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Getting the Most Out of Online Backup Services in the Cloud

By Nick Allen, Director of Strategic Marketing, FalconStor Software.


Date: 30 May 2011

Today’s information age has ushered in an explosion of data growth as business processes in large and small enterprises alike have become fully dependent on digital data and communications. A hardware or software malfunction that threatens data accessibility will have a direct effect on revenue and business viability. Natural disasters can be even more devastating to businesses by interrupting all operations for an extended period of time and potentially causing major data losses. Comprehensive data protection solutions that are capable of providing continuous data availability and full disaster recovery (DR) capability can be very expensive for many small and medium-size businesses, which is why online, cloud-based backup and DR services are commanding tremendous interest, and why it will be one of the hottest areas of the storage market today.

Online data protection services in the cloud are less expensive than owning your own data protection infrastructure, provide an immediate off-site location for DR, and are inherently scalable. Furthermore, the costs are based on how much data you need to store and protect, not on how much equipment you need to purchase, install, and maintain. But how does one evaluate the relative strengths of a wide array of service offerings? What are the key criteria to look for in an online data protection solution that will provide safe, reliable, and secure backup and DR in the cloud?

Once you have made the decision to go with cloud services – specifically for data protection and DR, which is where the greatest benefits are to be gained – based on necessity, economics, and future data growth, consider these key criteria of what to look for to get the most out of your investment.

Moving data into the cloud
First up is the need to move your data into the cloud. Replication is a preferred method as it offers continuity, simplifies data transfer, and automates the data movement process. Look for speed and reliability and, in particular, WAN-optimization technology. Bandwidth can be costly, data replication and communication between sites could account for up to 20 to 30 percent of all recurring DR costs. A cloud backup and DR solution should be optimized to minimize bandwidth requirements and reduce the overall cost of DR. Data changes should be replicated at the smallest possible level of granularity, reducing bandwidth and associated storage costs.

Recovering data from the cloud
Once you have established your replica data in the cloud and are keeping it up to date at regular intervals, how fast can you recover it in the event of a server failure or data center disaster? You will need to ask for SLAs – ideally at the level of each one of your applications, so that you can prioritize mission critical applications for the fastest recovery. The cloud vendor should be able to guarantee recovery time based on pre-determined SLAs for each server and application as well as a full data center recovery.

In addition, you need to know what options for recovery the cloud storage provider offers. Ideally you will be given the option to recover data on every level, including granular file- or disk-level recovery, full system or a collection of systems, as well as complete site recovery. Regarding the latter, if your entire data center is down due to a natural disaster, can you failover to your service provider’s data center? And how long will it take for you to re-establish operations from the cloud?

Data verification and DR testing
Once your data is backed up and continually updated, you should have the ability to verify the data at any time and to rehearse your DR processes. Only with this capability can you have true peace of mind. Backup validation is considered a major headache by most IT departments. Traditional data backup can only verify whether the backup jobs are completed by using system logs; however, they cannot ensure that the data can be recovered accurately unless you perform random restores for data validation. A proper cloud data recovery solution would allow you to automate and perform quick data validation tests without the need for full data restores. In addition if used for as a DR target, the cloud should allow for transparent DR rehearsal capability to make sure that SLAs can be realistically matched.

Data security in the cloud
So how secure is your data, both during the transfer process over the WAN/Internet and while it resides in the cloud? Encryption is a must during data transport and for data at rest in the third-party facility; in addition, multi-tenancy support is important to make sure unauthorized people cannot access your data while it is off premises. The fact must be accepted that cloud storage does not reside in a locked room on your premises and under your control. Once data is placed in storage that is physically remote under the management of a service provider, there is no easy way to guarantee protection against fraudulent access. Though most cloud service providers will offer encryption at rest, what we may not realize is that if the keys are in the same system as the data then your data is vulnerable – because whoever can access the machine can access the keys. If the keys have to be provided every time, there is a cost in lost operating efficiency in addition to the actual cost of implementing and maintaining such a key management system (such as a public key infrastructure(PKI)).

Nevertheless, expect the cloud data protection service provider to offer you the best possible security. First, determine if the data can be encrypted on the customer premises before the data is transferred over the WAN; and, further, determine if the keys to the encrypted data can be stored on the source hosts so that you are in full possession of your encrypted data even when a copy of it resides elsewhere. During restore under this scenario, the data is decrypted when it is received back into the hosts. This way, no matter where the data is, it is only accessible from the machine where the user possesses the keys or the passphrases that generate the keys.

Once your data is securely stored in the cloud, how does this cloud storage scale to meet the exponential growth of my data over time? A fully virtualized and scalable architecture at the service provider’s site is imperative to support future growth. Find out if the service provider can add storage to meet your needs on the fly. And what are the scalability limitations of your service provider? Will the service provider be able to match your growth potential in terms of capacity and performance knowing that you are hopefully not the only customer of that provider?

Additional data protection services
Beyond the core offering of backup and DR services, what additional data-protection-related services can the cloud provider offer? There are other very useful components of a comprehensive data protection service that serve to reduce capital expenses (CAPEX) and operating expenses (OPEX) compared to traditional processes. Investigate if the cloud storage provider can offer data retention, data archiving, and tape production and vaulting.

The goal of cloud backup and DR
An enterprise-class data protection solution can enable IT organizations to switch their focus from completing backup jobs to protecting business data more efficiently. The goal of cloud-based backup and DR is to eliminate the traditional backup window, be able to recover data quickly and reliably on demand at the level of granularity most appropriate to the situation, minimize or eliminate the complexity or dependence on tape for restores, minimize data loss and keep business going during planned or unplanned outages. The benefits of achieving these goals through cloud-based data protection services are practical and economical.

Disk-based data protection and now data protection in the cloud are precipitating a paradigm shift that enables next-generation data protection. Traditional backup methods have struggled to meet the data recovery point objectives (RPO) and recovery time objectives (RTO) for a long time; today, however, cloud-enabled data protection can be a critical part of recovery management in a business continuity plan. By offering instant on-demand recovery, multiple recovery points, backup data verification and systems management, cloud backup and DR provides an innovative ways for IT administrators at SMBs to solve pressing business continuity challenges and meet stringent SLAs just as large enterprises do.

Online cloud-based storage services significantly reduce costs related to data protection processes. In this time of ongoing slow economic growth and limited IT budgets, cloud storage can play a key role in business efficiency, changing the way IT infrastructure is managed. If customers demand the right services at the right price, the cloud will revolutionize one of the most important security measures any company can take to ensure business continuity, which is what data protection is ultimately all about.


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