Lost in Space: Virtualized Backup Appliances

Confusion about the trends and changes in virtualized backup poses a real threat to IT managers. Fortunately, the future is less hazy than it seems.

BY John Pearring

Danger, Will Robinson: the future of virtualized backup is getting confusing! Okay, maybe Will Robinson’s surrogate robot guardian wouldn’t have worked itself into a tizzy over backup appliances, but confusion about the trends and changes in virtualized backup poses a real threat to IT managers. Fear not, intrepid traveler. The future is less hazy than it seems.

Virtualized Backup in an Appliance

The backup appliance began its life as a bundle, a conglomeration, in a sense, of existing hardware and software. Then appliances with added simplification to backup operations emerged as data copies became easier to locate, disk replaced tape for archives and off-site copies, and virtualized servers began to roam more easily on virtualized storage. Server and storage virtualization infused backup with more excitement than ever before. IT managers could finally accomplish the previously difficult task of backup, archive, and disaster recovery -- keeping backup and archive copies of files and systems online, retaining another copy in a remote safe location, and getting as close as possible to instant restore. Virtualization already means that we can actually follow the basic rules of data protection!

Today, we have appliances taking advantage of virtualized storage by offering deduplication technologies across many systems. Cloud virtualized storage and increased bandwidths shrink the distance between local and remote -- a big boost to accelerating the transfer of disaster recovery copies.

What’s next?

Parts Will No Longer be Parts

Today’s cobbled-together storage systems will reemerge as single-storage, virtualized buckets of space. The sum of the parts, which will be organized by virtualized controls that know how to align both spindles and speeds to comply with backup priorities for short- and long-term retentions, will be greater than the whole.

We will no longer pay for deduplication solutions because the technology will be included everywhere. That’s good news, because deduplication will be necessary as the increase of digitized information explodes across companies’ operations.

Replication improvements (applied to backup and archive copies) will make life easier. Versions of files, databases, and virtual machines, however, need to follow policies necessary for stopping data loss, and those versions must be organized to quickly find them. Look for paradigm-shifting indexing and relational interfaces in addition to faster search routines built into the products we buy. Legacy will become Cool

Virtualized servers have already kept alive legacy operating systems that no longer need to rely on outdated hardware. Imagine more than just survival, though, and watch for a revival of practically ancient operating systems. Specialty companies in manufacturing and communication will more than repurpose applications that ran so well on old operating systems. They will reinvent them.

Full system restores through virtual machines will ease the worry of legacy system loss, but backup appliances will also need to refurbish the clients of these rejuvenated operating systems in order to offer object version restores of application files and databases that live on these systems.

Appliances in the Cloud

Server arrays and storage hardware will offer backup application managers additional catalogue options. Small businesses will need more than the online service of today -- a backup copy of a workstation’s C drive -- and in the near future, they’ll be able to get it.

Tablets and smartphones already bring the cloud closer to all users. Individual users cannot provide enterprise data protection of private company information, legal archives, and cross-system data. For smaller companies, backup appliances will move to the cloud as managed services offer built-in backup and archive. Disaster recovery for small enterprises will be the business of managed services.

Larger companies will offer users private cloud services. Keeping a tight rein on company information and putting their backup appliances in the cloud may fit well with their goals.

Money Matters

Instead of worrying about over- and under-sizing appliance solutions, look to the future for plug-and-play expansions in backup appliances. Buy the backup appliance that is the size you need at the moment with the knowledge that you’ll be able to grow and shrink the solution over time. In fact, look for backup appliances to be completely virtual: simply place the virtual machine-based appliance into the server farm (with some critical caveats for it to operate in its own data protection zone).

Saving legacy disk storage into virtualized buckets will remain important, but the real savings will come from the sizing advantage. Buying more virtualized storage today without worrying about expansion tomorrow will result in a huge cost reduction. The easier that backup storage can be added, the quicker the decision-making process for purchasing. Backup managers used to buy tapes on a monthly basis to handle the growing cache of archives and backup copies. Imagine that same commodity thinking applied to the entire backup storage realm, because that’s what will be possible.

Backup appliances lower the overall cost of a backup solution. In-house solutions architecturally tailored, implemented, and maintained by IT staff are expensive. In addition, backup appliances have shortened the installation cycle and automated the mundane manual tasks of homegrown backup solutions. Increased savings will continue to come to those with backup appliances as virtualization continues to simplify and automate.

New advantages from backup appliances and virtualization will include better testing of upgrades and increased compatibility with improvements in storage and server virtualization.

Most cost effective, though, will be the service and maintenance advantages of backup appliances in a virtualized environment. Support will likely move to training, upgrading, and implementing new technologies. Backup will no longer be fraught with tape perils or with dated media backup sets that can't be restored.

Compressed, Deduplicated, Virtualized Storage

Once appliances automate more of the functions of backup and archive, the data protection focus for IT departments will shift to more effective retention policies. Those policies can then line up with actual business requirements. Currently, most customers apply a global retention policy to all of their production data. The growth of data is almost exponential, and increasing backup and archive storage to meet retention policies may break the IT budget. Although automation will definitely a big advantage for the future, even bigger will be the joining of those policies with the need to consolidate backups into less expensive virtualized storage.

Meeting retention policies without constraints will drive the need for more backup storage. Two trends will most certainly appear on the horizon: flexible retention controls that allow managers to limit excessive backup copies, and new technologies, such as deduplication, that shrink the storage required to hold replicated versions for both short- and long-term retention.

Less Downtime

Along with virtualization improvements that assist in automation and effective backup and archive replication will come better data protection. Rather than making more copies of important data (some enterprises have as many as 50 copies of their data) to ensure that information will not disappear when production failures happen, backup appliances will rely on more timely copies of information and just one or two extra disaster recovery copies in remote site locations. Virtualized storage and virtual machine captures will certainly play a large role in this higher level of protection.

In addition, with such automation, the timing of backups at night should shift to replication at any time, assuring business safety measures will protect data when needed rather than only when folks go home. Unfortunately, the trend is for businesses to remain in operation very close to 24-hour timelines, but the uptime for restores will certainly improve.

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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