Keeping backup on the back foot: is the problem solved?


As the IT landscape continues to evolve, it becomes ever more complex. Businesses are turning their attentions to the latest innovations, including containerisation, the rising adoption of flash storage, the debated benefits of hyperconvergence, and the increasing role of machine learning.

But it’s not just new innovations that should make businesses wary. In a world where more and more businesses rely on IT—from banks to retailers, from utility companies to hospitals—it’s imperative to ensure the reliability of your IT infrastructure. 

Gaining the upper hand

From everyday tech users to technologists, having “a backup” is a concept familiar to all. We understand the importance of multiple versions stored both on our work systems and in the cloud. So, with many companies’ sights set on tackling bigger beasts like digital transformation, is backup an issue we should consider solved?

Far from it. Reliable, robust, recoverable backups are central to helping operations running smoothly. Today, since cyberattacks are the norm and sensitive data is at risk, having a backup solution in place shouldn’t just be a checkbox exercise.   

But the technology we use to accomplish the backup goal keeps reinventing itself. The old systems never completely go away, even as newer options come on the scene. Too often, this can result in a complicated mix of tools and media that can be a real headache to manage. According to a recent survey of the SolarWinds THWACK® user community—which consists of over 150,000 registered members—almost one in ten respondents admitted being dissatisfied with their current backup setup. Forty-two percent cited cost, and 31% chose complexity as their most significant pain point.  

So what backup solution should companies use? And how can the operational complexity of backup be reduced? 

The Evolution of Backup

From tape, to disk, to cloud, we’ve seen backup transition over the years, across multiple technologies, always trying to match the demands and specifications of each new technology. In the earliest days of magnetic media, the tape was the data, so a simple tape-to-tape copy fulfilled backup needs. Soon after media made the leap to fixed disks, the venerable “Grandfather-Father-Son” rotation scheme was established, where segments of data were archived to tape drives once a day, week, or month, and were then loaded onto trucks and put away for storage in a secondary place. This method lives on today, with IT professionals calling for multiple backups, in the cloud and on-premises. 

When Network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area network (SAN) came along a few years later, things changed, but not too dramatically—data was mirrored to other parts of the storage array, creating the idea of “near-line backup.” While this theoretically should’ve made archiving less cumbersome, companies began using both forms for backup, making the process more complex.

Knocking SAN out of the park, virtualisation came next. Virtualisation had a dramatic impact on the world of backup from a philosophical standpoint. Now the server was the data and mirroring it to another part of the SAN achieved a complete snapshot of that server at a certain point in time— operating system, data, and all. While virtualisation brought new facets to backup, it still requires data storage. Although many companies jumped on the virtualisation “bandwagon” and 75% of their servers are virtualised, most organisations still hold some physical servers. The data is there in all its forms and still requires backup services. This melange of physical and philosophical approaches often leads to organisations supporting more than one backup product, as well as more than one type of media storing backups. Each new wave is additive, not fully replacing what came before, making the whole backup process more complex.    

Enter the Cloud

Cloud technology brought the potential to take away some of this complexity. Rather than putting archives onto a truck and into storage, backup data could be put onto a second data centre in the cloud, making the archiving process much more efficient and cost-effective. Cloud-hosted backup applications make it simpler to manage various types of backups, at multiple locations, from virtually anywhere. However, like any bandwagon, many traditional backup vendors simply bolted on cloud capabilities, rather than developing true cloud-native backup solutions. 

New technologies often present more headache for the IT professional responsible. On-premises backup solutions not only require buying software, they also require a server, an operating system for that server, as well as the storage system where the backups will reside (whether that’s tape, a local disk array, or SAN). If the responsible person also wants cloud capabilities, they also have to find a cloud vendor—meaning the management of multiple invoices and contracts from multiple vendors, and of course, multiple support tickets when something goes wrong. 

Is Backup Really Solved?

I posed this question at the very beginning of the discussion, but after all that we’ve learned about backup, is the answer still “no?” When it comes to backup, many businesses don’t view it as a core business challenge that needs addressing, and it’s often seen as a solved problem. It is, of course, imperative that every business has their data backed up. Which means companies, from all sectors, have a backup in place. Box ticked, job done, move on. 

But what happens if that backup fails? If a company is victim to a cyberattack and loses all its data (be that just for the day, or week, or longer), what happens next? Or, if a part of the archives lives in a remote office and is damaged by a water leak, how do you get that data back? 

GDPR is already causing disruption as companies are required to implement various data protection mechanisms to help secure the data; part of these security measures should include backing up the data.    

Plenty of companies invest in training their IT professionals, and employ a full-time backup admin. Yet, consider this: the person responsible for a highly complex multi-vendor solution leaves without training someone as, well, their backup. Now what?

Simplifying Backup 

Backup doesn’t need to be a headache. Although every business must factor in the process, backup should be a hero technology that’s relied upon and treated with care. It has the power to potentially save a business from disaster. So, if you want to avoid potential disasters, backup should be a business priority.

When looking for a backup solution, there are a number of factors businesses should consider. Is a dedicated backup specialist needed, or can anyone in IT effectively run backup? Can it be easily tested? Can it work natively in the cloud, helping alleviate the costs and complexity of managing multiple media, multiple vendors, and multiple contracts?

Backup isn’t something to just be passed by or ticked off the list. Backup is a revolving advantage that should be updated to meet individual business needs. If companies can implement a backup solution that alleviates the risk of losing data, is easy to manage, and can effectively run in the cloud, then they have one less (major) thing to worry about.  

Leon Adato, Head Geek™ at SolarWinds 

Image Credit: Scyther5 / Shutterstock