Go Ahead and Back Up - 09/22/05

T.H.E. Focus

By Neal Starkman

There's a traditional student nightmare that goes something like this: You're called up to the front of the class to deliver a presentation on the book you've read. But you've somehow forgotten to read the book, leaving you unable to deliver your presentation. So, you stand before your classmates, mouth agape, and as the situation becomes clear, your teacher frowns and your classmates begin to laugh derisively.

That's nothing, however, to IT people.

An educational IT person's traditional nightmare goes something like this: You show up at work with your building surrounded by fire engines. You can't get into to your office, which contains all of your school data on every student, every staff member, every piece of research, and every financial transaction in the last five years. Making matters worse, you've somehow forgotten to back up your files, and you have no way to restore them. So, you stand before your colleagues, mouth agape, and as the situation becomes clear, your boss frowns and staff members begin to sob uncontrollably.

Storing data has become an increasingly important and complex issue thanks to concerns about capacity, accessibility, security, and, of course, cost. As a leading supplier of brand-name products and services to educators, CDW·G (www.cdwg.com) faces these concerns constantly. Keenan Baker, storage specialist at CDW·G, puts it succinctly: "A lot of our customers are seeing their storage requirements go through the roof, and they're wondering how they can manage that."

As you might expect, the solutions are as varied as the challenges. Beth Wiebusch is director of computing services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Business. The school has been growing, its individual servers were getting older, and it seemed as if everyone was individually storing data, including student records, faculty research, census data, financial data, instructional data, Word files, and PowerPoint presentations. So a couple of years ago, Wiebusch began the task of searching for a solution, which she found with CDW·G: an IBM Storage Area Network (SAN) where each server talks to the SAN, and the SAN stores everything. Now, storage is more efficient and the data are more secure. The school also backs up its data both on tape and on disk at another site. The beauty of the SAN, says Wiebusch, is that as the school grows and the data increase, it can just add on to the existing network.

Backing up data on tape is generally less expensive than backing it up on disks, unless you take into account the labor used to find data on tape, says Robyn Danz, a storage expert at CDW·G. Think of a scene from your favorite movie-maybe the scene in Psycho where Janet Leigh takes a fateful shower. You want to show that scene to a group of people; perhaps they're thinking of using it for a soap commercial. You have a videotape and a DVD of the movie, but which one is going to make it easier for you to find the scene in question? The answer is simple. The tape is sequential, so you would have to fast-forward all the way up to the point where Ms. Leigh runs the water. But the DVD is discrete and random, so all you have to do is click on the "Fateful Shower" scene, or however it's labeled, to access it immediately. It's the same with data: It could take hours upon hours to look for a copy of a specific invoice on a tape, but mere minutes on a disk. Also, a bonus with disks is that people can quickly and easily see what data they have and eliminate duplication, thereby freeing up space.

Surprisingly, according to Danz, schools are just now seeing data backup as critical. But once they do acknowledge its need, they turn to disks-if they can afford them.

Increasing capacity and accessibility isn't merely a matter of switching from tapes to disks, because, it's the system that counts in storage. As with the University of Wisconsin example, people used to attach storage to each server, but if you have 10 servers and one runs out of space, you're stuck. Now people create SANs to connect servers to one storage pool, and storage can be reallocated with a flick of a fiber channel switch.

So what kinds of specific storage solutions are there? There are actually several, depending on the particular needs of a customer.

One solution is an Overland REO backup disk system developed by Overland Storage (www.cdwg.com/overland). Overland Storage, which has recently partnered with Symantec Corp. (formerly Veritas; www.cdwg.com/symantec), specializes in storing and protecting data. The two companies offer a product bundle consisting of BackupExec10 from Symantec and REO appliances from Overland. They claim the benefits of this package include:

  • Increased speed of backup and recovery;
  • Enabling of instant restore;
  • Reduction of backup failures; and
  • Simultaneous safeguarding of multiple servers.

According to Chris James, Overland Storage's director of marketing EMEA, "Currently one in five backups fail because of the human element in the backup process. With the combination of BackupExec 10 and our REO disk products, companies are able to automate this process, taking away the human element-which will lead to a decreased failure rate."

Another storage solution is the Quantum DX100 from Quantum Corp. The DX100 enhances existing tape backup systems by separating the backup target from the backup archive. The result is more reliable backup and restore operations.

According to Quantum's Web site (www.quantum.com), "By emulating a tape library, the DX100 seamlessly integrates into existing backup architectures without any changes to existing processes. Since it emulates a tape library, the DX100 is also not susceptible to fragmentation, file or operating system over-head, tuning, hackers, or volume management complexities. The DX100 truly complements existing tape libraries (the backup archive) by allowing them to focus on archive operations for disaster recovery and regulatory compliance." Translation: If you're already using tape for backups, this system will make what you do a lot easier, as well as protect your data in case you find yourself in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane. Quantum also offers a data compression card that allows users of the DX100 to double their capacity.

Advanced Digital Information Corp.'s (ADIC; www.adic.com) Pathlight system is yet another alternative. Pathlight combines disk and tape into one integrated process.

   

This system's chief touted feature is its simplicity. According to the company's Web site: "Users know they can back up and recover their data rapidly and certainly, retain it safely over time, and preserve their existing investment in data protection applications and procedures."

There are other, more complex solutions. According to a Computer Technology Review's report ("Storage Area Networks Grow Up, 2005, www.cio-today.com/news/Storage-Area-Networks-Grow-Up/story.xhtml?story_id=030001YGZ3SI) on Virtual Storage Area Networks (VSANs): "Using VSANs, storage administrators no longer need separate pairs of switches for each SAN connection. Instead, they can use common SAN switching infrastructure to support multiple fabrics, use all the available ports on each switch and provision services with the exact number of ports required. In short, VSANs allow administrators to support more fabrics with less hardware, reducing the total cost of the network."

Feeling overwhelmed with too much information and too many choices? Then the place to go may be the Information Storage Industry Center (ISIC) at the University of California, San Diego. It's a nonprofit research program studying the information storage industry, and it's created the StorageNetworking.org Initiative (www.storagenetworking.org) to help address the educational needs of data storage technology users. Its goals are to:

  • Establish and support a global, grassroots Storage Networking User Group (SNUG) model so that storage users can network and share ideas with their peers and other knowledge experts.
  • Develop an online portal that empowers storage managers by giving them access to relevant resources, educational information, and expert advice.
  • Create a community of practice that brings together academia and all industry segments to address the issue of storage management professional education and training.
  • Advocate and facilitate the expansion of university-based educational offerings focused on data storage topics to better prepare tomorrow's storage managers.

When you go to the StorageNetworking.org Web site, you can join discussions, check out resources, and read the latest research. Visitors can also ask questions of experts, such as the ones below from the site:

  • What are the main challenges and problems in the Storage Networking area, where both academia and industry currently focusing? Are they in the advance development phase or still in the research/exploration phase? I would really appreciate if you can give me some kind of references where I can find detailed answers to the above questions.
  • I would like to know the future of fabric-based replication as against storage-based replication. Who all are major players for fabric-based replication?
  • Where does security begin and end when it comes to storage? In other words, how can we ensure that there are not "holes" or "leaks"?
  • Is SPAID an emerging area? I am an undergraduate student (BE-IT). Is a project feasible for my group? And where can we develop SPAID? Can you give me some references?

And if you're thinking, "No one but me is facing these daunting challenges," there's hope for you, too. You can join a SNUG, which, according StorageNet-working.org, schedules and conducts "face-to-face meetings with other local users to discuss their mutual challenges, exchange information, and interact with technology experts. StorageNetworking.org-affiliated SNUGs are managed by local users, and favor no particular vendor, product, or solution. Meetings are open to all those interested in an open and constructive exchange of information regarding the effective application of data storage technology."

Precisely because data storage is becoming more complex and more critical, companies like CDW·G work closely with customers to figure out just what it is they need and what they can afford. The idea is to provide the maximum capacity, accessibility, and security at the least expense. The University of Wisconsin's Beth Wiebusch leased her system from CDW·G for three years, and intends to buy it for a dollar at the end of those three years. She says that the CDW·G option was not only the best, but the least expensive. Her goals were met.

We return to the IT nightmare, only now it's modified: You show up at work with your building surrounded by fire engines. You can't get into to your office, which contains all of your school data on every student, every staff member, every piece of research, and every financial transaction in the last five years. Fortunately, you've backed up all your files at a site on the other side of the campus, and you can restore all the data by the end of the day. You stand before your colleagues, grinning, and as the situation becomes clear, your boss pats you on the back and staff members begin to hoist you on their shoulders. The cheers are deafening.

There's a traditional student nightmare that goes something like this: You're called up to the front of the class to deliver a presentation on the book you've read. But you've somehow forgotten to read the book, leaving you un-able to deliver your presentation. So, you stand before your classmates, mouth agape, and as the situation becomes clear, your teacher frowns and your classmates begin to laugh derisively.

That's nothing, however, to IT people.


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