Mobile Device Backup--Still A Work In Progress - InformationWeek

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6/6/2011
05:15 PM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Mobile Device Backup--Still A Work In Progress

Backing up smartphone and tablets is hindered by vendor intransigence and cloud limitations.

As mobile devices inexorably displace enterprise PCs as everyone's handy, all-purpose information appliance, IT is left scrambling to replicate the many endpoint management, information security, and data protection capabilities that have been a mainstay in the PC era. Most of these client-support necessities are addressed by the burgeoning mobile device management market, yet utter and complete IT command and control is unlikely to survive the new mobile age. Efforts to lock down device configurations and restrict users' ability to install applications or download corporate data onto their smartphones or iPads are doomed to failure.

The uncomfortable fact, for IT anyway, is that mobile devices are inherently personal, meaning users are unlikely to submit to the same sorts of Draconian security and control policies they tolerated on their company laptops. This means tablets and smartphones are destined to accumulate nuggets of sensitive personal and business information that must be protected against both malicious theft and accidental loss--a need typically addressed by centrally managed client backup software.

As software developers have become intimately familiar with, mobile operating systems and user interfaces are sufficiently different from the PC paradigm that porting existing products is seldom an option. Backup software in particular needs a blank-slate approach since mobile devices don't have a traditional file system. For example, Apple's iOS uses distinct "file" containers for each app.

Furthermore, the OS itself places restrictions or outright prohibitions on the ability of apps to access each other's file stores--again, Apple is notoriously, some would say conservatively, restrictive on this count. Yet with smartphones and tablets now part of the typical worker's tool chest, IT needs a plan on how to back up and restore information that may exist solely on these pocket computers.

Wireless portability, relatively limited local storage, and the nomadic usage of tablets and smartphones make the cloud an ideal vehicle for mirroring their contents, but here's where theory and practice butt heads. Consumer-oriented backup and file storage services such as Dropbox, Live Mesh, Mozy, and SugarSync have legitimized the notion of mirroring a PC's contents to the cloud, so it's only natural that vendors migrate to the mobile device realm. For example, this week Asigra, an "arms merchant” of backup software and services to managed service providers, announced that its latest release embraces the smartphone/tablet revolution via a new backup app for iOS and Android. The app, which connects to an Asigra-powered back-end service operated by one of its network of MSPs, is available now through Apple's App Store and the Android Marketplace, and sports an intuitive, smartphone-optimized UI.

While the mobile-app-to-cloud storage architecture shows great promise, it runs smack into the limitations of mobile operating systems. On the iPhone or iPad this means apps can only back up contacts, calendar, and photos. Android is slightly more open, but even here, users can only back up device and browser settings, the alarm clock, call logs, contacts, and playlists--better, but hardly a complete system snapshot. This means iPad users can't back up locally created content, whether it's a Pages document, Keynote presentation, or GarageBand track.

Apple counters that iOS devices automatically back up to a PC via iTunes, and that concerned users, or better yet IT departments, will take the additional step of encrypting the backup contents and copying them to an external storage device, whether on the LAN or in the cloud. (My InformationWeek Analytics iPad IT impact report has more details.) Sadly, this approach still requires tethering the device to a PC, something many users (speaking from experience) rarely do and ensuring that the iTunes library is included in a backup job. While Apple has valid security and privacy reasons for limiting cross-app data access, there needs to be a mechanism for legitimate, well-defined, and user-acknowledged exceptions.

For now, mobile device users are best served by manually synchronizing important data with online services, whether it's Dropbox or iDisk for documents, or Gmail or corporate Exchange servers for calendars and contacts. Those who have made their phones or tablets the centerpiece of their online existence should investigate new cloud-based data backup apps, but beware that current software limitations mean backups will be incomplete and lobby device vendors (we mean you, Apple and Google) to allow backup apps unfettered access to locally stored data.

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