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Should Windows shops give in to cloud-based backups?

Brien Posey

As a Windows administrator, you no doubt know the importance of data recovery after an unexpected failure. But should you consider a cloud-based backup solution? This seems like such a simple question at first, but it's actually quite thought-provoking.

There are both pros and cons to backing up Windows to the cloud. The primary advantage is that

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cloud-based backups provide an easy way to store your data offsite. That way, if your datacenter is destroyed by a fire, hurricane, nuclear blast, or whatever, your data won't be lost because a copy will reside elsewhere.

Using the cloud can also simplify your backups. If you go with a third-party backup service for example, you will never have to worry about things like tape rotation or tape drive maintenance.

The dark side of the cloud

The efficacy of backup-as-a-service solutions

"Online backup solutions have come a long way since their initial market rollout, but there are still substantial differences in the features and capabilities available in vendor products."
-- Greg Shields, Microsoft MVP  

Learn more about the feature sets that are most critical when pondering offsite backup solutions.

Despite the benefits that cloud-based backups offer, there are some negative aspects that must be considered as well. Chief among these concerns is the amount of time that it will take to recover your data in the event of a failure. For example, my primary file server currently has about 400 GB of data on it. If I lost the file server and had to restore all of that data over the Internet, the restoration would probably take a week to complete because my Internet service is relatively slow.

Even if you have faster Internet service than I do, it is important to keep in mind that some internet service providers (ISPs) automatically begin to throttle bandwidth or even suspend service if they detect that a large amount of bandwidth is being consumed for an extended period of time. Believe me when I say that a disaster recovery situation is not the time to find out about these service limitations.

Another potential disadvantage to cloud backups is that your data is isolated from your organization. As such, you will only be able to access your data if you have a functional Internet connection. While it stands to reason that Internet service may not be available after a major natural disaster such as a hurricane, there are far less severe circumstances that can disrupt service.

A couple of weeks ago, my network was hit by lightning (for the umpteenth time). I won't bore you by going into the full extent of the damage, but I will tell you that my DNS server was destroyed. As I'm sure you know, DNS servers are critical to a Windows environment because Active Directory cannot function without them. Likewise, DNS servers also provide domain name resolution for Internet requests. To make a long story short, it was a good thing my backups were located on premise because even though my Internet hardware was functional, the loss of a DNS server effectively rendered my Internet connection unusable. If push came to shove, however, it may have been possible to get online by temporarily configuring my server to use an external DNS.

Given the various pros and cons of cloud-based backups, my recommendation is to use them as a supplementary mechanism for protecting your data -- not as a primary backup solution. That way, you will always have a copy of your data residing offsite, but if you are ever faced with a massive restoration, you won't have to deal with Internet bandwidth constraints unless your onsite backup hardware has been damaged.

In some cases, you might even be able to perform parallel restorations. For instance, you may have a file server restoring from a local backup tape while something small like a DHCP server is being restored from a cloud-based backup. Having multiple restoration streams can help you to recover from a disaster more quickly than if you were depending solely on a single backup mechanism.

Taking your backups to the cloud

OK, so obviously cloud-based backups have their place, but you might be wondering how you can go about creating such a backup. The easiest way to perform a cloud-based backup is to subscribe to a third-party backup service. You don't have to go this route though.

Some organizations have already begun creating private clouds based on Windows Azure. The problem is that most backup applications either A) do not fully support cloud storage yet, or B) make cloud connectivity difficult. I recently discovered a company called Gladinet that makes products designed to link either desktops or network servers to the cloud in such a way that allows cloud storage to be mapped as a virtual drive. In addition, Gladinet offers native connectivity to Azure Blob Storage.

Once again, though the technology exists to use the cloud as a primary backup solution, my recommendation is to continue to back data up on site and use the cloud only for supplementary backups. Although cloud storage tends to be reliable, there are still too many things that can go wrong if you find yourself having to perform a large recovery operation from the cloud.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft's Most Valuable Professional Award four times for his work with Windows Server, IIS and Exchange Server. He has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and healthcare facilities, and was once a network administrator for Fort Knox. You can visit his personal Web site at http://www.brienposey.com.


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