Mobile Backup's Vexing Challenges

Among storage administrators, consolidation is generating much discussion and action. Administrators are installing Storage Area Networks (SANs) to help them more efficiently use storage resources and are exploring storage virtualization technologies as a way to obtain a unified view of the storage infrastructure.

But while administrators are trying to centralize their control of storage functionality, a countervailing trend is emerging in the enterprise. An increasing number of people are untethering themselves from the network by moving to laptops as their primary computing device.

A few numbers illustrate the magnitude of this trend. According to market researchers Gartner and IDC, laptop computers now account for more than 20 percent of all PC sales, and that percentage is growing. In second quarter 2003, with PC sales still generally sluggish, sales of laptop computers jumped nearly 10 percent over first quarter 2003 and more than 22 percent compared with second quarter 2002. Although consumers are purchasing more laptops, businesses represent the largest laptop market. Even low-end laptops have a standard storage capacity of 30GB, so this trend translates into more people storing increasing amounts of enterprise data on laptop computers.

This development raises a serious problem for storage administrators. Left to themselves, many end users simply don't back up their data or send it to a central server. Relying on the goodwill of end users to back up their data isn't good security policy. Further heightening the risk, as many as 7 million laptops a year are badly damaged, lost, or stolen, according to IDC. Reconstructing data from a lost or stolen laptop can be arduous and expensive, if not impossible.

Over the past couple of years, several products have emerged to facilitate backing up mobile data. These products include Computer Associates' (CA's) BrightStor Mobile Backup, NovaStor's NovaNet-WEB, Novell iFolder, and Storactive's LiveBackup. These software tools basically capture and store changes in files in a local cache while a laptop is disconnected, then transmit those changes to a server for storage after the laptop connects to the network.

Widespread acceptance of such products has been slow, however, and for good reason. First, they require a fair amount of configuration to ensure that companies don't use their central storage space to back up all their end users' favorite MP3 files. Second, administrators are concerned about the strain that the backup process might place on the network. For their part, end users worry about the length of time the backup process takes. Users who become impatient and disconnect from the network in the middle of a backup can cause significant headaches for administrators. Finally, some products still require that backups be initiated from the client side--in those cases, administrators are still dependent on users to carry out backups.

A more sophisticated technological approach to the problem is emerging in which vendors bundle mobile backup software with other backup technologies. Sony released one of the first products to use this approach last month when it introduced the StorStation Laptop Data Protection (StorStation LDP) system. This system combines Sony's 720GB StorStation FSV-M5 servers with CA's BrightStor Mobile Backup software. After you specify which files to back up and the backup schedule, the StorStation LDP automatically detects when a laptop is connected to the network and initiates backup. And because the system captures changed data in cache, network traffic is reduced. According to Doug Stringer, director of storage solutions at Sony, the entire process is transparent to the end user.

Other companies are developing products with similar functionality. For example, VERITAS Software's NetBackup Professional can automatically detect and back up laptops after they're plugged into the network. And NewTech Infosystems (NTI) plans to add automatic detection of laptops to NTI Backup NOW! 3 Deluxe Suite in the future. But new tools are only part of the solution. The first step is for storage administrators to face the problem and accept that users will generate and store more corporate data outside corporate networks as time goes by. Administrators need to develop mobile information policies, then educate end users to take those policies seriously. Only then can technology help solve the problem.