to be protected are all scenarios that could contribute to non-compliance with service-level agreements.

Who ya gonna call?

A number of cloud backup providers cater to specific needs and sizes of organizations. The vendor landscape can be broken down into a few categories:

Backup SaaS. Many of the large, traditional backup vendors have a SaaS component in their portfolios. EMC acquired Mozy in October 2007, offering services that span from consumer desktops/laptops and small and medium-sized business (SMB) servers and applications. Similarly, IBM acquired Arsenal Digital and is now offering Remote Data Protection for servers and applications and an online desktop/laptop backup based on its CDP for Files product. Symantec Corp. built-out its own backup SaaS capabilities in its Symantec Protection Network, leveraging in-house backup technology. Hewlett-Packard (HP) Co. delivers HP Electronic Vaulting Service for Enterprises. Other vendors, such as Iron Mountain with its LiveVault and Connected services, Seagate i365's EvaultSaaS Backup, and Carbonite Online Backup round out this category.

Backup solutions with cloud partners. Rather than build out or acquire cloud infrastructure, several backup software vendors have enabled cloud backup via partnerships with cloud storage providers. CA introduced Instant Recovery on Demand, combining its XOsoft technology with a third-party provider. Zmanda introduced its Cloud Backup product, pairing its open source-based backup software with Amazon S3 non-proprietary cloud storage.

Cloud storage. Several vendors have built out cloud infrastructures for others to leverage. Cloud storage providers "rent" storage capacity and provide APIs for vendors to facilitate technology integration. Amazon S3, Nirvanix Storage Delivery Network, and Iron Mountain Virtual File Store are examples.

SaaS-ready backup for MSPs. CommVault elected to license its Simpana software to Managed Service Providers (MSPs) to enable Backup SaaS. This strategy is similar to Asigra, the vendor behind many backup SaaS solutions available today, including HP's Electronic Vaulting Service for Enterprises and AmeriVault's AmeriVault-AV. Remote Backup Systems is another vendor distributing its technology so others can deliver backup software-as-a-service. And, newcomer Axcient Inc. offers a hybrid on-premise-and-cloud solution for deployment and distribution by outsourced IT.

Advancements in cloud computing and backup technology are creating exciting developments in cloud backup. Cloud backup provides indisputable benefits to organizations with limited IT resources and capital budget, including efficiency and reliability, scalability, accessibility, and improvements in recovery of small data sets. The consumption-based pricing, coupled with the ability to fund backup from an operational budget, make the cloud backup approach an attractive alternative to on-premise tape-centric implementations -- especially in tough economic times.

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