Data Centers

Vaulting is best practice for data backup plans

Safe storage data requires investment


Two-thirds of members who responded to a recent CIO Republic Quick Poll (Figure A) said that they store at least some system backups in an off-site facility—and an overwhelming number of the members who wrote to tell us more about their backup methods said they use tape.

According to a Sept. 10, 2002, Gartner report on storage management software, the preference for tape is fairly typical. "In some situations, disk backup may replace some of the need for tape backup but, in most cases, it will be a complementary component in the recovery plan," wrote analyst Carolyn DiCenzo.

Storing backup tapes off-site is a crucial step in a disaster recovery plan. Many members who wrote said they accomplish this task by taking tapes to a safe deposit box, another corporate location, or even to an IT manager’s home. However, a data center expert recommended that IT leaders—even those at smaller organizations—adopt the “best practices” model and store backup tapes in an off-site vault.

Figure A
Most members who responded to this poll said they store at least some backups off-site.


Off-site backups on a shoestring budget
Mark T's company uses Windows NT4 Small Business Server and a DAT drive for backups. He uses simple scripts with NT Scheduler to run an automatic backup at midnight. Even though the 20-person company has an on-site, fireproof safe rated for storing computer media, Mark rotates three backup tapes.

"The most recent full backup goes into the media safe for ready access to restore corrupt or missing files," Mark T wrote. "The next most recent backup goes into my briefcase and gets taken home with me. The third and oldest set also gets stored in the media safe for redundancy."

Alistair, who manages the IT department for a 70-person firm spread out over four buildings, uses a slightly different method. He's set up his mix of UNIX, Novell, and Microsoft servers to back up overnight, then, in the morning, takes the tapes to the fourth building. When Alistair changes tapes, he takes the set being replaced to a safe at his home and destroys the previous set. (You can read about a more complex tape rotation scheme in the article "Develop an effective data backup strategy.")

Sending backups to another corporate facility in the same city is also part of Troy T's plan. When there's only one facility in a city, an IT staff member drives the backup tape to a bank and places it in a safe deposit box. "The drawback to this type of arrangement is that the media is unreachable when the bank isn't open," Troy T wrote.

Best practices approach includes vaulting
Chris Caprio, data center solutions manager at Imation and a board member of AFCOM's Data Center Institute, said that low-budget approaches to off-site backup storage are inadequate for even small organizations. Instead, he recommends a "best practices" approach that includes contracting with a company that specializes in tape storage.

"Off-site vaulting works for any organization—you don’t have to be a 500,000-tape library, enterprise-class shop to take advantage of the benefits that an off-site vaulter can provide," Caprio said.

When shopping for a vaulter, Caprio recommended that you consider these factors:
  • Theft deterrence
  • Fire protection
  • Flood protection
  • Environmental control
  • 24-hour access

"You can dictate, as the customer, the contract that fits your needs best," Caprio said. For example, you may specify a two-hour response time for the service to deliver a tape from the vault to your IT department.

Vaulting can also help you avoid some liability issues. "When you have your own couriers that are doing the transfer—or one of your own employees is taking it to someone's house—you're at risk," Caprio said. "The tapes could be stolen or there could be a fire in a manager's home." In addition, some insurance companies may offer lower business insurance rates if you store tapes in an off-site vault.

Rates are reasonable
Caprio, who used to manage the data center of a $4 billion company, said the off-site vaulters he's worked with have been “exemplary.” And he says rates are reasonable. About two and a half years ago, Caprio's department sent thousands of tapes to storage each week. The vault service charged about 10 to 12 cents per tape per month for storage. "It was not outlandish by any stretch of the imagination." Although a smaller company wouldn't receive such a great volume discount, even $5 per tape per month could be cheap insurance to keep your business up and running.

"Data is the lifeblood of any organization—whether it be a mom-and-pop grocery store or a medical office, all the way up to a Fortune 50 company—and any loss of data at any level is really unacceptable," Caprio said. "In the case of off-site storage, I've never come across any reason that justifies a risk to deviate from a best practice."

Making the case for vaulted backups
When budgets are tight, it can be difficult to win approval for any added expense. Here are two approaches that may help you explain why vaulting is a cost-effective precaution for your company’s data.

TechRepublic member wrlang, a disaster recovery administrator, noted that it can be hard to get the money for backups into the budget. An IT leader may have to get approval for this expense from a CFO or finance director who may simply compare the cost of off-site vaulting to the value of the media, rather than to the value of the data. He suggested that a quick business impact analysis can help you make the case for off-site storage. "This can be as simple as taking your company's total sales and dividing that number by the number of days in the year to give you the value of a day's worth of data," wrlang wrote. "This is a gross oversimplification, but it can turn the light on for many managers."

Your media costs may also be lower because vaults will provide the proper temperature, humidity, and handling to achieve the optimal lifetime from tapes. Caprio said to check with the manufacturer’s recommendations to find out how many passes your tape can be expected to take. Some tapes, for example, may be tested to perform error-free for over 20,000 passes, while others may only test to 2,000 passes. The best idea, however, is not to rely on those ratings but to analyze your tapes to see if they produce errors. Citing statistics from the Enterprise Storage Group that up to 60 percent of backups don't execute properly in network environments, companies like Bocada offer products to analyze backups across a variety of platforms and pinpoint any failures.

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