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Top 10 backup management headaches

Here's a look at the biggest backup management headaches and challenges and their solutions.

The amount of data that companies are producing is growing exponentially. The sheer quantity of data doesn't make it any less important to the company. So every bit needs to be backed up in case of an accidental deletion, a hardware failure or, as we have been reminded recently, an actual disaster. Everyone knows the data needs to be preserved, but how does an administrator go about doing that without devoting all his time to backup management?

It's definitely an issue that hasn't gone unnoticed among the many backup software companies. Backup software is a multimillion-dollar industry, and wading through the vendor rhetoric can be a challenge in and of itself. Here at SearchSystemsManagement we have taken a look at the biggest backup management headaches and challenges of systems administrators and tried to find solutions.

Without further ado, the top 10 backup management headaches and, hopefully, some ideas about curing them.

1. Shrinking backup window. It used to be that companies could just wait until about 8pm every evening, after everyone had gone home, and commence the backup procedure. That doesn't apply anymore, says scott McIntyre, vice president, Product Management for Strategic Alliances at Legato. "Companies are now 24 by 7 operations."

Russell Artzt, executive vice president and one of the founders of Computer Associates, concurs, "Backups happen every evening, but the window is getting smaller and smaller. We have worked years on making the backup window as small as possible." With data quantities increasing and less time to do backups, for all practical purposes there is no longer a backup window.

Solution: According to Artzt the key is performance, "We've combined incremental backup, multistreaming and backing up to multiple tapes from multiple servers. We've been able to clock over a terabyte an hour." McIntyre agrees to an extent, but says Legato attempts to eliminate the backup window altogether by using snap shots, or point-in-time images of company data. "We look for ways and technologies to backup data without going offline or taking up resources," McIntyre says.

2. Inability to force an enterprisewide centralized backup policy. "In the early 80s computing had a golden age, like Rome. As all roads let to Rome, all information, in IT's golden age, was retained on one water-cooled box. Then personal computing arrived, and the company's data assets moved away from the core, away from IT," says Tom Hickman, senior product manager at Connected. This issue raises the issue of a companywide security policy. Backup, like security, probably isn't the users' top priority, although it should be right at the top of the list.

Solution: "There is a lack of ability to provide guarantees on whether or not data is being backed up," says Steve Susman, product manager at Storactive. Solving this issue isn't just about installing policies, but also having some type of automation. IT can handle the servers, but how do you backup users' PC data? That leads us to our next headache.

3. Inability to backup desktops and laptops confidently. As much as 60% of a company's data can reside on desktops and laptops. Many companies try to rely on users to initiate backup. Susman calls this "a get-out-of-jail-free card for IT. 'As long as the user does so an so, we are okay.' "

Solution: "We turned everything backwards. We went from laptop and desktop to client agent. We don't need a server to operate," Susman says. Someone in IT controls what is backed up, but the backup is initiated on a continuous basis by the client. "There are any number of reasons that one can miss the backup time," he says Having software on the client end to control desktop and laptop backup ensures the data is protected. But that means backup isn't constrained to the old "backup window" and can increase network bandwidth usage at uncontrollable, inopportune times.

4. Network bandwidth limitations. Backup has an impact on network bandwidth in two ways. One, doing massive planned server backups could shut down the network, which is why that kind of thing is done in off-peak hours (although off-peak hours are disappearing, see headache #1). Two, the best way to back up desktops and laptops is whenever they are online, which would be on-peak hours. And that can cause network performance degradation.

Solution: The most common solution to this problem is the use of incremental backup. Once you do a full backup, only changes are backed up. That creates what Susman calls, "a low-level hiss, rather than a huge spike in traffic."

5. Rapidly growing data, and finding a place for it all. "There is tremendous growth, 50 to 100% data growth. When you are doubling or tripling in size you have to be concerned with backup and recovery," says Mike Adams, product marketing manger for Veritas' Netbackup. These enormous and growing quantities of data need to be put somewhere. But is there any way to reduce it that will help with storage requirements and backup requirements as well?

Solution: One possibility is reducing redundancy. "Seventy percent of data is redundant," Susman says. As far as desktops are concerned, every PC has the same software. Eliminating this data as a backup material can greatly reduce total storage space needed. "Typically we see 90% data reduction when redundancy is eliminated," Hickman says.

Another way to reduce data storage is limiting the amount of time data is kept. That depends on the type of business, but as Ray Ganong CTO of eVault, notes, "We typically recommend a year's retention online before archiving to tape." Whether you use eVault's advanced electronic vaulting technology or simply back up to an onsite disk array, the amount of time that data is kept in a more accessible medium impacts the cost of storing that data. Tape is still the cheapest form of storage, but that leads to the headache of archiving and restoring from tape.

6. Tape management for recovery. Tape is usually stored offsite. What happens when you actually need to access data on tape? You need to know which tape has the data, where it is and you need it quickly. "Handling the tape is a major issue, including storing tapes in tape vaults, filing them, keeping tapes in order," Artzt says.

Solution: "You have to manage tapes in an automated fashion," Artzt says. Many backup software companies offer products that help you keep track of your tape, but with a system and a simple database tracking the tapes can be more cost-effective even if it's hard to speed up the process. Rapid recovery is an issue even without tape.

7. Restoring quickly. "Speed of recovery is a big concern for our clients," McIntyre says. "Everyone is in 24/7 mode, and when that is the case, recovery from tape can take too much time." It is funny that when talking about backup, restoring often gets overlooked. Backup is kind of like insurance; you only care about it when you actually need it, when you need to restore.

Solution: Often data snapshots are used as a means of rapid recovery. The snap shots allow you to go to a point in time when the system was up and running and restore from that point. The more often the snap shots are taken the less likely you are to lose data. "Snapshots don't require data movement," McIntyre explains. "It's made up of blocks of data, as files get changed, pointers point to new blocks. Snapshots protect against logical failures." Another option for fast recovery with respect to PCs is to let the users find their lost data. Client systems can leave pointers to data that resides on a server allowing the user to restore particular files without IT's help.

8. Difficulty of backing up complex, heterogeneous environments. "Given the complexity of various environments, such as databases, SAP applications and e-mail, backing up all those structures is a problem," Adams says. No environment is homogenous, but your backup system might be. Most enterprises would prefer to have only one backup solution.

Solution: "Data needs to be stored in a system-independent format," Ganong says. What if a company migrates to a new operating systems and needs to recover something from a few years ago? That data could be useless. "There needs to be a portability factor," Ganong says. Artzt agrees: "When choosing a backup product, it has to be heterogeneous."

9. Remote management. "Many companies have multiple locations. And those locations may not have a tech person. Companies need to be able to backup from a central location," Ganong says. That's easier said than done.

Solution: This issue has been touched upon earlier. One way to aid in remote management is to institute client automation of backup. Overall, automation and scheduling can help with remote management.

10. Tape security. We round out the backup management headaches with a simple problem that has probably occurred to everyone. Where do I store my tapes and how do I get them there?

Solution: Tape vaults can provide the storage and security necessary. Some smaller companies even rent storage units to keep their tapes. There are also services available to provide the secure transport of tapes.

Hopefully some of the comments in this article can act as a bit of aspirin for your backup management headaches. And remember, as Ray Ganong points out, "One solution does not fit all backup requirements." So shop around before deciding on a backup solution.

About the author: Ben Vigil is technical editor for TechTarget.

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