Having used Tape Backup solutions in the past, I found myself curious to know if the state of the art for tape backup and archive technologies, and was hopeful they may of improved in recent years. Consequently I began searching for any new products or innovations capable of managing the growing data storage requirements of the company and our customers.
Somehow over the passage of time our tape backup devices have been gradually decommissioned and replaced with cloud and/or NAS storage devices. These devices protected our data in much the same way as traditional tape storage by making multiple copies of it stored in multiple locations.
The only real difference is that the Tape itself was no easily shipped off for secure storage with a facility such as that on offer from companies such as Iron Mountain.
When comparing tape backup procedures of the past with today’s modern NAS devices, management and rotation of archives is in both cases a discipline that is to be built into the business. The first and most obvious difference being that when using a modern NAS you have a local copy of backups making it a lot faster when recovering lost or corrupted files.
If you’re a fan of tape backup, there are Tape backup solutions are capable of storing between 6 and 25TB of information on a single tape available today. These devices work as a streaming storage unit and you would may need to invest in a fire proof enclosure to keep your back up box or perhaps a backup wall (as shown the the attached image). Tape units are familiar and whilst write speeds are impressive the reading of files from archive is still slow and requires proprietary software.
CD or DVD stacks were popular alternatives in and around 2003 are also less relevant today due to their limited capacity and recovery is labor intensive when managing multiple disks for a single archive date.
What is best practice?
Whilst I am sure there are many well qualified to advise on this topic, from someone who has used and managed many backups over several decades its clear that a good backup practice will always include; a local copy of your files and databases, a separate storage of these at specific points in time, and off site copy of your files and data, a discipline to rotate the backup medium so that physical backup device integrity is tested regularly.
Testing of backups in the days of tape backup was straightforward and built into the process. You rotated tapes regularly and the drive tested the tape by writing onto it. If when rotating these tapes one failed you replaced it, simple and effective. Today with files stored in high capacity disk drives and in off-site in cloud storage today's equivalent to rotating backup tapes utilizes facilities built into NAS drives.
The drawback with tape (which has caught me occasionally) or any long term archive technology is the tape or disk on which the archive is stored will deteriorate or be physically damaged over time. When you attempt to restore you may find the media or the drive hardware fails. If it is an old drive it may be out of production, no spare parts are available, no one can remember how to repair and you find you cannot restore your information anyway.
This shortcoming is yet another reason for the growth in popularity of the NAS as the primary backup alternative. The NAS backup is local and can / should also be replicated to another location. The secondary location can be another NAS in another office or at home, or could be a cloud service, or maybe a combination of both. When restoring you can access archives quickly from local backup NAS, and if these are unavailable then restore from the secondary storage location. The peace of mind that all backups will remain in tact comes from the technological advances built into the physical equipment and the simplicity and reliability of the software that keeps multiple copies of your files.
Modern NAS hardware uses two important technologies; redundant array of independent disks (RAID) and Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology or (S.M.A.R.T.). The two most popular disk manufacturers Western Digital RED series and Seagate NAS series drives both allow for RAID and S.M.A.R.T.
RAID protects by maintaining multiple copies of your data over a number of disk drives in an array. It means you don’t get to use the full raw capacity of all your drives because data can be stored multiple times. However, with the lower cost of storage today this is a reasonable trade off. If one or more drives fail a new drive can be hot swapped (yes while the power is still turned on) into the unit and the remaining good drives will rebuild data on the replacement disk auto magically.
S.M.A.R.T works hand in hand with RAID by constantly monitoring disk health and provided your NAS is a smartNAS will raise an alert when a disk has deteriorated or failed allowing the NAS to continue running in a deteriorated state (which means the NAS continues to run albeit a little slower).
Modern NAS devices use RAID and SMART hand in hand to increase the level of protection and redundancy.
Cloud Backup Solutions
As the trend continues to shift towards the use of cloud service providers in business backup and redundancy strategies, numerous new cloud computing companies have emerged to service demand (more ..) .
Cloud has several significant advantages over traditional in-house managed backup solutions:
- No infrastructure investment. No servers or real estate requirements
- Cloud providers can today offer virtualization and software controlled environments which are:
More flexible and quick to learn
If used correctly are faster for disaster recovery
- Managed by the external provider under service level agreement
- Reduces the cost of implementing, running, updating, maintaining and troubleshooting the Backup and Recovery aspects of your IT infrastructure
- Cloud providers are specialists in the technology and can provide skilled and timely assistance
- Tiered costs are generally linked to usage, so when starting the costs are lower and only increase as the storage needs increase
Typically it is best to select one of the more established cloud service providers but the larger cloud service firms are on the whole more expensive than using in-house alternatives and there are risks with the lower cost cloud service firms that make them unsuitable as a one stop backup strategy.
For this reason many firms have turned to the use of a Hybrid Solution. A hybrid solution is where cloud backup is selected based on best value (and price) and an in-house smartNAS is used in conjunction with the cloud backup service provider to deliver a more robust and comprehensive infrastructure.
The strategy then becomes choosing which part of your backup is stored in one of the various cloud/on premise alternatives based on frequency of usage, importance of data, speed and other practical factors that form your Data management strategy.
Hybrid cloud is where the infrastructure is a combination on external and internally hosted cloud services. It is important to stress that the software used by cloud service to provide virtualization and software controlled environments is also available to any business (if Open Source for Free) to use under license conditions on their server(s).
There are a number of reasons why a Hybrid Cloud alternative is better;
- The cloud solution needs an organized local file structure to work correctly, so any good cloud strategy will already be using local storage (usually in the form of a NAS) as the local image of the files to be backed up in the cloud.
There are many reasons for this, but some of the more obvious are; Backups are usually taken at times where users are not changing files, so a copy needs to be made of production files at a specific point in time and then moved to the backup platform. Copying files to the cloud is not always fast, nor is recovery from the cloud so an intermediate sand box style file system is needed between the live and backup platforms.Consequently this intermediate area is itself the first layer of backup protection and the one most local user will turn to when looking for lost files and data. In most cases it will provide most of the recovery and external cloud storage may only be used to recover older files and data.
THEREFORE: This intermediate area can itself be archived (by date) locally to provide an additional copy of information and a very fast local recovery option.
- Hybrid uses at least two copies of your systems; a local backup and a copy store in an external cloud service. This provides greater levels of protection over relying on just a local or cloud service alone. There are many risk associated with using only a cloud provider, for example; if the cloud service providers equipment is down, the internet connection stops or the provider goes out of business your business stops.
Having a Hybrid solution provides a local copy of your backups available at all times.
QNAP snd Synology both provide backup software to simplify the process. The QNAP software aptly named Hybrid NAS Backup is specifically designed as a multi-location, backup, synchronization and recovery platform. The combination of backup and synchronization is especially important to pay attention to. You see backup on it's own works on the premise that at specific times the backup is overwritten with the latest information. However its not always that simple. There is duplicates of information created every day across a large network that need to be consolidated so when restored there is no confusion as to which is the latest.
Additionally it is common that a file after corruption can be backed up many times before any discovers the latest backup of that file cannot be used. It might be years before that file is required, and this is where important information can be retained for longer periods of time with incremental of snap shot technology. Another little known fact is that snapshot provides an attractive level of protection from randsomware attacks.
A modern smartNAS contains this capability "out of the box" so you don't need understand it fully, just enough to use it!
- Some files such as videos or local copies of information on DVD’s do not need to be backed up in the cloud. Doing so is a waste of money. However a local copy for recovery is prudent and could use new technology such as M-DISC to create copies for long term archive and users access a local copy on the NAS. In these cases a single sync of these to a secondary NAS on premises is enough to ensure that if the primary equipment fails a new device can be built quickly from a local copy of files.
- If the unthinkable occurs and all your local files, all data and systems are lost through act of god or major catastrophe then the copies with your cloud service provider are available to restore into a replacement environment. As a word of warning should this ever occur, restoring and rebuilding from an external cloud backup is never fast. Backup strategy often revolves around the businesses main vulnerabilities such as the CRM database or website. These usually get reinstated quickly but it’s all the other pieces of information that take time.
It has been my experience that the new environment is restored progressively. Piece by piece information is reinstated, and more often than not complimented by copies of work in progress stored locally. Where a Hybrid environment is in place the business will have been managing local storage for some time, and the reinstatement of systems after failure is generally much smoother.
- Smaller files are considerably slower to sync to an external cloud service and some cloud providers often charge for data transfer volumes in and/or out of their service. Ideally your files should be packed and compressed into larger files before transmission and decompressed and disassembled on receipt. For this reason local intermediate storage on a local smartNAS device is needed. Generally a simple USB connected device is not suitable for this intermediate area as it has no capability to compress/decompress or package up segments of your storage or to manage use of multiple cloud storage providers (a tactic discussed below to further improve data protection and further reduces costs).
- Hybrid solutions using a local NAS allows for you to use multiple cloud storage providers. This approach is used to store different types of information in different cloud services. The reason is simple. Each cloud backup provider will possesses unique features and price points for data storage and transfer. You can pick the best packages for each type of storage and your local NAS will manage the transfer to and from these services automatically.
- Backup of files and information that originates in the cloud service is another issue often overlooked. You may already use Google or Dropbox to store some files. These and other providers offer free or low cost solutions along side their software which possesses varying capabilities.
Each provider’s software has unique features ideal for different circumstances, so why should you need to choose?
Just use them all!
You will need to have a NAS to manage storage anyway (as explained above). Let the NAS also manage the exchange of information to and from these services so a local copy of all storage in these services is maintained.
Advancements in backup technologies
The future of backup will rely on advances in the backup and storage mediums. The ever increasing appetite for storage is fueling R&D on new storage devices, with faster read/write speeds and less vulnerability to long term deterioration, damage or decay.
New innovation on the horizon
In 2016 Samsung announced it planned to release a 15TB SSD drive which will initially be quite expensive, but we can expect the cost and price to reduce over time.
Should these costs bring these devices close to the cost of SATA drives we may again see a series of external backup devices similar to the tape drives of the past entering the market. In this case a high capacity (15TB or more) SSD drives would be swapped in/out and carried off premise for storage.
Permanent M-Disk good for 1000 years
Sound too good to be true?
A new entrant into the backup world is M-DISC that has developed disk storage technology capable of being stored for up to 1000 years.
The technology stores on 4.7 GB DVD or 25GB Blu-Ray that can be read from a conventional DVD or Blue Ray device. Whilst this does not hold answers for firms intending to store peta or even tera bytpes of information, it fits into a unique niche allowing people to keep images, video and important document in a medium that will not deteriorate over time.
WD and Seagate NAS drives have a 5 year warranty and you get a full replacement in that period of there are problems. SSD's deteriorate faster if your frequently deleting files (which is how backup would work). SSD also can loose integrity of not powered on for several weeks. As a result M-Disk is an interesting option for long term storage. (Remembering of course in 1000 years it is unlikely you will be able to purchase or the drives, or find spare parts or people to repair, so in the passage of time we still must find better alternatives.
More technical Backup options available today
Another similar option that is available today is the use of SATA or SSD drives with an external docking station. In this case you can insert any SATA or SSD drive into a small low cost docking device (prices vary between $60 and $120) and use it as fast local backup.
These disk docking units are available with the USB 2.0 and USB 3.o interface standards. It is highly recommended that wherever possible you choose the USB 3.0 versions. USB 2.0 transfer at a much lower speed and will be cumbersome and problematic to set up and manage. With USB 2.0 the drives that are capable if high speed operation would be transferring at much the same speed as an 2.4GHz WiFi network and slowing the host PC or computer used to copy information.
USB 3.0 is capable of much higher speeds, and when choosing USB 3.0 be careful to ensure the cable is really a USB 3.0 and not a look alike version 2.0. It can be problematic to find a reliable USB 3.0 cable from retail outlets. Once you have one an uneducated well intending individual could not realize it is a 3.0 cable and mix it with a USB 2.0 reducing transfer rate back to the slower USB standards.
You must also purchase high capacity SATA or SSD drives to use with a disk docking station, the costs are quite reasonable, and the prices are reducing, capacities increasing over time as manufacturers and competition drive down prices. To use as a backup your software mounts the unit as a drive and copies information to it. As more and more are made the drive is extracted, placed in a protective case stored and rotated with other drives kept off-site.
This type of backup is appealing to the more technically inclined, and has it’s risks and drawbacks!
The pins of the drive and the docking station are not designed for heaving duty purposes and will deteriorate over shorter time periods where multiple drives are inserted and extracted on a daily basis. Further the drives are made for use in stationary equipment and there has been little research done into the reduced life expectancy when being transported frequently to and from an external site.
Word of Advise
If this docking station idea appeals to you, remember it should be used as the way of transporting backup archives to an off site location. It's not a backup system on it's own.
You would typically use a NAS to create an organized and structured local backup of your files and then to copy portions this is a date/time stamped package onto a drive mounted in a disk docking station, in much the same way as you may of used Tape Drives in the past.
The best option for business today
The best choice is clearly a Hybrid Cloud solution using a modern NAS.
The two leading smartNAS manufacturers QNAP and Synology provide very capable and affordable devices each aimed at a slightly different market. Synology is positioned well in the retail space and although very capable as a business solution is slightly lower spec than the equivalent QNAP devices of the same price range. At the top end QNAP has a better range of devices, high speed interfaces and software for business users.
It your interested in learning more about corporate data management, business backup strategy, or just backup and redundancy planning or in Hybrid environments, how best to set up, select service providers, sample configurations, network topological, Wi-Fi optimization, recommendations for re purposing of old PC’s, Windows licences and servers in the new environment then feel free to subscribe to our newsletter and we will send this through to you.