Dealing with remote office data backup

Here's how Ford & Harrison, a legal practice with 18 offices located across the country, protected multiple terabytes of sensitive data scattered across multiple locations.

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Like many companies, Ford & Harrison LLP, a national legal practice with 18 offices and close to 200 lawyers located across the country, faced challenges in effectively protecting multiple terabytes of sensitive data scattered across multiple locations. "We ended up with multiple formats of tape drives in our offices, which meant we needed additional drives in our headquarters, and that was only the start," says Michael Gallagher, the...

company's IT director. "Getting someone to regularly load and change tapes at each of our remote offices was difficult. We also needed to have those tapes shipped to Atlanta. This was a challenge because of the sensitive information contained on each one. And, finding the appropriate tape, when a lawyer accidentally deleted or edited over a file, was also a problem," he adds.

It's a variation of the old saying, "out of sight, out of mind." In this case, the out of sight part of the equation is the IT netherworld of the remote office and branch office (ROBO). ROBObak, the ROBO solution adopted by Ford & Harrison, nixes all the messy tapes and instead transfers data to a central site. The product includes a group of components that help eliminate or automate manual functions. ROBObak also uses data deduplication to reduce the amount of data transferred to the central site. After an initial full backup, only data that has been changed is transmitted.

ROBObak is hardly alone in tackling the challenge. Mark Karp, senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates, notes that ROBO is on everyone's radar screen. However, coming up with palatable and affordable methods for ensuring adequate, let alone compliance grade backup, has been problematic.

"Remote offices have been a pain point for years," says Arun Taneja, founder and consulting analyst at the Taneja Group, Hopkinton, Mass. There are various approaches to solve the ROBO problem. One that's gaining increasing favor is the wide area data services (WADS) approach. Taneja says that companies such as Cisco Systems Inc., Expand Networks Inc., Packeteer Inc. and Riverbed Technology Inc. offer WADS. He adds that in practice, all but the tiniest branch offices tend to develop into miniature replicas of the main corporate data center, with their own Exchange and file servers.

"Fundamentally, what all of these vendors do is address the problem of latency, which degrades application performance across even a fast network, compelling branch offices to develop local capability," explains Taneja. Riverbed, for instance, offers a device that determines the minimum amount of information that needs to be transmitted for a backup. "Rather than resending a file, or even a block, Riverbed will identify only what has actually changed, which results in tremendous savings in time and bandwidth," says Taneja.

ROBObak and its competitor Asigra Inc., offer another flavor of technology. Less elaborate and generally less expensive than WADS, these products leave the local infrastructure silos intact, but aim to efficiently automate end-of-day replication tasks relative to a central backup site. "This offers the ability to look at data changes on the sub-file level, which can result in transmitting 1/25 or less total data," says Taneja. Taneja says the approach represented by ROBObak and Asigra is often ideal for midsized companies and/or those with many smaller offices while the WADS approach is especially compelling for larger companies and those with branch offices that have substantial data backup needs.

Finally, of course, he says smaller organizations or those on a budget shouldn't overlook the many locally oriented solutions that promise to help at least partially automate and protect local backup.

But David Russell, vice president for storage strategies and technology at Gartner Inc., says a further wrinkle on the market is the hosted services approach to ROBO backup. For instance, Russell cites offerings from hosted service providers such as Iron Mountain Digital, the EMC Corp. owned Mozy, and the IBM Corp. owned Arsenal Digital Solutions. "There are many different managed services offerings available, whether it is to serve a dental office, a credit union or something much larger," says Russell.

However, Joe Skorupa, a research vice president for enterprise networking infrastructure at Gartner believes the WADS approach (and its close relatives) with their game-changing capabilities, will have the most long-term impact. "The real answer is some kind of WAN optimization because that provides the capability to not only do backup but actually to eliminate servers," he says. "This is what we call the persistent data center model where all the authoritative copies of data are centralized." Under this structure, technologies such as caching and data deduplication combine to put branch offices and headquarters on an even footing. "Users can't tell whether they are operating next-door to the data center or thousands of miles away," he adds.

About the author: Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology, particularly data storage.

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