November 13, 2012

Backups in the Cloud

A reliable backup scheme is a critical component of the IT environment and a prerequisite for disaster recovery. While I won’t explore all the ins and outs of disaster recovery in this post, or backup schemes for that matter, I will look at some of the popular cloud-based offerings and compare them to their traditional counterparts. Sound good?

Yes, believe it or not, many organizations still copy their critical data to tape on a nightly basis. The common scheme is simple and familiar, kind of like recording The Tonight Show on a VCR. You have a tape drive (VCR), a set of backup tapes (VHS tapes), and your daily backup (The Tonight Show). Each tape is labeled with a day of the week. Every morning you eject yesterday’s tape and insert today’s tape. If the backup failed for some reason, the backup software will tell you so. If you want additional peace of mind you transport or ship tapes off-site periodically, to protect against something bad happening to the place where the backups occur. Oh yeah, just like your old VCR, you have to run a cleaning tape once every few months to keep the heads clean.

Because of the limited capacity of the tapes, backups are limited to critical business data only, which means that programs and operating system data have to be stored somewhere else. The impact of this limitation is that a full disaster recovery will take days or weeks.

Some of our clients still use this scheme; we will encourage them to move to portable hard drives when their tape drives wear out.

Cost: $3,000 – $4,000 for tape drive, 10-pack of tapes, and a cleaning tape
Pros: Simple, reliable, portable, backups complete within a few hours
Cons: Requires you to change the tapes daily, requires running cleaning tape once every few months, limited storage capacity (1.5TB for LTO-5 tapes), does not work with Windows Backup (requires third-party backup software), tapes (~$500 for a set of 5) have to be replaced every 2 years or so, off-site storage requires periodic transport or shipping

Cloud Backup Comic

Portable Hard Drive
This scheme is very similar to using tapes. You have a set of portable hard drives, a cable connecting the drives to the backup server, and a power timer, which is needed to turn the drives on before the backup starts and turn them off again when the backup completes. Instead of swapping tapes in and out on a daily basis, you unplug the cable from yesterday’s drive and plug it into today’s drive. You can ship the drives off-site for greater peace of mind.

Modern portable hard drives (3TB) are so large that we can back up most clients’ entire server environment — business data, programs, and operating system files – on a single drive. This reduces disaster recovery time to less than a day.

Most of our clients use this scheme today.

Cost: about $1,000 for a set of 3TB portable hard drives, USB 3.0 card, and power timer
Pros: Simple, reliable, portable, backups complete within a few hours, works with Windows Backup, has better storage capacity than tape (3TB), hard drives are good for 4 or 5 years
Cons: Requires you to change the drives daily, limited storage capacity (3TB for largest drives), off-site storage requires periodic transport or shipping

This scheme is ideal — set it and forget it. Your IT guys configure the backup and data is backed-up to a datacenter far away whenever it changes.

There is no limit to the cloud’s capacity, but you get charged for every byte that you transmit and store. Depending on how much data you have in the cloud, a full disaster recovery could take a long time. Most of our clients can only download 1-2GB per hour (5-10Mbps), which means that a 1TB backup (common for most organizations) would take 2-3 weeks to download. Most cloud backup services offer the option to FedEx a portable hard drive with all your data on it, but this guarantees a delay of at least 1 business day.

None of our clients use this scheme today.

Cost: This is highly variable, depending on the service chosen. Here are some pricing examples from popular services:

  • Mozy: For 1TB of storage, $4,500 per year with annual commitment
  • CrashPlan: For 1TB of storage, $2,900 per year with annual commitment
  • Symantec: For 1TB of storage, $5,600 per year with annual commitment
  • Zmanda: For 1TB of storage (using Google Cloud Storage), $1,300 per year with annual commitment

Pros: Simple, reliable, no human intervention required unless something breaks, unlimited storage capacity, backups are always off-site
Cons: Expensive (depending on how much storage you need), best pricing requires annual commitments, recovery may be much longer due to constrained download speeds, upload requires additional Internet bandwidth (which is another on-going cost)

In short, you should plan on spending a lot more on Internet bandwidth and the service itself if you want the convenience and reliability of cloud-based backups.

Parting Thoughts
At this point, I don’t think that the cloud is appropriate for full, disaster recovery-style backups. The volume of data (multiple TBs) is simply too large to transmit and store over the Internet at today’s speeds. I can, however, think of two cost-effective ways that you can use the cloud for backups:

  1. Off-site backups of only critical data. While our average client may have 1-2TB of data on their servers, probably less than 5% of that is critical to their operations. Using Zmanda, you can back 100GB up to the cloud for only $100 per year. This could be downloaded relatively quickly in the event of a major disaster.
  2. Backups from cloud-based servers. I haven’t written anything about putting your server environment in the cloud yet, but, if you did, you wouldn’t have the same bandwidth constraints that you probably do today — cloud-based server providers have TONS of bandwidth. Additionally, many of them offer cost-effective nightly backup services. They perform the backups so you don’t have to worry about it.

Here’s to keeping your data safe!

This article was originally posted at and is reprinted as part of NTEN’s Member Appreciation Month with permission.

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Jeremiah Dunham