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Art Wittmann
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Practical Analysis: Backups Are IT's Red-Headed Stepchild

Our first annual survey on the state of backup reveals just how varied the approaches are, and just how much of a mess many are in.

If there's one central function of IT that just never seems "right," it's system backups. When we bought true systems--you know, the ones with spinning half-inch tapes that were iconic to mainframes in the 1970s--moving data to and from tape was fundamental to the system's use. But since those days, backups have been imagined and reimagined pretty much constantly.

While InformationWeek Analytics does about 100 surveys a year, until this month we hadn't done an annual survey on the state of backup. Shame on us, because our survey reveals just how varied the approaches are, and just how much of a mess many are in. I'd have guessed that the days of writing straight to tape would have passed some time ago, with disk-to-disk- to-tape systems doing most of the heavy lifting. Not so--our survey finds that the companies of 39% of respondents still use direct-to-tape backups extensively, while 35% don't use them at all. The numbers for disk-to-disk-to-tape systems are flipped, with 35% using them extensively. Other technologies in use include continuous data protection (CDP) systems, which, while used by only 27% of respondents' companies now, will be the most popular systems in 18 months.

The real fly in the ointment is the rising use of virtualization in production environments. In the previrtualization world, when servers rattled around at 5% utilization, the one time you could be sure that utilization would be considerably higher was during backups. So if you chose a 10:1 virtualization ratio, many of you found that everything worked just fine--until backups ran.

The answer, at least as far as our survey respondents are concerned, hasn't been to move to specialized backup software, but rather to back away from that 10:1 physical-to-virtual server ratio. Fully 77% of surveyed companies still use conventional backup software either installed as an agent or done through the host operating system.

There's no one answer for addressing virtual machine backup. The current method is through brute force, and while you might have to lower virtualization ratios to 5:1, that's still a pretty good deal over where you were just a few years ago. Our survey shows increased interest in CDP, filer/array-based backups, deduplication technology of various kinds, and software developed specifically to deal with backing up multiple VMs on the same host.

There's also renewed interest in living without tape. As with the paperless office, the notion of tapeless backup is the stuff of system administrator and IT architect dreams, typically quashed by the reality at hand. But this is one time where the cloud can really provide a tipping point. While disk-to-disk-to-cloud backup isn't appropriate for every business or application, many will find that it makes perfect sense for them. Particularly as bandwidth prices fall and deduplication technology gets fully baked in, sending backups and archives to cloud providers could mean life without tape for some administrators.

The one thing that won't work for most companies is the status quo. While technology and even goals can change, the one certainty is that you neglect backups at your peril. Our full report will be ready in a few weeks, with a far more extensive discussion of issues and approaches. If you haven't thought about backups in a while--well, you know the drill.

Art Wittmann is director of InformationWeek Analytics, a portfolio of decision-support tools and analyst reports. You can write to him at

To find out more about Art Wittmann, please visit his page.

More than 100 major reports will be released this year. Sign up or upgrade your InformationWeek Analytics membership.

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