Data Storage and Protection Strategies for the Cloud Era

For SMBs considering traditional data backup and storage and/or for those struggling with an off-site solution, it may be time to consider the cloud as an alternative data protection solution.

by Nicos Vekiarides

Data protection and storage are substantial budgetary expenses for today’s small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs). With storage capacities increasing every year, businesses must look at leaner alternatives, especially in the face of shrinking IT budgets. For years, larger businesses have relied on remote data centers to protect and store their data, but the administrative effort, reliability concerns, and expense associated with traditional backup methods such as tape or off-site disk make this approach an unrealistic option for smaller organizations.

With the increasing availability of cloud storage, businesses can now consider an attractive alternative with significant cost advantages and the ability to pay only for the amount of storage and bandwidth used. This pay-as-you-go model eliminates the waste that comes with underutilized dedicated storage infrastructure while leveling the playing field for smaller businesses through access to the economies of scale and global infrastructures that their larger counterparts already enjoy.

The Drawbacks of Traditional Data Storage and Protection Models

Traditionally, large businesses have backed up their data to either disk or tape for storage in off-site data centers. Although these disk and tape solutions require a relatively high initial capital expenditure, what seems like a one-time investment in an off-site data storage center can dramatically increase when factoring in administration and expansion expense. Aside from costs, these solutions result in lengthy data recovery times and present significant reliability concerns.

Disk-to-tape (D2T) methodologies are still widely used today and have been providing businesses with full-system restores and disaster recovery for many years. At one point, the price of tapes was significantly less than that of the hard drives they backed up. Not so anymore. As hard drive capacity increased, tape format changed to match that increased capacity. The result: Newer, higher-capacity tapes have become more expensive.

Despite the increase in capacity, tapes are often unable to store the volume of data that businesses need to back up, resulting in the management of multiple tapes using relatively cumbersome and manual processes. Don’t look to tape for direct data access. Just like video tapes that must be watched sequentially, backup tapes can only access data in the order it was written. To access data directly and rapidly, the data has to be staged onto a hard disk. Finally, backup tapes are notoriously fragile and must be handled with care.

One alternative to using tape is disk-to-disk (D2D) backup which has the advantage of an economical price per gigabyte and high transfer speeds for backup and restore operations. In addition, disks offer better and more immediate restore capability than tapes which must be located and loaded. Backups can also be performed more frequently -- or even continuously -- with disks; tape backups typically occur only once daily, increasing the potential for data loss.

D2D may seem advantageous until the operational costs of owning and operating a D2D storage device are factored in. Although new technologies are making the purchase price per GB of a D2D storage system drop, the ancillary expenses of these in-house systems, such as the costs of power, space, cooling, and the supporting network infrastructure, significantly increase the actual price per GB.

Other drawbacks to these backup methods include:

  • The over-purchase of capacity. For D2D storage systems, businesses typically buy more capacity than needed on Day One in order to push out future capital expenses. As a result, substantial underutilization occurs.
  • The need to find floor space in the data center for the D2D storage system, provide power and cooling, and assign an administrator.
  • The need for an IT professional to oversee the provisioning of storage volumes, assignment to the proper ports, zoning them into the proper switches, and delivering them to system administrators.
  • Over-provisioned application environments because of anticipated growth. If that growth never arrives, a business may find itself stranded with storage that will never be used and cannot be easily reclaimed.
  • The need for a replacement system every three years. With most storage equipment having a three-year lifecycle, all data must be migrated to a new array every 36 months, which is no small task.

The Benefits of Cloud Storage

The economics of cloud storage make it an appealing alternative to the traditional backup solutions. As we’ve noted, companies using disk or tape methodologies typically buy large amounts of costly, dedicated storage infrastructure that often goes underutilized. Cloud storage companies, on the other hand, use a pay-as-you-go pricing model that allows customers to pay only for the amount of storage and bandwidth they use. Because cloud storage is self-provisioned, no IT person is required to administer changes, decide on spindle placement, and/or go through a complicated zoning assignment. All the administrator needs to do is pick the maximum size of the volume to be provisioned, the cloud provider to use, and the host it will be assigned to.

Although interfacing applications to cloud storage may seem like a challenge, there are cloud SAN and data-protection solutions on the market that make cloud storage easily accessible. Making data volumes look and feel like local storage with plug-and-play interfaces such as iSCSI, these solutions enable SMBs to enjoy enterprise-class software capabilities at affordable prices.

Enterprises can create standardized policies about how cloud storage is consumed. Flexible policy choices related to encryption, caching, preferred providers, availability, and cost metrics are all available. Thin-provisioned and secure data volumes, each up to hundreds of terabytes, can be created for immediate use by applications on a pay-as-you-go basis. When these data volumes are no longer needed, they can be deleted. Because these data volumes look and feel like local storage, they are also simple and familiar to manage from within a customer’s primary site. Internal IT and cloud storage can now co-exist seamlessly, giving users the best of all worlds.

For those companies concerned with security and availability issues relative to cloud storage, there are software and/or hardware solutions that offer enhanced security and high data availability. Look for solutions that offer flexible data-copy policies that provide options -- i.e., local copies of your data as well as copies in the cloud -- or multiple copies in multiple clouds. Consider the ramifications of “lock-in” and make sure you have the freedom to move from one cloud storage provider to another. Compare and contrast compression and encryption methodologies to ensure that your data security and privacy concerns are adequately addressed.

For SMBs considering traditional data backup and storage and/or for those struggling with an off-site solution, it may be time to consider the cloud as an alternative data protection solution. Improved data access, greater storage efficiency, unlimited expandability, and lower cost make cloud data storage a viable option.

Nicos Vekiarides is the CEO of TwinStrata. You can contact him at nicos@twinstrata.com