Data Protection: The Convergence of Backup, Archive, and Disaster Recovery


By Calvin Keaton
Product Manager, Microsoft System Center

See other Viewpoint articles.

Insurance isn’t something anyone gets particularly excited about, but it’s something we all must have. So, we buy a policy, set it in motion, and grudgingly write checks to cover this necessary—but not particularly welcome—expense every year. On the rare occasions when we have to use our insurance, we’re thankful that it’s there, but most of the time we don’t really give it much thought.

This same attitude has traditionally applied to backing up corporate data. IT organizations create a backup process, set it in motion, and hope they never have to use it. In most cases, the primary goal is to offer support that is good enough and at the lowest possible cost. After all, no one really likes writing that yearly insurance check, right?

Tape might not be the fastest or most reliable backup medium, but it’s certainly one of the cheapest. So it is that the “tape handler” is born. He or she is the unlucky IT professional who has to take time out of the day to go down to the basement and change the backup tapes. The tape handler possibly sends the tapes to off-site storage, but as often as not, he or she just puts them in a locked cabinet or some other “secure” storage space, like a briefcase or the back of a car.

In addition to storage issues, the physical mechanics of tape backup introduce risks. From lost tape leaders to stuck robot arms or lost cartridges, every moving part of the backup operation represents an opportunity for failure. Yet the process of backing up to tape and sending tape off-site hasn’t really evolved all that much in the past 20 years.

Recently this has begun to change. Over the past few years, the term “data protection” has begun to replace the term “backup,” and as this has happened, it is arguable that there has been a renaissance in backup and recovery.

Data protection is a convergence of backup, archiving, and disaster recovery. In the past, most IT organizations have either treated these three areas as separate activities, each with their own requirements and solutions, or they have used tape backup as a cheap, if not entirely appropriate, solution for all three. Given the availability of cheap disk storage and new software technology, it’s now possible to craft a holistic data protection solution with a single software offering that addresses the current regulatory environment and the unique needs of backup, archiving, and disaster recovery.

This convergence has been driven by decreasing storage costs as well as an increasingly stringent and complex regulatory environment. New regulations create the need for a more reliable, flexible, and scalable backup solution at the same time that decreasing costs in disk storage make a disk-based data protection solution possible. Certainly, disk-based backup has been used by some larger organizations, but it is only in the past few years that it has become financially viable for most other organizations.

The performance and flexibility offered by disk-based backup is what has made the data protection convergence possible. Backing up data directly to disk is the only solution that can cheaply and effectively address backup, archiving, and disaster recovery needs. It is the foundation of any data protection solution, and it offers the following benefits:

  • Shorter backup windows

  • Increased reliability

  • Faster recovery times

  • Increased backup frequency (continuous data protection [CDP])

  • Easy site-to-site replication

  • Online archiving

Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM) 2006 was one of the earliest entries into the disk-based data protection software market. With a focus on file servers and the ability to efficiently move changed data between sites, it provides both backup and disaster recovery for remote branch office locations or between corporate data centers. Since its release, there have been a number of other disk-based data protection offerings from other software vendors. Roughly 60 percent of all organizations are adopting disk-based backup solutions.

The convergence of backup, archive, and disaster recovery in the form of a single disk-based data protection solution is just the start. The next step in the evolution of data protection solutions is workload integration, with workload-specific backup, archive, and disaster recovery features for multiple applications in a single data protection software suite.

For example, instead of having a separate backup, archive, or disaster recovery solution for a Microsoft Exchange Server workload, a single product will provide application-specific data protection features, as well as many other related features to multiple applications. Obviously, application-specific backup features are nothing new, but what is new is the level of integration and the breadth of features offered by these new data protection suites. What have traditionally been considered application, storage, backup, archiving, or disaster recovery roles now converge in a single solution. Looking to the future, it would not be surprising to see data protection solutions that continue to integrate other workloads, eventually incorporating content–management features or even digital rights–management features.

Workload integration helps remove the need for separate tools or applications that provide specific application or storage functionality. In the past, providing backup, archive, and disaster recovery support for a Microsoft SQL Server database might have involved deploying tape-backup software, a geo-replication solution, a data de-duplication appliance, encryption hardware, and possibly even data compression software. This solution would have involved as many as six different technologies with six separate solutions to deploy and manage. As the data protection convergence incorporates workloads, these separate solutions will be replaced by a single data protection suite providing all of this functionality.

The Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager version 2 is currently in beta release. It represents Microsoft's next step into the data protection market. It offers unmatched backup, tape archive, and disaster recovery functionality for Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft SQL Server, and Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, with the ability to quickly and easily restore an Exchange Server, SQL Server, or SharePoint database with only a few mouse clicks, and with no additional work needed on the application server. Added features such as zero data loss recovery, reliable bare metal recovery, integrated data encryption, data compression, and de-duplication illustrate the functionality that is converging in modern data protection suites.

The benefit of this integration is illustrated by the recent experience of one of our beta customers. The customer had Data Protection Manager version 2 Beta 1 deployed to protect an 8 gigabyte (GB) clustered SQL Server database. After encountering a major storage area network (SAN) problem, which resulted in database corruption, the IT department was called upon to perform a restore. The restore was done by an IT professional with no DPM experience, who was able to recover the database and restore the SQL Server to production in under five minutes using only a few mouse clicks in DPM. The file server and Exchange Server on the same SAN, which were not protected by DPM, took an entire weekend to recover from tape.

Examples like this illustrate the contrast between the older tape-backup forms of insurance and the newer data protection versions. In the past, organizations were simply happy if their insurance worked, even if it took a weekend. With data protection, the expectation isn’t simply that the recovery will work quickly and easily, but that the process used to perform it will offer utilities for archiving, disaster recovery, data encryption, and even data de-duplication. This may not make buying such insurance anymore exciting than it was in the past, but it certainly makes it a much better investment.