Avoiding the risks of the road

Rather than foot the bill for setting up some employees with both a desktop computer for the office and a laptop for work elsewhere, many agencies are now only issuing laptops to their employees. However, because the part of a computer that can be the costliest to replace — the data on it — is far more vulnerable on a laptop than on a desktop PC, buying and maintaining half the number of computers is neither simpler nor less expensive.

Compared to PCs, which are hooked to a network that is usually backed up on a regular basis, laptops spend a great deal of time unplugged from the network and thus beyond the information technology department's control. That makes it tough to keep consistent backup schedules for laptops, especially if it falls to end users to take the initiative.

Growing recognition of this vulnerability is spurring many agencies to consider backup software specifically designed for mobile computers, one of the hotter segments of the backup market.

Today's laptop backup products make the process transparent to end users while providing quick disaster recovery, even from the road. This procedure is far better than the solutions available even just a few years ago.

Federal outfits such as the National Weather Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Postal Service, to name a few, have bought the backup software as way to lessen the risks inherent with a more mobile workforce.

"The world is moving toward portable computing," said David Liff, vice president of BrightStor Solutions at Computer Associates International Inc. (CA). "It really makes good business sense to replace desktops with laptops because you can work wherever you are. But the challenge of that is that you end up storing huge amounts of critical data on your laptop computers."

CA's BrightStor Mobile Backup is among a field of laptop backup products that also includes Connected Corp.'s DataProtector with Email Optimizer, Storactive Inc.'s LiveBackup, Veritas Software Corp.'s NetBackup Professional and XcelleNet Inc.'s Afaria.

Generally, the products have a standard procedure: The backup software monitors the machine for any file changes, which it saves locally on the laptop's hard drive. Later, when the user connects to the agency's local-area network or dials in via modem, the backup software automatically sends only those files (or in some cases only the bits and bytes) that have changed. The software uses compression to limit the amount of bandwidth used to send the changed data.

The software runs in the background to allow users to continue to check e-mail and do other work. The programs can be configured to give users more control over which files they want to transmit, but by automating the process, IT departments can be assured that critical data is making it to the backup servers.

Such products work for backing up laptop and desktop systems that are not protected by network-based backups. According to a recent market analysis report by IDC's Fred Broussard, as of 2001, Connected had the largest backup software market share with 26 percent, followed by Veritas, with 21 percent. Both companies have a strong presence in the federal government and the private sector.

"There is a ton of information out there that up until recently wasn't on the radar" of chief information officers, said Paul Smith, vice president of government operations at Veritas. "[Now] they are asking, 'What is the cost of losing the data?' It's a huge consideration right now in the federal government."

Implementing these products is generally easy, but, depending on the solution, it could require IT staff to configure security on each machine to ensure that only the person who owns the data has access to it. "The rollout will not take an inordinate amount of time, but it will require a visit to each individual user, so to some extent that can be an issue," Broussard said.

According to Steve Sussman, senior product manager for Storactive's LiveBackup, Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) officials are evaluating the company's software. They are looking to deploy it on approximately 3,500 machines, many of which are laptops, by the end of this year. They are primarily interested in backing up e-mail messages because of the need to keep an audit trail of communications on specific topics.

"In this case, it's not even a convenience issue or a productivity issue, it's [cover your back] stuff essentially," Sussman said. "It's having records of everything that went on; what was said and what wasn't said — all of the things you would imagine they would be interested in, being the SEC. Their interest in us is almost driven exclusively by that laptop e-mail issue."

Elsewhere, Mitre Corp., a federally funded research and development center, uses Veritas' NetBackup Professional in their Center for Advanced Aviations Systems Development, a group with about 500 employees, 170 of whom use laptops. They have succeeded in rescuing laptop users on the road who have had their units stolen. They copied the most recent backup on a disk, sent it by overnight courier to the user's location and then loaded it on a new machine.

"We took the new machine and overlaid their data from the previous backup and they had it at the foreign site the next day," said Herb Tax, a systems administrator for the center's Lab Operations Team.

Laptop backup software is not an expensive solution, generally costing under $100 a seat and much less with General Services Administration pricing and volume discounts. But the cost of not backing up can be far greater in terms of lost productivity. "When you're talking about losing data, it's not a matter of 'Is it going to happen?' It's a matter of 'When is it going to happen?'" said Wayne St. Amand, a spokesman for Connected. "The whole issue is: Do you have a strategy in place to get data back?"

Backing up your data makes sense, and doing it in an automated fashion takes it out of the hands of your end users, ensuring that the data will be backed up regularly and is available should disaster strike. "Another way to look at it is as an insurance policy," IDC's Broussard said. "Think about it in those terms. You're protecting corporate data."

Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at rsmiller@techdochelp.com.

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How it works

Laptop backup products use a small piece of software called an agent that automatically monitors the machine on which it's loaded for file changes. Anytime a file changes, the agent saves a new version on the hard drive of the user's machine. When the user connects to the network, the agent transmits changed files to the server. A main benefit of these solutions is that the programs only send data that has changed, saving bandwidth and allowing users to continue working while connected. n

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By the numbers

Be Prepared

Although there are no hard numbers, it stands to reason that if your backups are automated and occur whenever users connect to the network, then fairly recent backups will always be available. Should a disaster strike one of your employees on the road, you can restore the backup on a replacement machine and get the employee up and running quickly. There is also a cost associated with the productivity loss should an employee need to re-create lost data. n

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