Proprietary formats have been common in the storage industry for years, driven by vendors who know that when customers select a proprietary storage format they are making a long-term commitment that might not be easily reversed. As technologies and data access requirements evolve, there are better alternatives to this traditional approach. Backing up data in native file format is one way to cut through the complexity of protecting virtual environments. The challenge with today's data protection applications is that they are generally wrapped in proprietary formats, essentially locking the data in an application—it's only accessible through that application. This significantly reduces the flexibility users have with backup and disaster recovery choices today, but also limits the value of the data as an asset, particularly as IT shops are looking into ITaaS.

Simplify

As an analogy, think about how people simply drag and drop their digital pictures and store them on a thumb drive; when they want to restore them, they can plug the thumb drive back into their computer and drop the files back onto their system. This same approach can be applied to a business-class scenario. Imagine, for example, that a CEO deleted an important presentation and needs it for a board meeting in minutes. When files are stored on the backup target device in their native format, the CEO can search for the file using a standard file browser and can drag and drop it into the production environment. This not only simplifies and expedites the restore process (for files or whole virtual machines—VMs) but also reduces the resources required to accomplish this simple task. Backup applications that use a proprietary format will typically need to power on the VM to even locate the desired file to restore, then retranslate the data into the language that the application needs to make the data useful. This process, while sounding simple in my digital photographs example, is very taxing on the host, the VM, and even the network.

With data resident in native format, there is no translation required, so the file can simply be dragged and dropped (copied and pasted) back into the environment, without the backup application even being present, dramatically reducing resources on an already over-taxed host/VM. When we think about restoring VMs, this ease of use concept can be extended here as well. From a hypervisor perspective, the data is still sitting in native format, just in a new location (possibly), so powering on this VM can be extremely simplified. This type of native format restore is great for general use restores, as well as for those wanting a way to easily and non-evasively test the integrity of the data they are protecting. Just drag a file back into the environment and see if that data is still good, regardless of backup medium.

Make Disaster Recovery Affordable

Protecting data in native format is a concept that can also be extended into business continuity or disaster recovery. With the data residing in native format in a disaster recovery location, customers can easily browse, search, and restore individual files or whole VMs without the backup application, just by using a standard file browser. This methodology dramatically reduces management time—and more importantly, costs—because it isn't incumbent to stand up a mirrored environment (e.g., backup servers, backup application licenses) on premises in order to access the data or use the disaster recovery environment temporarily. When it comes to booting VMs from a disaster recovery location, customers can simply point the datastore (using the hypervisor console or management interface) at this new location and be up and running quickly, without overtaxing existing resources.

Avoid Vendor Lock-In

One additional benefit from protecting data in native format is future-proofing the environment. When backup applications use a proprietary format to protect data, they lock the data into a format that is only accessible by that one backup application, limiting future value of the data. Even worse (from a backup medium perspective), the data is bound to the types of mediums supported by that backup application, because the data needs to be stored in this proprietary format. There are a number of choices of backup medium. Cloud is gaining the most publicity today, but what will the emerging medium be in five or ten years? Will the application in use today be able to take advantage of the backup medium of the future?

In Summary

To protect virtual environments, there's more than one way to back up data. Backing up data in native format enables the easy restore of individual files and whole VMs. It offers a simplified disaster recovery strategy that allows users to boot VMs, and does this without the use of the backup application, reducing management time and costs. Perhaps most important, native format backup future-proofs the environment, allowing data to be accessible today and in the future.

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Casey Burns is Quantum's Product Marketing Manager, Virtual Solutions. Casey has extensive experience and knowledge in the storage industry, as well as a professional focus in the areas of data deduplication and virtualization. His writing has appeared in publications including Data Center Post, Computer Technology Review, and Virtualization Review.