How I Became a Fan of Online Backup

A few years ago I was responsible for IT at a medium sized company. I used Computer Associate's Brightstor Arcserve software and a Cybernetics AIT tape library for data backup. I am a fanatic about backing up data. I have been in the IT and computer business for over 25 years and have seen just about every kind of hardware and software failure you can imagine. I am absolutely certain that every single disk drive will fail at some time, and usually without warning. And I don't take any comfort that new drives are going to last a while. I have had several brand spanking new drives fail within weeks after purchase.

My Arcserve software and tape library system usually rocked along for weeks at a time without any major glitches. The backup jobs would kick-off on schedule. Tapes would get mounted automatically by the library, and stored in a slot after the backup. The system was about as reliable as any I had ever used before, but it still needed to be checked daily. We could never assume that a backup job ran successfully without checking the results. Jobs would occasionally hang because of some problem backing up a file, or a tape wasn't available, or some other unexpected situation. Bottom-line; the fully automatic system required daily checkups and human attention at least once a week or so.

One other major concern; the tape library was located in the server room at the office in the same rack as the servers. While we had multiple copies of all important data, we didn't have the data in multiple locations. A fire at the office could destroy our servers and our backup data at the same time. This was not a good situation and I knew it. Fortunately our company also operated a hosted Internet application and we leased space in a first class Internet colocation facility. Rather than setup a manual procedures to pull tapes and have an offsite vaulting company pick them up daily, I decided to make backup copies of certain critical data onto a server at the colocation facility. And I also did the reverse; copied critical data from the colo facility to our office server room. To make everything secure; I encrypted the files with AES before copying them. And to save time and bandwidth; I zipped the files.

Now, in addition to having to monitor Arcserve and the tape library system. I had to monitor the offsite file copy scripts. Our business grew, more servers, more data, more backups, more scripts... This monitoring, fixing, and keeping things on track was getting to be a real pain in the rear. If I got lazy for a few days, some data would certainly not get backed up or copied offsite. Eventually, the tape library started to give me problems. SCSI errors, mechanical problems, blah, blah, blah. If you have ever managed such a system then you know what I am talking about.

After a particularly difficult series of problems and unreliability in the entire backup system, hardware and software; along comes a maintenance renewal bill from CA. It was time to reassess this entire data backup plan. It didn't take long to make a decision to scrap Arcserve and the tape system. The system of scripts to compress and copy the data offsite was satisfactory and the tape backups were not providing enough benefit to justify the time and effort required to maintain them.

The increased reliance on the scripts led me to the next challenge. How could I make these scripts more reliable, easier to maintain, and easier to monitor? Searching the Internet, I found all kinds of solutions involving rsync, an open source utility that has been around for many years. I downloaded the source and built an executable for Windows. Then I downloaded the necessary UNIX utilities that rsync required. Eventually, I had a pilot project running with rsync. Not bad, but still not as easy to maintain and monitor as I wanted.

More searching and I discovered that for a modest monthly fee, I could subscribe to an online backup service and solve all of my backup problems in a matter of hours. A simple utility is downloaded, and then about 5 minutes of configuring (selecting which files to backup, and how long to retain them), and I was done. I get emails everyday telling me if my backups were successful or failed. This is absolutely a no-brainer. This stuff works like a charm, my data is automatically compressed, encrypted, sent offsite and monitored. Life is good!

Since this is not a product review site, I will not name the particular online backup service that I used in this article. I have tried a few of them and found that most are good and a few are problematic. I will dedicate a series of postings in the future to my reviews and assessments of several online backup systems. The good, the bad, and the ugly! Until, then I highly recommend that you take the time to try a few of them yourself and find one that meets your needs. Most offer some type of evaluation or trial account and it doesn't take long to find out if they work as advertised or not. One last piece of advice, test the restore functionality before you decide which online backup service to use.

No comments: