As you probably know, backup is the killer application of storage. If you don't back up your data, something will kill your data.

In Storage in the Year 2000, Part 2, I reported that Gartner Dataquest estimates that IT spends 40 percent of all storage software dollars on backup and replication software, and I've heard that perhaps 15 percent of all servers installed in the enterprise are backup servers. Most data centers take backup seriously and do a good job by using costly, complex technology that automates the entire process. However, many small businesses don't have the time or resources to make quality backups.

All of the large storage service providers offer backup as one of their primary services. For a company such as StorageNetworks, backup means servers running VERITAS NetBackup and Legato NetWorker coupled with tape libraries that back up a user's data over a VPN to equipment that the user leases. For service providers such as Storability, backup involves using the company's network appliance to monitor and initiate backup jobs on a user's large servers and tape drives. But again, for companies on the smaller end of corporate computing, backup as a service has been financially out of reach.

Recently, LiveVault, a company with an enterprise backup software package, has adapted its technology to make it possible for a smaller company to back up its essential data using a standard Internet connection—a DSL, ISBN, cable modem, or T1 or T3 line (see the first URL at the end of this column). LiveVault launched its LiveVault Online Backup Service (OBS) to back up Windows 2000 and Windows NT servers. Currently, LiveVault serves about 100 clients, and it monitors these servers with realtime, continuous backups from a 24 x 7 command center. (Go to LiveVault's white paper to read more about the LiveVault service.)

LiveVault aims its OBS at companies that back up in the 2GB to 10GB range, and, unlike other tape backup technologies, OBS backs up data continuously. No other archival medium backup format does that, which makes OBS unique. All other backup programs make point-in-time copies, and even technologies such as Network Attached Storage (NAS), which offers snapshot capabilities, doesn't perform in realtime (even though it can take lots of snapshots quickly).

To make the system easy to use, LiveVault wrote a Web-based monitoring and control console, called MyLiveVault, which a business can use to set up and monitor its backup. Users can specify which critical files the system should back up; set the amount of pipe the backup needs; and, when something goes wrong, restore the data over the Internet. For large data sets, establishing the first backup can take a few days, but once LiveVault completes the setup process, a user's backup is never more than a few minutes behind any changes you are currently making on your system. LiveVault stores a user's data in a disk cache, writes the data to tape, and stores that data at an Iron Mountain facility. (Iron Mountain is a $2 billion company that is the Federal Express of the archival data storage business.) When the data that a user must restore requires too much time to be transferred over the Internet, LiveVault sends the user a CD-ROM or a NAS box with the user's data.

The really cool part of the technology is that LiveVault has been able to engineer its backup software to make realtime backups of transactional systems such as databases without a user's having to make their database quiescent. The backup software operates at the file level and records the changes being made to all of the application's files, then reconstructs those changes in its backup operation. LiveVault's OBS captures disk events and uses them to get a point-in-time copy of the database. This technology wasn't easy to engineer, but apparently LiveVault made it work, and I think that's an achievement. The company has some patents on this technology.

David Ryter, the vice president of marketing at LiveVault, told me at a briefing that the company has established a strong partnership with the Microsoft .NET folk. In Ryter's words: "We are a poster child for .NET." That's not surprising, because it's just this kind of Web-based service on the Microsoft platform that LiveVault hopes to promote. LiveVault also has a strong partnership with Iron Mountain, which essentially makes LiveVault the "Digital Iron Mountain"—a central part of the Iron Mountain strategy is to move into the online world. Other partnerships include a soon-to-be-named large server vendor. LiveVault is working on various strategies to ship its product with servers from OEMs.

LiveVault's Online Backup Service is a well-thought-out and executed product. If you have mission-critical data that you must protect and you don't have the IT staff to do the job, consider LiveVault's new product. If the cost works for you, the level of service you get should help even small businesses get data-center quality backup service.