Utility Shuts Off Power to Tape Backup System

Idaho Power found that using a VTL shaved 12 hours off its weekend NAS backup

March 20, 2009

4 Min Read
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Tape has been a reliable means of data backup for many years, and a large number of companies have relied on it to protect crucial information from loss. Yet, the question today in many corporations is how much longer should tape serve as the primary backup system. Idaho Power asked itself that question as the license for their tape system came up for renewal. Their answer to the question was quite like that of many other companies -- not much longer.

Based in Boise, the company serves 982,000 customers in a 24,000 square mile area covering Southern Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada. Idaho power has approximately 2,000 employees, owns and operates 17 hydroelectric power plants and two gas-fired plants, and shares ownership in three coal-fired generating plants to generate the electricity it delivers to customers.

The company has one primary data center that supports about 300 servers running Linux, Windows, and VMWare. The various devices generate about 36 TB of information, which had been backed up each weekend.

Idaho Power has been relying on a Sun StorageTek PowderHorn tape system to house its backup information, but the tape silo was scheduled to reach its time for renewal at end of 2009. "We had to decide what would be more cost effective moving forward -- disk or tape," says Bill Thompson, manager of storage and disaster recovery group at Idaho Power.

The price of disk had gone down considerably from when the tape system was purchased near the turn of the millennium. Traditionally, disk had cost 20 or more times as much as tape. But recently, technical advances have lowered that gap, so disk commands only a slight premium compared to tape.In addition, virtual tape libraries (VTLs) offered some potential advantages to the energy producer. The company could replicate its disk at a second site and eliminate some of the work involved in storing tapes off site. "Not only would managing our backups become simpler, but it also would be less likely that a backup copy would be lost or malfunction," says Jim Strong, systems administrator for the storage and disaster recovery team at Idaho Power. When the company had to take its tapes off site, it had to encrypt the information, and because of industry regulations, the power company had to run background checks on all individuals transporting the data. Moving to a VTL would eliminate those requirements.

In 2008, the company talked with three vendors -- Data Domain, Falconstor, and EMC -- but the purchasing decision had little to do with the features or prices of their different systems. "Because of our purchasing history, we literally deal with hundreds of IT vendors," says Thompson. "Our CIO wants to reduce that number and streamline our operations."

The energy supplier was already working with a number of EMC systems, including the company's Clariion, Symmetrix DMX, Centera, and Smarts Application Discovery Manager, so its VTL was selected in fall of 2008. As the installation neared, the power company encountered a misstep. Idaho Power thought pricing for the VTL would be the same as the underlying storage array, but EMC charged a premium for VTL features such as data de-duplication. Still, the total purchase price, which could reach $500,000 once the system is fully deployed, was on par with buying another tape system, so the decision to go with a VTL moved forward.

The installation, which took place near the end of the year, went smoothly. In fact, the EMC engineer was Commvault certified, which eased the process since the power company uses CommVault's backup software.

The energy provider planned a phased implementation starting with migrating its network-attached storage, which accounts for about 12 TB of storage. The VTL benefits quickly became clear. "We shaved 12 hours off of our weekend NAS backup," says Thompson.Idaho Power did find a few quirks with the EMC system, mainly centering around the GUI used to manage the system. Idaho Power found that the system was not intuitive, so the energy company has had trouble figuring out the impact of the product's de-duplication features. "The system sends a virtual number across the wire, so it is hard to determine how much information the system has updated, explained Strong.

Also, the VTL management features function in an autonomous rather than an integrated manner. There are separate VTL screens for the primary and the backup data centers; the company technicians would prefer to look at the two together. Also, the energy company uses EMC ControlCenter to manage its storage arrays, but the VTL has not been brought under that aegis yet -- although it is something that EMC is reportedly working on.

The power company also ran into an unexpected hurdle -- the economy. "Our original plan was to migrate all of our other systems to the VTL by the spring," Thompson says. "Since the economic slowdown, we have been forced to rework all of our budget numbers, so now we expect to have open systems off the tape silo by the end of the year." At that time, Idaho Power will find itself among the growing legion of companies bidding tape backup systems adieu.

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