Law firm finds tape unreliable, switches to disk

Uneasy with the clumsiness of tape backup in his law firm, an IT director makes the case to migrate to disk-based backup.

DALLAS -- To improve reliability, performance and security of data backup and recovery at the law firm where he works, Sean Curry switched from tape-based to disk-based backup.

"We decided tape wasn't reliable," Curry told attendees at AFCOM's Data Center World on Tuesday. In practice, Curry, director of IT Services at Dallas-based law firm Hughes & Luce LLP, said his firm simply couldn't recover data backed up to tape from his company's 55 servers.

We actually just destroyed our last box of tapes that we had to keep around for litigation hold.
Sean Curry
director of IT ServicesHughes & Luce LLP
Curry eliminated his tape system two and a half years ago and replaced it with two InfoStage "vaults," or centralized storage servers, from EVault Inc. in Emeryville, Calif. The backup storage servers reside in his two data centers in Austin and Dallas.

"We eliminated tape, and in order to do that we went to a dual vaulting environment. So to do that we have a disk backup vault in each of our data centers, and every night everything is backed up locally for a quicker restore, but it's also backed up across the WAN for our off-site vault. That was a requirement we had to achieve in order to eliminate tape."

Essentially, each backup storage server serves as a backup for its local data center as well as a remote backup for the firm's other data center. Engineers no longer needed to move old tapes out of the data centers in order to store data at a remote site.

Lauren Whitehouse, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) in Milford, Mass., co-presented a session on best practices in data backup and recovery with Curry and Richard Heitman, vice president of product management at EVault. Whitehouse said a majority of companies do at least some disk-based backup and recovery. Of 228 surveyed companies, ESG found that only 29% back up to only tape. Fifty-one percent back up to tape and disk, and 21% back up to only disk.

"Backup to disk not only helps with the reliability of backup and recovery, but it also helps with performance," Whitehouse said. She added that disk-based backup products let companies take advantage of technologies like data deduplication and other forms of data segmentation, which allow companies to back up only data that has changed, which speeds both backup and recovery times.

Curry said when he first joined his law firm he was dissatisfied with how it handled backup tapes. Six years ago, tapes were going home with an engineer at night. Within months, the firm began sending tapes off site with Iron Mountain. About two and a half years ago it eliminated tapes completely.

"We actually just destroyed our last box of tapes that we had to keep around for litigation hold," Curry said. "When it comes time to destroy them, we take them to a reputable destruction facility and have them destroyed."

Curry said he felt he could rest more easily if his data backups were completely under his control.

"Our objectives really were to protect our clients," he said. "The firm, outside of the billing system, is a repository for client data and information: the documents we produce for them and the communication we have on their behalf. For us, security was another reason we liked the vaulting technology -- because it maintained the entire data set and pool within our control. None of it was subject to being stored in a technician's garage or car or even susceptible to any kind of loss or damage in an off-site facility. Security is the heart of the reputation of our law firm."

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With 150 lawyers and 1.5 terabytes of files, the data backup demands of Curry's firm were more modest than some larger firms. Disk is still a more expensive medium than tape, and some attendees said the switch to disk would just cost too much.

One member of the audience said disk-based backup wouldn't work in his data center because his company will have a petabyte of data by November. He said buying 1.5 petabytes of disk space for backup would be too expensive, so he would have to stay with tape.

But another member of the audience said he was able to win the cost argument with management by demonstrating how long recovery from tape costs. That alone convinced senior management and "got us the storage farm we needed to put off site."

Curry said he looks at the situation as how much money will the firm lose when the system is down, and how can he minimize that as much as possible. Backing up to disk instead of tape represents a savings, from that perspective.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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