Getting a grip on managing data

Like their large counterparts, SMBs also deal with mounting data. The good news is storage tools are available to help ease the load.

The data management challenges that an SMB has are not that different from that of a large enterprise. Incidents that threaten a large company's ability to continue operations, such as loss of data, viruses and network attacks, can just as easily cripple a small business if proper security measures are not put in place.

But the biggest challenge for any SMB is the pressure to keep the business up and running 24-7 under tight budget constraints. This is even more crucial when one considers the fact that an SMB may not have internal IT support.

The practice of preserving the availability of data, such that it can be captured, distributed, and protected automatically, as well as recovered and backed up in the event of data loss is critical. This challenge is compounded as the amount of data a company has to handle grows every day.

According to an October 2004 report by the Yankee Group, 86 percent of SMBs surveyed worldwide identified managing explosive data growth as an issue. The same report stated 26 percent of SMBs were under pressure to comply with data retention and security regulations, and were looking at storage technologies that protect the integrity of business data.

Weed out complexity
How then should an SMB start designing a data protection strategy?

Vendors that ZDNet Asia spoke to recommend keeping things simple.

Ashwini Bhatnagar, sales program manager, SMB and commercial accounts, Asia-Pacific and Japan, HP, said that SMBs need to have a plan that keeps out complexity and:

  • identifies possible threats to their business;

  • has a backup and recovery procedure to ensure business continuity is possible in the event of a failure;

  • has procedures to use these backups; and

  • has a way to maintain on an ongoing basis accurate and up-to-date information.

Gene Nagle, manager of pre-sales engineering, at Overland Storage Asia-Pacific, agreed. "SMBs need improved data protection techniques, but they need tools that are very easy to install and understand, tools that don't require major changes in procedures. They can't afford the time out for a steep learning curve on a new product or procedure," he said.

For starters, the company could look at three key objectives, suggested Bhatnagar. Firstly, it could look at the recovery time objective, and ascertain how fast it needs to recover data should an outage occur. A second objective would be the recovery point--establishing how recent the recovered data has to be.

Disk or tape, or both?
Advantages of pure disk-based backup:
It reduces the time it takes to back up data
It reduces the time needed to restore data
Disadvantages of pure disk-based backup:
Data cannot be moved offsite unless mirroring or snapshots techniques, which cost more, are conducted on the disk.
Hard disk drives are mechanical devices with limited life span and are therefore not recommended for archiving.
Advantages of pure tape-based backup:
It can be moved offsite to provide disaster recovery protection
Tape can be archived for up to 30 years
Disadvantages of tape-based backup:
In terms of performance, it takes a longer time to search for and recover lost data on tape compared to disk
Lastly, the company should consider the data capacity objective and determine how much data needs to be restored.

"On the surface, immediate recovery may seem necessary for everything, but SMBs must choose what is really mission critical, and what can be held back for secondary recovery systems," he said.

This helps balance the efficacy of the system with its costs, he said, adding that the company must also draw a line between what is mission critical and what can wait, and that these requirements vary across the different vertical markets.

Virtual solution
The demands of managing exploding amounts of data is changing the way SMBs buy storage. Thanks to technology innovation, SMBs can look beyond traditional storage media such as tape, and consider incorporating affordable disk media like serial ATA (SATA) disks into the overall backup and recovery strategy mix.

Because of their portability, tapes are still more suitable for archival and off-site storage. However, putting SATA RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) systems, instead of tape, into the frontline of a backup process can be more efficient, especially for data that need to be recovered fast if they accidentally get written over, for example.

Appliances such as virtual tape libraries (VTLs) make a disk array appear to a backup server like a tape library, with no new software or major redesign of backup processes required. Products available in the market include Overland Storage's REO 4000, and Quantum's DX30.

Overland Storage's Nagle said: "Even for relatively small enterprises and agencies, we find that the use of disk in the form of virtual tape or virtual tape libraries in a disk-to-disk-to-tape strategy helps reduce costs significantly.

The determination of the final storage mix, be it tape, virtual tape or snapshot/mirror-based products, will be based on the company's requirements, such as speed of the recovery process, reliability, and budget.

Jim Simon, Quantum's director of marketing for Asia-Pacific, acknowledged that some customers today, including SMBs, want to leverage the advantages of both disk and tape, and therefore, are implementing hybrid solutions to meet their backup, recovery, and archival needs.

For a cost-effective way to store data accessed infrequently and provide long-term archived storage, these customers are beginning to implement tiered storage architectures by assigning different categories of data and tape, he said.

But before deciding whether to implement disk, tape, or a hybrid model, an SMB should consider the pros and cons of each (see box).

Protecting data
While the data residing on networked servers are important, SMBs should not neglect protecting the data on desktops and laptop PCs as well.

"Many businesses may do an effective job of backing up data stored on company servers, but they ignore information stored on company desktop and laptop computers, placing a huge amount of critical data at risk," said HP's Bhatnagar.

To this end, SMBs could look at procuring desktop management services, available from vendors such as HP and IBM, that provide integrated data protection, security, and ongoing operating system updates for an SMB's desktop infrastructure.

Usually, the service includes software, installation, startup, and ongoing support.

Recovering from a disaster
A disaster, like a fire, or virus attack, that destroys data, is any IT manager's nightmare.

To mitigate such events, a sound backup and recovery strategy is required.

At the very least, the setup should include the following components:

  • a backup server running backup software such as CA Arcserv or Vertias NetBackup;

  • a disk-based backup product such as the Overland Storage REO 4000 or the Quantum DX30; and

  • a standalone tape drive, or an automated tape library.

Quantum's Simon pointed out that disaster recovery should be comprehensive and documented to the point that if the IT personnel are also victims of the disaster, others could recover from the disaster by following a plan. The plan should make sure that:

  • Critical business data and software applications are backed up to a tape drive;

  • Data is backed up daily or at least weekly;

  • Daily checks of the backup results log are made to ensure that the backups are successful;

  • Backup media functionality is verified by regularly recovering some sample data;

  • Backup devices are cleaned regularly to ensure optimal operability;

  • Backups are automated to ensure they occur as planned;

  • Backup media are rotated so that recovery of data from different points in time is possible (i.e. yesterday, one week ago, one month ago);

  • Backups are moved off-site to a safe and secure location so that a natural disaster will not also destroy the backups;

  • There is a backup recovery manual that includes procedures to recover business-critical data, passwords, list of emergency contacts, Internet access details, etc.; this recovery manual is stored on-site and offsite with step-by-step instructions on how to recover the data in the event it is lost; and

  • Key employees are provided with hardware such as personal tape drives, software such as Veritas Backup Exec, and training assistance so that they can regularly back up their desktops and laptops.

No single data protection plan is perfect, but for SMBs, just like in any organization, a little planning will go a long way in putting minds at ease.