Disaster Recovery for Pennies on the Dollar

Symform positions itself as the most clever and affordable take on online disaster recovery to date.

Symform isn't the first company to pitch a decentralized disaster recovery (DR) offering to small and midsize enterprise customers.

In fact, there's no shortage of online backup services, many of which tout disaster recovery or business continuity (BC) features. However, Symform -- the start-up brainchild of a pair of former Microsoft Corp. engineers -- positions itself as the most clever and affordable take on online DR or BC to date.

Kevin Brown, Symform's vice president of sales and marketing, contrasts his company's approach with those of established online backup services such as Mozy, iStorage (an Iomega venture), Connected Backup (an IronMountain venture), and LiveVault. Mozy, to be sure, is consumer-centric, but iStorage, Connected Backup, and LiveVault all market to SMB and SME customers.

All of these players use a traditional, data-center-focused model, Brown says. Symform is different. "We thought, what if we were able to aggregate [the resources of] all of these small businesses around the world? All of them are running computer systems. These systems are in use during the day, but [during] night times [and] weekends they aren't [being] used. What if we were basically to aggregate all of that disk capacity and take advantage of the power, [data center] real estate, and storage to create a virtual data center?" says Brown.

Brown points out that the biggest costs associated with managing a data center -- such as those which power online backup services from Iomega, Iron Mountain, and others -- stem from power, cooling, and data center real estate. Hardware and even software costs, Brown notes, are negligible in comparison.

Symform's "virtual data center" effectively dispenses with most of the costs associated with maintaining a physical plant. "You basically contribute local, inexpensive storage from one of the systems in your office and in return receive reliable, secure online storage. The data in every office is backed up to the cloud. The data is distributed randomly to all of the computers that are connected in the network," he explains. He describes Symform's approach as "sort of a cross between bittorrent [a peer-to-peer sharing technology] and cloud computing."

At a glance, Symform's approach sounds a lot like what used to be called "grid computing" back in the early 2000s. At the time, advocates pitched grid as a potentially killer technology proposition. Skeptics weren't so sure, suggesting that -- killer technology proposition or not -- grids lacked a killer market.

Brown concedes that there might be a facile similarity, but stresses that -- with respect to its technological underpinnings -- Symform's model is different. "It's using decentralized cloud computing to solve a pretty mundane problem, but a pretty important problem," he comments. "Most businesses are working with some kind of IT services provider in their locale. There's 'Charlie The Computer Guy' to whom we pay X amount of dollars per hour to fix the Internet connection when it's broken, or set up e-mail, or add a computer."

The point, Brown says, is that Charlie The Computer Guy isn't necessarily paid to think about disaster recovery. More to the point, SME customers typically don't have the budget to pay Charlie -- or anyone else -- to think about DR.

Symform lets SMEs have their Charlies and get the benefit of inexpensive DR, too. "We run a little agent on one of the computers in your LAN, and that monitors the set of folders that you tell it to monitor. It then mirrors changes up into the cloud. What we do then is we fragment files and chop them up into 1 MB fragments, so we'll have 64 1-MB fragments and we'll add 32 [extra] fragments for redundancy. We take those 96 encrypted fragments and scatter them into the wind. Some of them will end up in New Jersey, some of them end up in Florida, some in the UK, some in Argentina."

All data is encrypted (with a 256-bit cipher) before it's sent out. Because of the redundancy, resiliency, and geographic heterogeneity of the Symform model, Brown maintains, data cannot be permanently lost.

What if data is temporarily unavailable? What if some percentage of Symform peers -- including systems playing host to fragments that are needed for recovery -- is offline? The odds of Symform being unable to recover the fragments it needs from somewhere in the cloud are extremely small, Brown maintains.

"We have 96 fragments out there. We only need 64 [to restore customer data], so we just take the fastest 64 fragments and bond them together in this core reversal process. We recognize … that the best reason to have that many fragments is so we can offer a better recovery model," he explains.

Some SME customers might nonetheless have concerns about Symform's cloud-based, peer-to-peer model. Brown insists that such concerns are misplaced, citing interest from General Electric Co. (GE) as proof that even large customers -- in this case, large, multinational, Fortune 100 customers -- are intrigued. GE was looking for an affordable way to backup desktop data: "They basically asked us, 'What if you were to run [your] service as a private cloud just for us?' They could host the orchestration service or we could. They wanted us to do it -- with, of course, a couple of tweaks around access control -- but imagine having your own decentralized access system."

For large enterprise customers such as GE, Symform provides an affordable means to backup desktop or workstation data; for SMEs, on the other hand, Symform can serve as a one-stop shop for DR and BC. In both cases, he maintains, its peer-to-peer model enables it to undercut competitors on the pricing front.

"We charge a flat rate, roughly about … $15 per server. That's flat, unlimited: we don't care if you have 1 GB or 1 TB to backup [per server], because you always contribute what you consume," he says.

"Small businesses are constantly creating more data every quarter, every year, and because of regulatory and compliance issues … small businesses, like larger businesses, are being forced to keep more and more records. This speaks directly to them."