How to Select a Backup Appliance

Not all backup appliances -- enterprise or small office -- are the same. Use these parameters to help decide which one best meets the needs of your enterprise.

By John Pearring, Manager of Sales, STORServer

Are we surprised that backup appliances now constitute a major category for purchasing a backup solution? We shouldn't be. In computing, everything ends up getting further automated, and the first major step to automation of a complex IT solution begins with a bundle.

Backup appliances (some are still just bundles) jump at IT management from every corner: software manufacturers (Symantec and Avamar), hardware providers (IBM, Dell, and HP), and soon the storage providers will also introduce their versions. Why did these big players get into this business? They got into it because the smaller players -- STORServer, Barracuda, Unitrends, etc. -- built the business first.

Are all the appliances and options the same? Given the basic designs of hardware, storage, connectivity and legacy software, aren't they just a bunch of the same pieces put together by different folks?

I would argue that 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.

First, we must look at software. 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 database engine of the software 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 backup 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.

You must insist on homogeneous client backups with the same software. Using different software for different O/S platforms is so 20th century.

The remainder of this article looks at your next step: examining technology "must haves."

5 Features You Need

Feature #1: Deduplication

Although 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 now copy such duplicated files across a global environment just once for an entire company.

With global deduplication in place, customers now 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.

Feature #2: Replication

The copy of active files to a backup location historically requires users 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 now 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.

Feature #3: Virtualization

Since the introduction of virtual machines into everyday IT computing, backup has moved rapidly beyond file- or block-level implications directly to full machine protection and restoration. 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 many because there are advantages to each option.

Feature #4: Console Views

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 a myriad set of views into the data protection of an enterprise rule the direction of consoles.

Feature #5: Cloud Support

The destination medium 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" that allow users to change their minds about the type of storage they use at any time. The cloud simplifies decision-making even further because users can send their copies of local backups to a remote location that is either in a "private" or "public" cloud.

Hardware Considerations

When examining your hardware options, include not just the cool factors in server technology and the enterprise capability of the disk (SAAS 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 double capability every 18 months. Finally, storage will always get cheaper and denser over time.

Consequently, the primary issue around the hardware (given that 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 not enterprise-ready.

The nature of backup leads 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 does not look like it does today, and for when the technologies are not exactly like they are today.

Beyond Software and Hardware

Although checklists for hardware and software features are easy to develop, perhaps the most important consideration is support. Appliance companies usually do not tout their ability to fix and repair what breaks -- and it will break. 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.

Range: 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 support call kills the effectiveness of an appliance. The appliance vendor needs to support what it builds as a single unit.

Cost: 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 be included in a single agreement, too.

Diagnostics: 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.

Additional Factors

Finally, let's look at the other major parameters for comparing appliances. These include the periphery items that often tip the balance in a customer's decision:

Positioning: Backup and data protection are sold in so many ways and with so many flavors today that positioning an appliance against competing backup appliances has become a huge, complicated endeavor. Appliance manufacturers should offer feature/benefits line-up regarding robust technologies, easy-to-use operations, and head-to-toe support measures that are able to help buyers size up the competition.

Financial factors: The mix of return on investment and cost of ownership (ROI and COO) with backup still leads the buying decisions. Due to the breadth of licensing options and long-term, heterogeneous scalability, appliances can offer various pricing options. While customers praise the one-price elegance of the appliance, more financial benefits actually exist in the long-term ownership than the initial cost savings.

Licensing options: Customers with few machines and large amounts of data do not want license pricing based upon customers with numerous machines and smaller amounts of data. Virtual machines crammed into one huge server should not be priced the same as one O/S on a similarly sized server. You need both machine-based and capacity licensing, and the more options, the better.

Model options: Not all customers are alike, and although the engine of the appliances may be the same, and even the hardware parts are similar, the implementation and licensing can be designed to fit differing customer expectations. Appliances that offer enterprise options for the larger companies will provide better scalability than small, departmental build-on appliances.

A Final Word

Not all backup appliances-- enterprise or small office -- are the same. The parameters we've presented here will help you decide which one is the smartest choice for your environment.

John Pearring is manager of sales for STORServer. As the company's president from 2000 to 2008, John built the original OEM alliances and the original e-business infrastructure for the company. You can contact the author at pearring@storserver.com.
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