Backing Up Distributed Desktops

Backup technology has never set the world on fire with its pace of change. In the first 30 years of its existence, backup technology remained relatively staid: Batch processes ran overnight, with advancements making execution of the same task progressively faster.

With mainframes and dumb terminals, backup was a simple matter of backing up the host processor and archiving the backup tapes. But with the proliferation of departmental computing outside IT’s glass house -- first with PCs and more recently with mobile devices and remote offices -- a thorny problem has cropped up at the feet of IT managers.

"Client backup is emerging as a real issue for IT managers," says Mike Beech, solutions product marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard Co. "Our research indicates that 50 to 80 percent of all corporate data is held on user PCs," yet most organizations lack the facilities to adequately back up distributed data.

CIOs now understand that data stored on end user machines represents a critical corporate business asset.

"Data is created by a user, but it belongs to the company. If the user makes a mistake and the data is lost, the company has lost a valuable asset," explains Michael Emanuel, product manager for Windows NT server at Microsoft Corp.

As a result, many NT managers are now responsible for ensuring that user devices are routinely backed up. Users are notoriously bad at backing up their own data, leaving NT managers to manage user activity that is hard to control. The problem is more severe with remote users, who are not physically located with the IT staff.

For the NT manager charged with protecting corporate data assets, backup of distributed systems can seem like a Sisyphean exercise.

Fortunately, backup technology in the NT market is evolving so that NT managers can begin to address these issues. Many products are beginning to offer tools that simplify and speed the backup and recovery processes, automate and better manage backup procedures through preset policies, and reduce the total cost of backing up and storing corporate data.

Changed Data Only

The traditional method of backing up corporate data was to routinely copy everything on the network to a storage medium such as tape, and then move the copies to near-line or archived storage facilities, depending on the need to access the data in the future. Backing up large amounts of data was time-consuming, costly, and required substantial human intervention. In addition, backing up data over the enterprise network -- rather than over a discrete backup network -- often compromised system throughput.

Newer backup software allows system administrators to perform incremental backups of changed data only during times of heavy usage -- such as week nights -- with full backups over the weekend, when system usage is lighter. But restoring data using these products require for an operator to perform the restore, which takes days in some enterprises. And depending on how the product is used, some restores can be days old, forcing the user to recreate interim data.

Recently, backup vendors introduced software that uses "delta technology," a backup process that copies only deltas, or changed data, after one initial full backup. Also known as synthetic block-level -- or byte-level -- backup, these products do not back up operating systems, applications, or unchanged files that reside on multiple desktops. Backing up only changed data provides efficiencies in the volume of data traversing the network and the storage resources needed to maintain such backups, says Jim Franklin, field marketing manager for backup and recovery software at Storage Technology Corp. (StorageTek, www.storagetek.com).

By combining delta technologies with intelligent compression techniques, NT sites can reduce the amount of data they must back up and store by a ratio of 4-to-1, says Alan Kaechele, product manager at Stac Inc. (www.stac.com). Larger enterprises and networks with a fairly uniform set of applications can achieve compression ratios of 9-to-1, he adds.

Self-Serving Technology

Another recent enhancement to backup software is self-service recovery features. Some products allow system administrators to set authorization levels so users can restore their own files after an accidental deletion. Instead of waiting hours or days for an operator to execute a data restore, the user can undo a mistake immediately.

For example, Replica Network Data Manager from Stac uses a technology that not only backs up data to near-line storage, but also places a copy of backed-up data on the local server. In addition to eliminating the problem of media handling, this strategy enables users to restore data unassisted.

To achieve this goal, the interface is designed for ease-of-use, Kaechele says. The user opens Windows Explorer and clicks on the "Backups" icon to select the file to be restored. This simplicity is important for remote and mobile users, who may have little or no access to technical assistance.

Kaechele estimates that up to 75 percent of all trouble tickets issued for system administrators originate from accidental file loss. "IT managers are not always interested in this feature when we first demo it. But once they realize that users can restore their own files and the corporate resources that this can save," they love it, he says.

Other industry players agree that self-serve can provide key savings. Backup products from Syncsort Inc. (www.syncsort.com) provide up to 256 levels of user authorization, allowing users to help themselves wherever possible. "Talk about zero administration," says Winston Hait, senior product manager at Syncsort. "This is a way to do it, by pushing the functionality out to the end user."

Eliminate User Effort

The best way to simplify the backup process may be to remove the user from the equation. With Windows 2000, Microsoft is introducing a feature called IntelliMirror, which is designed to manage the users’ experience of the desktop environment. Some see IntelliMirror as a technology that can effectively protect corporate data assets in distributed NT networks.

IntelliMirror allows users to move from desktop to desktop -- or portable device -- and experience the same desktop environment, regardless of their physical location. No matter which device a user signs on to, the network downloads the user’s authorized settings, data, and applications from a server.

To provide this "follow me" functionality, IntelliMirror backs up user data stored in the My Documents folder to the server. In this way, user data is backed up reliably and automatically without any user intervention. Data stored in other folders is not backed up.

Microsoft does not view IntelliMirror as a backup product, Microsoft’s Emanuel says. "But it can certainly be simpler to maintain one server full of data [backed up automatically by IntelliMirror] than backing up every desktop," he says.

Real-Time Backup

Another approach is to make backup a process that happens in real time while the user is online. "Why should backups still run in batch," asks Laura Holly, product manager at Network Integrity Inc. (www.netint.com). "Everything else operates in real time, online. Most backup is fundamentally designed to run once a day, yet this doesn’t provide the protection that NT sites are looking for."

Products such as LiveVault from Network Integrity use delta technology to send only changed bytes across the network as they occur. "The process runs continually, providing better protection of increasingly valuable NT data," she explains. "With other products, the best you can hope for is to roll back to last night’s data."

As with IntelliMirror, such products require a fast, powerful network to make the backup and restore process responsive to user demand. And should the technology prove too resource-intensive for the network, some online backup products can be throttled back to consume only a specified percentage of the available pipeline, Holly explains. This feature has been embraced by many enterprises with remote sites.

Centralizing Management

Another changing feature in the backup market is automation. Previous generations of backup technology required manual intervention to execute a backup or restore, and more recent products allow automatic scheduling of routine jobs. The most sophisticated tools today allow NT managers to set automated backup and restore policies.

"As backup tools become more sophisticated, management becomes a headache," explains Andrew Antal, senior product marketing manager at Veritas Software (www.veritas.com). Policies can simplify the backup and restore process, helping system administrators specify both schedules and priorities.

Administrators can also use policy-based products, such as Veritas’ TeleBackup and TeleBackup for Workgroups, to state how the network should handle particular situations using preset rules. Using automated backup policies, NT managers can allocate rights to remote sites and mobile device users, he adds.

By using these tools to set backup thresholds and policies, NT managers can centralize the management of data activities, reducing the cost of service to protect the corporate data.

Centralization is being eyed by other vendors in the system backup market. For some, such as ATL Products Inc. (www.atlp.com), centralizing backup comes in the form of dedicated backup appliances for remote sites.

ATL offers LANvault, a solution for remote site backup that includes not only the backup appliance but a central management console and a customer service Web portal. The appliance includes a tape library integrated with a backup server preloaded with backup software. The unit plugs into an Ethernet port, requiring a user only to enter the appropriate IP address.

"We like to say that it’s box-to-backup in 15 minutes. The concept of being able to just set an IP address and be up and running is phenomenal," says Frank Berry, vice president of marketing at ATL.

Once connected via Ethernet, the appliance can be centrally monitored, managed, and controlled, which can dramatically reduce the total cost of ownership of the backup solution, Berry says.

Better Backup, Better Protection

For NT managers, the growing sophistication of backup products for user devices represents a giant step toward better protecting the corporation’s data assets. While the backup market undoubtedly will continue to develop in terms of functionality and sophistication, NT managers now have the opportunity to use tools that enhance their backup performance and their ability to protect the crown jewels of their enterprises: NT data on user devices.