Electronic Backups for the SMB – Tape Is So Passe

When I graduated from high school, I was all about new technology. So when I took the modest pile of cash I received as a graduation gift and sent it on a new stereo system for my car, I just had to have the latest and greatest 8-track player! Ah, the wonderful year of 1976.…

When I graduated from high school, I was all about new technology. So when I took the modest pile of cash I received as a graduation gift and sent it on a new stereo system for my car, I just had to have the latest and greatest 8-track player! Ah, the wonderful year of 1976. Although the 8-track player was the hottest new technology, it was outdated before it was even installed. During that time, tape was being used in numerous capacities from the 8-track player in my car to the huge data backs of inches-wide tape media reels in data centers, all churning away with no awareness that their usefulness was soon to be challenged . Before long, the memory chip revolution started the downward spiral of tape media, because the inherent disadvantages of digital tape drives and media became more pointed and cause for concern in the overall effort to maintain data security and reliable archiving. Some of the largest reasons that tape was being replaced by digital backup options was due to deterioration of the media, misplacement or theft of the tapes, costs for maintenance and replacement, long backup and restore times, and less reliable performance.

The first big problem is data degradation. Over time, both magnetic and even optical media begin to lose their ability to record error-free data. Many vendors who sell tape advertise average lifetimes of years and hundreds of rewrites. Unfortunately, the actual lifetimes of these media are often less than a year. Here are a couple of important facts as to why that's true.

1. Tapes and external hard drives are vulnerable to environmental damage such as heat, sunlight, humidity, liquid, and dust as well as the potential for human mishandling like scratching, bending, and dropping.

2. Magnetic backup media can also be damaged by electromagnetic fields emitted by televisions, monitors, speakers, or other electronic devices.

A second consideration is the potential for loss or theft of tape media. In my years of experience, I have seen some business practices that would leave you horrified! I've seen secretaries store the backup tapes next to their phone at the front desk, managers place tapes in the trunk of their car, and shipping services misplace whole loads of tapes (ie the 2005 Citigroup / UPS tape loss). It's way too easy for something so small to be misplaced or worse tucked into someone's laptop case and absconded.

The third point to consider is the cost to maintain and or replace tapes. A smart organization rotates several tapes through a planned cycle. However, the safe usage life of digital data tape media is only about 6-9 months. Thus, there has to be a budget in place for the purchase of the same number of texts as are currently in the arsenal and more if you are taking some out for archiving and long-term storage. With the cost of a 1.5 TB LTO-5 being around $ 50, you have to think about the number of tapes you need to perform satisfactory backups, both full and incremental. If you complete a full backup once a week and incremental backups on other days, most SMBs probably should have 8-10 tapes on hand as well as a few spares. That equates to $ 400- $ 500 per year and is double considering replacement of old worn out media. Remember, that cost is for a business with a small data footprint. What if the organization is facing hundreds of terabytes? With EMR requirements for the medical community, or large graphics and CAD files in engineering, architecture, and manufacturing that reality is not far-fetched.

With a good grasp of the actual cost of tape backup, the next concern is the lengthy times it takes to actually perform he backup. With many companies, the throughput from the network stores to the tape media is inexporably slow. Some of my conversations with SMB organizations have uncojected situations where a single backup has taken ups of 17+ hours to complete! Do you want to sit and babysit your backup on a weekly basis to make sure it's failure free? Relatedly, what about the likelihood that when you absolutely need the backup to be restored that it will actually work? Unreliable performance and corruption is, unfortunately, synonymous with tape backups. I remember one customer I worked with that bemoaned a recent tape restore failure. When they desperately needed the data from a daily backup tape, upon insertion, they found that the tape head cleaner cartridge had inadvertently been inserted into the backup rotation instead of a blank tape. Murphy's law, right? Not to mention I have seen statistics that point to a 30% to 50% chance that any tape backup (on regular media) will not remount or restore properly. This brightly illuminates the need for a periodic test restore from backups to insure their liability.

In today's digital age, data loss and corruption is a worry to not only businesses but also to the customers who do business with them. The Online Trust Alliance speaks about the erosion of customer loyalty and the damage to your reputation as a result of data loss or corruption on their website. According to the OTA, “In the past 5 years, it is estimated over 543 million records containing sensitive personal information have been compromised due to breaches.” (Online Trust Alliance, 2012) This sounds like a staggering number, though with the magnitude of personal and business information inputted online, it may be only less than one percent of all data records in cyberspace. OTA also states, “According to the 2010 Cost of Data Breach Report published by the Ponemon Institute, data break costs US companies $ 318 per compromised customer record with an average cost per incident of $ 7.2 million.” (Online Trust Alliance, 2012) Not quite convinced? In 2003 David M. Smith, an economics professor at California's Pepperdine University, calculated the “annual data losses to PCs cost US businesses $ 18.2 billion.” (Smith, 2003) This figure was determined almost 10 years ago, so imagine what the numbers actually look like today with the explosion of various devices and storage media.

So now that I have the tape community ready to string me up in effigy, let me add more fuel to the fire. The technology for electronic backup methods has so far outpaced that of tape, and the options for deployment of an electronic backup scheme will fit almost any scenario. All of the negatives a tape-based backup plan can suffer from is addressed and enhanced by electronic backups.

A relatively new feature in the electronic backup world is deduplication, and by definition it's a method for compressing data by storing only changes to the original data. For example, when a document is created it's stored as a regular complete file. When changes are made Deduplication stores only the data that has been modified in a subsequent file with indexes to the original. For files, a single copy of a file is backed up even though it may be pointed to by many different documents. An easy example is having the same document attached to several different email messages. With deduplication, all pending messages after the first are changed to link to the original attachment rather than duplicating it each time. Another benefit of electronic backups is encryption. In most instances, tape scenarios do not include encryption which poses a greater risk for loss should tapes end up in less than trustworthy hands. Encryption should occur at every step during the backup process.

That being said, what kind of electronic backup solutions are available? There are several ways to operate an electronic backup plan; on-site, off-site, or a hybrid of both. The ideal configuration all depends on the preferences of the individual entity deploying it. An organization that would prefer to have everything on-site so they can keep an eye on it would deploy an on-site appliance that backs up data at network speeds much faster than tape. Going the on-site only route leaves an important facet of the backup plan; having off-site storage in case of disaster. In those instances where the requirement exists for there to be an appliance on-site for quicker recovery, some have opted for a redundant backup of data off-site over a secure Internet connection to a second facility and appliance, or a third-party cloud storage provider. In extreme cases, I have seen hybrid solutions that include on-site, off-site to an owned facility appliance or private cloud, and off-site to a third-party provider. This hybrid approach gives the best of both worlds for most organizations with varying tolerance for risk. Still other entities may opt for a purely cloud-based backup scenario. As with the hybrid deployment, the remote repository can be a company-controlled facility with an appliance operating in this remote data center. It could also be totally third-party with no appliance or server needed to build, deploy, or maintain. This is a really good option for very small businesses that do not need to maintain a server room or data center, and choose to consume as needed. Some of these organizations have migrated all of their IT assets to providers such as Microsoft with Office 365 that have a storage / DR option built in. Others rely on trusted third-party providers like Mozy or Carbonite, or contracting with local IT service providers who are steadily adding hosted applications like electronic backup options.

There are plenty of options for hardware and software to accomplish this. Manufacturers like SonicWALL, Barracuda Networks, EMC, Dell, HP, Zmanda, Drobo and dozens of others are in this space. Several of these companies, especially Barracuda and SonicWALL, have an off-site backup option for added protection. There are other companies that are purely in the cloud backup space, such as Mozy, Carbonite, NovaStor, and IDrive. It's really just a matter of due diligence and choosing the option that makes the best financial sense for your organization as well as feeling secure.

The funny thing is there are still thousands of organizations worldwide that are relying on the stability and vitality of this outdated technology. In doing so, they are putting their critical data and their reputation at risk. Even using tape as only a partial component in the backing up or disaster recovery process or as an archive measure like disk-to-disk-to-tape can introduce potential hazards.

It's time tape drives and old media to rest. They have served you well, just like that old Sony Walkman you used to jog with, but it's time to get with the program, enter the new millennium, and make digital electronic backups the standard by which you protect your critical assets. In the process, you just might find it saves you time and money as well, and how many of us would walk away from those?

Works Cited

Online Trust Alliance. (2012, January 25). Privacy & Data Loss Incident Readiness Planning Guide. Retrieved September 25, 2012, from Online Trust Alliance: https://www.otalliance.org/resources/Incident.html

Smith, PD (2003). The Cost of Data Loss. Retrieved October 2, 2012, from Graziadio Business Review: http://gbr.pepperdine.edu/2010/08/the-cost-of-lost-data/