Is application-specific backup software worth the added cost?
- By Brian Robinson
- May 22, 2006
For a long time, data backup has been a relatively simple affair involving quick copies or snapshots of daily data changes and more thorough backups once a week to tape. If a system went down, administrators could retrieve the tapes from wherever they were kept for safekeeping and restore the afflicted system.
General-purpose backup software was usually good enough for most, if not all, of the applications and data types a typical organization might have. Sometimes an application might require more frequent backups or a longer retention period for archival tapes, but generic backup software could still do the job.
However, as agencies increase their dependence on technology for many of their basic operations and often run those systems around-the-clock, some are turning to more specialized software to boost the performance of their backup and archiving routines. For them, the old timeframe of taking hours or even days to restore a system is no longer acceptable.
For example, electronic messaging has always been a mission-critical application at the Marine Corps Network Operations and Security Command, but it could become even more so in the future. So command officials are rethinking their backup routines.
“We are changing our viewpoint on backup and restore,” said Dan Carroll, a senior network architect at Smartronix, a solutions provider hired to keep the Marines’ global network and communications running. “In the past, we’ve looked at backup as a resource in case the [messaging] system goes down and has to be brought back. Now we are trying to go to a position where e-mail never goes down.”
To help reach that goal, the company uses Network Appliance’s SnapManager for Microsoft Exchange because it almost instantaneously backs up and restores files, Carroll said.
SnapManager uses native Exchange backup application program interfaces to create snapshots of
e-mail databases that take only seconds to complete, regardless of size. It can take as many as 250 snapshots of any volume on a disk without interfering with business or data flows, said Patrick Rogers, NetApp’s vice president of products and partners.
“We do that in just one read-and-write procedure, transparent to the application,” he said.
Like NetApp, other vendors that offer such software also provide optional, application-specific backup clients, or agents. Agents are available for e-mail programs such as Exchange and IBM’s Lotus Notes and for the most popular databases from vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft and others.
Application-specific software gives systems administrators the performance and level of control they need, said Scott Antczak, a storage specialist at reseller CDW. For example, standard backup programs working with Exchange files tend to back up and restore files in broad swaths, which can consume excessive system resources and reduce efficiency.
Administrators prefer unobtrusive backups and the ability to restore an individual user’s e-mail files or even specific messages, Antczak said.
“Because the agent knows such things as where each file is located, an administrator can set very specific rules for what needs to be backed up and when,” Antczak said.
That’s one reason why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory uses such agents, said Luke Dahl, a service engineer in the lab’s Information Services division. The organization needs to back up and archive some 120 terabytes of data according to its class and criticality.
“We need the ability to set up policies and automate backups. Those are very important functions for us in the backup software we use,” he said. “It also allows us to dictate where backups are stored until we can migrate the data to tape, which is still needed for disaster recovery.”
More intelligent archiving
Dahl considers backup and archiving to be different shades of the same process, with backup a higher priority because it deals with the most recent data. However, Laura DuBois, IDC’s
research director of storage software, said the marketplace views the two as separate because of the differences in their requirements.
“Archiving requires such things as content-based indexing of data in order to be able to retrieve it according to the specific time it was created, to be able to meet audit and litigation needs,” she said. “That’s information management, whereas backup is generally considered a part of data management.”
Organizations that have had to deal with a discovery request without good archiving strategies in place have quickly found how painful the process can be, said Nick Mehta, senior director of product management at Symantec. In that situation, responding to a legal request for information can involve teams of people manually sifting through reams of data on backup tapes.
“Each case can cost millions of dollars,” he said. “Those organizations that have not gone through it are quickly being educated by their legal side about the need to be more proactive.”
Symantec’s Veritas Enterprise Vault software provides automated, policy-controlled archiving to online storage. The archived information is available for fast retrieval using built-in search
As with backup tools, the archiving software uses agents to target specific applications. With Exchange, for example, Enterprise Vault archives and indexes all messages according to policies set by an administrator then stores them in their original form, including attachments.
But archiving is more than just being able to search by keyword and pull data out of a central repository, said Brian Peasland, a senior database administrator at SGT, a contractor working with the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science. An archive management system should preserve the relationships between information so users can retrieve information in its full context.
For example, the center has a help desk that fields user calls and then routes them to analysts for resolution, Peasland said. Call records pile up on production systems, but if he deletes them, he risks not being able to properly archive the projects later.
“I can delete calls, but then the associated tasks may be left dangling, so then at some time I also have to go in and pull those tasks,” he said. “If I can’t archive properly, I lose all of those associations, and the only relief is to delete an entire file, which is obviously not what I want to do.”
Peasland has not found commercial software that can meet all of his requirements, so his team has developed much of the software its uses, he said.
Robert Rosen, chief information officer at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases and president of the independent IBM user group Share, thinks application-specific archiving and backup software might not be on most people’s radar, though he knows from experience that it should be.
“In a previous job, we didn’t have archiving, though we were aware of it,” he said. “Then we got a discovery request, and I had to put three people on it full-time for several weeks. That’s when I decided it was more expensive not to do it.”