Online Backup Moves Out of the Data Center

Many of today's online backup services can't handle the requirements of an enterprise deployment or the needs of an IT department

November 21, 2008

4 Min Read
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Traditionally, backup systems focused on making copies of information stored on central servers. With the growing acceptance of mobility (wireless connections, laptops, cellphones), information is no longer always stored centrally, and that change has made the challenge of properly securing information more difficult for IT managers.

"Addressing mobility issues will be the online backup industry's biggest challenge during the next few years," said Dan Phillips, vice president for channels at Asigra Inc.

Users represent a large part of that challenge. "If a company gives users the responsibility of backing up data, chances are they won't do it consistently or correctly," said Dave Robinson, vice president of marketing at Mozy, the online backup service that's part of Decho, a newly created unit of EMC Corp. (NYSE: EMC).

Problems arise for a couple of reasons. Employees are busy; in fact, many feel overwhelmed before they even turn on their PCs. Consequently, they focus on those tasks that are most relevant to their daily chores, and backup finds itself well down their priority lists. Also, many lack the expertise necessary to understand what needs to be backed up and how to do it properly.

One's company's limitation often translates into another firm's opportunity. A number of service providers such as Asigra, Carbonite Inc. , Data Deposit Box , EMC (which bought Mozy), Intronis LLC , Iron Mountain Inc. (NYSE: IRM), NovaStor Corp. , Pro Softnet Corp., Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC), and SwapDrive Inc. have developed a wide variety of online backup services for end user devices.Convenience is a major attraction with these services. Backups occur automatically without any user intervention. The time of the backup varies by service. In some cases, they take place at the end of the day. In other instances, these programs fire up whenever they detect no keyboard, no mouse, or other forms of activity, and automatically update information during the day.

Once an initial full backup is executed, most of these products are designed to backup only changed data. Consequently, the backup process often requires only a few moments.

However, there are some limitations with these services. Service initiation can be tedious. A broadband connection rated at 5 Mbit/s for downloads may only upload information at a rate of 800 Kbit/s. At that speed, it will take about 24 hours to upload 8 Gbytes of data sitting on a user's laptop.

The continuous backup services also can hurt system performance. This approach constantly chews up processing cycles and can take them away from tasks, such as running daily business applications. Because a growing number of products, such as security and system updates, run in background, users may not have sufficient power to do their work.

The online backup services follow a variety of pricing models. Many services are designed for consumers with only a few megabytes of information and become expensive for business users who have gigabytes of data. Also, the cost of the services can be inexpensive (say $5 a month) for an individual machine, but large companies with tens of thousands of employees will see big monthly charges.Also, the management tools to oversee a large number of employees are just evolving. "In many cases, it is difficult for IT departments to consolidate backup information for multiple machines," said Adam W. Couture, principal research analyst at Gartner Inc. Currently, there is virtually little to no integration between the desktop backup systems and services used to protect corporate servers.

Backups are only effective if one can retrieve information. While that sounds like a given, it is not in some instances. If a user deletes a file by accident and does not notice the mistake immediately, some services also will delete the backup file. The customer may have to go back several iterations to find a duplicate, and retrieving information can be a cumbersome process. It can take 12, 24, or even 36 hours before data is restored.

The number of devices that end users rely on is changing, but most of these services primarily support Microsoft Windows machines. Some can restore files generated on a Macintosh or Linux computer, but few of the services work with new devices, such as smartphones.

Mobility is changing online backup requirements. Currently, the market is at an early stage of development and the services often fall short of customers' desires or the needs of IT departments. It is now up to the various suppliers to see if they can meet the challenge, round out their services, and satisfy their customers in next few years.

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