Storage

Data backups: The smart person's guide

This guide is an entry-level summary of enterprise backup software.

Image: iStock/kjekol

All of the cutting-edge applications and exotic storage hardware in the world do not matter if your data backups aren't reliable. This guide is an entry-level summary of enterprise backup software.

Executive summary

  • What it is: Put very simply, backup software makes copies of all the important information on your network and puts it away for safe keeping. The many ways to do this will be explained in this guide.
  • Why it matters: Data backup matters in case something gets corrupted in your files. But there are many other reasons to make copies of your work, from the obvious to the arcane.
  • Who this affects: Backup software impacts everyone. Other than storage and system administrators, most people never think about data backups until it's too late; fortunately, most modern backup software operates invisibly to end users, who will be happy that recent copies of their work are readily available when needed.
  • When this is happening: Backup is nearly as old as data storage. The phrase "IBM and the seven dwarfs" referred to the leading eight mainframe manufacturers in the 1960s — behemoth IBM along with Burroughs, Control Data, General Electric, Honeywell, NCR, RCA, and Univac. Primitive applications to record data backups emerged from this ecosystem as mass storage options — mostly magnetic tape, but also hard disks — made punched cards obsolete.
  • How to get it: The easiest way to get a data backup application is by purchasing it directly from the software vendor. Of course, the popularity of backing up data onto private and public clouds is a game-changer for purchasing options.

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What is a data backup?

There are many ways to make backup copies of data from an enterprise's cacophony of dedicated storage servers, application servers, desktops, and mobile devices. Incremental backup is one of the most popular methods. This type of backup makes full copies of your information at spaced-apart intervals, such as weekly or monthly, while only copying the changes at more frequent intervals such as daily or even more often for particularly vital systems. Many companies also use snapshot (file system imaging) applications, which take a virtual picture of your data rather than copying the complete bits.

Tiered storage refers to a method of putting backup data in the most suitable location based on its importance. For example, data that's important yet rarely accessed could go on magnetic tape storage, which is very reliable yet has slow access speed compared to disk or flash.

Data that is less important, but still needs to be backed up, could go onto older/slower tape, consumer-grade hard disk arrays (vs. enterprise SANs), or perhaps a cloud. Such information could also be stored in a "cold" location that isn't always connected to your network.

Data that's urgent may be copied onto a SAN, which in turn backs up to another, or even onto ultra-fast flash storage. This type of urgent data is often replicated across a private network to a remote location, because you'll need it back quickly and reliably if a disaster besets your primary location.

Other modern storage backup technologies include virtual tape, which makes any other type of storage (such as a SAN or a NAS) look like a tape library to an application; deduplication, which optimizes storage by eliminating redundant copies of the same information; data mirroring, which automatically makes two copies of all fresh data (usually stored in different locations) rather than actively having to perform backups; and data compression, which shrinks information for storage purposes and expands it back whenever needed.

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Why does data backup matter?

Collections of magnetic zeros and ones live a tough life. Creation, spinning around, being erased, moving to other hardware, being copied and renamed and changed — any number of maladies could make you glad there's a clone of yourself around somewhere.

Real-world examples abound — users can accidentally delete important files; traditional hard disks and newer solid-state drives both fail; malware can alter bits beyond recognition, government or industry regulations may dictate privacy rules; litigation often requites digital discovery; and man-made or natural disasters could physically damage your server rooms. Having copies of data is the best insurance. Just like regular insurance, you're fortunate if you never have to use it.

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Who does this affect?

Everyone is impacted by data backup. End users from the mailroom to the board room need to understand that recovering individual emails or files, while possible, isn't always fast or easy. System adminstrators and programmers may have applications and databases that cause conflicts with each other, in turn making backup applications lose track of which copies should be saved and which are redundant or simply wrong. Sometimes there's no particular emergency need to access a backup, except that customers or support staff just want an older version of some particular information. Storage managers need to be on top of all this.

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When is this happening?

Every year, and sometimes every quarter, sees new features or mergers/acquisitions from the data backup industry. Backup appliances, service-level agreements (especially for cloud and remote backup systems), and virtualized storage are some of the latest trends.

A huge issue is security — what if there were corporate policies, industry ethics rulings, or even government laws to encrypt all of your backup data? That could require more storage capacity and faster bandwidth to just tread water in the world of storage management.

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How do I get it?

There is no shortage of ways to get data backup technology. Gartner cites storage hardware giants EMC (soon to be Dell) and IBM, along with software specialists Commvault and Symantec (soon to spin out its Veritas division), as the current leaders in storage backup. For 2015, Gartner's famed "magic quadrant" also cited Actifio, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and Veeam as important players. Challengers included Acronis, Arcserve (a recent CA Technologies spin-off), Asigra, Barracuda Networks, Dell (soon to own EMC, as noted above), Unitrends, and Seagate. There are dozens of other data backup companies. Microsoft Windows and various flavors of Unix have built-in data backup utilities, and there are myriad open-source alternatives.

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About

Evan Koblentz began covering enterprise IT during the dot-com boom times of the late 1990s. He recently published a book, "Abacus to smartphone: The evolution of mobile and portable computers".

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