E-Discovery: How To Avoid Death By Backup

Backup tapes can kill an e-discovery effort with costs and complications. Fight back with smart policies and the right tools.
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backup tapes art Many organizations are sitting on stockpiles of dangerous materials. No, we're not talking about hazardous chemicals or unstable explosives. We mean backup tapes, which are routinely included in requests to produce electronically stored information (ESI) as part of potential or ongoing litigation.

The e-discovery realm is rife with cautionary tales of organizations tripped up by backup tapes. For instance, in 2009 a judge fined a defendant more than $1 million for failing to retrieve information stored on backup tapes. In the same year, the government's Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight was compelled by a court to search its off-site disaster recovery backups for ESI, a search that ended up costing the agency $6 million--a jaw-dropping amount for a single discovery exercise. What's even scarier is that the agency wasn't even a party in the lawsuit; it had simply been subpoenaed for documents in litigation involving Fannie Mae.

This article examines the challenges that backup tapes pose. It also discusses strategies organizations can use to reduce the number of tapes that get stockpiled, and it outlines technologies and services that help reduce the cost and time it takes to retrieve ESI from tape.

Backup tapes have been used for decades to store data. Today, Linear-Tape Open (LTO) Ultrium and its earlier generations are the primary format. Backup tape cartridge characteristics, including large storage capacities (1.5 TB raw and 3 TB compressed per LTO-5 cartridge), robust transfer rates, and low power consumption make them an ideal backup medium, even with the emergence of disk as an alternative.

While tape may be suitable for backup and disaster recovery, it's rarely a good choice for archiving. Unfortunately, many companies have unintentionally adopted tape for that purpose, often because they lack proper media management policies, or they inherit large stockpiles of backup tapes from mergers and acquisitions.

Several factors make tape a particularly difficult medium to deal with for e-discovery. First, most organizations only have a vague idea of what might be on their backup tapes. To find out, the information on the tapes must be run through the backup application that made the tape, or even restored to the application that generated the data. Contents of backup tapes may be in proprietary formats requiring older--and typically difficult to locate--versions of backup and business applications.

An organization may have to set up an entire application environment, such as Microsoft Exchange, to restore data on backup tapes. This process can be costly and time-consuming. Recovery costs--the amount an organization has to spend to get usable information from backup tapes--are estimated to be in the range of $500 to $1,000 per tape.

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