For SMBs, Data Protection Is A Virtual Affair

Think you can't afford BC/DR to rival enterprise-class systems? If you have x86 virtualization installed, you might be surprised.
What's your best-case scenario for getting back to normal after a worst-case disaster? We first polled small and midsize businesses on that subject back in January 2008; when we revisited our survey, in May, we found there's been some improvement. In 2008, 23% could get mission-critical apps back up in four hours or less. Today, it's up to 33%, based on our InformationWeek Analytics survey of nearly 400 business technology professionals from companies with 1,000 or fewer employees.

Other key changes: In 2010, 62% have business continuity/disaster recovery systems in place compared with 55% in 2008. Consolidation has increased; today, 52% are completely centralized, with one main HQ and no branch sites, compared with 44% in 2008. And the number of businesses backing up to tapes that are taken off site dropped a full 16 points, from 63% in 2008 to 47% in 2010. Use of online backup services posted the single biggest gain, up 10 points.

One head-scratcher: The number of survey respondents who say their organizations are accountable to one or more government or industry regulations fell in every area, sometimes dramatically. Given the state-level laws that have come on the books since 2008, this is wishful thinking on a massive scale, even for small businesses.

Putting a formal business continuity/disaster recovery plan in place and testing it properly costs money, and that's tough to come by nowadays. So to what do we owe improvement in BC/DR? The introduction of new technologies, notably cloud-based storage services, and the maturation of others, like server virtualization and data deduplication, have made effective disaster recovery accessible to a wider swath of businesses than ever before.

Widespread use of x86 server vitalization has had the most beneficial effect on the disaster recovery process. An obvious impact is a reduction in the number of physical servers that have to be provisioned, powered, and maintained at a DR location. A few years ago, even the smallest site would have had a dedicated server for each application that needed to be recovered quickly. But now, a single virtual server host can handle multiple applications. It's not only that SMBs can save money on hardware. The reduced size, power, and cooling footprint of a small blade chassis running several virtual server hosts means that branch offices and co-location centers become potential DR sites. That's especially important for small businesses; when we asked respondents to describe their DR setups, the No. 1 answer (with 28%) was another data center or office within the organization. Just 7% use a specialized co-location provider, such as SunGard--down from 14% in 2008.

Companies that virtualize their production servers can create a replication pair for each set of host servers, rather than for each application. And administrators will have no problem restoring servers to dissimilar hardware using virtual server and data migration tools such as vMotion and XenMotion. They also allow IT to quickly add servers to the cluster and rebalance the load, so organizations can bring systems back online faster and more gracefully.

We have this to say to the 41% of businesses that don't plan to leverage virtualization in their BC/DR strategies: Reconsider. That's especially true if, like many SMBs, your storage team is primarily responsible for BC/DR. When companies task storage admins with disaster recovery, the lion's share of planning resources are focused on preserving the organization's data, not on ensuring applications can be brought back into operation quickly.

Even if the system drive of a physical server has been replicated, bringing that server back online is a time-consuming task. If a similar device is at the DR site, it will have to be connected to the replicated system drive and booted. An administrator must then log in and reset the network configuration, since the DR site is on a different subnet and the recovery server has a different MAC address than the original device. For applications like Microsoft Exchange that are tightly tied to other network functions, including Active Directory, the process can be even more challenging.

Other new technologies, such as data deduplication and WAN optimization, can greatly reduce the bandwidth needed to synchronize data stores between sites. The actual reduction in required bandwidth is highly dependent on the data being replicated and can range from as little as 5% to as much as 95%, so testing is required. Vendors such as Cisco, Data Domain, Hewlett-Packard, Riverbed, and others offer a range of products that help conserve WAN bandwidth.

SMBs use a variety of backup technologies, with the most popular being off-site backup to tape (47%) followed by on-site backup to tape (34%). While use of both methods has dropped significantly, tape is still the primary media for backing up critical data, such as e-mail archives, which are vital for documentation and compliance. Some SMBs are embracing cloud-based online backup services, others are skeptical. Us? We're big believers in cloud backup and storage for SMBs. Companies with limited IT resources don't handle tape well and should move to disk and online ASAP. If you're still taking tapes off site weekly, your best-case recovery point from a disaster might be last Wednesday. And that's not nearly good enough.

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