An appliance approach to data backup

A single technological development – backup appliances – has resulted in a giant leap in automation in the past three years for all three data recovery functions.

What are we hearing in the educational arena regarding IT today? Use resources as efficiently as possible. Get more out of what we have. Leverage a well-working IT implementation across multiple departments. Balance rising maintenance costs against cost-saving new technologies.

The austere mantras reverberate everywhere.

Backup appliances have found an industry in which they are needed more than ever. Automating data protection and cutting the costs of manual tasks could fit the bill for many school and university IT departments that have not taken the backup appliance plunge. An added benefit? Doing so creates cost savings in data protection while increasing new data recovery expectations.

Data recovery solutions should always include all three major areas for ensuring restores: backup, archive, and disaster recovery. Implementing technology to perform these three key functions separately creates huge divides in both management and successful implementation. Skipping out on any one of these areas will leave the facility both vulnerable and out of compliance.

A single technological development – backup appliances – has resulted in a giant leap in automation in the past three years for all three data recovery functions. Bundling all the components required for data recovery is a thing of the past. The modern solution? IT departments now purchase this all-in-one data recovery solution designed for enterprise-class operations. However, this platform is not relegated to just universities. The smallest school districts share similar requirements: multiple platforms, remote offices, large numbers of users (at every level), separate retention expectations from different departments, and a host of legal rules to follow.

All backup appliances are not made equal

As appliances now constitute a major category for purchasing a backup solution, one thing needs to be made clear: all backup appliances are not the same. The reasons for automating a typical “pieces and parts bundled solution” into an appliance identify the very elements for how appliances are different—software, technologies, hardware, support, and the “other” parameters. Let’s take a look at each of these components:


Software is the ultimate automation transformer of all time. Of course, it is just a bunch of weightless ones and zeros without hardware, but frankly, the software rules.

Consider the software’s database engine and its ability to manage complexity. Users must have a “relational” database in the software. The database must expand into dizzyingly huge sizes. Limits on growth send backup administrators into apoplexy.

Appliance software now requires the obvious—only back up a file once. Backup software that still requires users to “periodically” start over and back up everything again is probably not using a relational database, or is not designed properly.

Finally, insist upon homogeneous client backups with the same software. Using different software for different O/S platforms is so 20th century.


It is important to understand the technology “musts”:

  • Deduplication: While duplicating backup copies marks antiquated backup software, the duplication of files across multiple users and systems also contributes to increased backup storage sizes. Using deduplication technology, customers can copy such duplicated files across a global environment just once for an entire company. With global deduplication in place, customers only need backup storage at three times their active production storage. Antiquated duplicating backup technologies force up to 50 times the backup storage requirement over actual production environments. Most new solutions still require five to 10 times the storage space without deduplication.
  • Replication: The copy of active files to a backup location historically requires the user to restore a backup file before that file can be used. Backup software “protects” the backup in an authenticated volume, safe from prying eyes. Replication has traditionally meant that a copied file is immediately accessible in its copied location, not requiring a restore. With the introduction of various forms of replication, users can offer immediate restore for the backup copy, and even the disaster recovery offsite copy of the backup. Another use of the term replication is applied to the disaster recovery copy of an entire machine’s set of data. Rather than having to restore a disaster recovery copy at a remote site, many solutions now offer users the ability to restore directly from their remote copy. Disk-based backups are largely the reason for the development of good replication technologies.
  • Virtual machine: The introduction of virtual machines into everyday IT computing has pushed backup to move rapidly beyond file or block level implications directly to full machine protection and restores. Backup appliances must incorporate both the virtual machine nature of such architecture and the different treatment of managing virtual machine backups. The options available need to be plentiful, because they each have their advantages.
  • Console: Console views of the IT space put both a dashboard and policy manager into the hands of operators and managers. Now, dynamic reporting, alerts and the ability to evoke myriad sets of views into the enterprise’s data protection rule the direction of consoles.
  • Cloud: The destination of backups used to be either disk or tape, sitting in either a local or off-site location. With the advent of cloud locations, the destination is now simply an off-site, accessible copy located just about anywhere. Storage is moving to unique virtualized “pools,” which allow users to change their minds about the type of storage they use, at any time. The cloud simplifies the decision-making process even further, because users can send off their copies of local backups to a remote location as either “private” or “public” clouds.


The hardware parameters include not just the cool factors in server technology and the enterprise capability of the disk (SAS is probably the primary way to go), but how these pieces all work together and grow together.

Bundles typically fall apart at this juncture, because the slapping together of servers, storage, and networking do not attend to the dynamic changes of environments. First, networks are getting faster and more reliable. Next, servers are continuing to duplicate in capability every 18 months. Lastly, storage will always get cheaper and more dense over time.

Consequently, the primary issue around the hardware (while stability and performance cannot be compromised) remains flexibility and scalability. Appliances that limit users to one offering of disk, and even some specific type of disk, probably will not be able to incorporate new technologies over time. Appliances that do not allow users to include legacy storage, or even separately purchased storage, are probably not enterprise.

The nature of backup causes a customer to think about the consequences of tomorrow. Backup prepares a customer not just for what might happen, but for a restore that will happen when his or her company looks differently, and when the technologies evolve.


The support offering of the appliance is perhaps its most important feature. Appliance companies usually do not tout their ability to fix and repair stuff that will break. Yes, we all know that stuff breaks. Sometimes a breakage is simply changes in compatibility or settings that must be updated. Support from the appliance manufacturer has three of its own appliance-conscious elements: range, cost, and diagnostics.

The range of a support contract for backup appliances must include end-to-end or head-to-toe maintenance. Stove-piped support that moves users from software to hardware engineers during a break-fix call kills the effectiveness of an appliance. The appliance vendor needs to support what they build as one unit.

The cost of support should follow industry expectations of 12-to-18 percent each year for a comprehensive support contract. If an appliance vendor only offers 90 days or one year hardware replacement, run away. Costs should include everything inside the appliance and under one agreement, too.

Diagnostic support defines the appliance offering. To diagnose means to root out the source of the problem, from software to hardware, and then proceed to fix that for the customer.

Today’s appliance vendors offer some capabilities. Many of them even have good service options that offer a number of interesting features. However, schools and universities need a solution that has everything. Use these parameters to find a solution that offers just that—everything.

John Pearring is manager of sales for STORServer. As STORServer’s president from 1995 to 2008, John built the original OEM alliances and the original e-business infrastructure for the company.

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