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Doing More for Less : The Future’s Now, the Future’s Disk

Given widespread fears of imminent recession, an inevitable focus for many organisations at the moment is working out how to do more with less.

This imperative, combined with growing demands to tackle disaster recovery and security more effectively - not least in light of the seemingly endless stream of data breach stories hitting the headlines lately - means that the pressure is now on to sort these key issues out despite progressively limited budgets.

But for once, there is a straightforward way to kill all of these birds with a single stone. Rising numbers of organisations are recognising that backing up their valuable corporate data on tape is no longer adequate and instead are turning to disk-to-disk backup as the answer to their prayers.

As a result, uptake of this tried and tested digital technology has already jumped to 21 per cent of the total market this year from a mere eight per cent last year - and the pace of adoption is only expected to increase. However, the biggest barrier to adoption is that of resistance to change and habit of the tape backup culture.

So what does disk offer that tape doesn’t and why are businesses starting to migrate in droves? There are several reasons.

Firstly, although disk-based systems were traditionally considered to be expensive luxuries, the price of this technology has now fallen to such an extent that it is on a par with that of its ageing cousin.

While an LTO-4 cassette holding 800Gb of uncompressed data will cost you about £110, today it also is possible to buy a disk holding 1Tb of compressed data for about the same investment.

A second but important benefit of disk relates to security, however. The fact is that disk-based data is automatically encrypted without the punishing performance overhead sustained by tape.

In addition, because information is sent digitally to a remote vault over a broadband connection, there is no danger of cassettes being lost or mislaid in transit – an important reputation-saving consideration these days.

In this context, the NHS is in the enviable position of having its very own N3 fast broadband connection, which means that it is particularly well placed to exploit the advantages of disk-to-disk systems to the full with no additional outlay.

A third reason for the move away from tape-based environments, meanwhile, is that they require high levels of expensive manual intervention.

Some businesses are forced to hire dedicated tape monkeys who do nothing else all day but change, manage, index, catalogue, store and retrieve tapes.

The advantage of data on disk-based systems, however, is that they are automated in line with pre-set policies.

This means that administration costs are reduced, not least because valuable resource can be deployed elsewhere.

Moreover, because information is stored in blocks, it is no longer necessary to continue backing up entire files once even small changes are made.

Instead only the changes themselves are backed up, which inevitably saves a lot of time.

But yet another driver behind the increasingly widespread modernisation that is taking place relates to the notorious unreliability of tape-based systems.

The disaster recovery industry points to the fact that as many as 40 per cent of attempts to recover data from tape fail, while Gartner puts the figure as high as 72 per cent.

The problem is that many organisations do not adhere to manufacturers’ recommendations to replace their tapes every three months even though magnetic media degrade simply due to normal atmospheric conditions.

Cassettes also have a habit of stretching over time, while tape drives are known to be the most single most regularly defective element of server infrastructure – a worrying factor in an increasingly digitised age as, should disaster strike years down the line, such technology is likely to have become obsolete and difficult to replace.

With disk-to-disk environments, on the other hand, none of these issues occur. Their reliability can be measured in years rather than months, particularly if systems are set up in resilient RAID 5 or 6 configurations, and fears around data integrity have, therefore, become a thing of the past.

Also, because data is written to a hard drive, it can be recovered even in the case of accidental overwrites as an imprint remains - and such recovery occurs at much quicker speeds than was traditionally the case.

This is because, like CDs, disk drives write and read data in a linear fashion, which makes information much quicker to retrieve than if it is held on tape in a typically random format.

But deploying disk-based systems likewise means that it is no longer necessary to wait impatiently to get hold of tape catalogues that are both held in distant locations and likely to contain data from only as far back as the night before disaster struck anyway.

This situation, combined with the hours of time required to copy information from tape to repaired or replaced servers, means that a restore typically takes between two and five days - timescales which are no longer acceptable in today’s information-dependent world.

Because disk-based backups can be undertaken as frequently as desired, on the other hand, the recovery point objective can be pre-set to hours or even minutes before trouble hit.

In addition, restoration of data takes mere minutes as it is simply sent from a remote vault over a broadband connection and so recovery time objectives are shortened significantly.

What this all means, in practice, therefore, is that the first major change to occur in backup technology in the last 50 years is now a risk-free and affordable option. As a result, progressive organisations all over the world are already starting to take advantage. And the time is now right to join them.

This article was penned by Jon Leary who is a Consultant at CSA Waverley (opens in new tab)

Désiré Athow

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website building and web hosting when DHTML and frames were en vogue and started writing about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium. Following an eight-year stint at where he discovered the joys of global tech-fests, Désiré now heads up TechRadar Pro. Previously he was a freelance technology journalist at Incisive Media, Breakthrough Publishing and Vnunet, and Business Magazine. He also launched and hosted the first Tech Radio Show on Radio Plus.