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Firm moves from tape backup to managed backup and recovery service

The move from tape to disk-based replication continues, as does the demand for online backup and DR services. Just ask the CIO of a $200M nonprofit in hurricane-prone Houston.

Tom Comella, CIO of human services provider Neighborhood Centers Inc., pays roughly $1,500 a month to IBM to protect his organization's data with a managed backup and recovery service. A storage device located in the nonprofit's Houston headquarters collects the approximately 275 GB of data from 13 servers spread over seven sites, encrypts it and sends it to an IBM data center 1,200 miles away in Raleigh, N.C.

"Quite honestly, it is not a big ROI. In fact, I wouldn't even call it an ROI. We did this because it is a business decision. We have to protect our data," said Comella, who also serves as vice president of capital projects. In hurricane-prone Houston, the result is a disaster recovery process for pretty much any kind of weather.

The strategy reflects two trends in backup and recovery: the inexorable movement from tape to disk-based backup and the growing acceptance of using outside providers and the Internet for data protection.

Dave Russell, a research vice president at Gartner Inc. who specializes in storage management software, has seen the percentage of enterprises backing up directly to tape drop from 63% to 34% over the past four years. "That is a phenomenal shift," he said, especially in a discipline that by its nature is conservative. "Backup and disaster recovery have to be risk-averse."

The low cost of tape continues to make it attractive for long-term storage. Recent Gartner research showed that just more than half of enterprises -- 52% -- use disk to disk to tape, Russell said, a reflection of the "layered approach" organizations are taking to storage backup and archiving.

Interest in managed backup and recovery services shows a similar trajectory, said Gartner principal analyst Adam Couture, who covers storage services at the Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy. A research study last fall showed that half of North American users were either currently using (21%) or considering using (29%) managed backup services, Couture said. Another 18% are no longer using these services and 32% have no interest whatsoever. A few years ago, the resistance was near 70%, he said. "Barriers are coming down."

Managed backup and recovery services attract SMBs

Managed backup and recovery services are particularly attractive for small and medium-sized businesses and for enterprises with remote locations, Couture said. "Maybe you don't have the staff to do it, maybe you've got high turnover." Backups are relegated to more junior people, if you do have an IT staff, or the night clerk, he said, recounting his recent arrival at a hotel in the wee hours and having the desk bell answered by a receptionist holding a tape. "These services just make sure backups happen and you can recover your data."

Having an appliance at the local site -- a feature not offered by all providers -- gives the ability to back up and restore data at land speed, instead of over the Internet, Couture said. A second copy is stored far away. Vendors like IBM have realized that they can turn their off-site storage services into disaster recovery services by adding a recovery option. And just yesterday, the SunGard Availability Services unit of SunGard Data Systems Inc. announced Secure2Disk, a new disk-based, online backup and recovery service that also offers an on-premise appliance.

Jettisoning tape backup

Automating data backup, getting it out of harm's way and being able to retrieve it quickly are mission-critical tasks for Neighborhood Centers. With more than $180 million in annual revenue and 800 employees, the nonprofit offers "cradle to grave" services, from Head Start programs to senior citizen centers. Hundreds of thousands of people depend on its programs. The organization is also a recipient of Gulf Coast Ike Relief Fund grants and increasingly acts as a first-line responder in crisis situations. An IT staff of 12 manages 650 computers.

"My systems have to be secure and ready to go up," Comella said.

Moreover, data protection is good business strategy, he adds. "We respond to RFPs like any other company does. If I can say my data is secure and safe, it's a strategic initiative for me."

When Comella arrived at Neighborhood Centers four years ago, the organization was backing up data to tapes at some 20 locations, then "playing a shell game" of moving the tapes from building to building for storage. That strategy might suffice for some crises, but it was not a tenable disaster recovery plan for a geography that routinely faces major hurricanes (Rita, Ike) and took in more than 400,000 hurricane victims after Katrina. In fact, when Rita threatened, Comella's director of IT took a set of master tapes with him on his way out of town.

"I did not feel real comfortable with that," Comella said. Aside from the obvious security risks in transit, tapes are susceptible to contamination. "I've been bitten in the past where I went to restore stuff from tape and the tape didn't work for whatever reason."

When he began looking for a way to provide better disaster recovery for his distributed computing environment, he had an IT department of six people and no one dedicated to tape backup and recovery. Data was growing at 20% per year. He wanted to automate data backup from PCs and servers, and storage of that data off-site.

It's one less thing I have to worry about. I can move on to things that need my attention a lot more than backup and storage.

Tom Comella, CIO, Neighborhood Centers Inc.

IBM's managed, on-demand backup service, which is priced per gigabyte of data, is based on technology developed by Arsenal Digital Solutions, which IBM acquired in 2008. Comella said he likes that the solution provides fast data backup and fast restoration. The organization's most recent data sits on the local appliance at its headquarters. "We can get the stuff back fast if it's from the last couple of days." In case of a catastrophic event, IBM will ship a similar appliance with the backups overnight.

The data is duplicated and encrypted before being transmitted to Raleigh. Performance has not been an issue. Mail servers are backed up overnight, so they don't slow down users.

The snafus that have come up since implementing the solution -- a corrupted file in a main financial system, for example -- have been easily fixed, Comella said. "We've actually done live backups a few times and everything has worked as advertised." Once a week his director of IT checks to make sure the backups are working correctly.

The oft-cited risks associated with online backup and remote storage -- that your company's top secrets are commingled with competitors'; that despite encryption, a provider can see your data; that the service will always be more expensive than making a tape yourself -- don't keep Comella up at night.

"We've seen it work, we've seen restores happen. It's one less thing I have to worry about. I can move on to things that need my attention a lot more than backup and storage," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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