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How many apps does it take to back up your data?

Trevor Pott counts the ways

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

Go it alone

The strongest argument against multiple backup applications and for a unified approach is that purchasing, maintaining and operating them is a significant operational expense. As the market matures, backup providers increasingly seek to differentiate themselves by novel pricing schemes. This makes trying to optimise backup providers for a single infrastructure a nightmare of Redmondian proportions.

The meatbags required to poke the buttons are costly too. That redundant array of backup nerds isn't feasible for smaller businesses, and even large enterprises aren't likely to be quite so paranoid about their backups.

If you are reduced to one or two backup admins, then keeping track of various backup applications can be difficult. I use a feeder approach for most of my setups. Linux systems will often back up their applications and data via cron jobs to some centralised shared storage.

Many Windows systems with touchy or niche applications will do the same. The centralised application then vacuums this all up as part of its storage run.

Spreading tentacles

The whole approach is a terrifying tentacled monster of a scale that only 4chan could have dreamt up. I can only really get away with it because I have several admins who understand how it works and can reverse engineer it if I go missing. A single application that could back it all up would be a lot easier and quite likely more reliable.

Another real consideration is whether or not your backups are compliant with the various data protection laws and policies that you need to follow.

The rules seem to multiply quickly and may already be too complicated for part-time admins to keep track of. A decent backup provider will be on top of this as it is a great way to set itself apart. It will have legal experts to decode and interpret the laws and project managers to turn that into something that developers can code.

A patchwork of overlapping applications is far more likely to handle data in a non-compliant manner than a single application from a vendor which has committed itself to security.

Virtualisation to the rescue

The issues surrounding application proliferation and application-specific backups are becoming less important as virtualisation takes hold. If we cannot back up the individual application, chances are that we can simply back up the entire operating system it lives in.

While this is a bit like swatting flies with a nuke, other technologies such as deduplication are stepping in to make space issues less of a problem.

Virtualisation also makes continuous data protection a far more realistic goal. The idea is that every bit written by a system would be backed up in (or nearly) real time. In a private-cloud environment I don't see why this isn't doable: real-time virtual machine replication is something all major virtualisation vendors are working on.

If that can't be hijacked for your backup needs, most virtualisation setups use centralised storage anyway, so you can simply mirror bits from there. Either way, you direct a copy of the bitstream to a backup appliance (physical or virtual) within your data centre, deduplicate it and fire it off to a target for storage. That target can be local, it can be in the cloud or both. But to which cloud?

Leave it to the big boys

Here we are deep into “I don't even want to imagine what designing this out of a patchwork of backup applications would look like”. Unfortunately, this is exactly the sort of conundrum I have to focus on.

Admin jobs in smaller businesses are evaporating; we are transitioning from sysadmins in charge of a single company's IT to managed service providers handling multiple companies. I am lucky to have a Canadian company, Asigra, that specialises in this.

It offers software I can put in my own data centre to serve as the backup target for my clients. I don't have to worry about the legalities of dealing with extra-territorial laws. I am not comfortable backing up my clients' data to another country and I flat out don't have the time to design my own backup regime from scratch.

What about you, dear readers? This article has supplied broad generalisations and I am interested to hear how you approach backups. Do you use multiple applications or a single one? Do you use cloud backups at all or are you building your own clouds to serve as the destination for your clients?

Answers in the comments, please. ®

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