The State of Cloud Backup

How the cloud has emerged as a valid enterprise backup solution

Regular backup of important files and data can be the bane of many IT professionals. It’s like filing your tax return every year: Nobody likes to do it, the experience is hardly ever a positive one, and even thinking about the topic can give you a serious case of indigestion. Some solutions are better than others, but I think most readers would agree that the less obtrusive, more automated, and more reliable backups are, the better.

With all the recent buzz about cloud computing, it was inevitable that talk would eventually turn to using the cloud for backup. Although the mere mention of the phrase “cloud computing” might cause some IT pros to say “Here we go again...,” the basic concept of backing up important data and moving it to a separate location from a primary office has been a valid data insurance policy for decades. Hosted backup providers have been around just as long, offering a valuable (and needed) extra layer of protection for local backups.

Backup and the Cloud

There are a variety of reasons why cloud backup might be a suitable solution for your organization, and it’s clear that the demand for these services is increasing. According to a recent survey by Forrester Research, only 5 percent of small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) currently use online backup services, remote backup, or cloud backup services—but that number is expected to explode over the next few years.

That same survey revealed that 38 percent of participants plan to use backup services within 2  years, which is a growth rate of 660 percent. Part of that increased willingness to back up files and data to the cloud is being driven by consumer adoption of online backup services such as Mozy, Crashplan, and Carbonite. Millions of people are already using cloud-based file storage in the form of Windows Live SkyDrive, DropBox, Amazon Cloud Drive, and the various storage options for Google Docs, Google Picasa, and other Google services. Apple’s recent iCloud announcements also point to even more consumer acceptance and awareness of the cloud. So the idea of backup and file storage in the cloud isn’t new—everyone reading this article is probably already using at least one of the cloud-based services I mentioned.

Enterprise software vendors are now offering cloud backup services as well. CA recently announced that it was offering cloud backup via Windows Azure. Symantec’s Backup is in beta and should be available for licensing by the end of 2011. Gartner research director Adam Couture specializes in covering the enterprise backup market, and he says that major players such as Seagate’s i365, Barracuda Backup Service, IBM SmartCloud Managed Backup, and Terremark’s Backup and Restore—although not technically cloud backup providers—are major backup players in the existing hosted backup market and will likely enter the cloud backup fray as well.

Couture also points out that there are many smaller backup providers that currently offer hosted backup services to customers. “There are literally hundreds of service providers that license some other vendor’s backup software and technology—such as backup software providers Asigra, Terremark, and HP—and create a small business around it,” Couture says. “There are only about 10 distinct backup software technologies out there, but there are hundreds of providers that use them.”

One of the largest of those providers is Asigra, whose Asigra Cloud Backup software is offered by third-party managed service providers (MSPs). Asigra announced earlier this year that more than 400,000 customer sites were using Asigra Cloud Backup software provided by Asigra MSPs.

One of those Asigra MSPs is Backup My Info! (BUMI), a small backup services provider that specializes in providing backup services to customers in the Northeastern United States, primarily in the tri-state area. BUMI has found success as a backup provider specifically for financial services, banks, hedge funds, law offices, real estate, and non-profit organizations. “We’re looking to develop closer relationships with our backup clients,” says BUMI CEO Jennifer Walzer. “We’re hoping to be that valued partner/advisor that customers turn to when they want to use an external backup provider. We’re looking to be an extension of their own internal IT resources.”

Asigra Executive Vice President Eran Farajun commends Walzer’s approach to providing backup services and suggests that cloud backup MSPs such as Walzer’s BUMI need to be aware of the misconceptions that some users have about cloud backup. “The cloud is a new technology and has some widely publicized failures, but the cloud will eventually mature enough to be treated just like other widely used infrastructure services,” says Farajun. “[Failure] occasionally happens, such as power outages, phone lines going dead, and roads being blocked with accidents. Overall, the cloud can be extremely reliable, but even the most reliable systems fail infrequently.”

Choosing a Cloud Backup Solution

When evaluating cloud backup solution providers, there are several important points to consider in making your selection. The following are some valuable cloud backup deployment tips, tricks, and advice that any IT manager considering a cloud backup solution would be wise to consider.

Experience counts. As Gartner’s Couture points out, backup providers run the gamut from large, global corporations to one-man operations with limited resources and rock-bottom pricing. “Any teenage programmer can put together a few lines of code, leverage Amazon’s public cloud, and start selling cloud backup services,” says Couture. Look for backup providers with a few years of experience under their belt and the ability to handle all of your backup needs.

Redundancy matters. Despite having your data offsite in a cloud backup facility, BUMI’s Walzer stresses that it’s wise to require that cloud backup providers support and, ideally, offer the option to back up files locally—out of the cloud—as well. “It’s really the best of both worlds,” says Walzer. “Having both a cloud and local backup means that you’re planning for failure and can get your business up and running in the event of a cloud or local backup failure.”

24 × 7 support. As any experienced IT pro can attest, system failures and network meltdowns seldom happen at ideal times, which means you might need to get in touch with a backup vendor at odd or unusual hours, including holidays, weekends, and the wee hours of the morning. Cloud backup providers that provide 24 × 7 support 365 days of the year are essential if your organization requires continuous uptime.

Trust in SLAs.
The service level agreement (SLA) you have with your cloud backup vendor outlines what you and the vendor are individually responsible for, and it spells out what the consequences are for the vendor if the company doesn’t live up to its end of the agreement. “Some providers price their services very low,” Walzer says. “You often get what you pay for in this situation, and many of these lower-priced providers have very weak recovery options. You need an SLA with teeth: The provider should know that not delivering on their promises will have very real and expensive ramifications for them.”

A concern of IT pros is getting their data locked into a cloud provider, only to have the provider go out of business or be acquired by a larger provider—or any number of other situations that takes the data out of the IT pro’s hands. Making sure your data can be easily transferred to another provider is a must. You might also want to explore the concept of software escrow agreements, which could give you access to the source code of any custom software used to access your data.

Security and encryption.
Make sure the cloud backup vendor you choose supports the level of security and encryption you need to keep your data secure and remain in compliance with any third-party regulations you need to follow. For example, if you need to remain in compliance with the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) Publication 140-2—aka FIPS 140-2—for security accreditation, you’ll want to make sure that your vendor supports it as well. Ensure that data is encrypted at-rest and in-flight (if necessary), and make sure any specific security, auditing, and compliance needs are communicated clearly to the provider (and added to your SLA, if necessary).

Get references and consider niche providers. “It’s best to get references from customers that are in your industry segment,” Faragun says. “Big logos don’t mean anything, nor does the relative size of the vendor. You may want to pursue vendors who get good references from your own industry (i.e., banking, manufacturing, etc.), as they will probably be more knowledgeable about the specific needs for your industry.”

Cloudy, with a Chance of Change

Pressures on cloud backup vendors are coming from cheap providers that leverage low-cost software and use Amazon’s public cloud infrastructure. This price pressure led Iron Mountain to abandon the cloud backup business and forced EMC to drop its Atmos product service.

“Cloud [backup] will become a part of the mobile experience as well, and replace existing methods of doing business,” says Farajun. “We already have data in the cloud, and data will [increasingly proliferate] on mobile devices as well. Cloud backup will extend to cover those devices also.”

Farajun also believes that cloud backup will become a standard feature of many applications, with increased usability thanks to a high degree of integration. Users consistently access a file menu within applications to save their work, and Farajun believes making quick backups in the cloud will become just as easy. Apple’s recent announcements about iCloud seem to validate Farajun’s claims and point to a more seamless and integrated approach to cloud use in the future. “Remember all the attention that was paid to the BIOS (Basic Input/Output System) of a PC in the mid-1980s? Eventually that complexity was obscured and hidden from the user,” Farajun says. “Backup is often a painful process, like doing exercise. Every IT manager knows they must do backups, but doing them manually is a pain. It has to become more automated.”
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